October 4, 2023

Colombo, Sri Lanka – Until a few months ago, SMS Senaratne struggled to put three meals on the table for his family.

“When the economic crisis struck the country two years ago it took away our savings, our car and our ability to feed our three children,” Senaratne, a sports merchandise seller, told Al Jazeera outside the R Premadasa Cricket Stadium in Colombo earlier this week.

In between fixing his stall’s display of blue and green cricket shirts and caps, Senaratne explained how the Sri Lankan public struggled to survive during the country’s worst economic crisis since its independence in 1948.

“Our business of making and selling sports merchandise relies on the demand from sports goods stores, but ever since the economic slump came in 2021, we have not received enough orders,” he said.

Following the coronavirus pandemic, the small island nation of 22 million people was hit by fuel and food shortages as well as alarmingly high inflation over two years.

The economic crisis snowballed into a political one as mobs of mostly young Sri Lankans stormed the house of then-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, forcing him to flee the country and resign.

Tourism, which is the country’s leading industry, faced a slump and hundreds of small businesses collapsed.

However, earlier this year, Sri Lanka received the first tranche of its bailout package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the country is slowly getting back on its feet.

Cricket’s Asia Cup tournament, which was originally meant to be held in Pakistan, partially fell in Sri Lanka’s lap as India refused to send its team across the border because of political tensions.

Sri Lanka was given the opportunity to host seven of the tournament’s 11 matches, including two blockbuster India-Pakistan matches and the final.

When Senaratne heard the news about Sri Lanka’s hosting duties, he manufactured hundreds of replica team shirts and caps and set off from his hometown of Gampaha, a city 30km (18 miles) west of the capital, Colombo.

“I rented a vehicle and told my wife Ashoka that we have to go and sell as many of these items as we can,” the 54-year-old said as his wife bargained with a haggling customer from behind the stall.

At the first India-Pakistan match in Kandy, a hilly town in the country’s central province, they sold out all shirts and returned home jubilant.

“After adjusting all our expenses, we still had some money left,” he said, adding it helped with making more merchandise for the second leg of the tournament.

“If our business does well until Sunday, we will go back home happy and with enough cash to put away as savings for our children,” the father of three school-aged boys said with a glint in his eye.

SMS Senaratne’s stall outside the R Premadasa Stadium in Colombo [Hafsa Adil/Al Jazeera]

‘Helping us stay afloat’

W Nishantha, a tuk-tuk (three-wheel) taxi driver from the Colombo suburb of Maligawatte, has a similar story.

“My family lives hand-to-mouth and every day is a struggle,” he shouted over the whirring sound of his engine as he drove through the city’s bumpy roads.

The 28-year-old said tourism has slowly picked up pace, and while it might take some time for the entire industry to recover, the presence of cricket fans in Colombo has given daily-wage earners such as himself a much-needed lift.

Hotel staff corroborate Nishantha’s claims, saying their properties are running on full occupancy on the eve of India’s matches against Pakistan.

“Now that India is in the final, we have been receiving dozens of bookings for this Sunday night as well,” Rahini De Silva, a hotel receptionist, said.

Pakistan vs Sri Lanka – Asia Cup 2023 Super 4 cricket match
Fans watch Sri Lanka vs Pakistan in the Asia Cup [Hafsa Adil/Al Jazeera] (Al Jazeera)

India’s opponent in Sunday’s final is host nation Sri Lanka, who reached it after a near-capacity crowd roared for the defending champions in their match against Pakistan.

Having the tournament in their back yard and winning nail-biting encounters has fired up the locals. It has brought some respite from two long years of wondering where their next meal will come from.

And in some cases, cricket has also helped ensure that some children do not drop out of school.

Senaratne’s two younger boys study at a private school on a fully funded scholarship as they are key members of its cricket team.

“Cricket has helped keep my boys at school, and it also helping us stay afloat,” he said.

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