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Tests begin as Sri Lankan crisis deepens

Australia’s Test series against Sri Lanka will begin bordered by gas canisters.

Empty ones, sitting waiting to be filled, that sum up just one part of the dire economic situation engulfing the host nation.

Stretching halfway around the perimeter of Galle International Stadium, the canisters form part of what locals claim has been a 20-day wait for gas.

Used for household cooking, they will be unseen by television cameras, blocked by banners around the fence of the southern end of the ground celebrating Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan’s legacies.

But the situation across Sri Lanka and in its picturesque city of Galle is impossible to ignore.

Each morning Australia’s team bus and heavily-armed security convoy drive past long queues for fuel, which stretch for up to four days with people waiting by their cars.

Power shortages have also become part of life, with scheduled outages that plunge the city into darkness for an hour each night and two during the day.

Tourist numbers are way down, with only approximately 50 Australians making the trip to the sub-continent for the tour and very few other foreigners to be seen.

“We are certainly seeing the effects,” said Australian captain Pat Cummins.

“Even in the buses we are seeing the queues kilometres long around petrol stations. That has really hit home for us.”

Sri Lankans are used to facing adversity head on, and even more renowned for overcoming it.

Galle’s iconic stadium had to be rebuilt after the 2004 tsunami, with more than 21,000 casualties recorded across the country.

That disaster came in the midst of a brutal 25-year civil war, which ended in 2009.

Even now those around the city remain typically upbeat and friendly, albeit ready to discuss their current plight whenever inside a tuk-tuk or taxi.

But never has the country faced an economic crisis quite like this.

The country initially rebounded well out of COVID-19, with hotels reporting a boom in tourists returning last October.

Since February however it has gone dramatically downhill.

The Sri Lankan government on Tuesday restricted the sale of fuel to anyone outside essential services such as health, defence, power and export sectors until at least July 10 in a bid to deal with the shortages.

Before that, those finally reaching the front of the lengthy queues were paying almost triple what they did four months ago, with limits on purchase quantity.

Schools also remain closed in urban areas, while the government has urged people to work from home.

Medical supplies are running low, while food shortages also loom as an issue.

Outside the ground the locals remain, sleeping and living by the gas canisters as they rotate shifts among family members or have others do it for them.

On Tuesday evening there was some relief as the line moved quickly and the rattling of canisters could be heard.

But by nightfall, around half still remained.

“I was on a call yesterday and was chatting to some young girl cricketers,” Cummins said.

“They’re down to one meal a day and are going to school a couple of days a week because the teachers can’t get to school.

“They’re from a fishing village and a lot of them can’t go out to fish because they have no petrol.”

Protests in May led to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s resignation and a countrywide curfew.

But the fight and desire to survive and obtain crucial resources has since taken over.

Some Australian players had raised ethical concerns before the beginning of the tour over playing cricket amid the current crisis.

The decision to play the the white-ball matches under lights was questioned, given the regular power outages due to an electricity shortage.

Those concerns were largely allayed last week, with Australian players given a rousing thank you from fans dressed in yellow after the final ODI in Colombo.

The entire white-ball series comprising three Twenty20s and five ODIs was sold out, with limited-overs game traditionally more attractive to crowds than Tests in the country.

“Our people always love cricket,” Sri Lanka captain Dimuth Karunaratne said.

“For the Sri Lankans it’s like a religion so we want to give something back to them as well.”

Most around Sri Lanka can’t predict when or how the current crisis will end.

Sri Lanka’s governments on Tuesday announced they would allow companies from oil-producing countries to import and sell fuel, in a move that was hoped would ease the crisis.

Foreign aid is also seen as crucial, with Australian Treasurer Jim Chalmers accepting the Commonwealth’s critical role to play in that last week.

But for now, it is Australia’s cricket team making the most significant impact.

“No matter what the result (of this Test series) we are in a really privileged position,” Cummins said.

“There are lots of people that are making this happen for us to have a bit of fun and go out and play cricket. So we are really lucky.”

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