2011 Cowdrey Lecture by Sangakkkara
Mr President, my Lords, Ladies and gentlemen.
Firstly I wish to sincerely thank the MCC for giving me the opportunity
and great honour of delivering the 2011 Cowdrey Lecture.
I was in India after the World Cup when my manager called to pass on the
message that CMJ was trying to get in touch with me to see whether I would
like to deliver this year's lecture.
I was initially hesitant given the fact we would be in the midst of the
current ODI series, but after some reflection I realised that it was an
invitation I should not turn down. To be the first Sri Lankan to be
invited was not only a great honour for me, but also for my fellow
Then I had to choose my topic. I suspect many of you might have
anticipated that I pick one of the many topics being energetically debated
today – the role of technology, the governance of the game, the future of
Test cricket, and the curse of corruption, especially spot-fixing.
All of the above are important and no doubt Colin Cowdrey, a cricketing
legend with a deep affection for the game, would have strong opinions
about them all.
For the record, I do too: I strongly believe that we have reached a
critical juncture in the game's history and that unless we better sustain
Test cricket, embrace technology enthusiastically, protect the game's
global governance from narrow self-interest, and more aggressively root
out corruption then cricket will face an uncertain future.
But, while these would all be interesting topics, deep down inside me I
wanted to share with you a story, the story of Sri Lanka's cricket, a
journey that I am sure Colin would have enjoyed greatly because I don't
believe any cricket-playing nation in the world today better highlights
the potential of cricket to be more than just a game.
This lecture is all about the Spirit of the Game and in this regard the
story of cricket in Sri Lanka is fascinating. Cricket in Sri Lanka is no
longer just a sport: it is a shared passion that is a source of fun and a
force for unity. It is a treasured sport that occupies a celebrated place
in our society.
It is remarkable that in a very short period an alien game has become our
national obsession, played and followed with almost fanatical passion and
love. A game that brings the nation to a standstill; a sport so powerful
it is capable of transcending war and politics.
I therefore decided that tonight I would like to talk about the Spirit of
Sri Lanka's cricket.
The spirit and history of Sri Lanka and its cricket
Ladies and Gentleman, the history of my country extends over 2500 years.
A beautiful island situated in an advantageously strategic position in the
Indian Ocean has long attracted the attentions of the world at times to
both our disadvantage and at times to our advantage.
Sri Lanka is land rich in natural beauty and resources augmented by a
wonderfully resilient and vibrant and hospitable people whose attitude to
life has been shaped by volatile politics both internal and from without.
In our history you will find periods of glorious peace and prosperity and
times of great strife, war and violence. Sri Lankans have been hardened by
experience and have shown themselves to be a resilient and proud society
celebrating at all times our zest for life and living.
Sri Lankans are a close knit community. The strength of the family unit
reflects the spirit of our communities. We are an inquisitive and
fun-loving people, smiling defiantly in the face of hardship and raucously
celebrating times of prosperity.
Living not for tomorrow, but for today and savouring every breath of our
daily existence. We are fiercely proud of our heritage and culture; the
ordinary Sri Lankan standing tall and secure in that knowledge.
Over four hundred years of colonization by the Portuguese, the Dutch and
the British has failed to crush or temper our indomitable spirit. And yet
in this context the influence upon our recent history and society by the
introduced sport of cricket is surprising and noteworthy.
Sri Lankans for centuries have fiercely resisted the Westernisation of our
society, at times summarily dismissing western tradition and influence as
evil and detrimental.
Yet cricket, somehow, managed to slip through the crack in our
anti-Western defences and has now become the most precious heirloom of our
British Colonial inheritance.
Maybe it is a result of our simple sense of hospitality where a guest is
treated to all that we have and at times even to what we don't have.
If you a visit a rural Sri Lankan home and you are served a cup of tea you
will find it to be intolerably sweet. I have at times experienced this and
upon further inquiry have found that it is because the hosts believe that
the guest is entitled to more of everything including the sugar. In homes
where sugar is an ill-affordable luxury a guest will still have sugary tea
while the hosts go without.
Fittingly, as it happens, Colin Cowdrey and Sri Lanka's love for cricket
had similar origins: Tea.
Colin's father, Ernest, was a tea planter in India. While he was schooled
in England, he played on his father's plantation where I am told he used
to practice with Indian boys several years his elder.
Introducing cricket to Sri Lanka
Cricket was introduced to Ceylon by men like Ernest, English tea planters,
during the Colonial period of occupation that covered a span of about 150
years from 1796.
Credit for the game's establishment in Sri Lanka, though, also has to be
given to the Anglican missionaries to whom the colonial government left
the function of establishing the educational institutions.
By the latter half of the 19th century there grew a large group of Sri
Lankan families who accumulated wealth by making use of the commercial
opportunities thrown open by the colonial government.
However a majority of these families could not gain any high social
recognition due to the prevalence of a rigid hierarchal caste system which
labelled them until death to the caste they were born into. A possible way
out to escape the caste stigma was to pledge their allegiance to the
British crown and help the central seat of government.
The missionaries, assessing the situation wisely, opened superior fee
levying English schools especially in Colombo for the affluent children of
all races, castes and religions.
By the dawn of the 20th Century the introduction of cricket to this
educational system was automatic as the game had already ingrained into
the English life; as Neville Cardus says "without cricket there can be no
summer in that land."
Cricket was an expensive game needing playgrounds, equipment and coaches.
The British missionaries provided all such facilities to these few
schools. Cricket became an instant success in this English school system.
Most Sri Lankans considered cricket beyond their reach because it was
confined to the privileged schools meant for the affluent.
The missionaries in due course arranged inter colligate matches backed by
newspaper publicity to become a popular weekend social event to attend.
The newspapers carried all the details about the cricket matches played in
the country and outside. As a result school boy cricketers became
household names. The newspapers also gave prominent coverage to English
county cricket and it had been often said that the Ceylonese knew more of
county cricket than the English themselves.
Cricket clubs were formed around the dawn of the 20th century, designed to
cater for the school leavers of affluent colleges. The clubs bore communal
names like the Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC), Tamil Union, Burgher
Recreation and the Moors Club, but if they were considered together they
were all uniformly cultured with Anglicized values.
Inter-club matches were played purely for enjoyment as a sport. Club
cricket also opened opportunities for the locals to mix socially with the
British. So when Britain granted independence to Ceylon in 1948 it is no
wonder cricket was a passion of the elitist class.
Although in the immediate post- independent period the Anglicized elite
class was a small minority, they were pro-western in their political
ideology and remained a powerful political lobby.
In the general elections immediately after independence, pro-elite
governments were elected and the three Prime Ministers who headed the
governments had played First XI cricket for premier affluent colleges and
had been the members of SSC.
The period between 1960 and 1981 was one of slow progress in the game's
popularity as the power transferred from the Anglicized elite to rising
Socialist and Nationalist groups.
Nevertheless, Sri Lanka was made an associate member of the ICC in 1965,
gaining the opportunity to play unofficial test matches with players like
Michael Tissera and Anura Tennakoon impressing as genuine world-class
In 1981, thanks to the efforts of the late Honourable Gamini Dissanyake,
the ICC granted Sri Lanka official Test status. It was obviously a pivotal
time in our cricketing history. This was the start of a transformation of
cricket from an elite sport to a game for the masses.
1983 Race Riots and the aftermath
I do not remember this momentous occasion as a child. Maybe because I was
only five years old, but also because it wasn't a topic that dominated
conversation: the early 1980's was dominated by the escalation of
militancy in the north into a full scale civil war that was to mar the
next 30 years.
The terrible race riots of 1983 and a bloody communist insurgency amongst
the youth was to darken my memories of my childhood and the lives of all
I recollect now the race riots of 1983 now with horror, but for the simple
imagination of a child not yet six it was a time of extended play and fun.
I do not say this lightly as about 35 of our closest friends, all Tamils,
took shelter in our home. They needed sanctuary from vicious
politically-motivated goon squads and my father, like many other brave Sri
Lankans from different ethnic backgrounds, opened his houses at great
For me, though, it was a time where I had all my friends to play with all
day long. The schools were closed and we'd play sport for hour after hour
in the backyard – cricket, football, rounders…it was a child's dream come
true. I remember getting annoyed when agame would be rudely interrupted by
my parents and we'd all be ushered inside, hidden upstairs with our
friends and ordered to be silent as the goon squads started searching
homes in our neighbourhood.
I did not realise the terrible consequences of my friends being discovered
and my father reminded me the other day of how one day during that period
I turned to him and in all innocence said: "Is this going to happen every
year as it is so much fun having all my friends live with us."
The JVP insurgency
The JVP-led Communist insurgency rising out of our universities was
equally horrific in the late 1980s. Shops, schools and universities were
closed. People rarely stepped out of their homes in the evenings. The
sight of charred bodies on the roadsides and floating corpses in the river
was terrifyingly commonplace.
People who defied the JVP faced dire consequences. They even urged
students of all schools to walk out and march in support of their aims.
I was fortunate to be at Trinity College, one of the few schools that
defied their dictates. Yet I was living just below Dharmaraja College
where the students who walked out of its gates were met with tear gas and
I would see students running down the hill to wash their eyes out with
water from our garden tap.
My first cricket coach, Mr D.H. De Silva, a wonderful human being who
coached tennis and cricket to students free of charge, was shot on the
tennis coat by insurgents. Despite being hit in the abdomen twice, he
miraculously survived when the gun held to his head jammed. Like many
during and after that period, he fled overseas and started a new life in
As the decade progressed, the fighting in the north and east had
heightened to a full scale war. The Sri Lankan government was fighting the
terrorist LTTE in a war that would drag our country's development back by
This war affected the whole of our land in different ways. Families,
usually from the lower economic classes, sacrificed their young men and
women by the thousands in the service of Sri Lanka's military.
Even Colombo, a capital city that seemed far removed from the war's
frontline, was under siege by the terrorists using powerful vehicle and
Bombs in public places targeting both civilians and political targets
became an accepted risk of daily life in Sri Lanka. Parents travelling to
work by bus would split up and travel separately so that if one of them
died the other will return to tend to the family. Each and every Sri
Lankan was touched by the brutality of that conflict.
People were disillusioned with politics and power and war. They were
fearful of an uncertain future. The cycle of violence seemed unending. Sri
Lanka became famous for its war and conflict.
It was a bleak time where we as a nation looked for inspiration – a
miracle that would lift the pallid gloom and show us what we as a country
were capable of if united as one, a beacon of hope to illuminate the
potential of our peoples.
That inspiration was to come in 1996.
The new inspiration
The pre-1995 era was a period during which Sri Lanka produced many fine
cricketers but struggled to break free of the old colonial influences that
had indoctrinated the way the game was played in Sri Lanka.
Even after gaining Test Status in 1981, Sri Lanka's cricket suffered from
an identity crisis and there was far too little "Sri Lankan" in the way we
played our cricket.
Although there were exceptions, one being the much-talked about
Sathasivam, who was a flamboyant and colourful cricketer, both on and off
the field. He was cricketer in whose hand they say the bat was like a
magic wand. Another unique batsman was Duleep Mendis, now our chief
selector, who batted with swashbuckling bravado.
Generally, though, we played cricket by the book, copying the orthodox and
conservative styles of the traditional cricketing powerhouses. There was
none of the live-for-the moment and happy-go-lucky attitudes that underpin
our own identity.
We had a competitive team, with able players, but we were timid, soft and
did not yet fully believe in our own worth as individual players or as a
I guess we were in many ways like the early West Indian teams: Calypso
cricketers, who played the game as entertainers and lost more often than
not albeit gracefully.
What we needed at the time was a leader. A cricketer from the masses who
had the character, the ability and above all the courage and gall to
change a system, to stand in the face of unfavourable culture and
tradition, unafraid to put himself on the line for the achievement of a
This much-awaited messiah arrived in the form of an immensely talented and
slightly rotund Arjuna Ranatunga. He was to change the entire history of
our cricketing heritage converting the game that we loved in to a shared
fanatical passion that over 20 million people embraced as their own
Arjuna Ranatunga's Leadership
The leadership of Arjuna during this period was critical to our emergence
as a global force. It was Arjuna who understood most clearly why we needed
to break free from the shackles of our colonial past and forge a new
identity, an identity forged exclusively from Sri Lankan values, an
identity that fed from the passion, vibrancy and emotion of normal Sri
Arjuna was a man hell-bent on making his own mark on the game in Sri
Lanka, determined to break from foreign tradition and forge a new national
brand of cricket.
Coming from Ananda College to the SSC proved to be a culture shock for
him. SSC was dominated by students from St. Thomas' and Royal College, the
two most elite schools in Colombo. The club's committee, membership and
even the composition of the team was dominated by these elite schools.
Arjuna himself has spoken about how alien the culture felt and how
difficult it was for him to adjust to try and fit in. As a 15-year-old
school kid practising in the nets at the club, a senior stalwart of the
club inquired about him. When told he was from the unfashionable Ananda
College, he dismissed his obvious talents immediately: "We don't want any
"Sarong Johnnie's" in this club."
As it turned out, Arjuna not only went to captain SSC for many years, he
went onto break the stranglehold the elite schools had on the game.
His goal was to impart in the team self-belief, to give us a backbone and
a sense of self-worth that would inspire the team to look the opposition
in the eye and stand equal, to compete without self-doubt or fear, to defy
unhealthy traditions and to embrace our own Sri Lankan identity. He led
fearlessly with unquestioned authority, but in a calm and collected manner
that earned him the tag Captain Cool.
The first and most important foundation for our charge towards 1996 was
laid. In this slightly over-weight and unfit southpaw, Sri Lanka had a
brilliant general who for the first time looked to all available corners
of our country to pick and choose his troops.
Picking unorthodox players
Arjuna better than anyone at the time realised that we needed an edge and
in that regard he searched for players whose talents were so unique that
when refined they would mystify and destroy the opposition.
In cricket, timing is everything. This proved to be true for the Sri
Lankan team as well. We as a nation must be ever so thankful to the
parents of Sanath Jayasuriya and Muthhih Muralidaran for having sired
these two legends to serve our cricket at its time of greatest need.
From Matara came Sanath, a man from a humble background with an immense
talent that was raw and without direction or refinement. A talent under
the guidance of Arjuna that was harnessed to become one of the most
destructive batting forces the game has ever known. It was talent never
seen before and now with his retirement never to be seen again.
Murali came from the hills of Kandy from a more affluent background.
Starting off as a fast bowler and later changing to spin, he was blessed
with a natural deformity in his bowling arm allowing him to impart so much
spin on the ball that it spun at unthinkable angles. He brought wrist spin
to off spin.
Arjuna's team was now in place and it was an impressive pool of talent,
but they were not yet a team. Although winning the 1996 World Cup was a
long-term goal, they needed to find a rallying point, a uniting factor
that gave them a sense of "team", a cause to fight for, an event that not
will not only bind the team together giving them a common focus but also
rally the entire support of a nation for the team and its journey.
This came on Boxing Day at the MCG in 1995. Few realised it at the time,
but the no balling of Murali for alleged chucking had far-reaching
consequences. The issue raised the ire of the entire Sri Lankan nation.
Murali was no longer alone. His pain, embarrassment and anger were shared
by all. No matter what critics say, the manner in which Arjuna and team
stood behind Murali made an entire nation proud. In that moment Sri Lanka
adopted the cricketers simply as "our boys" or "Ape Kollo".
Gone was the earlier detachment of the Sri Lankan cricket fan and its
place was a new found love for those 15 men. They became our sons, our
brothers. Sri Lankans stood with them and shared their trials and
The decision to no ball Murali in Melbourne was, for all Sri Lankans, an
insult that would not be allowed to pass unavenged. It was the catalyst
that spurred the Sri Lankan team on to do the unthinkable, become World
Champions just 14 years after obtaining full ICC status.
It is also important to mention that prior to 1981 more than 80% of the
national players came from elite English schools, but by 1996 the same
schools did not contribute a single player to the 1996 World Cup squad.
The 1996 World Cup
The impact of that World Cup victory was enormous, both broadening the
game's grassroots as well as connecting all Sri Lankans with one shared
For the first time, children from outstations and government schools were
allowed to make cricket their own. Cricket was opened up to the masses
this unlocked the door for untapped talent to not only gain exposure but
have a realistic chance of playing the game at the highest level.
These new grassroots cricketers brought with them the attributes of normal
Sri Lankans, playing the game with a passion, joy and intensity that had
hitherto been missing.
They had watched Sanath, Kalu, Murali and Aravinda play a brand of cricket
that not only changed the concept of one day cricket but was also
instantly identifiable as being truly Sri Lankan.
We were no longer timid or soft or minnows. We had played and beaten the
best in the world.
We had done that without pretence or shame in a manner that highlighted
and celebrated our national values, our collective cultures and habits. It
was a brand of cricket we were proud to call our own, a style with local
spirit and flair embodying all that was good in our heritage.
The World Cup win gave us a new strength to understand our place in our
society as cricketers. In the World Cup a country found a new beginning; a
new inspiration upon which to build their dreams of a better future for
Sri Lanka. Here were 15 individuals from different backgrounds, races, and
religions, each fiercely proud of his own individuality and yet they
united not just a team but a family.
Fighting for a common national cause representing the entirety of our
society, providing a shining example to every Sri Lankan showing them with
obvious clarity what it was to be truly Sri Lankan.
The 1996 World Cup gave all Sri Lankans a commonality, one point of
collective joy and ambition that gave a divided society true national
identity and was to be the panacea that healed all social evils and would
stand the country in good stead through terrible natural disasters and a
tragic civil war.
The 1996 World Cup win inspired people to look at their country
differently. The sport overwhelmed terrorism and political strife; it
provided something that everyone held dear to their hearts and helped
normal people get through their lives.
The team also became a microcosm of how Sri Lankan society should be with
players from different backgrounds, ethnicities and religions sharing
their common joy, their passion and love for each other and their
Regardless of war, here we were playing together. The Sri Lanka team
became a harmonising factor.
Being World Champions and becoming rich
After the historic win the entire game of cricket in Sri Lanka was
Television money started to pour into the cricket board's coffers. Large
national and multinational corporations fought for sponsorship rights.
Cricketers started to earn real money both in the form of national
contracts and endorsement deals. For the first time cricketers were on
billboards and television advertising products,advertising anything from
sausages to cellular networks.
Cricket became a viable profession and cricketers were both icons and role
Personally, the win was very important for me. Until that time I was
playing cricket with no real passion or ambition. I never thought or
dreamed of playing for my country. This changed when I watched Sri Lanka
play Kenya at Asgiriya. It was my final year in school and the first seed
of my vision to play for my country was planted in my brain and heart when
I witnessed Sanath, Gurasinghe and Aravinda produce a devastating display
of batting. That seed of ambition spurted into life when, a couple of
weeks later I watched on television that glorious final in Lahore.
Everyone in Sri Lanka remembers where they were during that final.
The cheering of a nation was a sound no bomb or exploding shell could
drown. Cricket became an integral and all-important aspect of our national
Our cricket embodied everything in our lives, our laughter and tears, our
hospitality our generosity, our music our food and drink. It was normality
and hope and inspiration in a war-ravaged island. In it was our culture
and heritage, enriched by our myriad ethnicities andreligions. In it we
were untouched, at least for a while, by petty politics and division. It
is indeed a pity that life is not cricket. If it were we would not have
seen the festering wounds of an ignorant war.
The emergence of cricket and the new role of cricket within Sri Lankan
society also meant that cricketers had bigger responsibilities than merely
playing on the field.
We needed to live positive lifestyles off the field and we need to also
give back. The same people that applaud us every game need us to
contribute back positively to their lives. We needed to inspire not just
on the field but also off it.
The Tsunami was one such event. The death and destruction left in its wake
was a blow our country could not afford. We were in New Zealand playing
our first ODI.
We had played badly and were sitting disappointed in the dressing room
when, as usual, Sanath's phone started beeping. He read the SMS and told
us a strange thing had just happened back home where "waves from the sea
had flooded some areas".
Initially we weren't too worried, assuming that it must have been a freak
tide. It was only when we were back in the hotel watching the news
coverage that we realized the magnitude of the devastation.
It was horrifying to watch footage of the waves sweeping through coastal
towns and washing away in the blink of an eye the lives of thousands. We
could not believe that it happened. We called home to check what is
happening. "Is it true?" we asked. "How can the pictures be real?" we
All we wanted to do was to go back home to be our families and stand
together with our people. I remember landing at the airport on 31
December, a night when the whole of Colombo is normally light-up for the
festivities, a time of music and laughter. But the town was empty and
dark, the mood depressed and silent with sorrow.
While we were thinking as to how we could help, Murali was quick to
provide the inspiration.
Murali is a guy who has been pulled from all sides during his career, but
he's always stood only alongside his team-mates and countrymen. Without
any hesitation, he was on the phone to his contacts both local and foreign
and in a matter of days along with the World Food Programme he had
organised container loads of basic necessities of food, water and clothing
to be distributed to the affected areas and people.
Amazingly, refusing to delegate the responsibility of distribution to the
concerned authorities, he took it upon himself to accompany the convoys.
It was my good fortune to be invited to join him. My wife and I along with
Mahela, Ruchira Perera, our physio CJ Clark and many other volunteers
drove alongside the aid convoys towards an experience that changed me as a
We based ourselves in Polonnaruwa, just north of Dambulla, driving daily
to visit tsunami-ravaged coastal towns like Trincomalee and Batticaloa, as
well as southern towns like Galle and Hambantota on later visits.
We visited shelter camps run by the Army and the LTTE and even some
administered in partnership between them. Two bitter warring factions
brought together to help people in a time of need.
In each camp we saw the effects of the tragedy written upon the faces of
the young and old. Vacant and empty eyes filled with a sorrow and longing
for homes and loved ones and livelihoods lost to the terrible waves.
Yet for us, their cricketers, they managed a smile. In the Kinniya Camp
just south of Trincomalee, the first response of the people who had lost
so much was to ask us if our families were okay. They had heard that
Sanath and Upul Chandana's mothers were injured and they inquired about
their health. They did not exaggerate their own plight nor did they wallow
in it. Their concern was equal for all those around them.
This was true in all the camps we visited. Through their devastation shone
the Sri Lankan spirit of indomitable resilience, of love, compassion,
generosity and hospitality and gentleness. This is the same spirit in
which we play our cricket. In this, our darkest hour, a country stood
together in support and love for each other, united and strong.
I experienced all this and vowed to myself that never would I be tempted
to abuse the privilege that these very people had given me. The honour and
responsibility of representing them on the field, playing a game they
loved and adored.
The role the cricketers played in their personal capacities for post
tsunami relief and re building was worthy of the trust the people of a
nation had in them. Murali again stands out.
His Seenigama project with his manager Kushil Gunasekera, which I know the
MCC has supported, which included the rebuilding of over 1000 homes, was
The Terror in Lahore
I was fortunate that during my life I never experienced violence in Sri
Lanka first hand. They have been so many bomb explosions over the years
but I was never in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In Colombo, apart from these occasional bombs, life was relatively normal.
People had the luxury of being physically detached from the war. Children
went to school, people went to work, I played my cricket.
In other parts of the country, though, people were putting their lives in
harm's way every day either in the defence of their motherland or just
trying to survive the geographical circumstances that made them inhabit a
For them, avoiding bullets, shells, mines and grenades, was imperative for
survival. This was an experience that I could not relate to. I had great
sympathy and compassion for them, but had no real experience with which I
could draw parallels.
That was until we toured Pakistan in 2009. We set-off to play two Tests in
Karachi and Lahore. The first Test played on a featherbed, past without
The second Test was also meandering along with us piling up a big first
innings when we departed for the ground on day three. Having been asked to
leave early instead of waiting for the Pakistan bus, we were anticipating
a day of hard toil for the bowlers.
At the back of the bus the fast bowlers were loud in their complaints. I
remember Thilan Thushara being particularly vocal, complaining that his
back was near breaking point. He joked that he wished a bomb would go off
so we could all leave Lahore and go back home.
Not thirty seconds had passed when we heard what sounded like fire
crackers going off. Suddenly a shout came from the front: "Get down they
are shooting at the bus."
The reaction was immediate. Everyone dived for cover and took shelter on
the aisle or behindthe seats. With very little space, we were all lying on
top of each other.
Then the bullets started to hit. It was like rain on a tin roof. The bus
was at a standstill, an easy target for the gunmen.
As bullets started bursting through the bus all we could do was stay still
and quiet, hoping and praying to avoid death or injury.
Suddenly Mahela, who sits at the back of the bus, shouts saying he thinks
he has been hit in the shin. I am lying next to Tilan. He groans in pain
as a bullet hits him in the back of his thigh.
As I turn my head to look at him I feel something whizz past my ear and a
bullet thuds into the side of the seat, the exact spot where my head had
been a few seconds earlier.
I feel something hit my shoulder and it goes numb. I know I had been hit,
but I was just relieved and praying I was not going to be hit in the head.
Tharanga Paranvithana, on his debut tour, is also next to me. He stands
up, bullets flying all around him, shouting "I have been hit" as he holds
his blood-soaked chest. He collapsed onto his seat, apparently
I see him and I think: "Oh my God, you were out first ball, run out the
next innings and now you have been shot. What a terrible first tour."
It is strange how clear your thinking is. I did not see my life flash by.
There was no insane panic. There was absolute clarity and awareness of
what was happening at that moment.
I hear the bus roar in to life and start to move. Dilshan is screaming at
the driver: "Drive, Drive". We speed up, swerve and are finally inside the
safety of the stadium.
There is a rush to get off the bus. Tharanga Paranawithana stands up. He
is still bleeding and has a bullet lodged lightly in his sternum, the body
of the bus tempering its velocity enough to be stopped by the bone.
Tilan is helped off the bus. In the dressing room there is a mixture of
emotions: anger, relief, joy. Players and coaching staff are being
examined by paramedics. Tilan and Paranavithana are taken by ambulance to
We all sit in the dressing room and talk. Talk about what happened. Within
minutes there is laughter and the jokes have started to flow. We have for
the first time been a target of violence. We had survived.
We all realized that what some of our fellow Sri Lankans experienced every
day for nearly 30 years. There was a new respect and awe for their courage
It is notable how quickly we got over that attack on us. Although we were
physically injured, mentally we held strong.
A few hours after the attack we were airlifted to the Lahore Air Force Base.
Ajantha Mendis, his head swathed in bandages after multiple shrapnel
wounds, suggests a game of Poker. Tilan has been brought back, sedated but
fully conscious, to be with us and we make jokes at him and he smiles
We were shot at, grenades were thrown at us, we were injured and yet we
were not cowed.
We were not down and out. "We are Sri Lankan," we thought to ourselves,
"and we are tough and we will get through hardship and we will overcome
because our spirit is strong."
This is what the world saw in our interviews immediately after the attack:
we were calm, collected, and rational. Our emotions held true to our role
as unofficial ambassadors.
Arrival in Colombo
A week after our arrival in Colombo from Pakistan I was driving about town
and was stopped at a checkpoint. A soldier politely inquired as to my
health after the attack. I said I was fine and added that what they as
soldiers experience every day we only experienced for a few minutes, but
managed to grab all the news headlines. That soldier looked me in the eye
and replied: "It is OK if I die because it is my job and I am ready for
it. But you are a hero and if you were to die it would be a great loss for
I was taken aback. How can this man value his life less than mine? His
sincerity was overwhelming. I felt humbled.
This is the passion that cricket and cricketers evoke in Sri Lankans. This
is the love that I strive every-day of my career to be worthy of.
Politics kreeps in after 1996
Coming back to our cricket, the World Cup also brought less welcome
changes with the start of detrimental cricket board politics and the
transformation our cricket administration from a volunteer-led
organisation run by well-meaning men of integrity into a multi-million
dollar organisation that has been in turmoil ever since.
In Sri Lanka, cricket and politics have been synonymous. The efforts of
Hon. Gamini Dissanayake were instrumental in getting Sri Lanka Test
Status. He also was instrumental in building the Asgiriya international
In the infancy of our cricket it was impossible to sustain the game
without state patronage and funding.
When Australia and West Indies refused to come to our country for the
World Cup it was through government channels that the combined World
Friendship XI came and played in Colombo to show the world that it was
safe to play cricket here.
The importance of cricket to our society meant that at all times it enjoys
benevolent state patronage.
For Sri Lanka to be able to select a national team it must have membership
of the Sports Ministry. No team can be fielded without the final approval
of the Sports Minister. It is indeed a unique system where the
board-appointed selectors can at any time be overruled and asked to
reselect a side already chosen.
The Sports Minister can also exercise his unique powers to dissolve the
cricket board if investigations reveal corruption or financial
With the victory in 1996 came money and power to the board and players.
Players from within the team itself became involved in power games within
the board. Officials elected to power in this way in turn manipulated
player loyalty to achieve their own ends. At times board politics would
spill over in to the team causing rift, ill feeling and distrust.
Accountability and transparency in administration and credibility of
conduct were lost in a mad power struggle that would leave Sri Lankan
cricket with no consistent and clear administration. Presidents and
elected executive committees would come and go; government-picked interim
committees would be appointed and dissolved.
After 1996 the cricket board has been controlled and administered by a
handful of well-meaning individuals either personally or by proxy rotated
in and out depending on appointment or election. Unfortunately to
consolidate and perpetuate their power they opened the door of the
administration to partisan cronies that would lead to corruption and
wonton waste of cricket board finances and resources.
It was and still is confusing. Accusations of vote buying and rigging,
player interference due to lobbying from each side and even violence at
the AGMs, including the brandishing of weapons and ugly fist fights, have
characterised cricket board elections for as long as I can remember.
The team lost the buffer between itself and the cricket administration.
Players had become used to approaching members in power directly trading
favours for mutual benefits and by 1999 all these changes in
administration and player attitudes had transformed what was a close knit
unit in 1996 into a collection of individuals with no shared vision or
sense of team.
The World Cup that followed in England in 1999 was a debacle: a first
Fortunately, though, the disastrous performance of the team proved to be a
catalyst for further change within the dynamics of the Sri Lanka Cricket
A new mix of players and a nice blend of youth and experience provided the
context in which the old hierarchical structures within the team were
dismantled in the decade that followed under the more consensual and
inclusive leadership of Sanath, Marvan and Mahela.
In the new team culture forged since 1999, individuals are accepted. The
only thing that matters is commitment and discipline to the team.
Individuality and internal debate are welcome. Respect is not demanded but
earned. There was a new commitment towards keeping the team from board
turmoil. It has been difficult to fully exclude it from our team dynamics
because there are constant efforts to drag us back and in times of
weakness and doubt players have crossed the line. Still we have managed to
protect and motivate our collective efforts towards one goal: winning on
We have to aspire to better administration. The administration needs to
adopt the same values enshrined by the team over the years: integrity,
transparency, commitment and discipline.
Unless the administration is capable of becoming more professional,
forward-thinking and transparent then we risk alienating the common man.
Indeed, this is already happening. Loyal fans are becoming increasingly
disillusioned. This is very dangerous because it is not the administrators
or players that sustain the game– it is the cricket-loving public. It is
their passion that powers cricket and if they turn their backs on cricket
then the whole system will come crashing down.
The solution to this may be the ICC taking a stand to suspend member
boards with any direct detrimental political interference and allegations
of corruption and mismanagement. This will negate the ability to field
representative teams or receive funding and other accompanying benefits
from the ICC. But as a Sri Lankan I hope we have the strength to find the
While the team structure and culture itself was slowly evolving, our
on-field success was primarily driven by the sheer talent and spirit of
the uniquely talented players unearthed in recent times, players like
Murali, Sanath, Aravinda, Mahela and Lasith.
Although our school cricket structure is extremely strong, our club
structure remains archaic. With players diluted among 20 clubs it does not
enable the national coaching staff to easily identify and funnel talented
players through for further development.
Looking for Talent and restructuring
The lack of competitiveness of the club tournament does not lend itself to
producing hardened first class professionals.
Various attempts to change this structure to condense and improve have
been resisted by the administration and the clubs concerned, the main
reason for this being that any elected cricket board that offended these
clubs runs the risk of losing their votes come election time.
At the same time, the instability of our administration is a huge
stumbling block to the rapid face-change that we need. Indeed, it is
amazing that that despite this system we are able to produce so many
However, the irony to this is that perhaps our biggest weakness has been
our greatest strength. It is partly because of the lack of structure we
are fortunate that the guys likes Lasith / Sanath / Murali and Mendis have
escaped formalised textbook coaching. Had they been exposed to orthodox
coaching then there is a very good chance that their skills would have
been blunted. In all probability they would have been coached into
Nevertheless, despite abundant natural talent, we need to change our
cricketing structure, we need to be more Sri Lankan rather than selfish,
we need to condense our cricketing structure and ensure the that the best
players are playing against each other at all times.
We need to do this with an open mind, allowing both innovative thinking
and free expression. In some respects we are doing that already,
especially our coaching department anyway, which actively searches out for
We have recognised and learnt that our cricket is stronger when it is
free-spirited and we therefore encourage players to express themselves and
be open to innovation.
There was a recent case where the national coaches were tipped off by a
district coach running a bowling camp in the outstations. He'd discovered
a volleyball player who ran to the crease slowly but then delivered the
ball while in mid-air with a smash-like leap. His leap would land him
quite a way down the pitch in the follow through. The district coach
video-recorded his bowling for half an hour. National coaches in Colombo
having watched the footage invited him out of curiosity a week later to
come for formal training. The telephone call found him in a hospital bed
tending a strained back as he had never bowled for such a long period as
30 minutes before in his life.
A monk playing circket!
Another letter postmarked from a remote village in Sri Lanka had the
writer claiming to be the fastest undiscovered bowler in Sri Lanka. A
district coach investigating this claim found the writer to be a teenage
Buddhist priest who insisted upon giving a demonstration of bowling while
still dressed in his Saffron-coloured robes. Cricket in Sri Lanka tempts
even the most chaste and holy.
On that occasion the interest in unique talent did not yield results. But
the coaching staff will persevere in their search to unearth the next
mystery bowler or cricketer who will take our cricket further forward.
If we are able to seize the moment then the future of Sri Lanka's cricket
remains very bright. I pray we do because cricket has such an important
role to play in our island's future.
Cricket played a crucial role during the dark days of Sri Lanka's civil
war, a period of enormous suffering for all communities, but the conduct
and performance of the team will have even greater importance as we enter
a crucial period of reconciliation and recovery, an exciting period where
all Sri Lankans aspire to peace and unity. It is also an exciting period
for cricket where the re-integration of isolated communities in the north
and east opens up new talent pools.
Cricket is a guiding spirit for the future
The spirit of cricket can and should remain and guiding force for good
within society, providing entertain and fun, but also a shining example to
all of how we all should approach our lives.
The war is now over. Sri Lanka looks towards a new future of peace and
prosperity. I am eternally grateful for this. It means that my children
will grow up without war and violence being a daily part of our lives.
They will learn of its horrors not first-hand but perhaps in history class
or through conversations for it is important that they understand and
appreciate the great and terrible price our country and our people paid
for the freedom and security they now enjoy.
In our cricket we display a unique spirit, a spirit enriched by lessons
learned from a history spanning over two-and-a-half millennia. In our
cricket you see the character of our people, our history, culture and
tradition, our laughter, our joy, our tears and regrets. It is rich in
emotion and talent. My responsibility as a Sri Lankan cricketer is to
further enrich this beautiful sport, to add to it and enhance it and to
leave a richer legacy for other cricketers to follow.
I will do that keeping paramount in my mind my Sri Lankan identity: play
the game hard and fair and be a voice with which Sri Lanka can speak
proudly and positively to the world. My loyalty will be to the ordinary
Sri Lankan fan, their 20 million hearts beating collectively as one to our
island rhythm and filled with an undying and ever-loyal love for this our
Fans of different races, castes, ethnicities and religions who together
celebrate their diversity by uniting for a common national cause. They are
my foundation, they are my family. I will play my cricket for them. Their
spirit is the true spirit of cricket. With me are all my people. I am
Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim and Burgher. I am a Buddhist, a Hindu, a follower
of Islam and Christianity. I am today, and always, proudly Sri Lankan.