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Sunday, December 4, 2011

Kumar Sangakkara's 2011 MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture in full

Kumar Sangakkara's 2011 MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture in full
3:15PM BST 05 Jul 2011
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 countrymen.

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

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

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 History of Sri Lanka
Ladies and Gentleman, the history of my country extends over 2500
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

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

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


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


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.
Sri Lanka’s Cricketing Roots
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.
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

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

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

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 batsmen.
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


Race Riots and Bloody Conflict
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 Sri Lankans.
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 personal risk.
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-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


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 Australia.
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 decades.
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 suicide bombs.
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.
An Identity Crisis
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

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 team.
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 greater cause.
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 personal dream.
Arjuna’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 Lankans.
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.
The Search for Unique 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

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

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 the1996 World Cup

The Unifying Impact of 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 passion.
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 motherland.
Regardless of war, here we were playing together. The Sri Lanka team
became a harmonising factor.
The Economic Impact of being World Champions
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


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 models.
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 psyche.
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

Bigger roles for the cricketers
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 thought.
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

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 person.
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

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

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 amazing.
The Lahore Attack
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

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 war zone.
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 great incident.
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 unconscious.
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


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

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 the hospital.
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 and selflessness.
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

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 back.

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.
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 our country.”
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.

Post 1996 Power Politics
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 cricket stadium.
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 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

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
round exit.
Fortunately, though, the disastrous performance of the team proved to
be a catalyst for further change within the dynamics of the Sri Lanka

Cricket Team.
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 the field.
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

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 answers ourselves.
A Team Powered by Talent
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.
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

world-class cricketers.
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 ineffectiveness.
The Challenge Ahead for Sri Lanka
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 unorthodox talent.
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.
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

Cricket’s Heightened Importance in Sri Lanka’s New Era
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.
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

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

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 game.
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.

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