By Michael Roberts
The following article was written by Prof. Michael Roberts on July 10th 2007 and appeared in Cricinfo.com. under the heading “Rangiri Cricket Stadium &Its Tempestuous History.It is being reproduced here as it sheds some light on the commercial interests of Ven Inamaluwe Sumangala Thero who spearheaded the deplorable attack on the Mosque in Dambulla. I am inclined to wonder whether some sordid money making motive is behind the sudden move initiated by the saffron-clad entrepreneur to demolish the Mosque and Kovil-DBS Jeyaraj
In early June 2007 it was announced that at least one of the matches against the touring English side would be played at Rangiri Stadium, Dambulla. Given the questions around the failure of Sri Lanka Cricket to utilize that stadium in mid-2006 this was a welcome announcement. Surrounding this issue, too, is the fact that the story of Rangiri Stadium has been the bewildering silence surrounding the history of this asset and the absence of investigative reportage by those located on the ground in Sri Lanka on what is a significant cricketing issue.
Surrounding this issue, too, is the fact that the story of Rangiri Stadium has been the bewildering silence surrounding the history of this asset and the absence of investigative reportage by those located on the ground in Sri Lanka on what is a significant cricketing issue.
Despite locational disadvantages, I chanced upon facts, notably some pressed by Tony Grieg, in ways that enabled me to pen an article on the subject on 20 January this year. However, the essay has been kept in cold storage till now so that it would not jeopardize delicate negotiations involving the highest in the land. That these negotiations took so long is a pointer to the commentary inserted at the end of my essay, remarks that go beyond cricket to principles of good governance in any field: in-built speed of decision is good process. Where a political system demands that one runs to Sirimavo Amma, Chandrika Akka or Mahinda Chinthanaya for every issue from A 100 to Z 2000, there one has poor process and dilatory outcome.
That said, one can hardly blame the Dharmadasa board for recourse to such a process – not when powerful entrepreneurs and/or monks stand in one’s way. Indeed, the outcome justifies the means. Cricket-lovers can rejoice. Rangiri is back on board with the SLC board.
Setting the Scene
The idea of constructing a stadium in the dry zone site of Rangiri near Dambulla was initiated and carried out by Thilanga Sumathipala, the dynamic President of the BCCSL (as it was then known) circa 1999-2001. The principal inspiration for this venture arose from the fact that the period May-to-October was the most suitable time for many major cricketing countries other than England to tour the island because it was their off-season. In this period the cricketing venues in the south-western quarter and the Kandy Plateau were subject to the vagaries of the monsoon so that some games could be totally washed out – with serious repercussions for cricketing revenues besides potential enjoyment.
When visiting Sri Lanka in mi-1999 I recall a discussion at the Aiwa Cup with Skandakumar, a true servant of SL cricket over the years, where he argued against such a venture. His contentions were that (A) the hotel facilities in the area were limited; (B) that Pallekele (Pallakälay) in the Dumbara Valley had the same rainfall patterns and would be accessible from hotels in the area and (C) that the monies would be better spent in providing more sponsors’ boxes in some of the existing stadiums (which in turn generated more revenue) and upgrading the other facilities at those sites.
Skandha is as erudite as intelligent, but I thought his views on this issue position were misplaced. For one, my familiarity with the flat, straight roads in the Habarana-Dambulla locality told me that, timewise, hotel access was as good as, say, that between Coral Gardens in Hikkaduwa (The Lighthouse had yet to take root) and Galle; or for that matter between a hotel like Le Kandyan and both Asgiriya and the Pallekele sites because the traffic congestion in Kandy town is so horrendous.
In any event I was certain that a stadium in the Dambulla or Habarana area would serve as a “growth pole” and boost the expansion of business in a wide area, besides encouraging cricketing talent in that region. Subsequently, I discovered that Dambulla had been a thriving economic hub for decades with a market that never sleeps. This was courtesy of an eye-opening essay by Bandula de Silva (now available in Essaying Cricket, Vijitha Yapa Publishers, 2006, pp. 213-15) that revealed to what extent some of us (me too) live in urban cocoons.
So the only pertinent objection was the issue whether the monies were better spent on other grounds. Sumathipala was the supremo, however, and nothing held him back. Not only that, he decided to site the new project on land in the possession of Dambulla Vihara through a leasehold arrangement with Inamaluwa Sri Sumangala Thero (see below) and to complete the stadium by the time of the English tour in early 2001 (one ODI was played at Rangiri on 23 March 2001).
The latter objective was an impossible deadline. Sumathipala achieved the impossible. He worked like a man possessed, with his customary drive, a capacity that has seen me compare him – though that is not the only ground for my comparison if one considers the fate/tales surrounding around Richard de Zoysa and G Amarasinghe – to one Premadasa Ranasinghe. Grapevine tales indicate that Sumathipala often woke up around 4.00 am and was driven down to Dambulla to supervise matters and then arrived back in Colombo around 2.00 pm to see to other business.
This achievement of a stadium constructed in next to no time, a world record in fact, came, however, at a price. Expenses ballooned because of overtime rates, while accounting procedures were thrown out of the window. The lack of transparency and the shortcomings in investigative journalism means that we are uncertain what the original estimate of costs was reckoned to be. I, for one, have heard of the figure Rs. 75 million, but can hardly vouch for this fact.
In any event the contract was given to Sierra Constructions, a firm involved in telecommunication cables and without any experience in major building work. By pure chance I discovered one vital fact: the head of Sierra, wanted the job and quite deliberately underbid. He won the call.
Unlike the reputed firms, Sierra put together a young team of architects and builders. This body was ready to take risks, but adhered to rigorous standards. They also decided to import the roof for the main building from Australia. This was an enormous cost, but probably a wise step. The result, though, was another record: the total cost at “book value” in the SLC records today stands at Rs 611 million. The stress here must be on “book value.” There were as many as eight different contractors working at the site at some points and since record-keeping is not a Sri Lankan forte (the LTTE is an exception) only the gods above will have the total figure or be privy to the underhand arrangements if any.
The figure of Rs. 611 million is way above the figures that originally guided the decisions to build Rangiri and to select Sierra for that work; and was quite enormous for its day and age. It can be argued that a similar construction today would cost as much (and indeed the new Pallekele Stadium is estimated to be that much). But the picture is clear: less haste and a more reasonable time-line would have meant less cost and also may have supported a more considered plan that built adjunct fields for other sports within the overall project so that Rangiri became a multi-sports complex.
As it stands today, of course, Rangiri Stadium is an asset. But from 2001-2007 it was also a flawed asset – seriously flawed. The ground environs are truly picturesque, but the shortcoming lies in the choice of site and its tenurial arrangements. The Dambulla Vihāra, and thus Inamaluwa Sri Sumangala, has ownership rights to all land within a hoo-ya of the rock – a claim that extends far and wide in the result.
Why Sumathipala chose a spot within this range is not known to me – and seems amazing when there is crown land not that far away. But whatever it is, he, and thus SLC, entered into some sort of leasehold agreement with Inamaluwa Sri Sumangala Thero. I do not know if the agreement has been quite the same throughout the period 2001-07 (more below), but apparently the good thera contravened the regulations governing the use of Buddhist temporalities in whatever he did.
Pause: having brought you to a point of climax, let me build suspense through a digression that clarifies how I came to pursue the matter.
Tony Grieg and Rangiri
One day in August 2006 one cricket-starved Michael Roberts ventured optimistically to the SSC grounds hoping that the rains would stay away and enable the Indians to take-on the Lankans in their ODI game. The gods did not relent however and at some point later Roberts wondered over to the TV commentary box. It was mostly deserted, but Ranjit Fernando was there and in the course of our conversation Tony Greig walked in. Introductions followed and, as they say, one thing led to another.
It was Tony who raised the issue of Rangiri. The reason was explicit: given that rain had been a continuous spoiler of the triangular ODI series (the Safs had not run away Sri Lanka as yet), he asked why the series had not been scheduled for the drier region around Dambulla (where it was, I believe, also raining, but maybe not in buckets).
It was a rhetorical question because Tony was well-placed, as we all know, and in a position to have pursued this question with the main parties who were engaged then in the factional struggle for control of SLC, namely, the Sumathipala group and the Dharmadasa ‘consortium.’ He had done so. Sumathipala had said something to this effect: “Look Tony the TV rights are worth such and such (a large sum). What is the problem in paying the priest a mere 2 lakhs to get the go-ahead?”
When Tony had put this proposition to Dharmadasa, the latter had countered by stating that the priest was demanding a “king’s ransom.” But Dharmadasa had also informed Tony that there were serious security concerns expressed by both visiting teams regarding a trip to the Dambulla area.
Tony then told Ranjit and me that once the issue of security was raised, he had no right to question the decision not to use Rangiri for the triangular series, but he was clearly puzzled by the other difficulties in utilising Rangiri. That is why he had raised the topic with the two of us — to convey his findings. But remarkably, and perceptively, Tony concluded with this telling remark: “I do not who is lying” (to him).
Well, I cannot answer Tony. But we do not need to follow that line of inquiry because the critical give-away is within Sumathipala’s statement. That is, the priest had the power to demand annual rent or usage rent. Wow!! 611 million rupees spent on an asset built by SLC without firm 99 year leasehold rights!!!!! WHY? SO THAT ONE POWERFUL KINGMAKER COULD HOLD THE SHOTS AND TREAT THE STADIUM AS HIS POCKET-BOROUGH.
The further fact is that at some point, either at the outset or later, Inamaluwa Sri Sumangala Thero had signed a leasehold contract for the land on which Rangiri is situated with a private trust in Sumathipala’s control, with, it seems, some residual rights left to his incumbency (i.e. himself). The trust, I note, was administered by one of the Sumathipala’s minions, a “catcher” as we say in rich SL English, one Sujiewa Godaliyadde, who managed the ground
This is truly gross! Only in Sri Lanka? Maybe so. But this story is a standing indictment not only of Sumathipala, but all those who served on the governing boards he or his proxies commanded during recent years. The Interim Board under Malalasekera (March 2001-April 2002) had smelled something fishy and tried to use the Ministry of Sports officials to pursue matters, but did not get very far on that route. They were exploring the possibility of acquiring the land under the Land Acquisitions Act when they were deposed in April 2002.
There is a silver lining. Even by August 2006 the Dambulla priest was coming under heavy fire from local business interests for killing the prospects of trade-from-cricket (Tony’s info—truly remarkable guy Tony). Moreover, Dharmadasa and the present board have since moved heaven and earth (literally – once a monk is involved) in order to take control of Rangiri Stadium. I do not have further details, but a good authority indicated that it involves the personal intervention of President Mahinda Rajapakse for this entirely reasonable change to be secured.
Those in the know in Sri Lanka will tell you that the Dharmadasa brothers (and for that matter the Chairman of the Petroleum Corporation, one Ashantha de Mel) are close to the President and that there are considerable Southern Province business interests interlacing their relationships. In relation to Rangiri this intertwining has wrought good effects. But, as footnote and parenthetically, one cannot but ponder over the process of reform in this field as a general reflection about Sri Lankan society.
Art, after all, can be a mirror of life. In this instance the craft of cricket stands in for art and mirrors political life. As my tale underlines, it took intervention from the very top for a necessary change to be smoothly effected. That has been the bane of Sri Lanka for over 50 years. Most decisions are taken from the peak. The channels to the peak get clogged, there is jostling at the bottleneck. Atrophy reigns. Officials pass the buck up the channel. Worse still, they become yes-persons — nay more, rather than just ovu-minissu they become ehemai-hamu-minissu. COURTESY: DILMAH CRICKET NETWORK