CHRISTCHURCH — Children mingled with cricketing greats in "backyard" matches and Maori warriors shared the stage with morris dancers as the Cricket World Cup opened Thursday with a vibrant and quirky ceremony in Christchurch.
Thousands of fans crammed leafy Hagley Park to see the launch of the first World Cup in New Zealand and Australia in 23 years, the formal part of which began with a lone bagpiper and ended with a booming fireworks display — the biggest in the city's history.
The World Cup is the largest event Christchurch has hosted since an earthquake in February 2011 devastated the city's centre — only a few hundred yards from where Thursday's festivities took place, claiming the lives of 185 people.
The physical scars of that disaster still remain in the many vacant lots where buildings once stood but the people of Christchurch showed Thursday the city's spirit remains undimmed.
Mayor Leanne Dalziell said Christchurch was preparing to host the 2011 Rugby World Cup when the earthquake struck, toppling hotels and wrecking venues, forcing matches to be allocated to other centers.
She told fans Thursday "we're back!"
New Zealand prime minister John Key said the earthquake robbed Christchurch of the chance of hosting the Rugby World Cup and it was "only fitting" that it should be chosen to host the opening of the Cricket World Cup. He said the opening ceremony was a way of telling the world that Christchurch is "back in business."
International Cricket Council chief executive David Richardson unveiled the Cricket World Cup trophy, saying it was a symbol of the ICC's values of excellence, integrity and inclusion.
Hagley Oval, which will host Saturday's opening match between New Zealand and Sri Lanka, has hosted first class cricket matches since 1867 but was extensively redeveloped since to become the city's international cricket venue after the earthquake wrecked Lancaster Park.
Thursday's ceremony, which set the stage for the 20th Cricket World Cup, celebrating the love of cricket and the cultures of the competing nations, equally celebrated Christchurch's resilience as it literally lifted itself from ruins to host the opening and opening match of cricket's four-yearly festival.
As many as 80 children were joined by famous players in games of backyard cricket played on four giant ovals, divided into 14 individual grounds representing the 14 nations taking part in the world tournament. Each of the four areas was overlooked by a stage on which cultural performers from Sri Lanka and India, West Indian steel bands, Scottish and Irish dancers and indigenous Maori haka groups — in total more than 1,000 participants, performed for enthralled crowds.
The captains of the teams currently in New Zealand were presented to the crowd.
South Africa captain A.B. de Villiers told fans that while the Proteas had never won the World Cup "we're as well prepared as we can be and we look forward to taking the trophy home."
Zimbabwe captain Hamilton Masakadza, whose team plays South Africa in its opening match on Sunday, said while the odds were against his team "the good thing about this tournament is the team that plays the best cricket on the day will win the match."
Sri Lanka captain Angelo Mathews said his team's opening match against New Zealand on Saturday is "going to be a tough contest, it's going to be an even contest and whoever plays the best cricket will win."
New Zealand captain Brendon McCullum, who lives in Christchurch said "having the first game of the World Cup here in Christchurch after all it's been through is fantastic."
"I think it's a wide open World Cup," he said. "The nature of wickets we'll see in Australia and New Zealand are pure wickets and that brings in the match-winners. Every team has match-winners and they can turn the game in 10 or 15 overs."