Cricket as the Prince of Sports in Sri Lanka

Michael Roberts, ‘reprinting’ an article that appeared in The Island on the 7th August 2008  with a note indicating that “An editorially-modified version of this article was published in HIMAL circa 2007.”

Modernity took firm root in Sri Lanka under the imperial aegis of Britain. British rule involved a considerable transformation in the political economy of the island, a revolution in the communication system, the administrative unification of the country and the emergence of new class forces of a capitalist variety. English became the administrative language and one saw the development of an indigenous socio-political elite group, referred to locally as “middle class,” whose mode of domination included a facility in English-speak and a particular life style.

  Ajantha Mendis, center, and teammates wait for 3rd umpire’s decision on a leg before the wicket against India’s captain Anil Kumble during fourth day of the second test cricket match between India and Sri Lanka in Galle (AP)

In the process the ethnic diversity of the island was compounded. Apart from the Tamils, Sinhalese and Tamil-speaking Moors of yesteryear, one witnessed the influx of those identified as Indian Tamils who worked on the plantations in the interior or as menials in the main urban centres. The island’s location also encouraged small bodies of Malays (who has served in the Dutch and British regiments), Borahs, Sindhis, Parsees, Colombo Chetties to join the mixed European descendents described as “Burghers” in the polyglot towns of the south wesreern quarter of the island, notably in Colombo.

By the 1880s if not earlier Colombo was a primate city and hegemonic centre, looming over the rest of the island in its political and economic clout as well as its symbolic primacy. Such primacy in status display, as shall see, became central to the overwhelming hegemony secured by cricket in comparison with other sports in the attachments of its peoples.

It was through Colombo too that the intellectual currents known as “liberalism” and “nationalism” entered the consciousness of some elements of the population. A small coterie of young Burgher men educated in the English medium at the Colombo Academy were the forerunners of Ceylonese nationalism when they launched the periodical Young Ceylon in 1850.1 This current was sustained by the emerging multi-ethnic, indigenous middle class in the course of the next 100 years. The first momentous challenge to White superiority occurred, prophetically, on the cricket field when the best Ceylonese XI took on the best locally-resident Europeans in a “Test” [of excellence] in June, 1887.2

Cricket was also a medium for Westernized life ways, including billiards and bar in the institution known as a club. Thus, its anti-colonial dimensions were qualified by strands of Anglophilia and a distancing of its bearers from the hoi-polloi, as the masses were sometimes called. Indeed, running parallel with Ceylonese nationalism one saw indigenous resistances of an anti-Western character. There were two threads intertwining here: the hostile Hindu and Buddhist reactions to Christian proselytization on the one hand and, on the other, the hostility to Westernised life ways and the assumptions of superiority associated with these expressions, including English-speak itself. Among some Sinhalese this indigenist resistance was quite virulent and one can speak of a current of Sinhalese nationalism from the 1860s onwards.

Thus, at the point of independence in 1948 one found Ceylonese and Sinhalese nationalisms, as well as Tamil and Moor (Muslim) communitarianism jostling each other in competition and complex overlap. On the cricket field, however, the elite ranks of all the ethnic groups (with the partial exception of the “Indian Tamils”) were united in supporting Ceylon against all comers. Colombo-bred Tamils of the middle class were among the leading players and administrators. When Ceylon played India or took on the Madras Cricket Association for the Gopalan Trophy from 1953 onwards Tamils were among the keenest of Sri Lanka’s fans3 – unlike today when a significant proportion of the indigenous Tamil peoples tend to be either ambivalent or support India or even “anyone but Sri Lanka” on the principle of backing the enemy of one’s enemy. In a context where cricket has become Sri Lanka’s premier sport and one reaching across all classes and embracing most regions, this qualification is of some import. But in order to grasp the import of such developments we must retrace our footsteps to the early 19th century and the advent of those inventors of games, the British.

Sport and Pastime in British Ceylon … and Beyond till Today

The British rulers indulged in recreational activities with enthusiasm in the leisured circumstances of rulership and its` luxury of countless “native” servants. The full panoply of British games, both board games and field games, including the “manly pastime” of hunting, were pursued vigourously. Over time most of these pastimes (but not polo) were taken up by the Ceylonese middle classes, while some board games were dispersed across all strata. Indeed, it is arguable that the most popular sport in Sri Lanka for over 150 years has been that involving cards, while carrom has also had a fair clientele.

As with the British, the field games were institutionalized through clubs. Inevitably, the colour bar stood firm at the gates of the European clubs. But among the indigenous peoples too there was a tendency for the cricket clubs of the late 19th century, beginning with the Malay Cricket Club (c. 1872) to compose themselves on ethnic lines, though several multi-ethnic clubs also came into being. Both cricket and rugger were largely restricted to the urban centres till the 1960s and for the most part elitist in character; indeed, rugger was only played in Colombo, Kandy and the plantation centres. In contrast soccer was more widespread and attracted both elite schools and a wider range of schools and regions. In brief, there was class divide insofar as the best Ceylonese soccer players were usually working class urban, while the best rugger players were urban/rural middle class from the best schools in Colombo and Kandy.

While both rugger and cricket were elitist in character till, say, the 1960s, there was nevertheless an important difference between the two. Many more schools, including the leading ones in the Jaffna Peninsula, played cricket. Moreover, some working class people in the main towns were drawn to the big matches between rival schools, encouraged by the pastime of betting, the carnival atmosphere of “big matches” and specific loyalties built up over time. One must not forget that education was not expensive and that urban schools had many poor children whose parents were drawn into their areas of interest.

Cricket, moreover, was not purely a leather ball and white longs activity of an expensive kind. It could be played with all manner of balls including the natural kaduru ball and therefore attracted male youth from all strata. Tennis ball cricket competitions have been held for decades in certain urban localities on fields or patches of ground. Thus cricket was a familiar sport in the palm groves, bare patches, beaches and side streets of the urban and semi-urban areas of Sri Lanka for over a century. It could also be played by children within the restricted space of garage or verandah. Indeed, Lasith Malinga has shot to fame recently as a sling bowler who developed his relatively unique action as a tennis ball beach cricket lad.

Cricket also had a golden shimmer: famous English and Australian sides occasionally played whislle-stop one-day matches in Colombo when their ships called in at Colombo port enroute to their respective countries. Beginning with the West Indies in 1949, sides touring India sometimes played a series in Sri Lanka. The attention devoted to such matches in the prestigious English-media newspapers was high octane.

In the meantime cricket was catching on in schools that had not featured prominently in the past, notably in the former Buddhist denominational schools Ananda and Nalanda (both Colombo), Dharmaraja (Kandy) and Mahinda (Galle). Neville Jayaweera, the far-seeing head at Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, initiated Sinhala-cricket commentaries for the annual big match between Ananda and Nalanda in the late 1960s. It involved the invention of a whole new vocabulary. This was a momentous step: it contributed to the popularity of the game and deepened refined knowledge.


Royal-Thomian -Pic by Nick Plaister


Through the years the prestige associated with the game had encouraged high levels of development, especially in the art of batting. Over time the lineages of excellent cricketers in some elite schools, notably S. Thomas’ College, crystallized and enabled Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to field teams that beat Pakistan and India on occasions in the 1960s; while several Ceylonese made their mark in English county cricket and Oxbridge in the 1950s/60s.

These achievements gained Ceylon “associate status” within ICC circles in 1965. But White nation circumspection kept the highest portals closed even after Sri Lanka won the ICC trophy for second-tier cricketing countries in 1975. These doors were eventually battered down in 1981. Test status meant tours of Sri Lanka with all its international gloss. It was precisely at this stage that, by happenchance, television (and colour television at that in contrast to India) was introduced in Sri Lanka. Cricket fervour grew apace, despite the context of increasing conflict and a civil war in the south in the years 1987-90. When Sri Lanka won the World Cup in one-day cricket in 1996, a host of people all over the country, and among migrants abroad, was glued to the TV sets. Consolidating the ‘groundwork’ provided by tennis ball cricket, the prestige of school cricket, a long pedigree of good cricketers, television’s glamourisation of the game, and the fact that it is the one game where Sri Lankans have held their own at the highest level of the international arena, that one moment on 17 March 1996 at Lahore capped it all: cricket was, in effect, crowned “The Prince of Sport in Island Lanka.”


(1 M. Roberts, Percy Colin-Thome and Ismeth Raheem, People Inbetween: The Burghers and the Middle Class in the Transformations within Sri Lanka, 1790s-1980s, Colombo: Sarvodaya, 1989, pp. 56-69, 158-59, 169.

2 Roberts, “Landmarks and Threads in the Cricketing Universe of Sri Lanka,” Sport in Society, January 2007, vol. 10, p. 123.

3 As I am from an active cricketing background dating from the mid-1950s, this evaluation is based on intimate personal knowledge. For the background, also see S. S. Perera, The Janashakthi Book of Cricket, 1832-1996, Colombo: Janashakthi Insurance, 1999.)

1 Comment

Filed under British colonialism, centre-periphery relations, communal relations, cricket for amity, cultural transmission, ethnicity, heritage, historical interpretation, landscape wondrous, life stories, nationalism, patriotism, politIcal discourse, power politics, Sri Lankan cricket, sri lankan society, world events & processes

One response to “Cricket as the Prince of Sports in Sri Lanka

  1. Pingback: Kevin Roberts pitches in –within Galle Fort | Critiquing Cricket

Leave a Reply