There’s something eerily dystopian about cricket continuing unscathed while a humanitarian crisis unravels outside the gates.

Last week, Australian Test captain Pat Cummins and a trio of teammates sat in a Colombo restaurant in darkness, waiting for the town’s power to be switched on.

The national men’s cricket team is touring Sri Lanka for the first time in six years, coinciding with the nation’s worst financial crisis since 1948.

The former British colony’s economy has collapsed after years of macroeconomic mismanagement by the ruling Rajapaksa family, resulting in severe food, fuel and electricity shortages.

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Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, has been plagued by 10-hour blackouts since March, with car drivers and tuktuks forming kilometres-long queues for fuel.

Schools have temporarily closed, while countless local businesses that can no longer afford imported supplies are shutting down.

Last month, a two-day-old baby died in the highlands town of Haldummulla after falling ill, with her parents unable to source petrol to rush her to the nearest hospital.

But as Colombo’s citizens endure daily power outages, the Australian team bus and its security convoy travel to and from the venue each day, passing long queues of desperate locals sleeping in their cars waiting for fuel.

The floodlights at R Premadasa Stadium were unaffected for last week’s ODI matches between Australia and Sri Lanka, with the venue’s lighting tapping into generators from the state-owned Ceylon Electricity Board.

Like the first leg of last year’s Indian Premier League, which was ravaged by Covid-19, there’s something eerily dystopian about sport continuing unscathed while a humanitarian crisis unravels outside the gates.

“We’ve been following closely, it’s something we’ve spoken about in our team meetings as well,” Cummins told reporters on Tuesday.

“We’re so lucky to come here and experience Sri Lanka pretty normally. I was on a call yesterday and spoke to some young girl cricketers and they’re down to one meal a day, they’re going to school a couple days a week because the teachers can’t get to school.

“They’re from a fishing village, a lot of them can’t go out to fish because they’ve got no petrol, so we’re certainly seeing the effects, even in the buses seeing the queues kilometres long around petrol stations, so that’s really hit home for us.

“No matter what the result is, we’re in a really privileged position. There’s a lot of people making this happen for us to play a bit of cricket.”

The Sri Lankan economy has buckled under the weight of heavy foreign debts, the surging cost of commodities and a loss of tourism revenue.

Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange reserves have dropped from $7.6 billion in 2019 to $1.6 billion in April, currently reeling at less than $1 billion.

“We are now facing a far more serious situation beyond the mere shortages of fuel, gas, electricity and food,” Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told parliament earlier this month.

“Our economy has completely collapsed … we are now seeing signs of a possible fall to rock bottom.”

Sri Lankan hospitals are in desperately low supply of lifesaving medicines and equipment, while public sector workers have been told to work from home and grow vegetables in preparation for a food shortage.

There are genuine fears a catastrophic famine is on the horizon.

“Sri Lankans are annoyed, and they’re also disappointed because they can’t afford food anymore, even people from middle-class families,” ABC reporter Avani Dias explained.

“People are just frustrated that, through no fault of their own, they’re living in these conditions.”

Protests have raged since April, with demonstrators accusing President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his government of policy blunders and fiscal mismanagement that quickened the nation’s economic downfall.

At least 10 people were killed with more than 150 injured as the protests turned violent in early May, prompting former Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to step down.

Local authorities banned placards and banners at R Premadasa Stadium last week, but Australian viewers may have heard the Colombo spectators chanting for president Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to follow his brother’s lead and resign.

“Go home Gota, go home Gota …”

Meanwhile, thousands of civilians are attempting to flee the country, with Sri Lanka’s navy intercepting several asylum seeker boats trying to get to Australia.

Before travelling to Sri Lanka, some Australian cricketers questioned whether it was appropriate to compete in a nation ravaged by food and fuel shortages, but the players were assured the tour would generate about $AUD2.5 million for the local economy.

The three T20 internationals and five ODI matches were played at night to correspond with India‘s prime-time television slots. The broadcast revenue is worth more than the diesel powering the venue’s generators.

The tour has created much-needed work for local hotels, caterers and transportation staff, while Sri Lanka Cricket announced it would donate $3.5 million to help local hospitals acquire essential medicines.

“They came to the conclusion that the cricket team going there was actually going to be a net good; a positive for people on the ground, and that’s definitely the vibe that I felt when I was there,” Dias said.

“People were really grateful to have some entertainment … they were just really excited to have a massive team like Australia touring there.”

Meanwhile, the Australian Government has committed to sending Sri Lanka $50 million in aid, while the cricketers have contributed to a Sri Lankan tourism campaign.

“Australia has sent over cattle to help with the milk shortage, which was a big issue,” Dias said.

“Now there are calls on Australia to send in things like fertiliser to ensure the next farming season will be OK, because there’s no fertiliser in the country.

“There is a hope that the Australian cricket team can bring attention to the issue.”

Ahead of last week’s fifth ODI in Colombo, which Aaron Finch’s men won by four wickets, spectators were encouraged to wear yellow to thank the Australians for bringing some momentary joy to the country.

In extraordinary scenes at R. Premadasa Stadium, Sri Lankan fans cheered for the opposition as they lapped the venue following a 3-2 series defeat.

ESPNcricinfo’s Andrew Fidel Fernando wrote: “If in a country that lurches from crisis to crisis to crisis, cricket is a distraction, then let it be one.”

But some incongruity remains. Ahead of the highly-anticipated first Test at Galle International Stadium, which gets underway today, residents deliberately formed a line of empty gas bottles, coloured blue and yellow, halfway around the perimeter of the picturesque venue.

It was a grim and poignant reminder that the needs of foreign athletes had been prioritised over the local population, which is on the verge of a humanitarian emergency.

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