Tensions and Tales from Sri Lankan Cricket: An Essay from 2009

Michael Roberts, being a reprint of an article entitled “Wunderkidz in a Blunderland: tensions and tales from Sri Lankan cricket,” that appeared in Sport in Society Vol. 12, No. 4/5, May–June 2009, 566–5 … with emphasis added by highlighting in blue and/or red.

The story of Sri Lankan cricket is a tale of great cricketing success within the context of a polity struggling with civil war and great levels of internal violence. Cricket is the one arena in Sri Lankan public culture where Tamils and Sinhalese, locked in a bloody civil war for decades, come together on a national public platform. From being reviled as a Western import in the early years of independence to its gradual embrace and penetration of new catchment areas in less affluent and more rural areas, the story of Sri Lankan cricket in many ways mirrors the development of the post-colonial Sri Lankan nation. This essay fleshes out prominent themes in the history of Sri Lankan cricket within the context of the major socio-political developments in twentieth century Sri Lanka.

 Sri Lankan cricketers celebrate their defeat of Australia  on 17th  March 1996 with the treasured World Cup in their hands

Wunderkidz in Blunderland: The two metaphors in juxtaposition place the achievements of the Sri Lankan cricketers, wunderkidz in qualified measure, within the encompassing context of a blundering polity. The achievements can be marked by reference to cricketing records: Sri Lankan teams have produced the highest Test total, the two biggest Test partnerships, the Bradman among Test match bowlers (according to Neville Turner’s evaluation – two years ago – because of Muthiah Muralitharan’s achievement of taking 5 wickets 57 times),1 and most notably the manner in which Arjuna Ranatunga’s team swept to victory at the 1996 World Cup. But more significant than such episodes is the fact that Sri Lanka has been in the throes of an ethnic civil war from 1983 to the present, besides going through a nativist-Leftist insurgency in the southern areas which amounted to a civil war among the Sinhalese during the period 1987–90. This meant that the cricketers lost home country advantage from mid-1987 to 1992; while on at least two occasions foreign tours have been aborted because of major bomb attacks in Colombo effected by the Tamil militants who had the advantages afforded by a considerable Tamil population in the metropolitan environs (perhaps as much as 24% of its population) with substantial segments sympathetic to their cause.

This turbulent context has been compounded by Sri Lanka’s system of cricket governance. A board elected annually by the cricketing clubs was set up in 1948. This scheme did not matter too much in the era when cricket bosses sometimes had to dip into their own pockets to help the cricket board’s parlous finances. But once the coffers expanded exponentially after 1996, entrepreneurs were attracted to the post of President, Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka (now known as Sri Lanka Cricket or SLC) and have been able to manipulate the elections through a spoils system that set up oligarchic regimes. On top of that the government has stepped in on two occasions to insert gentlemen of its own choice in Interim Committees. The overall outcome has been a game of musical chairs in governance, sometimes aggravated by ministerial whim or changes in the country’s government after elections.2 Changes in cricketing board, of course, mean changes in Selection Committee and its policies. It is therefore a marvel that the cricket team has been competitive in the field during the years 1996–2005, especially when playing at home and, since 2006, even abroad.

However, this does not mean that the previous era was a gentlemen’s paradise. It had its share of conspiracies and tensions in the six decades since 1948.3 A detailed history, episode by episode, is not attempted here. What is presented is a selective outline of some significant strands without any claim to comprehensive coverage. To begin with I highlight nine themes – some intertwined and overlapping with each other. These are not taken up in temporal sequence, but straddle the period 1948–2007 in a logical order deriving from an arbitrary starting point that is an overview anchored in 2005/07.

 The Saravanamuttus and Sathasivam in relaxed mood (in the (1940s?) with you-know-WHAT in their hands

 Captain Sathasivam leads the Ceylon team into the field vs Bradman’s Aussies, 27March 1948

    I

From the 1960s there has been a process that has progressively reduced the dominance that had been exercised previously at the top-level of cricket by largely English-speaking elites centred within Colombo, a development involving the penetration of these ranks by players from elite Sinhala-speaking schools in Colombo and lesser-known schools along the western seaboard. From the 1970s – and the 1990s in particular – there has been a further broadening to encompass a wide variety of schools in the south-western quadrant which has Kandy and Kurunägala at its north eastern edges.

       II

Despite the game’s spread, partly for reasons of distance, the schools in the south eastern, eastern, north central and northern areas have still in 2007 to produce a noticeable number of top players. For the Tamil-speaking eastern littoral and the Northern Province, of course, the outbreak of war from 1983 meant that cricket was of declining interest and mostly impossible. When C. E. Anandarajah, Principal of St John’s, organized a cricket match between the army and his school, he was assassinated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on 25 June 1985 for collaboration with the ‘occupying army’. The sentiments on this issue among Sri Lanka Tamils since then have been ambivalent and it is difficult for an outsider to provide a definitive viewpoint on the cricketing loyalties of SL Tamils in Lanka and abroad.4

Among the Tamil diaspora staunch Eelamist and/or Tiger supporters seem to side with whoever Sri Lanka’s cricket team is playing against – that is, if they do bother with such a frivolous pastime as cricket. Some have also used the world stage of cricket matches to advertise their liberation objectives; indeed, one Canadian Tamil even ran on to the hallowed grounds of St George’s in the Caribbean during Sri Lanka’s Super Eight World Cup game against the Australians, brandishing the colourful (or ‘virulent’ according to political persuasion) flag of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Pitch demonstration by lone wolf Canadian Tiger – St. George’s Grenada, 16 April 2007–see Mayoorian at http://Tamilcanadian.comarticle/5412

However, various websites indicate a committed line of support for Sri Lanka’s cricket team from a sprinkling of Tamils. Again, cricket has been a fervent national pastime for many a decade, so it is not surprising that migrants have launched their own teams when assembled in sufficient numbers in cities abroad. London has been one such site. The Festival of Cricket, a series of competitive one-day matches played over one summer weekend or one day, was launched in 1989 by Sri Lankans of all shades. Teams of old boys from specific schools competed for a trophy. Remarkably, in contrast to the old ‘Ceylon’ scene of the period 1948–70s, some of the best alumni teams at this festive competition proved to be from the colleges of the Jaffna Peninsula, whether Hartley, St Johns, Jaffna Hindu or St Patricks. But the more remarkable fact is that even during the height of Eelam War II (1990–95) Sinhalese and SL Tamil migrants were playing friendly cricket matches against each other in London. In effect, there were some keen Tiger supporters who were ready to modify their enmity in qualified ways on the cricket pitch.

But that situation quickly changed for the worse. When, in late-1995, the army broke out of its beachhead in the extreme north and took control of the western half of the Jaffna Peninsula, inclusive of the symbolic centre, Jaffna town, and proceeded, among other acts, to bulldoze the LTTE war cemeteries (thuyilam illam or ‘resting places’), even these Tamil migrants had enough. Their heartland was no more under their own control and their hearts were sore. These cricketing Tamils broke away and now run their own cricket festival.

Within Sri Lanka there is evidence that the Tamils who watch cricket lean in different directions, with a fair proportion partial to Sri Lanka – except perhaps when the opponent is India.5 Speculatively, this measure of loyalty can be attributed to several factors: (a) the dominance of white sides in the cricket world and the influence of colour considerations; (b) Sri Lanka’s triumph at the World Cup in 1996; (c) vestigial twinges of Sri Lankan-ness among those still residing in the land; (d) the presence from the 1990s of Muralitharan, a Tamil from a plantation worker-foreman lineage, as a star performer in the team; and (e) the general awareness that there has been no manifest ethnic prejudice in team selections.6 

The issue is not that simple however. Since the late 1970s few Tamils living in the cricketing heartland of south western Sri Lanka and Colombo have been playing for their school teams and thus, ipso facto, for the clubs. From the 1970s, in the context of escalating ethnic tension and two pogroms in Colombo in 1977 and 1983, there existed a situation where Tamil boys in these cities were usually discouraged by their parents from playing much sport. They were pushed into studying with an eye on migration out of the country. Thus, the Tamil Union C&AC has had only 14 Tamil cricketers in its team between 1979 and 2007 though the administrators are still mostly Tamils of yesteryear. Other than Damien Nadarājah, Muttiah Muralitharan, Russel Arnold and Pradeep Jayaprakāshdaran, in fact, there have been no Tamils pushing for places in the top sides since 1990. Thus, one sees a stark contrast with the context of the 1940s to 1970s when several Tamil cricketers competed vigorously for spots in the best Sri Lankan teams and provided a number of distinguished cricketers, among them the prodigy, Mahādēva Sathāsivam.7

    III

In the period stretching from the 1940s to the early 1970s, the SL Tamils were both Tamil and Ceylonese. Many Tamils from the north and a handful from the east had migrated and settled down in the south-western quarter, especially in Colombo, though some retained their local roots. Educated in the best schools and entering the more esteemed professions or government service, many of these ‘Colombo Tamils’ were an integral part of the Ceylonese bourgeoisie and middle class. Their cricketing men emerged from the best regarded schools of Colombo to compete at the highest level. Coomāraswamy, Sathāsivam, Nāgendra, Schāffter, Kasipillai, Dēvarāja, Edwards, Chanmugam, Ponniah, Pathmanāthan, the honour roll is long. Every one of these Ceylon players had been nourished in the south. The only Jaffna schoolboy to break into the ranks of the Ceylon side was C. Bālakrishnan, who entered the Medical Faculty in the 1960s and made his mark in the ranks of what was then a powerful University of Ceylon side.

The regional imbalance in source of origin did not sway loyalties. Despite their considerable cultural links with the Tamils of South India, when Sri Lanka and the Madras Cricket Association launched an annual series in 1953 between Madras and Ceylon for the Gopalan Trophy, most cricket-oriented Tamils in Sri Lanka were firmly behind the Ceylon side. This tide of support did not begin to ebb till the late 1970s and notably surged away after the anti-Tamil pogrom of July 1983.8

   IV

The influential SL Tamil seam in the tapestry of Sri Lankan cricket in the era 1948–70s had been launched much earlier:9 It was marked, for example, by the sponsorship of cricket in the 1900s and 1910s by the wealthy entrepreneur, Dr John Rockwood, and by the prowess and influence of the Saravanamuttu family, a lineage that not only produced several great cricketers, but used its social clout and its position in municipal politics to further the cause of cricket. Most notably, the Saravanamuttus were key figures in engineering the construction by the early 1940s of a magnificent cricket ground in the slum quarter of Wanāthamulla in Maradāna, the ‘Colombo Oval’ as it was called (since renamed the Saravanamuttu Stadium), as the home of the Tamil Union. This ground hosted Bradman’s Invincibles in 1948 and other matches with visiting international sides.10 It was, quite appropriately, Sri Lanka’s first Test venue.

Neil Chanmugam batting at the Oval vs the West Indies in March 1967 – scoring 72 in 10th wicket stand of 110 to help Ceylon total 400 runs — and then face the Windies scrore 549 

However, Sri Lanka’s entry to Test status was premised on the creation of other Test venues. The person who was a key figure in securing the island’s entry to the highest level, Gamini Dissanāyake (President of the Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka [BCCSL] and a powerful minister in the government of the time), was also the Minister heading the Mahaweli Development Board. He chose the small grounds of his Alma Mater, Trinity College in Kandy, as the next Test venue by twisting the arms of a British construction company, Balfour Beatty, who were party to his major development activities along the Mahaweli River. This ‘creative act’ was in place by 1983 for Australia’s first tour of Sri Lanka under Greg Chappell.11 Dissanāyake also chose the Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC) ground in Colombo as the site for the BCCSL office headquarters and proceeded to upgrade that ground to Test status. Though directed by necessity, there may have been an ethnic tinge as well as personal interest in the latter choice.

The next venue to receive this esteemed position of Test-level ground was a product of supreme power, class-conflict and highly personal interest. Competing with Dissanāyake (who was from an elite Kandy family) in the implicit presidential succession stakes within the ruling United National Party was one Ranasinghe Premadāsa, the Prime Minister, a man who had emerged from the slum quarter of Khettārama in the north of Colombo and had no genteel club connections. By the 1980s cricket was a field that drew popular fame and Dissanāyake was ploughing this terrain. Premadāsa had drive and was successfully furrowing several heart-winning fields of his own; but he decided to add another battery to his belt. He organized the construction of Sri Lanka’s first floodlit cricket stadium – in the heart of Khettārama, a symbolic shot directed across the bows of the superior Cinnamon Gardens quarter where the SSC and other pukka clubs are located.

The first stage of building a stadium suited for day games was undertaken in the mid-1980s. The momentous creation of floodlights in the late 1980s was part of a construction plan devised on the lines of the Western Australian Cricket Association (WACA) ground. Michael Joachim, a former cricketer12 and engineer in the Municipal Council, played a key hand in its planning. The ground was ready for day/night matches by 1991 and is now known as the Premadāsa Stadium.13 Whatever Premadāsa’s motives, this was a far-seeing move: in one bold stroke he pushed local cricket into the twenty-first century and enabled the governors of cricket to host day-night games at an early stage.

    V

In the period extending from the 1940s to the 1960s both at the administrative level and within the best Ceylon XIs, the Royal-Thomian set dominated the scene in association with cricketers from such Christian denominational schools as Wesley, St Peter’s, St Joseph’s and St Benedict’s in Colombo or Trinity and St Anthony’s in Kandy. This was in part due to better facilities (e.g. turf wickets in some cases), but largely due to what can be called ‘cricketing capital’, namely, a lineage of good coaching sustained by the transmission of good practice from one cohort of boys to those cohorts behind them. The significance of the latter is seen in the tale of S. Thomas’ College. S. Thomas’ had a golden asset in the form of Lassie Abeywardena, its Under 16 coach from the late 1940s to the 1970s.14 From Ian Pieris and Dan Piachaud, the Oxbridge players of the late 1950s,15 to an outstanding crop of cricketers who adorned the Lankan stage in the period 1958 to the 1970s, S. Thomas marked its cricketing heritage with flair and technique. Of the XI that beat a virtual Pakistan Test team at the Colombo on 28–30 August 1964, six were Thomians: T.C.T. Edwards, Mano Ponniah, Buddy Reid, Michael Tissera, Ian Pieris and Neil Chanmugan. Five months later a Ceylon team captained by Tissera and including Ponniah and Chanmugam as well as Darrell Lieversz of Royal went one step further and beat India in an ‘Unofficial Test’ away from home – at Ahmedabad in early January 1965.16

 Michael Tissera & the Nawab of Pataudi shake hands at  the toss

   VI

This Royal-Thomian predominance aroused jealousy. Such motives were exacerbated (a) by the populist and nativist electoral ‘revolution’ in 1956 that witnessed an attack on the Westernized elites and the English language and (b) by the pre-existing social context involving a ‘class divide’ – as long as ‘class’ is read as status of a stratified sort within that amorphous folk category known as the ‘middle class’.17 In a context where fluency in English and a particular lifestyle marked differences at the top level of society, the resurgent Sinhala-speaking elements of the middle class resented the advantages accruing to the Westernized mob and the supreme confidence of their demeanour.18

Among the leading ideologues who inspired the political overturn of 1956 were products of Ananda and Nālanda Colleges in Colombo and other Buddhist denominational schools in the main outstation towns. The political thrusts of 1956 included socialist strands and, ironically, soon led in the 1960s to the take-over of not only most Christian denominational schools, but also all the Buddhist schools. However, the divide in orientation between the allegedly indigenist and the supposedly ‘alien Western-cum- Christian’ schools remained of some consequence for quite a while after that. The products of Ananda, Nālanda and such Buddhist schools were usually pro-Buddhist interest and Sinhala nativist in orientation – quite staunchly so. But their younger generations also played cricket with passion. By the late 1950s and the 1960s they were producing excellent cricketers (e.g. Stanley Jayasinghe, Dhanasiri Weerasinghe, T.B. Kehelgamuwa, Sonny Yatawara, D.H. and D.P. de Silva).19

Despite this budding development, cricket was not the flavour of the month in political circles dominated by socialist rhetoric and nativist complexes. An amazing contrast with the present-day can be highlighted. From the late 1950s it was the kiss of death for a political party to support cricket. When the right wing United National Party (UNP) came to power in 1965 under Dudley Senanāyake, a man who had played cricket from S. Thomas in the 1920s, his brother Robert, another ex-Thomian cricketer, was more or less permanent (annually re-elected) President of the BCCSL.20 It was precisely the moment when Sri Lanka was at the threshold of some recognition from the MCC and ICC. The performances of Goonasena, Piachaud, Jayasinghe, Inman and Co in England, and the Ceylon team’s victories over Pakistan and India in 1964/65 encouraged the ICC to admit Ceylon as an Associate Member in 1965.

 Gamini Goonesena in action

Mano Ponniah batting for Cambridge University: he amassed over 700 runs in his first season in 1967 at a time when the Two Universities played at the highest level against county sides

As critically, the MCC invited Sri Lanka to send a touring team to play the counties in 1968. The financing of such a trip, however, was Sri Lanka’s responsibility. This was as much a hurdle as the invitation was a breakthrough. Amazing though it may seem today, Robert Senanāyake could not ask his brother to commit state funds in aid of the enterprise. This was in part due to the country’s abject financial circumstances and its shortage of foreign exchange, but it was also because of profound hostility to the Westernized elites and their accoutrements (including cricket) arising from the 1956 political revolution. The most virulent opposition came from the Leftist parties and those left of centre within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, so the antipathy was as much Marxist as indigenist. The UNP dared not touch cricket with either bargepole or bamboo rod. Thus, it was left to interests in the tea trade, including an Englishman, Dusty Miller, to step forward and commit money for the project.

This enterprise then fell apart as the cricketers themselves, that is, a conspiratorial few, shot themselves in the foot. A threesome involving a Wesleyite (Abu Fuard), an Anandian (Dhanasiri Weerasinghe, who was also a Selector) and a Peterite (H.I.K. Fernando), conspired to depose Michael Tissera from the captaincy and to select a touring squad that was captained by Fernando and included both Weerasinghe and Fuard. When this ‘shit hit the fan’, as the saying goes, the tour collapsed because sponsors withdrew their promises. Personal ambitions and status jealousies, of course, were behind this ill-advised move. Sri Lanka’s rise to the world stage was set back ten years.21

VII

In the meanwhile, the inexorable momentum arising from (a) the burgeoning growth in the number of secondary schools that had begun from the 1940s, (b) the switch-over from the English medium to the vernacular languages in teaching that began around 1951 and (c) the adoption of Sinhala as the principal language of administration, wrought its effects on the context impinging upon cricket. In the late 1960s Neville Jayaweera of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, a Thomian no less, took a momentous step by organizing radio broadcasts of the big match between Ananda and Nālanda. A whole new vocabulary had to be invented for the purpose.22 This innovative act then promoted the popularization, and the political acceptability, of the game over the next decades.

The second step in this process of popularization was the entry of Sri Lanka into the ICC fold of superior cricket in 1981 at a time when colour TV was introduced into the island – in one step – unlike India where the first stage of television was in black and white. Cricket was the only international sport where Sri Lanka was competing regularly at the top. So sports nationalism focused on cricket, really took off and spread beyond the cities. The final stage of this democratization occurred when the cricket team won the World Cup in 1996: as a result grass roots interest expanded exponentially both in terms of numbers interested and in geographical reach.23

President Jayawardene, Minister Gamini Dissanayake and Captain Bandula Warnapura in front stage before the start of Sri Lanka’s first 5-day Test Match vs England at the SSC grounds….Warnapura was the first captain from the ranks of the Buddhist schools to hold the reins of leadership … Bandula & Keith Fletcher of England walk out for the toss  

     VIII

In the meantime, the increase in the number of schools at a time when the opportunity structure within the game was also opening out meant that lads/men from lesser known schools within striking range of Colombo begun to press forward and gain entry to the top XIs. From the 1960s players from the established schools had to ‘share space’ with those from the two Christian denominational schools in Moratuwa (Prince of Wales and St Sebastian’s) that had become government colleges in the 1960s on the one hand and those from the former Buddhist denominational schools Ananda and Nālanda in Colombo, Dharmarāja in Kandy and Mahinda in Galle. By 1975 and 1979 when Sri Lanka won the ICC Trophy for Tier II countries that was played in England, the squads were a real mix.24 Anandians and Nālandians were at the cutting edge of this transformation and Bandula Warnapura’s accession to captaincy in 1980–81 (succeeding the Thomian, Anura Tennekoon) marked the transformation neatly.25 The further broadening and democratization was then indicated when Sanath Jayasuriya, a fisherman’s son from St Servatius’ College further south in Matara, was made captain in 1999.26

     IX

As indicated at the outset of this essay, there are still shortcomings in the reach of cricket, partly from the logistics of distance and partly due to the Tamil separatist movement and its war. Moreover, the nature of the political economy and the overwhelming dominance of the greater Colombo area in the island’s scheme of things result in the best teams accumulating in Colombo so that the best players from the outstations gravitate into these folds and even build their millionaire mansions within the capital’s environs. More lads from the outstations are certainly figuring prominently in the Premier League and in the U-23 and U-19 squads and younger levels, but a sizeable proportion of each squad comes from the schools in Greater Colombo (now including Moratuwa in my adjusted reasoning). Not only does the remedy for this imbalance lie beyond the field of cricket governance, it is a major problem for socio-economic engineers.

2005–06 and beyond

The thematic threads in post-independence cricket and its politics can now be capped by a review of developments in the cricket world in the three years 2005–07, commencing with some significant administrative acts.

With the emergence of a new government in Sri Lanka early in 2005 headed by Mahinda Rājapakse yet another change was brought about in the governance of cricket. The cricket body headed by Mohān de Silva, widely regarded as a proxy for the ambitious wheeler-dealer, Thilanga Sumathipāla, was displaced by a body headed by another businessman, Jayantha Dharmadāsa. Sumathipāla had not only fallen foul of the ICC, but had associated himself with the wrong political horse locally, while also having his name besmirched because he was facing serious criminal charges to do with false passports for aides.

Dharmadāsa’s team included representatives associated with the Tamil Union which had been subject to Cinderella-treatment by the boards associated with Sumathipāla.27 The new board included Prakāsh Schāffter and Tryphon Mirando of the Tamil Union with Mirando, an experienced cricket administrator who had served on previous boards, in the important position of Secretary. His premature death in late 2005 has been met by the arrival into board affairs of K. Mathivanan, who quickly became Secretary. A Tamil businessman with a successful company of his own, Mathivanan had recently rejuvenated the Colts CC and made it his ‘franchise’. He now inserted these energies into the management of SLC and has been responsible for an ambitious programme to upgrade the cricket pitches in the direction of greater speed and bounce. It is too early to weigh the results of this attempt.

The Dharmadāsa regime also initiated a long-overdue overhaul in the structure of Sri Lanka cricket. For decades it had been widely noted that the top level of the local cricket competition (now called the Premier League) was overblown. There were too many teams and several were weak in resources so that unequal encounters ensued. However, the annual system of elections and its concomitant spoils system had prevented any reforms. Assured of stability and political backing, the Dharmadāsa team has been able to prune the competition in stages so that a two-tier system, with a relegation and promotion scheme, will be in place by the season 2007/08. Whether this sharpens the standard of local cricket remains to be seen.

The Dharmadāsa regime has also secured firm control of Rangiri Stadium (located near Dambulla) for SLC, another momentous step. This stadium was the brainchild of Sumathipāla28 and was constructed from scratch in record time in 2000/01 for what was then an enormous figure, reported to be 611 million rupees. Dambulla is located in the dry zone and the raison d’ȇtre of this venture arose from the fact that most international teams find the period May-to-September to be the most convenient window for tours of the island – precisely when the unpredictable monsoon rains can ruin outdoor activities. Sumathipāla’s act was a brilliant move, despite its undue haste and the questionable tendering and accounting process.29

But the project was also built on sand. SLC did not gain control of the land, which remained in the hands of Inamaluwa Sri Sumangala Thero, the incumbent bhikkhu (Buddhist priest) at Dambulla Vihāra, another wheeler-dealer and a man of influence. In a strange arrangement the site was leased to a trust in Sumathipāla’s personal control. The lease was not for 99 years, but seems to have been an annual one. In effect the site was in the pocket of Sumathipāla and the Thero. This context created immense difficulties for the Dharmadāsa Board in mid-2006 when the triangular ODI series involving India and South Africa was rained off. In prolonged and delicate negotiations in 2007 however, with Prakāsh Schāffter at the coalface, SLC persuaded Inamaluwa Sri Sumangala Thero to release his hand on the site.30

Behind these recent administrative achievements is the relative stability of the Dharmadāsa Board. Behind this in turn is Hambantota District in the extreme south-eastern corner of the island. Hambantota has no cricketing schools of distinction and is a poor relative in the cricketing scheme of things. But it has been the political base of the Rājapakse family for several generations, even though the Rājapakse males were educated at prestigious denominational schools such as Richmond of Galle and S. Thomas’ of Mount Lavinia. After Mahinda Rājapakse was elected President of Sri Lanka in late 2004 the Province has shot to the fore. There are ambitious plans to develop a modern airport and a whole new harbour in the region. These schemes may bring about a welcome balance in the long term to the hegemonic weight of Colombo District within the island’s political economy.

In the short-term and within the cricketing scene, however, Hambantota has been significant in the manner in which it has encouraged strong business and personal links between the new ruling clique, the four Rājapakse brothers on the one hand and, on the other, (a) the Dharmadāsa family who hail from neighbouring Matara District and have several enterprises in Hambantota, and (b) the former Test cricketer and businessman, Ashantha de Mel, who has garment factories in Hambantota.31 De Mel was made Chairman of Selectors in early 2005 (in addition to a leading position in the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation), while the Dharmadāsa team was inserted as an interim Committee after Rājapakse came to power. Grapevine gossip indicates that the personal intervention of Mahinda Rājapakse himself, with all its attendant delays, was one facet within the re-negotiation of the tenurial arrangements for Rangiri Stadium. A powerful saffron robe, it seems, requires a prod from a powerful crown.

In the meantime, the SL cricketers have performed excellently at the international level, not only in the results secured, but in their brand of cricket and their demeanour on and off the field.32 An important springboard for this progress has been the several A Team tours organized by the previous board and the innovative step of having the A Team participate in the Indian provincial tournament for the Duleep Trophy in 2006. The emergence of Chāmara Silva and Mālinda Warnapura to the front ranks was made possible by these steps, and it is now known that Tom Moody insisted on Silva being given an opportunity after a chance moment led him to witness Silva in action at the SSC grounds.33

It is the selection of Moody as coach by the Dharmadāsa board that has had the most far-reaching and practical impact on the cricketing performance of the Test and ODI squads. Unlike previous coaches Moody – at his insistence in the pattern he was familiar with at Worcestershire – had overall command of the coaching structure and links with the tiers below the leading squad of players. Here, the clustering of cricket in Colombo worked to advantage and enabled good communication with the other coaches.

Moody noticed that an inordinate number of players, some 80 or so, had been selected for the top teams during the recent past and about 49 had actually played. He suggested greater continuity and a less ad-hoc approach. He also pressed the idea of continuity and simplicity as a maxim in the selection of the top squads. Ashantha de Mel appears to have listened. In the result there have been fewer knee-jerk reactions than in the past.34

Mahela Jayawardene has recently evaluated Moody’s influence thus: “Tom challenged every individual. You could not stay in the same place. Every training session, every team talk mattered. We all learned, not just the youngsters but the senior guys too. He certainly didn’t allow me to coast and helped me become a better and more consistent player. He pushed us all out of our comfort zones and in the process made us much tougher mentally as individuals and as a team.”35

Add to this the assessment presented by the well-placed Charlie Austin: “Moody’s success was achieved through the introduction of a new performance-based culture that encouraged self-improvement. He was organised and clear with his communication, insightful in his thinking and able to motivate the team. And there was one characteristic that will be particularly hard to replace: his willingness to stand up to senior players when they stepped out of line. The senior hierarchy are not troublemakers, but their high profile makes them powerful and, like all players, they sometimes need to be confronted. His management of Sanath Jayasuriya, Muttiah Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas was exceptional. There were no screaming tantrums or chair-throwing theatrics, he was strong in his own careful, methodical, rational manner.”36

The contrast with tales around the Indian cricket squads during the same period render this picture all the more striking (see Stephen Wagg and Sharda Ugra: “Different hats, different thinking? Technocracy, globalization and the Indian cricket team,” contribution to this collection: namely Sport in Society, Vol. 12, No. 4/5, May–June 2009).

Thus, this policy crystallized in a team that has gelled well and enjoyed considerable success during the years 2006–7. Not only did the ODI squads of early 2005 fare reasonably well in the Antipodes,37 but Sri Lanka matched England in the Tests in England and then simply whitewashed the English side in the subsequent ODI series during the summer of 2006. They went on to perform well in both versions of the game in New Zealand in the summer of 2006/07 after an erratic Champions Trophy.

Many observers predicted that they would make the finals of the World Cup. The squad lived up to this expectation. Contingent circumstances unfortunately intervened in favour of the Australians and prevented an ultimate triumph. Despite a powerful Aussie batting performance after the advantageous winning of the toss, Sri Lanka was within striking distance when heavy drizzle skewed the balance of the match away from them.

Assisting this success has been the arrival of Lasith Malinga as a frontline strike bowler and the rejuvenation of Dilhāra Fernando as a dangerous paceman. The contingent factor of an injury to Marvan Atapattu also saw Mahela Jayawardene take over as captain in late 2006 and Sangakkāra become vice-captain. The two are bosom pals and intelligent, articulate cricketers who work well in tandem. As Tissera noted in a recent interview, Jayawardene is also ‘highly organised’ – a measured comment that is, in fact, high praise from the manager of the team (mid-2005 to May 2007).38 

A more distant observer, Schoorman, presses this argument even further: “Jayawardena’s [sic ] captaincy has been a revelation. He has brought a refreshing approach to our entire game, with . . . inspired changes and is constantly thinking on his feet. His handling . . . of the superstars has been admirable and he has got the whole team together once again.”39

In sum, therefore, Sri Lanka’s cricketers have recently secured success abroad on a scale that was not achieved before. Central to this process has been the practical hand of Moody, not only in man-management, but also in building on the policy of the previous coach, John Dyson, and gradually nourishing a capacity for players to cope with differing match scenarios. As he told me when I asked him about the language problem of communicating with some players who knew little English, he encouraged them to speak in any language at team meetings and gave them time to ponder over specific scenario questions and come back the next day and tell the squad (and Moody) – in any language of choice—what they would do in that specific scenario.40 Over time this practice has not only developed self-confidence, but also enabled the players to become familiar with each other’s thinking.

With the support of the SLC board Moody also spent liberally on importing Sandy Gordon for spells of psychological motivation.41 Trevor Penney, an evangelist in the art of fielding, was hired as assistant coach and he has sharpened the fielding skills from its pre-existing levels of ‘competent’ to that of ‘excellent’.

Set against this success story it is significant that when SLC was on the hunt for a new coach in early 2005, India was also on the look-out for one. The two leading contenders then were Greg Chappell and Tom Moody. SLC could not match India’s cheque book and waited on the Indian outcome. But it can now be revealed that even had both contenders been available, the Dharmadāsa board and its advisors would have chosen Moody rather than Chappell – probably because they preferred a hands-on approach to high theory and perhaps because of a word from Chaminda Vaas derived from his Worcestershire stint under Moody.42 Whatever the reasoning, our retrospective advantage indicates sagacity of thought.

CORRECTION

The image below was erroneously surmised to be one from the Ahmedabad Test Match but Mevan Peiris has identified the moment thus

The picture which states Polonowita taking a brilliant catch off Fredrick is wrongly stated. Neither the catcher is Polonowita nor the bowler Fredrick who was a short stocky cricketer. The tall bowler I believe is Mevan Pieris and the fielder taking the catch is Lionel Fernando. The wicket keeper is Russel Hamer and slip I believe is Anura Tennekoon. This photograph probably is one taken when the Sri Lanka Board team under Anura Tennekoon’s captaincy toured South India, about 1971. The bowler is certainly not Norton Fredrick. When Polonowita and Fredrick played for the country in India, Russel Hamer was not in the team and the wicket keeper was HIK Fernando. Anura Tennekoon could probably help to confirm what I say.

sSL -INDIA 1965 11

NOTES

1 Turner, ‘A Temporary Fracture or a Permanent Breach?’ In December 2007, Murali became the highest wicket taker in Test cricket overtaking Shane Warne’s record of 708 test wickets.

2 Roberts, Forces and Strands in Sri Lanka’s Cricket History, 1–3; Roberts, Essaying Cricket, 126–30.

3 Right at the outset Sathāsivam was made captain of the Ceylon team selected to play the whistle-stop game against Bradman’s Australian team in March 1948 when Derek de Saram, who was senior to him and a good batsman and experienced skipper, was the logical choice.

To outsiders it looked as if the Tamil Union trumped the Sinhalese Sports Club, though personal ambitions probably counted for more (Roberts, Forces and Strands in Sri Lanka’s Cricket History, 20–1).

4 For some information, including an assessment conveyed by Nirupama Subramanium, a journalist from The Hindu, see Roberts, Forces and Strands in Sri Lanka’s Cricket History, 7 and Roberts, ‘Landmarks and Threads in the Cricketing Universe of Sri Lanka’, 125–6.

5 Roberts, Forces and Strands in Sri Lanka’s Cricket History, 7.

6 Indeed, the Sri Lankan squads have been the most multi-ethnic and multi-religious international team for some time. The 15 players at the World Cup included 2 Tamils (Arnold and Muralitharan), 1 Moor (Maharoof), 1 Malay-Sinhalese (Dilshan), 1 Sinhalese-Burgher (Atapattu) and 9 Sinhalese on the ethnic front; while on the religious side there were 2 Catholics (Vaas and Fernando), 8 Buddhists, 1 Protestant (Arnold), 1 Muslim and 1 Hindu. When one adds fringe players such as Ian Daniel (Colombo Chetty) and Michael Vandort (Burgher), the spread is even wider.

7 Re: Sathāsivam, see Roberts, Essaying Cricket, 173–8 and plates 8 and 38.

8 For fuller information on the issues in this section, see Roberts, Forces and Strands in Sri Lanka’s Cricket History, 5–7 and ‘Landmarks and Threads in the Cricketing Universe of Sri Lanka’, 125–6.

9 For historical information on cricket in Sri Lanka during the colonial era, see Foenander, Sixty Years of Ceylon Cricket, Perera, The Janashakthi Book of Cricket, 1832–1996, and Roberts, Forces and Strands in Sri Lanka’s Cricket History, 8–17.

10 The match against Bradman’s team is described by Jack Fingleton in Roberts, Crosscurrents, while several pictures taken at this ground appear in that book and in Roberts, Essaying Cricket, plates 9, 10, 11 and 134.

11 See the pictures in Roberts, Essaying Cricket, plates 46 and 82. Also see plate 45 for Dissanāyake’s triumphant return to Sri Lanka in July 1981.

12 We were colleagues in the University of Ceylon B team in the late 1950s.

13 See the striking picture taken by David Colin-Thome¯ in Roberts, Essaying Cricket, plate 153.

14 Roberts, Forces and Strands in Sri Lanka’s Cricket History, 25–7.

15 Another Ceylonese who played for Cambridge (and Nottinghamshire too) was Gamini Goonasena of Royal College, who went on to captain the Light Blues and made outstanding     contributions in English county cricket as well as MCC tours (see Roberts, Essaying Cricket,                      plate 17–20). The individual achievements of these three men, and subsequently of Jayasinghe and Inman, undoubtedly assisted Sri Lanka’s cause in MCC, and thus ICC, circles.

16 See Roberts, Essaying Cricket, plate 44.

17 Roberts, ‘The Political Antecedents of the Revivalist Elite within the MEP Coalition of 1956’.

18 On the 1956 political revolution by ballot and its far-reaching ramifications, see Mervyn de Silva, ‘1956: the Cultural Revolution that Shook the Left’. Ceylon Observer Magazine Edition, May 16, 1967; Peiris, 1956 and After; Wriggins, Ceylon. Dilemmas of a New Nation; Kearney, Communalism and Language in the Politics of Ceylon; K.M. de Silva, Managing Ethnic Tensions, 1986; Roberts, ‘The Political Antecedents of the Revivalist Elite within the MEP Coalition of 1956’; Roberts, ‘The 1956 Generations: Before and After’; Roberts, ‘Landmarks and Threads in the Cricketing Universe of Sri Lanka’, 126–8.

19 D.P. de Silva, Weerasinghe and Jayasinghe can be seen in the group pictures from the Indian tour of 1964/65 in Roberts, Essaying Cricket, plates 44 and 21. For Kehelgamuwa, see plate 27. The de Silvas, namely, D.H., D.P. and D.S. de Silva, all from Mahinda College in Galle, provide a rare case of three brothers who played for their country.

20 Both Dudley and Robert Senana¯yake are in the group picture of the St. Thomas College team that played against St Peters’ College of Adelaide in Colombo on 26 March 1928 (Roberts, Essaying Cricket, plate 2).

21 For fuller information on this unseemly episode, see Perera, The Janashakthi Book of Cricket, 1832–1996, 320–6, and Roberts, Forces and Strands in Sri Lanka’s Cricket History, 23–5 and Roberts, ‘Landmarks and Threads in the Cricketing Universe of Sri Lanka’, 129.

22 Roberts, ‘Landmarks and Threads in the Cricketing Universe of Sri Lanka’, 131.

23 Roberts, Forces and Strands in Sri Lanka’s Cricket History, 17–20.

24 For the squads sent to England in 1975 and 1979 for the ICC Trophy and the World Cup, see Roberts, Essaying Cricket, plates 35–7.

25 Warnapura is seated beside Gamini Dissanayake (President, BCCSL) and J.R. Jayewardene (President of Sri Lanka) in a photograph that was probably taken at the Colombo Oval prior to Sri Lanka’s first ever Test Match, that against an England team led by Fletcher in 1982. Roberts, Essaying Cricket, plate 79.

26 Third Eye, ‘Sanath Jayasuriya: A Class Act’.

27 For one, the Saravanamuttu Stadium was not accorded Test matches. For another, when Chandra Schāffter was Manager of the touring SL squad in England in early summer 2002 (appointed by the Interim Board), he was unceremoniously dumped at the end of this trip and subjected to character assassination by members of a new board headed by Hemaka Amarasuriya, a board that was in league with Sumathipa¯la interests and that in fact paved the way for the latter’s return to power at SLC via the electoral process in mid-2003.

28 Re: Sumathipāla, see articles by Charlie Austin and Michael Roberts in Essaying Cricket, 120–2 and plates 61 and 62.

29 Roberts, ‘Rangiri Stadium and Its Tempestuous History’.

30 Ibid.

31 De Mel was a bowling all-rounder who played for Sri Lanka in the 1980s and was in fact the highest wicket-taker at the 1987 World Cup. He is also a double international because he has represented Sri Lanka at bridge. In the 1980s he was a bosom friend of Sidath Wettimuny who was both club-mate at the SSC and a member of the SL team. De Mel and Tissera were also appointed to the Interim Board headed by Rienzie Wijetilleke in mid-1999, while Wettimuny became Chairman of Selectors – in a governmental intervention that deposed Sumathipāla and aimed at reforms in the cricket scene. This background suggests that de Mel may occasionally consult Wettimuny on cricketing matters, in part because Wettimuny’s non-partisanship is beyond question and in part because he was the Gavaskar of SL cricket, technically-sound in batting.

32 Note Menon, ‘Why do we love to love Sri Lanka?’; and Simon Barnes, ‘Put Your Shirt on

Sri Lanka to summon their Maverick Match-Winning Spirit’. The Times, April 28, 2007.

33 Charlie Austin, ‘Sumathipāla as New President: Hero or Villain?’.

34 This summary is based partly on Austin’s writings in http://www.cricinfo.com and also derived from an interview with Trevor Penney reported in the same source at the time Moody left at the end of his contract in mid-2007. One illustration has been the story of Chāmara Silva. He made two golden ducks in his debut Test in New Zealand in late 2006. Where earlier tour committees may have dropped him, he was retained for the 2nd Test match and re-paid the faith in his capacities with a striking century in a difficult situation.

35 Austin, ‘Sumathipāla as New President: Hero or Villain?’.

36 Ibid.

37 In the VB series in Australia in early 2006 Sri Lanka overturned the local expectations by outplaying South Africa and reaching the finals, where it beat the powerful Aussie side in the first game.

38 Tissera was the manager of the team from c. August 2005 to May 2007 and was interviewed by Sa’adi Thawfeeq in June 2007 after he ended his stint. The possibility that Tissera himself contributed to good management and selection on occasions should be considered. Moody was clearly the supremo at the outset, but as the team toured and Tissera chaired selection meetings for a spell (till a Selector was sent on tour for this express purpose), it is likely that his opinions were given the weight they deserved both on formal occasions and informally.

39 Schoorman, ‘Sri Lanka’s Cricket is on a Firm Footing’, 37–8.

40 During a formal interview (with SLC approval from Duleep Mendis) over breakfast at the Hyatt Hotel in Adelaide in late January 2006.

41 Note Mahela Jayawardene’s qualified endorsement of Gordon’s input when Sa’adi Thawfeeq explicitly questioned him on this point (Montage, March–April 2007, 11).

42 An email note from Michael Tissera conveyed this information to me after I sent an email letter to Tissera as well as Duleep Mendis (CEO of SLC) strongly urging them to refrain from considering Chappell. This was based on my own evaluations and grapevine information gathered from the Adelaide cricket circuit. In brief, my advice was not required. Note, too, that in recently selecting Trevor Bayliss as Moody’s successor after a short-listing and interview process (Trevor Oliver was also interviewed), SLC set up a consultative body of past cricketers that included Tissera, Warnapura, Wettimuny, Aravinda de Silva and others. It follows that similar consultations were deployed in early 2005.

REFERENCES

Austin, Charlie. ‘Sumathipāla as New President: Hero or Villain?’ Wisden Cricket Comment, June 8, 2003. http://www.cricinfo.

De Silva, K.M. Managing Ethnic Tensions in Multi-ethnic Societies. Lanham, NY: University Press of America, 1986.

Foenander, S.P. Sixty Years of Ceylon Cricket. Colombo: Ceylon Advertising & General Publicity Co., 1924.

Kearney, Robert N. Communalism and Language in the Politics of Ceylon. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1967.

Menon, Suresh. ‘Why Do We Love to Love Sri Lanka?’ Montage (May–June 2007): 39–40.

Peiris, Denzil. 1956 and After. Colombo: Associated Newspapers of Ceylon, 1958.

Perera, S.S. The Janashakthi Book of Cricket, 1832–1996. Colombo: Janashakthi Insurance, 1999.

Roberts, Michael. ‘The Political Antecedents of the Revivalist Elite within the MEP Coalition of 1956’. In K.W. Goonewardena Felicitation Volume, edited by C.R. De Silva and Sirima Kiribamune, 185–220. Peradeniya: Peradeniya University, 1989.

Roberts, Michael. ‘The 1956 Generations: Before and After’. In Exploring Confrontation. Sri Lanka: Politics, Culture and History, chap. 12. Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1994.

Roberts, Michael. Crosscurrents. Sri Lanka and Australia at Cricket. Sydney: Walla Walla Press, 1998.

Roberts, Michael. Forces and Strands in Sri Lanka’s Cricket History. Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association, 2006. Reprint of article in Cricket and National Identity in the Postcolonial Era, edited by S. Wagg. Abingdon: Routledge, 2005.

Roberts, Michael. Essaying Cricket. Sri Lanka and Beyond. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publishers, 2006.

Roberts, Michael. ‘Landmarks and Threads in the Cricketing Universe of Sri Lanka’. Sport in Society 10, no. 1 (2007): 120–42.

Roberts, Michael. ‘Rangiri Stadium and Its Tempestuous History’. http://www.ozlanka.com, July 2007.

Schoorman, Dion. ‘Sri Lanka’s Cricket is on a Firm Footing – and the Present Moment can lead to Greater Heights’. Montage (May–June 2007): 37–8.

Third Eye. ‘Sanath Jayasuriya: A Class Act’. Montage (May–June 2007): 40–1.

Turner, J. Neville. ‘A Temporary Fracture or a Permanent Breach? Australia and Sri Lanka at Cricket’. In Essaying Cricket. Sri Lanka and Beyond, edited by Michael Roberts, 245–8. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publishers, 2006.

Wriggins, Howard. Ceylon. Dilemmas of a New Nation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1960.

*** ***

ALSO RELEVANT—MORE RECENT WORKS

 S. S.Chandra Perera: “The tour that did not go beyond the board room,” 27 November 2017, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2017/11/23/the-tour-that-did-not-go-beyond-the-board-room-1968/

Michael Roberts:The ICC is imbecile: verbal assaults permitted within the cricket field,” 23 November 2017, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2017/11/23/the-icc-is-imbecile-verbal-assaults-permitted-within-cricket-field/#more-28291

Michael Roberts:The cricketing universe of Sri Lanka: A short history written in 2007,” 26 November 2017, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2017/11/26/the-cricketing-universe-of-sri-lanka-a-short-history-written-in-2007/#more-2832S.

Michael Roberts: “Brain Drain: From Ceylon to Lanka, 1962/63-2013,” 18 March 2013,  https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2013/03/18/brain-drain-from-ceylon-to-sri-lanka-196263-to-2013/

 

5 Comments

Filed under accountability, centre-periphery relations, cricket for amity, discrimination, economic processes, education, ethnicity, governance, historical interpretation, landscape wondrous, life stories, patriotism, performance, politIcal discourse, power politics, Rajapaksa regime, sri lankan society, unusual people

5 responses to “Tensions and Tales from Sri Lankan Cricket: An Essay from 2009

  1. David Wei

    “Great cricketing success”??? Michael, have you looked at their record?
    They won one world cup over twenty years ago and havent stopped talking about it since, have a dismal “away’ record against most countries so much so that many believe they shouldnt be treated as a Tier 1 Test country.

    • DEAR DAVID, Dearie me DAVID
      Learn to read: the title says “2009” … the essay was not written in 2017. Even at that point Sri Lanka had made the World Cup finals in the Caribbean in 2007.
      But that answer is on the same plane that you are on and misses the point of cricket as a game. Its point is THE SPIRIT IN WHICH the game is played not whether one wins or loses.
      This SPIRIT lies in (A) its endeavour; (B) its range of skills and intricacies and (C) its sportsmanship – practices that reject verbal intimidation and the unrelenting will to win that so many Aussies in recent times pursue in the full.
      So: I take it that you are a true-blue Aussie…. maybe even one of Sri Lankan stock, a mestizo who wishes to be more Aussie than the dinky-die-Aussies who snarl and bite (verbally) the opposition and call it “sledging.” I am surprised that you have strayed into Thuppahi terrain.

      Michael Roberts
      ANOTHER THOUGHT: It seems to me that your comment is motivated by “acid in your veins”. This is a conjecture arising from my engagement over the years with political action and its SUBJECTIVITIES in many fields. My first para does also inject some snarl into this exchange. That is the problem with EXTREMISM. …. and yes the insertion of VERBAL INTIMIDATION into the cricekt arena by Aussies and English in the 1970s and thereafter has resulted in the practice being adopted by all and sundry including Sri Lankans and Indians. C
      CRICKET IS THE WORSE FOR IT.

  2. Mahinda Wijesinghe

    Just two points:
    1.C. Balakrishnan played under me when I skippered Bloomfield in the Sara Trophy tournament.
    2.You had mentioned Mano Ponniah’s record in University cricket. Similarly can you check Malasekera’s records? You are bound to be surprised. Will tell you more. In fact he played alongside me at Daily News level so I know.

  3. G. H. Peiris

    Michael
    You could also ask this clown about the number of times countries like S. Africa and New Zealand have won ‘World Cups’ in any form of the game. SL, a relatively new comer to Test status, have, in my recollection won 1 ODI world cup final, in two other series reached the final (one of which they would have drawn had the umpires been fair about the adequacy of light), won the T20 world cup once, and the Asia cup twice or thrice, beaten almighty India in several series, set world records in the highest overall test score (against an Indian side with several of the ‘greats’ – Tendulker, Dravid, Ganguli, Kumble), set the all-time record in the number of test wickets and, on one occasion, got the Indian team (once again, with the same ‘greats’) out for a paltry 54 in an ODI etc. etc. The way our cricketers are being treated by the political bosses, surely, they (cricketers, I mean) have done enough and will continue to do enough for the country. This David Wei is not to be taken seriously He is wei off the mark!
    Regards, Gerry

  4. Pingback: A Riddle. A Controversial Photograph | Critiquing Cricket

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