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What cricket really means to Sri Lanka

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28th May, 2019
9

Sri Lanka is hurting. Its beautiful people continue to live in much agony, pain, frustration and fear.

As the struggling island nation tries to come to terms with the recent Easter Sunday terrorist bombings, its healing process has been consistently marred by old political and ethnic wounds bubbling away in anger and revenge.

Peace and tranquility appear to be a distant resolution as hatred and blame at the government’s lacklustre efforts to prevent these attacks remain at the forefront of people’s minds.

Quite simply, Sri Lankans are fed up. And with a Cricket World Cup just around the corner, the nation’s interest in their beloved sport seems to have taken a back seat, much like the weakened performances of the team itself.

As an Australian of Sri Lankan heritage, I too was heartbroken as hundreds of innocent people were brutally murdered by individuals who were nothing more than cowards and fools. This country has seen enough bloodshed and violence.

Sadly, old lesions and divisions are surfacing, and tensions between Sri Lanka’s various religious and ethnic groups remain high.

Those responsible for these horrific attacks have done so to divide and destroy the harmony and unity that is so prevalent and commonplace within Sri Lankan society.

If rationality and reason does not come to the fore, the island nation could cascade into the dark days of its bitter civil war.

Whilst cricket might be the last thing Sri Lankans are worrying about now, this upcoming World Cup could be the very thing needed to bring a fractured nation back together.

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Indeed, if this under-performing team needed to find a reason to play its best cricket, that time is now.

Lasith Malinga gets ready to bowl for Sri Lanka

Lasith Malinga spearheads Sri Lanka’s attack at the 2019 World Cup. (Michael Bradley/AFP/Getty Images)

Contrary to popular belief, cricket has never actually been viewed as a religion in Sri Lanka. Whilst Sri Lankans do love their cricket, they are not essentially a cricket-mad people as is so often stereotypically coined by the Western media.

Decades of civil war, a devastating tsunami, soul-destroying floods, monsoon rains and now this latest terror bombing has reminded Sri Lankans that there certainly are more important things in life than a simple game of cricket.

Sure, they do enjoy their cricket, but the way they cherish their heroes is often at odds with the rest of the subcontinent. In this regard, they have always been somewhat of an anomaly, especially when you find Kumar Sangakkara’s house intact even after the legend has scored a duck!

To their fans, Sri Lankan cricketers are not gods, messiahs or messengers of the Almighty. They are brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, friends and colleagues.

Whilst they love this great game like any other passionate cricket fan, they understand that it really is just a game in the end.

Their cricket team has always been more of an altruistic example of what Sri Lanka has always aimed and aspired to be as a nation. A symbol of complete unity and a beacon of hope amidst troubled and turbulent times.

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Sri Lanka is largely a multicultural and multi-religious society, and you will find no better representation of its many ethnic flavours than in its national cricket team. It is here where the Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu perform side by side as one team, playing for a common cause.

Interestingly, for a country where Buddhism and the Sinhalese language are most prominent across the island, it has been Sri Lanka’s ethnic and religious minority groups that have often delivered this nation’s proudest cricketing moments.

Those who continue to propagate the tired narrative of its Tamil-speaking population being marginalised are often at a loss to explain how the world’s greatest wicket-taking bowler ended up being one of their own.

Indeed, Sri Lanka has had many wonderful Tamil cricketers represent them throughout its entire history. Even in this current side, former Test captain Angelo Mathews is half-Tamil, while Sri Lanka’s premier cricket commentator Russel Premakumaran Arnold is a Tamil of Christian denomination.

Even during the 1940s and 1950s, Sri Lanka’s finest batsman was a Colombo Tamil named Mahadevan Sathasivam, who Sir Garry Sobers once described as the greatest batsman on earth. A portrait of this champion cricketer still hangs on the walls of the P Sara Stadium today.

Sri Lanka's Kumar Sangakkara plays a shot

Kumar Sangakkara is a Sri Lankan cricket legend. (AFP/Marty Melville)

Disaster and conflict often have an uncanny way of bringing out the best in Sri Lankan cricket, particularly in global tournaments.

During the 1996 World Cup, suicide bombings in Colombo prompted Australia and the West Indies to forfeit their group-stage matches in Sri Lanka citing security fears, effectively allowing the island nation a momentous head start to secure the trophy that year.

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In July 2001, bomb blasts targeted at the Colombo international airport by Tamil Tiger rebels prompted further safety concerns in the country. In September of the following year, Sri Lanka were declared joint winners of the 2002 Champions Trophy with India.

The 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami brought devastation and destruction to the Sri Lankan people on an unprecedented scale, destroying many lives and homes in the process.

Mahela Jayawardene and his star-studded side responded grandly as Sri Lanka galloped towards the final of the 2007 World Cup.

March 2009 saw Pakistan become alienated as an international cricket venue, as terrorists repeatedly shot at the Sri Lanka team bus en route to Gaddafi Stadium.

Sangakkara and Jayawardene sustained shrapnel wounds in the horrific attack as the match was abandoned and the team was immediately evacuated from Lahore. In June of that same year, Sri Lanka were runners-up in the final of the 2009 Twenty20 World Cup.

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So will the recent Easter Sunday bombings provide this struggling Sri Lankan team the motivation they need to perform in the World Cup?

Will they set aside their differences and disagreements and play that unique brand of cricket its fans know and love?

Sri Lankans are looking for something to be happy about, and there is no better stage to provide this than what will transpire over the next few weeks in England.

While my gut feeling suggests that Dimuth Karunaratne’s undercooked and shambolic team will go out with a whimper, the hope and spirit of Sri Lankan fans is indomitable.

We must forget the past and stop mulling over how dismal and questionable this current team is. As Sri Lanka heads into another World Cup campaign, this team needs to use the recent tragedy as a vehicle to play their best cricket again and give their people something significant to cheer about.

It’s time to show the world what cricket truly means to Sri Lanka.