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SRI Lankan flags streamed from the back of motorbikes as they sped along the Galle Road in the middle of the night. Fireworks popped over Premadasa Stadium. Sri Lanka, just three years removed from a long and brutal civil war, had beaten Pakistan to make the final of the World Twenty20, and the host nation was on the verge of its first triumph at a major event since its World Cup win in 1996.
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In Colombo, there are few visible reminders of a conflict that was confined largely to guerilla warfare in the north. The Central Bank, site of the 1996 bombing by Tamil separatists, is permanently barricaded but the nearby Dutch Hospital building, damaged in that blast, has been converted to a smart shopping and eating courtyard, where a restaurant owned by Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara serves pepper crabs the size of footballs. Most afternoons, families fly kites, hundreds of them, on the Galle Face Green until the sky turns a vivid pink and the sun sinks into the Indian Ocean.

Even as the World Twenty20 enters its festive final phase, a massive effort is under way against a much less idyllic backdrop to rebuild the war-ravaged north, and cricketers such as Jayawardene and Sangakkara, along with friend and former teammate Muthiah Muralidaran, are at the heart of it.

Weeks before the world’s cricketing elite descended on Sri Lanka, the Foundation of Goodness charity founded by Muralidaran’s former manager Kushil Gunasekere staged a cricket tournament in the northern districts of Mullaitivu, Mankulam, Kilinochchi, Vavuniya and Jaffna.

With International Cricket Council support and the manpower of the Sri Lankan army, they converted neglected school grounds and gathering places for cattle into cricket venues for the Murali Cup.

”First, we had to find shoes, because they didn’t have proper shoes, proper gear,” said Muralidaran, the only Tamil in the Sri Lankan team during his remarkable career. He is on a mission to find cricketers in these isolated, devastated areas and help them make it all the way to the Sri Lankan team.

”From the last 30 years they can’t play cricket because the war was being fought, but the roads are coming and slowly, slowly, the reconstruction is happening. To have the facilities that Colombo has, it will be another five to 10 years, once there are adequate schools starting and life is going on … we need help from other countries.”

The military recently announced the last of the refugee camps housing 300,000 displaced people had been closed, but most resettled families still live in desperate poverty.

Sangakkara, one of the world’s finest batsmen, broached Sri Lanka’s past in last year’s memorable MCC Spirit of Cricket lecture at Lord’s, and recalled how his Sinhalese father had sheltered Tamils in their home during ”the terrible race riots of 1983 and a bloody communist insurgency among the youth [that] was to darken my memories of my childhood and the lives of all Sri Lankans”.

The debonair batsman also said he and his Sri Lankan teammates felt a responsibility to help with the reconciliation and recovery effort in the post-war years, and since then he has fronted a campaign to provide up to 5000 children in remote parts of the north with bicycles to get to school.

Muralidaran, a globetrotting Twenty20 cricketer who will represent Melbourne Renegades in Australia’s Big Bash League this summer, also spends his retirement raising funds from private donors all over the world for a sports complex for people displaced by the war in Mankulam, 300 kilometres north of Colombo. In the Murali Cup, a team from Jaffna was pipped in the final by a schoolboys’ side from Colombo. ”Cricket is the main sport in Sri Lanka, everybody loves, and we want to play all over the country,” he said.

Sri Lanka scraped into tomorrow’s final, in which the home team will play the winner of last night’s semi-final between Australia and the West Indies, largely because of an inventive 42 from 36 balls from captain Jayawardene, and despite a shambolic performance from spearhead Lasith Malinga. Jayawardene said afterwards he was ”blessed” to have led his country into four ICC finals across the two short formats, even though he is yet to win one.

A win would doubtless be an uplifting and unifying moment for Sri Lanka but, whatever happens, Muralidaran said the people struggling to rebuild their lives in the neglected north must not be forgotten. ”World Twenty20 will come and go,” he said, ”but people’s life has to go on.”

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