HAMBANTOTA, Sri Lanka: Sri Lanka routed Zimbabwe by 82 runs Tuesday as the hosts made a successful start to the World Twenty20 and kicked off the country’s biggest ever sports event.
Unorthodox spinner Ajantha Mendis grabbed record international Twenty20 bowling figures of six wickets for eight runs in the Group C game in Hambantota, the home town of President Mahinda Rajapakse.
It was the perfect start for a home team that is seeking its first major title since winning the 50-over World Cup in 1996.
Tight security and empty seats at the 35,000-capacity stadium failed to dampen a party atmosphere as fans blew vuvuzela horns and danced in the stands. After the win, a brief fireworks display lit up the stadium.
Other games will be played in the steamy hill town of Pallekele and the capital Colombo, where the fourth World Twenty20 champions will be crowned on October 7.
The 12-team tournament offers the teardrop-shaped tropical island the chance to showcase its lush landscapes, beaches and ancient temples, and turn the page on a 37-year ethnic conflict that claimed up to 100,000 lives.
In 2009, Rajapakse’s regime declared victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels, a group notorious for suicide bombings. The brutal final offensive prompted a UN Human Rights Council resolution against Sri Lanka earlier this year.
When Sri Lanka co-hosted the 50-over World Cup in 1996, Australia and West Indies kept away after Tamil rebels bombed the Central Bank in Colombo, killing 91 people and wounding 1,200 just two weeks before the tournament.
The country also co-hosted the World Cup last year with India and Bangladesh, which passed without incident.
For the World Twenty20, elite commandos and bodyguards have been deployed to guard players as part of a security operation similar to those usually reserved for visiting heads of state.
The authorities have also launched an undercover operation to ensure there is no corruption by players after international cricket was rocked by a major fixing scandal in 2010.
Sri Lanka start the tournament as one of the favourites, although predictions are notoriously difficult in cricket’s shortest format, which has revolutionised the sport and divided opinion since its introduction in 2003.
Defending champions England arrive with a youthful squad shorn of star batsman Kevin Pietersen, who is in international exile after a sequence of bust-ups with team management.
South Africa, the number one Test team, are seeking their first ever limited-overs world title, while the West Indies, powerful in this format, would be a popular winner.
The World Twenty20 is the one major trophy to elude Australia. India won the inaugural event in 2007, while mercurial Pakistan will hope to reprise their 2009 title run.
The teams have been divided into four pools of three for the preliminary league, with the top two from each advancing to the Super Eights round.
England, the West Indies, Sri Lanka and New Zealand are seeded to meet in group one of the Super Eights, with the top two teams making it to the semi-finals.
Group two is already being billed as the “Group of Death”, with arch-rivals India and Pakistan seeded to face Australia and South Africa.