Nothing excites, or agonises, Sri Lankans like cricket

Cricket runs through the veins of Sri Lankans, philosophised Randika, our young Man Friday during our tour of the island, as he pointed to a park between the hills of Nuwara Eliya and the sun-kissed beaches of Hikkaduwa, where a match was on full steam. Not all players were in whites – I spotted a couple of them in denims – but the umpires were in their traditional white and black attire.

Across the Palk Strait, the national team was getting clobbered by the Indians – as capitulation followed capitulation, collective sighs of frustration went up in the swish bars of five-star hotels. “What has the team come to,” lamented the bartender at our resort near Dambulla.

Cricket has served as a great unifier for an island nation scarred by one of the most violent civil wars of the 20th century that ended only in 2009. Thousands died in the conflict that touched every Lankan. Randika’s family had to flee the LTTE-dominated Trincomalee. He recalled a chilling moment when his mother and he were pulled out of a vehicle. It was only the presence of mind of a teenage Tamil boy who sneaked out to alert a nearby army convoy that saved them. His father and siblings had taken a different route – parents travelled separately so that if one died or was captured, the other could look after the children.

Disillusioned and in despair, people looked for inspiration, something that could unite the country, and that happened in the form of the World Cup victory at Lahore in 1996. The nation had found its heroes – Sanath Jayasuriya, Romesh Kaluwitharana, Aravinda de Silva and Arjuna Ranatunga, the chubby cricketer with a mind of steel – men who had by some miracle given the belief-starved people the power to believe.

And there was none better to epitomise that unity than spinner Muttiah Muralitharan, a Tamil from Kandy. His unusual action was called by Australian umpires a year earlier but the nation stood by him.

Now, the nation has finally found peace and is rushing to make up for the lost years. Tourism has taken flight, the beaches, the hill stations, the “Ramayana circuit”, the historical sites are packed with visitors from all over the world. Chinese billions are flowing into the infrastructure sector – the spanking new highways, the port cities coming up at Hambantota and Colombo are all testimony to how Beijing is actively engaged in development diplomacy as part of its “string of pearls” policy.

But irony of ironies: cricket, that great unifier, has fallen into bad times, raising the scary spectre of the cricketing fortunes going the Caribbean way. The national team’s recent record hasn’t exactly been inspiring: a whitewash in South Africa, battered by Virat Kohli’s boys, a draw against Bangladesh, with a win against Pakistan the only redeeming feature. The biggest knock came a few months ago when Sri Lanka lost the chance to automatically qualify for the next World Cup.

Randika and a few other avid cricket followers I spoke to were unanimous in their analysis of the rot: only the elite from Colombo and Kandy are being tapped, the vast raw, talent across the rest of the island is being neglected. The administrators say any transition is difficult, especially when one has to fill gaps left behind by giants such as Murali, Sangakkara and Jayawardene. Not everyone has bought this argument: de Silva, hero of the 1996 triumph, has been quoted as saying, “We are going through a rebuilding process but we can’t be saying that forever.”

“We need another crisis to get the team going,” said Randika, tongue firmly in cheek but reflecting the exasperation of the people with its current crop.

Some have even called for Sanga and Mahela to return. Since hanging up their boots, the two have carried on their partnership off-field by running a super-successful fine dining seafood restaurant, called Ministry of Crab, in Colombo’s chic Dutch Hospital precincts.

On our way to the Galle fort, we stopped and watched another game close to the pretty cricket stadium, rebuilt after being devastated in the 2004 Tsunami. A boy with shaggy hair, a southpaw like Sanga, takes guard; a teenaged bowler runs in and bowls; a gentle flick and the cherry whizzes past mid-wicket to crash into the fence.

It looked beautiful, the natural, tropical flair of the Lankans that made them crowd favourites. This is another generation, for whom the violent war would be a distant memory, who can again make the people believe. Without, hopefully, having to live through a crisis. (The Telegraph)

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