Populist Politics and the Sooriyawewa & Premadasa Stadiums

Michael Roberts

The old Premadasa Stadium was a monstrosity. The new one is far better on the eye though hardly a classic structure. Together with the Mahinda Rajapaksa Stadium at Sooriyawewa it was constructed in time for the staging of the World Cup. In this achievement both stadiums stand out sharply in contrast with the tale surrounding the renovations that were done at Eden Gardens in Calcutta.

 The old Premadasa Stadium in silhouete — Pic by David Colin-Thome



 Premadasa Stadium today —Pics by Pramod Fernando in isandcricket.com

Thus both venues stand as monuments to the hard work of Suraj Dandeniya and his team, including the army of workers of all types who slaved away for months. In this silent but imposing manner they are a slap in the face of the several media outlets, headed by the Island, who ran a concerted campaign of denigration against Sri Lanka Cricket in general and its chairman de Silva and his nephew Suraj in particular. The carping attacks were as concerted as they were stridentThis line of consistent criticism may have been deemed an effective way of boosting newspaper sales, but grapevine gossip suggests that aspirants for the top SLC posts had a hand in promoting such adverse comment.

It is significant that this line of attack did not aim directly at President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Yet DS de Silva has been very much a presidential protégé. Appointed initially in 2008 to foster the development of school cricket throughout the island, he was elevated to the position of Chairman, SLC at some point in 2010.

His tasks included the pursuit of a brainchild of the Rajapaksa clan with young Namal as its point man: namely, creating a fully-fledged international cricket stadium with floodlights at Sooriyawewa. This step was part of a massive multi-pronged scheme to transform their home district of Hambantota by (1) creating an international harbour from scratch; (2) creating an international airport from nothing; and (3) adding an international convention centre – all to be supported by a grid of roads (already well-advanced).

Clearly, the Rajapaksas have been developing their own patch. But, as I have argued earlier, this clutch of developments will be of immense benefit to the whole country in reducing, without eliminating, the overweening dominance of the Greater Colombo area in the political and spatial economy of the island.

 Harry Solomons in Sydney, a true-blue Sri Lankan cricket supporter, has criticised the government for spending enormous amounts on the Sooriyawewa Stadium when that money could be devoted to the expansion of cricket facilities at all levels in all the provinces. Unlike Solomons, however, my assessment of this venture is not organised within the prism and tunnel-vision of cricketing needs. Nor do I estimate it in the short term of say 5-10 years. My evaluation is framed over the prospects in the next five to 30 years – guided here by my reading of the way the rail and road networks constructed by the British in the 19th century transformed the island.

Suraj Dandeniya’s difficulties in finalising the construction of the stadium at Sooriyawewa, one should note, were compounded by the freak rains experienced by the arid south-eastern corner of the island during December, January and February. In surmounting this added disadvantage it is my surmise that the man-hours put in by the Chinese and Sri Lankan workers at all levels of activity must have been extraordinary.

To judge from the state of the Premadasa Stadium in November when it hosted the West Indian Test match, equally exacting efforts must have occurred there. I stress here that the building work was accompanied by a thorough overhaul of the playing area and the pitch. The ground was raised by as much as three feet everywhere and clay itoruuced in this mix in order to reduce the rise of moisture and the development of difficult batting conditions night in the manner experienced in recent years (information directly from Anuruddha Polonowita). The manner in which Sri Lanka were able to chase down a total of some 280 West Indian runs a month back and the recent match against Pakistanis are testimonies to the importance of this transformation – thus far anyway.

Spurring these endeavours at both new venues and that at Pallekelle was the knowledge that the President of the land was keeping a keen eye on the whole effort. Mahinda Rajapaksa actively intervened in the process by his visitations to the site. On at least one occasion he summoned the SLC Committee to a meeting at extremely short notice to discuss cricketing affairs.


So here we see micro-management geared towards efficient delivery in what is a populist programme. Mahinda Rajapaksa is a populist par excellence, one who caters to the dhuppath podhu janathāva and the rural bourgeoisie. Cricket is clearly one realm of his populist pitch, so that he recently treated cricketers, officials and wives to a grand reception at the Presidential Palace. Ever since 1996 politicians know that Sri Lanka’s cricket team has enormous popular attention and thus political appeal.

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s interventions in this realm are therefore reminiscent of Ranasinghe Premadasa. So, in a flip back in time, it is the tale surrounding the building of a stadium in the locality of Khettārāma by Premadasa in the 1980s that serves a logical corollary to the Rajapaksa story retailed here.

Developing a Cricket Stadium at Khettārāma

Khettārāma was, and is, an urban slum quarter. Premadasa was born and bred in this quarter. He was from the Hinna caste, a body associated with the role of washing clothes for the Salāgama caste people. His caste and working class background did not prevent Premadasa developing competency in English to back his proficiency as a Sinhala rhetorician. Nor did it hinder his rise in the ranks of the United National Party. When the UNP swept to power in 1977 and set up a Presidential system under JR Jayewardene, he was made Prime Minister.

Though JR seemed ageless, it was known that he would pass away at some point in the near future. Though Premadasa was the heir-apparent, there were other ambitious and competent personnel in the cabinet, notably Gamini Dissanayake and Laltih Athulathmudali, both gentlemen from elite schools carrying lots of social clout in powerful class circles. Subterranean competition in the “presidential stakes” was therefore at play within the ruling UNP party.

As a populist politician from an urban background Premadasa developed a populist ‘outreach’ through a campaign of village upliftment and renovation known as Gam Udāwa. Dissanayake in his turn was in charge of the massive development plans vested in the Mahaweli Development Board, with all the perquisites and patronage normally associated with such mega economic activity [so too in Hambantota and elsewhere n Lanka today]. What is more, working hand-in-glove with a cricket administrator named Abu Fuard, Dissanayake became President of the Board of Control for Cricket in 1980/81. He was a critical force in the steps taken to secure full Test status for Sri Lanka at the ICC meetings of July 1981.

Sri Lanka’s entry into the international arena was coincident with the arrival of colour TV. The telecasting of international matches immediately boosted the popularity of the game and those associated with it. Dissanayake’s high profile in this field was therefore an asset in his leadership ambitions within the UNP.

Though his home constituency was in the hills, Dissanayake’s class and ethnic background led him to site the new BCCSL headquarters within the SSC grounds. This was in the heartland of Cinnamon Gardens, the upper-crust locality of Colombo. Though the first Test match in 1982 was played at the Oval in the unsalubrious locality of Maradana abutting Wanāthamulla, the fact was that many international ODI matches in the 1970s and 1980s were played at either the SCC or CCC grounds in Cinnamon Gardens. In brief, though the composition of the Sri Lanka squads was no longer restricted to the Royal-Thomian types, the favoured venues had a class edge to them.

This was when Premadasa thrust himself into the cricketing arena. He used his urban links and his considerable initiative to develop a stadium within Khettaaraama. Moreover, in a far-seeing step, this venue was equipped with floodlights. An engineer in the Colombo Municipality with a cricketing background, Michael Joachim, was sent to Australia to explore possibilities and he used the WACA ground at Perth as his model in designing the lighting scheme.

Beginning with an A Team contest England and Sri Lanka in 1991, the Khettaaraama Stadium quickly became an international venue. Premadasa did not live to see its fullest fruits: he was cut down by an LTTE assassin on 1 May 1993.  So, too, was Dissanayake when he was the Presidential nominee for the UNP in the 1995 elections. Unlike Premadasa though, Dissanayake did not leave behind a stadium that could be recomposed in his name.

For all that, Dissanayake’s services to Sri Lanka cricket were far more significant than that of Premadasa because he was an instrumental figure in the processes that extracted full Test status for the country in mid-1981 from a body that had been resistant to the idea for quite a while. It is not by monuments alone, but by landmark transformations and organisational achievements that a person’s services should be judged.

Adequate playing venues in different towns did however figure in the ICC’s reluctance to accord Test status to Sri Lanka, so Dissanayake set about developing the Asgiriya and then the Galle grounds to meet this demand. Premadasa’s independent initiative then added another resource to the pool.

Since then, however, the stakes have mounted. In recent times venues that can hold substantial crowds and mount good lighting systems for night games are an essential requirement for such series as the Champions Trophy. The Asgiriya grounds were a poor choice because of its small scale, the leasehold ownership of the space by a school and its location in a hilly area that draws rain during the season when foreign teams can tour Sri Lanka. The Pallekelle and Rangiri (Dambulla) alternatives have therefore been developed by different administrations for this reason.

The entry of Sooriyawewa into this scheme of things was truly a surprise, which, as we have seen, was motivated by lineage political considerations. But whatever the motives, it is a master stroke. Located in one of the more arid parts of the dry zone, it will be less likely to encounter rain disruptions than Rangiri and Pallekelle stadiums; or that at Galle. Sited in front of the majestic fort the grounds at Galle are not likely to circumvent the heritage restrictions and mount ugly light towers. So Sooriyawewa will be a long term asset to all the southern districts as well as the Monaragala, Amparai and Kalmunai areas in its pull and encouragement.

Floodlights are so important in the ICC schemes of determination that Sri Lanka Cricket is now calling for tenders for the setting up of floodlights at the SSC grounds. This is because the Champions Trophy will only be assigned to countries where there is one city with two approved international venues. To host such mega events, then, Sri Lanka has to think big, think well in advance and think lights. There is no room for short term blinkers.


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