As 35,000 spectators in Colombo’s largest stadium watched Australia’s T20 cricket matches against Sri Lanka, they were treated to a rare sight: The lights stayed on for more than three hours.
It’s a luxury that normal Sri Lankans no longer have at home because the country’s economic crisis has created hours of daily power cuts.
The Australian team is touring the island nation for six weeks, playing T20, one day and test matches.
But the situation is so bad that some of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people couldn’t watch the matches at home on TV because they were facing blackouts.
Just down the road from the stadium, lines at fuel stations stretch for kilometres.
Some people sleep in their cars because the wait is so long.
The cricket is a brief reprieve for Sri Lankans, who are facing a devastating economic crisis that has left them without basic supplies like food, medicine and fuel because the government can no longer afford to import goods.
The country was the most developed in South Asia a few years ago. Now its foreign reserves are almost non-existent and Sri Lanka can’t pay off its foreign debts.
This is why Australian players were reluctant to go ahead with this cricket tour.
‘It’s fair to say there’s a level of discomfort’
Aside from the stadium lights, players will also be using scarce fuel to tour the country.
“The players are very aware of the situation in Sri Lanka,” the Australian Cricketers Association’s Todd Greenberg told AAP last month.
“It’s fair to say there is a level of discomfort around touring in conditions that contrast those faced by the people of Sri Lanka, such as rising food prices, power cuts and fuel rationing.”
Australia T20 captain Aaron Finch said players had since been assured by Sri Lanka’s cricket board that the tour should go ahead after extensive diplomatic talks.
“There’ve been a lot of meetings between the Australian government, the High Commission, DFAT, Cricket Australia, and Sri Lanka Cricket,” he told the ABC.
“We’re a huge supporter of cricket in this part of the world and it’s just great to be back here.”
For many local cricket fans, the matches have been a welcome distraction.
Bhanuka Jayawardene, a storekeeper, stands in a fuel queue a few days every week to fill up his motorbike.
If it takes a few hours, it’s a good day, he explained.
“It’s a hard time for all of us, I hope soon it’ll get better,” he said.
But this week, Bhanuka got to stand in a different queue, and it was one he actually enjoyed.
“I’m collecting my tickets to the Australia v Sri Lanka T20 match. I don’t have words to explain it, I’m really happy now,” he said.
“I was at the fuel queue for a couple of hours and here in the cricket tickets queue for 30 minutes.”
The thorny ethics of touring a country in freefall
As protests continue in Sri Lanka every day calling for political change and an end to the crisis, the government is trying to get at least $6 billion in foreign aid to bring back services.
India and Japan are emerging as possible options to fill that gap, but conditions are now hitting rock bottom.
Terrifying projections are now common for Sri Lankans.
One day they’re told there will be more deaths as medicine runs out, the next they’re told to cook with firewood because cooking gas isn’t available.
As well as bringing some entertainment to Sri Lanka, the Australian team hopes there will be economic benefits as well.
Sri Lanka has promised to donate all ticket revenue to essential services.
“I think the flow-on effect from the amount of cricket that’s being played between Colombo, Kandy, and Galle is creating jobs with vendors around the grounds,” Aaron Finch said.
“The overall economic impact will be important of Australia being here.”
US Yohan has been selling Sri Lankan flags at the matches.
“Our business has been going for 35 years. It started with my grandfather, was taken over by mother and now I’m continuing the business,” he said.
“Life has been difficult during the economic crisis, we haven’t had any business and we’re in debt to most people.
“So events like this obviously give me an income otherwise I stay home with no work.”
Protests during the crisis have been largely peaceful but last month, security forces were ordered by the defence ministry to shoot protesters causing injury to people or property.
It came after government MPs sent in groups supporting them to beat protesters.
Posts started going viral on social media claiming that military law prevented soldiers from shooting at demonstrators holding the national flag.
But that advice has since been debunked, with legal experts warning that law doesn’t exist.
Still, people who thought the claims were legitimate flocked to buy flags.
“After COVID the first business I had was during the protests … they turned into a positive earning centre,” Mr Yohan said.
“With all the debts the country is facing, if spectators come to watch the match, it will become a positive vibe for the country.”
Could cricket help Sri Lanka’s most vital source of income?
Australian cricketers, backed by Sri Lanka’s team, are now using this as an opportunity to promote tourism, which was once the base of the tropical island’s economy.
“Sri Lanka as a place is one of the best places as a cricketer that you can ever tour and to have the ability to experience it again is super,” Aaron Finch said.
“It’s a super place to travel to, not just for cricket, for any opportunity to come here it’s well worth a trip.”
Former Sri Lankan cricket captain Arjuna Ranatunga is calling on the Australian team to turn this into a formal tourism campaign.
“When the Australian team goes back home, they can carry a positive message to the Australian public,” he said.
“This particular tour will give a very positive message to the Australian public to visit Sri Lanka.”
As the situation in Sri Lanka worsens, protesters like Anuja Gomes are hoping Australia’s tour will bring much-needed international attention to their struggle for longer-term change.
“This situation is not solved yet,” he said.
“The leaders are not listening to us. We need help from the international community to solve this problem in Sri Lanka.”