Meera Srinivasan:, in The Hindu, 17 August 2017, where the title is “Evoking the Politics of Cricket in Sri Lanka,”
Sparked by Imran Khan’s ascent to the Prime Minister’s chair in Pakistan, sporting fans in Sri Lanka have been quick to pitch their own cricket stars as prospective leaders. And going by social media endorsements, Kumar Sangakkara is clearly a favourite.
In their eyes, ‘Sanga’, with his known record of speaking truth to power, has potential of becoming President in 2020. Some even came up with a “dream team” led by the prudent batsman — not test or one day, but a Cabinet of Ministers under his leadership. For those who nurtured hope for Mr. Sangakkara’s political entry, especially after his thoughtful tweet on Sri Lanka’s Civil War anniversary this year, calling for solemn reflection to remember all Sri Lankan lives lost to war and to “open our hearts so that we are able to feel another’s pain without judgement…”, it didn’t last long.
In his typically unambiguous style, the cricketing icon made an announcement on his official Facebook Page, putting to rest “speculation and rumour once and for all”. “I do not harbour any ambitions for political office. I never have, and with enormous certainty, I can say I never will.” The excitement around a Sangakkara candidacy may have been short-lived, but the spotlight yet again turned on the touchy relationship between cricket and politics in Sri Lanka.
The 1996 victory
Not that it went unnoticed before, but the electoral victory of Mr. Khan instantly sparked speculation about the political future of his cricketing counterparts in the region. Arjuna Ranatunga who, in his earlier avatar, led Sri Lanka to its most memorable international cricket feat, the 1996 World Cup, is currently the Minister of Petroleum Resources Development.
While politician Ranatunga has over 15 years’ experience in the electoral arena, he has seldom articulated a desire or vision for a greater role in national politics. All the same, Mr. Ranatunga frequently comments on all things political in Sri Lankan cricket — from corruption to match-fixing.
Speaking to fans of the game reveals that it is almost impossible to discuss politics and cricket, without evoking the politics of cricket in the country.
According to Andrew Fidel Fernando, a cricket writer with Cricinfo, although political interference in cricket may have begun with good intentions — former Minister Gamini Dissanayake was instrumental to Sri Lanka gaining Test status in 1982— the relationship has deteriorated since, “to such an extent that now there is no more serious challenge to cricket’s health than the island’s politics.”
In his view, while those involved in politics and cricket claim they are using their political influence to develop cricket, they often use cricket to further their political interests. “They feel they can raise their profile by being associated with what is essentially the only pan-Sri Lankan passion,” he told The Hindu.
The trend began with the 1996 victory, said former cricketer and senior cricket administrator Chandra Schaffter. It came at a time when the island’s civil war had entered its third phase, when the armed conflict between the military and the rebel Tigers had intensified. Probing the transformation of cricket at that time, Pravada magazine in a 1999 editorial said that a nation that was going through a “painful process of self-demoralisation could then find pride in a collective fantasy of a world conqueror.”
That 1996 win brought about a quantum change to the quality of cricket, the perceptions of the game and the finances it drew, Mr. Schaffter noted. “It seemed natural that cricketers [with political ambition] would cash in on their cricket fan base to build a political base.” That is what Mr. Ranatunga or Sanath Jayasuriya, who was Member of Parliament during ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s tenure from 2010-15, did. “They parachuted into politics,” Mr. Schaffter said.
Clearly, cricket helped further their political ambition, but did the game gain from their entry into politics? There are certainly some benefits, said Mr. Fernando, pointing to the government making allowances for cricket, but there is a flipside to it. The country’s Sports Law requires the sitting Sports Minister to approve every national team that is named — a requirement that at times get abused by politicians, who insist on certain players being named or excluded for political reasons, rather than cricketing ones, Mr. Fernando pointed out. “Politics is without a doubt a net negative in cricket.”