Gideon Haigh, in The Weekend Australian, 19-20 January 2019, where the title is “Crisis of cricket and democracy in Sri Lanka”
In Shehan Karunatilaka’s kaleidoscopic novel of Sri Lanka and cricket, Chinaman, the narrator stops to consider whether the game is so nationally useful at all. “Does Sri Lanka need more schoolteachers, more soldiers or more wicketkeepers?’’ he asks. “A middle-order batsman or a bank manager? A specialist gully fieldsman or a civil engineer?’’ Needless to say, he resolves the conundrum favourably to the game. “Left-arm spinners cannot unclog your drains, teach your children or cure you of disease,” he concludes. “But once in a while, the very best of them will bowl a ball that will bring an entire nation to its feet. And while there may be no practical use in that, there is almost certainly value.”
Just lately, however, Australia’s next Test opponents have given their nation little reason to rise. Sri Lanka’s peerless left-arm spinner Rangana Herath, who twisted Australia round his tubby fingers when the teams last met in 2016, retired last year, following the example of the great axis of Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene.
In Tests, one-day and T20 internationals, Dinesh Chandimal’s team ranks sixth, eighth and ninth respectively; largely excluded from the spoils of global T20, handicapped by a moribund national economy and anachronistic government oversight, it is barely holding on.
Sri Lanka Cricket, the national cricket body, is a mess, leaking money like a pokies addict, going through coaches like Spinal Tap through drummers. Most humiliatingly, it has been identified as an exposed flank in the game’s campaign to thwart corruption.
In the past few years, domestic cricket matches have been brazenly manipulated and individuals detained for suspicious attachment to their mobile telephones at local and international games. Not perhaps the best time to be chaired by Thilanga Sumathipala, a politician and conglomerateur whose interests encompass a betting shop chain.
SLC’s quarrels are so severe, in fact, it languishes at the moment without office bearers, having last May been prevented from re-electing Sumathipala by a legal challenge from one of its many factions. Newly appointed sports minister Harin Fernando was informed in Dubai at the end of last year that the International Cricket Council regarded the country’s cricket administration as “corrupt from top to bottom”.
Its CFO has recently been arrested for misappropriation of millions of broadcast dollars; its previous secretary faces ongoing charges of money laundering. It is presently under the jurisdiction of an interim advisory committee reporting to Fernando, who has promised elections next month even if none of the candidates fill anyone with confidence.
With SLC having also recently jettisoned its anti-corruption chief, the ICC has foreshadowed the unprecedented step of opening its own permanent office in Sri Lanka, headed by a former member of the Metropolitan Police’s flying squad. It has multiple investigations running, with charges already laid against former international players Sanath Jayasuriya, Nuwan Zoysa and Dilhara Lokuhettige, and has reported monitoring as many as 20 “very active corrupters”; it has offered an unprecedented amnesty to any individuals who have failed to report a corrupt approach, expiring Tuesday week.
This is, of course, an old, old story. It’s a quarter of a century now since Mark Waugh and Shane Warne were befriended by the archetypal “corruptor”, John the Bookie, in a casino in Colombo.
Six years ago, SLC promoted a T20 premier league, which lasted one seedy season, players being paid in bricks of cash, and at least one franchise being reputedly owned by bookmakers. In a television sting, six umpires revealed that they were prepared to sell decisions; two were suspended. Three years ago, SLC slapped a life ban on a net bowler Gayan Vishwajith, who had allegedly mooted a fixing arrangement with key players, and suspended bowling coach Anusha Samaranayake, who had introduced Vishwajith to the team circle.
The ICC was drawn in after a one-day international series 18 months ago that Sri Lanka managed to lose to Zimbabwe, predictably occasioning howls of dismay, and a direct accusation by former player Pramodaya Wickramasinghe that the games had been thrown. The players signed a petition protesting their innocence, although their captain Angelo Mathews stood down, and interim coach Nic Pothas left soon after.
Even then, Al Jazeera was at work on its two ambitious if uneven exposes of cricket corruption, which aired last May, whose most disturbing sequences involved an apparent racket for the fixing of pitches at picturesque Galle, including in the Test that Australia lost there in 2016 by losing 20 wickets in 501 balls. More names, more suspensions, more chaos, including the collapse of plans to revive the T20 premier league, although, perhaps most significantly, a badly deteriorating political environment.
Looking on from our state of prosperous overmanaged muddle, we’re apt to forget how good we have it. In noting that 2018 was a bad year for Sri Lankan cricket, we should note also that it was a very bad year for Sri Lankan democracy, rocked by President Maithripala Sirisena’s attempts to install his notoriously authoritarian predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister over the head of incumbent Ranil Wickremesinghe.
During the ensuing constitutional crisis, bribes were offered and punches thrown in parliament; the legislature remains groggy; the economy, downgraded by three ratings agencies, is out for the count, lighter $US1 billion in foreign reserves, and pending a $US1.5bn bailout by the International Monetary Fund. Some of this is an outcome of unresolved agonies of the sanguinary civil war, some the business of dealing with Indian and Chinese spheres of influence that increasingly overlap. But by the estimate of The Economist Intelligence Unit, in no country did the cause of democracy retreat so far as Sri Lanka last year. If a country’s political and social institutions are subverted, their sporting counterparts are hardly likely to be otherwise.
Cricket in Sri Lanka will always be vulnerable. In a poor country it is one of the few sources of influence, glamour, hard currency and international connection. Right now it is being buffeted internally and externally in ways that reflect the instability of its game and its region.
Every so often, sport being sport, its representatives will be able to close the gap on the rest of the world. But as the speaker in Chinaman notes, such solace as this affords is only ever temporary: “Real life is lived at 2 runs an over, with a dodgy lbw every decade.’’
GIDEON HAIGH …. SENIOR CRICKET WRITER ……. Gideon Haigh has been a club cricketer since he was nine and a journalist since he was 18. He is the author of 30 books, 20 of them about cricket.