Hikkaduwa (Sri Lanka): When the Murali Harmony Cup T20 cricket gets underway on Wednesday in Northern Sri Lanka, it will be another step to bring together the people of this region, which was devastated by civil wars for almost three decades.
It is the fifth edition of the championship which is one of the many initiatives taken by the 'Foundation of Goodness', founded by legendary cricketer Muttiah Muralitharan and his sports manager Kushil Gunasekera after the 2004 Tsunami that left over 30,000 people dead in Sri Lanka alone.
For five days across four venues in northern Sri Lanka towns of Jaffna, Oddusuddan (Mullativu), Mankulam and Kilinochchi, 16 teams in the boys' category and eight teams in the ladies' category will vie for honours.
Muralitharan and Gunasekera started the tournament in 2011, two years after the Sri Lankan military defeated the Tamil Tigers in May 2009, bringing an end to the civil war following 26 years of military campaign.
Since then, it has made rapid progress and played a significant role in uplifting and supporting the rural communities through the spirit of cricket.
With legendary cricketers such as Kumar Sangakkara, Russell Arnold and Mahela Jayawardene as trustee members, the foundation is working for the benefit of over 35,000 people across 200 villages per year.
The Foundation is empowering the rural youths by giving them training in various sectors, including nutrition and well-being, education and child development, vocational training, infrastructure development and self-defense training for women and children.
Besides, the foundation is also giving training to the youths in various sports such as cricket, swimming, badminton, net ball, volleyball, table tennis and chess.
"Me and Murali had set up the village heartbeat project at my ancestral property at Seenigama where I had my villa in 1999. Before the Tsunami we had a budget of USD 1,000, but now it has grown to almost USD 750,000 per month," says Gunasekera, who like many had to flee to the nearby temple when Tsunami had struck his village on Boxing Day in 2004.
"Sport has always been an integral part of this foundation. We have a holistic approach but it is for sports that we have been able to do that. There was help from others such as MCC and Surrey, who gave us a ground and now see we have a beautiful sporting facilities here," Gunasekera said.
"We have a few cricketers such as Tharindu Kaushal and Ramesh Mendis in men's cricket, a few ladies cricketers, net ball players who have come out of this Foundation and represented the country in tournaments. There are swimmers and table tennis players as well who have done well.
"Unfortunately all these came after the unprecedented Tsunami. But we overpowered the waves of destruction by the phenomenal waves of compassion," he added.
After creating a sustainable programme in the south, Muralitharan and Gunasekera are now trying to recreate the model in the recently-liberated north. Following Muralitharan's retirement from international cricket in 2011, he was gifted a piece of land by the government which he donated to the foundation.
The plan is now to set up a North Empowerment Project, consisting of a Learning & Empowerment Institute as well as a New School for both primary and secondary education. The project will also provide facilities and services to meet the needs of rural communities and help bridge the gap between these areas and the rest of the country.
"The project will address various needs of the people including healthcare, business development, sports and empowerment needs of the local population through programmes of community development, inter-cultural activities and skills exchange," said Anura de Silva, project coordinator.
Help also poured in for the Foundation from various quarters with legendary English all-rounder Ian Botham taking a 160-mile walk across Sri Lanka, five-time Olympic gold medalist American swimming sensation Missy Franklin making a splash at the Bryan Adams Swimming Pool Complex when she paid a visit as an ambassador for the Laureus Sports for Good Foundation (UK).