After Sri Lanka had been asked to bat first by David Gower in conditions that were expected to favour bowlers during their first Test Match abroad at Lord’s on 23 August 1984, Sidath Wettimuny was extremely nervous as he took guard.[i] Only those few cricketers who have gone through such an experience at a big match in front of a large crowd could really comprehend the tension coursing through his body at this moment.
Then, another shaft of anxiety penetrated Sidath’s being as a crowd of some 20-30 young Sri Lankan Tamil men stormed onto the cricket field yelling and shouting. Anticipating the possibility of an attack,[i] he made a tactical move and withdrew to the cluster of English slip fielders.
The Englishmen asked him what was transpiring. No explanation was called for, by then, the Tamil demonstrators lay on the turf pitch with their placards and verbal expression of grievances. It was clearly a protest against the political conditions facing Tamils living in Sri Lanka and an activity sponsored by one or other of the militant organisations in operation at this point of time; or even perhaps a combined operation.
Unfortunately, Sidath Wettimuny cannot recall the details imprinted on placard or presented as shout. Logically, however, one can conjecture[ii] that the pogrom that had been directed by both state functionaries and popular action against Tamils living in the south-western and central districts of the island[iii] in late July 1983 was featured in the grievances expressed; and that the liberation struggle for Thamilīlam (Eelam in short) was a prominent emphasis.[iv] I stress here that Sri Lanka had become an international pariah[v] after the pogrom of July 1983 coming as the latter did on top of a referendum that extended the term of J. R. Jayewardene’s government by plebiscitarian vote.
Crowd scene of pillage at Borella junction, 24/25 night 23 July 1983 — photo by Chandragupta Amarasinghe
What Sidath recalls vividly however is that the protest demonstration helped him immensely by calming his cricket nerves and releasing his tension. Mingling with the ‘enemy’, namely, the English cricketers, altered his “conditions of being” as one could present it in the analytical terms of phenomenological anthropology. In his choice of trope the alteration in his bodily state of tension was likened to that of a soda bottle being opened. He affirms therefore that he “remains eternally grateful” to those Tamil activists who intruded upon the hallowed turf of Lord’s
Indeed, after the Tamil young men had been shepherded away — without violence on either side — by the British policemen who had been hurriedly marshalled, Sidath took guard calmly and proceeded to grind the English bowlers into the dust. He chalked up 190 runs as Sri Lanka reached 491 for seven wickets (with Duleep Mendis scoring 111 and Arjuna Ranatunga 84) before declaring. [v1] This total suggests that the wicket was batsmen-friendly, but the cricket world also knows that Wettimuny was a technically sound batsman who could be presented as the Sunil Gavaskar of Sri Lankan cricket. Those points noted, the fact remains that the initial foundation for his monumental innings was provided by Tamil political activists with other thoughts on their mind. Even conflict can occasionally be serendipitous in its impact.
Kanapathipillai, Valli 1990 “July 1983: the survivors’ experiences,” in Veena Das (ed.) Communities, riots and survivors in South Asia, Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 321–44.
Monga, Sidarth 2010 “Ourealy 1980’s line-up was beter than today’s,” http//;www.cricinfo.com/magazine/conetent/story/471084.html
Roberts, Michael 1994 “The agony and ecstasy of a pogrom: southern Lanka, July 1983,” in Roberts, Exploring confrontation. Sri Lanka: politics, culture and history, Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers, pp. 317–30.
Roberts, Michael 2006a “The Tamil movement for Eelam,” E-Bulletin of the International Sociological Association No. 4, July 2006, pp. 12-24.
Sabaratnam, Lakshmanan 2001 Ethnic attachments in Sri Lanka: social change and cultural continuity, London: Palgrave.
Struthers, Greg 2006 “Caught in time: Sri Lanka’s First Test against England,” 21 May 2006, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/sport/article722654.ece.
Wilson, A. J. 2000 Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism. Its origins and development in the 19th and 20th Centuries, London: Hurst and Company.
[i] Note that Ranjan Madugalle had been assaulted outside the team hotel by a drunken man in Canterbury two weeks earlier and suffered facial injuries (Struthers 2006).
[ii] I would be extremely grateful if anyone can provide me with reliable information on the complaints voiced by these Tamil activists and also about the organisers behind the demonstration.
[iii] Kanapathypillai 1990 and Roberts 1984.
[iv] See Wilson 200; Sabaratnam 2001 and Roberts 2006
[v] At this stage both the Indian government and the regional government of Tamilnadu were sponsoring, training and arming several Tamil militant organisations, TELO, EPRLF, PLOTE and LTTE. all this groups and EROS had wings in England and London. One should not assume that the lord’s demonstration was an LTTE operation.
[vi] Note Monga 2010.