Australia’s cricket tour of Sri Lanka was meant to help distract from the island nation’s economic misery, but on Saturday the unrest sweeping the country came within shouting distance of the pitch.
Hundreds of people climbed the walls of the scenic Galle Fort in the morning session of the second Test for a protest condemning President Gotabaya Rajapaksa for mismanagement of the country’s finances.
Looking down on the field as Australia finished their innings, the crowd’s loud chants demanding Rajapaksa’s resignation came only two hours before an angry crowd in the capital forced the president to flee his home.
“Today obviously the country is in turmoil, people outside having their say. We could obviously hear it, I mean we can still hear it now,” Australia’s Steve Smith said after stumps.
But the former skipper, who wrapped up the innings on 145*, said the hullaballoo had not had a bearing on the match.
“You can hear a lot,” he said. “But it didn’t get to anyone or play a part in what was happening out here.”
Smith was at the crease when the protesters climbed up the fort walls about an hour before lunch.
“I saw them there this morning but didn’t pay much attention to it,” he said.
Commentators and match officials were more intrigued by the sight, taking time out to snap pictures of the protests on their mobile phones from a balcony overlooking the protest site.
The rally at Galle Stadium was one of several around the country on Saturday.
Through the day a crowd was gathered near the cricket ground to wave Sri Lankan flags and decry the impact of the economic crisis.
“My wife and I have been living on one meal a day for two months to make sure our child gets three,” protester Janith Malinga told AFP.
Malinga said Rajapaksa had to leave office for the country’s dire situation to improve.
“Everything is in a mess,” he added. “This is not the Sri Lanka I dreamed of.”
The island nation has endured months of turmoil with acute food and fuel shortages, rolling blackouts and galloping inflation making life miserable for its 22 million people.
Australia’s white-ball captain Aaron Finch said at the start of the tour that his side hoped they could bring some “joy” and entertainment to Sri Lanka as it weathered the crisis.
The latest unrest comes during the last match of Australia’s tour, with Pakistan’s squad also on the island for their upcoming series.
Cricket officials said there were no plans to change their schedules, adding that the sport was unaffected by the political turmoil.
“There is no opposition to having the games. In fact, fans are supportive and we have no reason to reschedule,” a cricket board official told AFP.
© Agence France-Presse