(Reuters) - An offer of free tickets and meals could only entice 3,000 students from the tsunami-hit city of Hambantota to turn up for Pakistan’s World Cup opening match against Kenya on Wednesday.
With barely any tickets sold for the Group A match, local organisers had invited 10,000 students from 21 schools in the area to boost crowd numbers at the 35,000-seater Mahinda Rajapaksa Stadium which is hosting only its second international match.
However, despite the offer of a free meal, drinks and transport thrown in, a match not featuring their heroes such as Mahela Jayawardene and Muttiah Muralitharan was not a big box-office draw for children and teenagers.
Three days after a capacity crowd had parted with SLR 150 ($1.35) each to loudly cheer on co-hosts Sri Lanka as they thumped Canada at the same ground, the cavernous stadium resembled a largely deserted playground as only one section was filled with spectators.
Those who had grabbed the offer of a free ticket watched wide-eyed at the way world class cricketers such as Kamran Akmal and Younus Khan batted patiently to build Pakistan’s innings after the 1992 champions had lost two early wickets.
“This is my first international one day game,” 17-year-old Krishan Chathuranga, wearing a white school uniform, told Reuters.
“With this kind of opportunity, I think there will be more interest in the game among all these students,” added the teenager, who is also an under-19 cricketer for his school Debarewewa National College. His reaction was exactly what local organisers wanted to see.
“The whole purpose of the stadium is to improve the game and watching this kind of match will motivate them to play and get involved with the game,” Sri Lanka’s World Cup director Suraj Dandeniya told Reuters.
Sri Lanka Schools Cricket Association (SLSCA), which is responsible for the game at school level, are hoping that more and more school children will attend the matches during the six-week tournament.
“We knew that nobody will come to watch a match between Kenya and Pakistan at this ground unlike in Kandy or Colombo,” M.T.A. Rauf, the general secretary of SLSCA told Reuters.
“We need children to watch international cricket to popularise the game,” he said. All transport, food, and tickets for these students are given free of charge with a sponsorship of one million rupees helped by Sri Lanka Cricket.”
The port city of Hambantota is located around 240 km south of Colombo in an underdeveloped area. In 2004, more than 4,000 died there when the Indian Ocean tsunami struck.
Unlike in Colombo and Kandy, where the popularity of the sport is sky-high, locals in the area have yet to embrace the sport wholeheartedly as the city had never hosted an international match before the World Cup.
Sri Lanka Cricket has already decided to reduce World Cup tickets prices by more than 50 percent for some matches not featuring the host nation to boost crowd numbers and relax an earlier ban on spectators taking banners and musical instrument into World Cup venues. Sri Lanka, co-host of the World Cup with Bangladesh and India, is hosting 12 of the 49 matches during the Feb 19-April 2 tournament at three 35,000-seater stadiums in Hambantota, Colombo and Kandy including the quarter-finals and semi-finals.