Thousands gathered in Galle to protest the government which has led them into economic chaos. …. [SCENE OUTSIDE the northern entrance to the cricket grounds …. Pix from AFP]
There are kids up on the fort at Galle
, on the ramparts overlooking the cricket ground. A woman had brought her five-month old in a frontpack. There are children in prams, which parents had to lift over bollards to get up on to the fort’s ramparts. There are toddlers, kids of primary school age, sometimes with their parents and
Families chanting, yelling, holding up signs, clapping, cracking jokes. The kind of multi-generational crowd cricket boards all over the world desperately want at their matches.
But no one is here for the cricket. A Test merely happens to be in the background.
The last few months in Sri Lanka
have been extraordinary. A harrowing economic crisis has crushed livelihoods, taken lives, sapped a nation, and inspired unthinkable fury towards the leaders that brought the island to this precipice. For months people have agitated nationwide
for the removal of these leaders, but they have obstinately remained in place.
Worse, they have aimed the state’s power at these protests. This was a minor infraction in the big picture, but last week
, protesters were removed from the fort at Galle by police and military, who cooked up bogus reasons to justify their actions (they claimed batters were being distracted by the signs). On day one of this second Test, no spectators were allowed on the fort’s ramparts at all
. This part of the fort is public space. Taxpayer rupees maintain it.
When the Test began on Saturday, only cops and military patrolled the ramparts. But this would be no ordinary Test match day. This was a day when Sri Lanka’s public, battered endlessly, but not defeated, took back what was theirs.
Twenty minutes after the start of play, a crowd of thousands has gathered near the bus station outside the ground, where the protests were set to be held. Many of them had arrived on the back of packed lorries, and had hoped to travel on to Colombo, where the biggest protests in Sri Lanka’s history were about to happen. But the government has cancelled buses and trains to prevent their travel, so they are stuck in Galle. They can’t take Colombo. So they take the fort instead.
Almost spontaneously, this loud, colourful throng charges around the ground to the fort’s entrance. Chanting, arms raised, lungs emptied, and emptied again. These are not the kind of purists that are looking to quietly admire a fast bowler’s wrist position, or a spinner’s angled seam. They burst through the fort’s main arch. Through sheer numbers, they turn gun-toting military men into statues. There was no turning back a movement of this magnitude.
Within minutes, a larger crowd than any that has been seen at the Tests all series, packs out the top of the fort. They rail against the government, wave their black protest flags, and the Sri Lanka flag, taking in the cricket, but taking no notice of it. “Look at them, huddled in a corner,” one woman says of the men carrying 10-rounds-a-second automatic weapons, who have meekly moved to the very edge of the ramparts, well out of the protesters’ way.
How joyfully we watch cricket, usually. But to watch cricket, there has to be a country left for us to watch it in, no?
A Sri Lanka fan taking part in the protests
In normal times, this would be a joyous Test-match session
. Sri Lanka take the five remaining Australia wickets quickly. They put themselves in a position from which victory is still conceivable – no small thing for a side due to bat last in Galle.
One cricket fan I speak to, sees a wicket go down (Pat Cummins out lbw on review), and says this: “Api kocchara aasaven cricket balanavada. Habayi cricket balanna ratak ithuru vela tiyenna oney ne?” [How joyfully we watch cricket, usually. But to watch cricket, there has to be a country left for us to watch it in, no?]
A few minutes, later, she finds me again, and asks out of interest what the score is. I’m a cricket writer, ostensibly here to cover the match. I had to look up the details for her online.
As chants continue to go up, the Sri Lanka team stare up from their celebratory wicket-huddles. The umpires, and the Australia batters glancing up between the overs as well. Then the crowd decides to move downwards, off the fort where they cannot gather in a cluster, and back down to Galle’s central intersection – the protest’s epicentre.
On the way down, I hear a young guy call my name, having recognised me. “Me and my friends came from Matara (about 50kms east) with the little petrol we have in our bikes,” he said. “Normally, I’ll read or watch everything about cricket.” I ask him whether he’d wanted to stay up on the fort. “Today we all have to be on the roads. Another day, there will be time.”
The protest came down into the middle of town, right outside the stadium’s gate, grew right through the morning, and stayed thousands-strong until dusk. After the people had taken back the fort in the morning, tens of thousands stormed the president’s residence in Colombo, back-flipping into the presidential swimming pool, rifling through the kitchens, old ladies taking turns having a seat on the president’s furniture, in the vast living rooms paid for by their taxes.
There was only a smattering of local spectators actually inside the ground all day. But the stadium was nevertheless electric, chants, speeches, and songs pouring out of the protests just outside.
Sri Lanka had their best day of the series, and it was not as if the thousands who came did not want to care. They were just fighting for a future in which they could.