Evaluation: Forces and Strands in Sri Lanka’s Cricket History

Binod K. Mishra, reviewing Forces and Strands in Sri Lanka’s Cricket History” by Michael Roberts, Colombo, Social Scientists’ Association, 2006, 64 pp., 21 photographs, bibliography, Rs. 300 (paperback), ISBN 9559102826 …. location of original review and date of publication is yet unclear

“Arise Sir Davenel”

Cricket brought to Sri Lanka the reputation of, and a genuine recognition as, a nation. The rationale for such an observation is the infamous reputation Sri Lanka has earned due to decade-old ethnic rivalry and insurgency that has threatened the concept of nationhood in the country. The World Cup triumph in 1996 and the heroic performances before and after that event have put Sri Lanka prominently not onlyon the sports map but also on the political map of the world in a positive sense. But the story of the riseof Sri Lankan cricket is not a normal rags-to-riches story but is filled with events that in some sense correspond to its political history. Michael Roberts’ work presents this interesting story of Sri Lankan cricket. Written in the year 2004, the booklet recapitulates, albeit briefly, the entire history of the game on this country. It is a vivid description of the evolution of cricket in the former colony of Britain. Throughout the evolutionary history of cricket, the author finds a clear reflection of the socio-political situation of Sri Lanka.

The author focuses on the demonstrative effect of the leisurely activity of the colonial masters in the minds of the native Sri Lankans. He shows that while the natives disliked the racial chauvinism of the British, they emulated their pastimes such as sports. The emergence of a unique class namely the ‘Burgher’, meaning the descendants of the colonial powers, had far reaching impact on Sri Lankan cricket as it was this class who, owing to their exposure to the English language, felt themselves to be elites and emulated the British in all fields including cricket.

But by the mid-nineteenth century they realized that they had to assert their indigenous character as they were branded as ‘half caste’ and ‘natives’. This was a turning point in the history of Sri Lanka. It was this class that articulated, what the author calls, the ‘Ceylonese nationalism’. The Burghers dared to take on the might of the colonial masters. Realizing the futility of open confrontation, they chose the cricket field to challenge the colonizers. In the first challenge, in 1881, the team of ‘Young Ceylon’ lost badly but the challenge was renewed from time to time, primarily by the Burghers. The author gives a descriptive account of the spread of the game in the breadth of the country and establishment of native supremacy over the whites in cricket. In their attempt to fight the Europeans in a European game, the Sri Lankans showed remarkable unity, which Roberts attributes to the power of cricket which transcended politics.

Cricket evolved under the colonial patronage during the first half of the twentieth century. The author provides a brief but highly informative account of the trans-country affinities between Indians and the Sri Lankans in matters of cricket. The short discussion on the involvement of Sri Lankan cricketers in Indian cricket and reciprocal cricketing tours by Sri Lankan and Indian teams provides a nuanced comparative perspective into the evolution of cricket culture in India and Sri Lanka.

Roberts provides evidence of natural cricketing talents that flourished during the colonial times and even after independence. Sri Lankan cricketers making it to the club and university teams of Britain and faring well is informatively summarized. It is clear that during the first half of the twentieth century, high level cricket remained an opportunity available only to the elites of the Sri Lankan society, who could afford to go to London to study and thus be part of the club and universities. In the post-independence era, cricket evolved as a sport of the middle class with many limitations. Though the game attracted much popular attention, little effort was put in by the sovereign government to improve the facilities for the game.

The author points out that until the late 1970s investment in cricket was deemed imprudent as the game was considered trivial. Cricketing policy formulation and regulation of the game in the country remained in the hands of wealthy and influential persons who financially supported the game without any self-interest. Roberts identifies the democratization of the cricket administration in the context of the induction of big money into the game after the World Cup victoryof 1996. It is due to the efforts of a few personalities who remained in charge of the game for a considerable period of time between 1948 and 1994, and their leanings towards the lower strata of the society, that helped the game to achieve the popularity it currently enjoys in the island nation. The author considers the contribution of Gamini Dissanayake to be of prime importance as it was under his reign that Sri Lanka saw massive progress in cricket infrastructure and arrived at the highest level of cricketing fraternity, by becoming part of the test playing countries in 1981.

The booklet also presents the ugly trends in cricket administration that accompanied the spread of the game. The impact of the racial divide on the game is well articulated through apt examples chosen from the cricketing history. Loyalty of some of the star players was questioned as they belonged to the Tamil ethnic group that was/is blamed for dividing the island into two nations. The class character of the Sri Lankan cricket, according to the author, still persists in cricket administration. Senses of linguistic superiority, racial division and class character have all been part of Sri Lanka’s cricket history. The racial politics was always strong in colonial times even when the legendry Don Bradman was to play in the island. Similar politics was also seen during team selection in 1968. Along with all these, the author also touches upon the conspiracy that was hatched during the early 1980s to woo players to be part of the rebel tour organized by South Africa.

The results of such negative trends are captured in short spells in the book. According to Roberts, the ill treatment by the Australians during Sri Lanka’s tour of 1995 including the Muralitharan controversy strengthened the resolve of the talented pool of Sri Lankan cricketers who were determined to prove their worth in the shorter version of the game. The leadership of Arjuna Ranatunga, the support of Aravinda de Silva, the explosive batting of Sanath Jayasuriya and the hard work put in by Dav Whatmore, the foreign coach, made it possible for the Sri Lankans to win the World Cup in 1996. It is after the World Cup victory that money flowed into Sri Lankan cricket and theadministration remained drowned in the euphoria of 1996, thereby causing damage to the sport. Last but not the least, the author points out, the enigmatic captain, Arjuna Ranatunga became a larger than life figure in Sri Lankan cricket and became an authoritarian politician and cricket administrator. The frequent changes in the cricket administration in the post-1996 period bother the author and he hopes that Sri Lankan cricket will come out of the current phase of turmoil and regain its glory of 1996.

This booklet offers a highly informative account of the history of Sri Lankan cricket. Written in simple language, the book gives a view of how the socio-political setting of the island has impacted on the sport.

The booklet is a must read for anyone who is interested in understanding the nuances of Sri Lankan cricket – both past and present.

Binoda K. Mishra,  Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies, Kolkata

PS:  Mishra does not seem to have twigged that Davenel Whatmore was born in Sri Lanka and was/is thus Sri Lankan Australian in identity.

PS 2: This item is placed in THUPPAHI rather than CRICKETIQUE because the author has twigged the political strands entwined within the cricket world and the degree to which these aspects are considered within the booklet. For a broader understanding of the role of the Burghers in the initial challenges to the British colonial dispensation – especially in the literary journal YOUNG CEYLON (1850-52), see Roberts et al, PEOPLE INBETWEEN, 1989 …. or google the title of the book + “Thuppahi”

‘Natives’ watching cricket at Galle Face in the 1890s


 the team/squad that beat India in 1964/65


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