Photo courtesy Cric

When Kumar Chokshanada Sangakkara, Trinity Lion, Ryde Gold Medallist, and former captain of Sri Lanka, delivered what can only be called a magisterial oration at the 2011 MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture at Lord’s on Monday night, he not only rapidly exhausted the stock of superlatives of his audience, reviewers and fans, but also became the first Cowdrey lecturer to receive a standing ovation since Desmond Tutu in 2008. As The Guardian observed, “August company indeed.” In many ways, it is difficult to imagine someone better than Kumar Sangakkara to deliver a lecture memorialising Lord Cowdrey, who was in his time the personification of the thinking man’s cricketer, and Sangakkara has repaid MCC President Christopher Martin-Jenkins’ confidence in full. From the organisation of his argument, its learned substance, the eloquence of its delivery, and above all, its acute self-awareness of which fights to pick and which to avoid, it is abundantly clear that cricket’s gain was the law’s loss. Here is an individual who would have shone as brilliantly as he has on the cricket pitch at the Bar, the appellate Bench, or in the highest reaches of legal scholarship.

In what is, to date, this elegant southpaw’s highest Test innings of 287 against South Africa at the SSC in 2006, it is interesting to note that he played 35 fours but not a single six. That is a measure of the classicism of his top of the order batting technique, enlivened by the stylishness that comes naturally to some left-handed batsmen, and I have in mind here Lara, Sobers, Gower and Saeed Anwar, rather than Ranatunga or Gurusinha or Gilchrist. It is a measure too, it seems, of this thoughtful man’s approach to and philosophy of life. “Choice words, and measured phrase; above the reach / Of ordinary men; a stately speech!” said Wordsworth, and timeously in view of Sangakkara’s imminent arrival in Edinburgh next week, “Such as grave Livers do in Scotland use.”

I will freely admit to a case of the goose bumps as I listened to the speech, not only because of the willing thrall to which one succumbs in the vocabulary and diction of this cricketing Demosthenes, but also because of the sentiments he expressed in his masterly portrait of what it means to be Sri Lankan in our time. In order to properly appreciate this latter aspect in particular, it is necessary to set the speech in context.

The immediate context is what has been a lacklustre tour of England, in which the absence of captivating cricket has drawn more attention than would otherwise have been the case to some of the more discomfiting aspects of Sri Lankan cricket, such as the absurd recall of Sanath Jayasuriya, M.P., and the farcical spectacle enacted by Dinesh Chandimal and Angelo Mathews at the death of the Lord’s ODI in which they sailed very close to the wind in regard to the spirit of both cricket and their team, and captain Dilshan lost both his cool and his dignity from the impotence of the dressing room. This latter episode is symptomatic, not merely of the lack of judgement – Chandimal’s pursuit of personal glory and Mathews’ misplaced loyalty – of two wonderfully talented but still manifestly immature players, but also of an attitude increasingly becoming the norm in Sri Lanka, that ends justify the means, that sense, judgement, conscience and individual responsibility have no role in the choice and legitimacy if not the legality of actions, and ultimately, of the acceptability of impunity. Sangakkara’s splendid account of the spirit of Sri Lankan cricket in its historical and social setting did more than adequately to show that the game we play and love in our country is much more than the uncouthness implicit in the behaviour of Chandimal and Mathews. The political dimensions of the speech also showed, in graceful contrast to Jayasuriya, how a thinking, questioning and informed citizen can be political in a democracy without also becoming a politician.

For no fault or responsibility of the Sri Lankan cricketers, the present tour also coincided with Channel 4’s documentary on war crimes, and the ensuing bad publicity and controversy that has cast such a miserable pall over our country. I do not want to get into the details of this here, but whichever polarised end of this febrile controversy one stands on, it is clear this is a ghost of war that will not stop rattling its chains until and unless a radically different approach – one that respects the credulity and goodwill of Sri Lankan citizens and the wider world – is adopted by the government in Colombo. It is of course neither Sangakkara’s role nor responsibility to undertake this task, but in showing that sanity, moderation, and the ideal of unity in diversity has not yet died in Sri Lanka, he has given succour to a silent majority of his countrymen who are relieved that the war is over, but are increasingly apprehensive about the disquieting reality of the intolerant peace that has replaced it.

The media have mainly picked up, as has the Sports Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage – who is for all his Royalist pretensions and exhibitionist shenanigans in the Mustangs, a very ordinary man in the Wordsworthian sense – on Sangakkara’s critical observations on the vapidity, venality and violence of cricket administration in Sri Lanka today; which is understandable, but hardly fair to a lecture that was in substantive weight much more than that.

In setting out the nature of Sri Lankan cricket, its history, spirit and institutions, in the context of the social and political challenges that have confronted it, Sangakkara also articulated a worldview of Sri Lankan identity. In doing so, he was reasserting the democratic concept of civil society, and the point that articulations of the national condition are not the exclusive preserve of the ruling regime, or of politicians more generally. Informed, sceptical, critical citizens, especially those that play the role of social role models in the way that Sri Lankan cricketers do, and even more so those who like Sangakkara have contributions of quality to make, have a voice that deserves to be heard in the democratic marketplace of ideas. The risible rodomontade, dominated by populist nationalism, simplistic majoritarianism and authoritarian intolerance, that passes for political debate in our country today is not only seriously harmful to the future of our democracy, but also utterly unmerited, indeed preposterous, in a country that has formally been a democracy since 1931. So Sangakkara’s integrity and the courage of convictions that enabled him to say what he did is salutary in a broader democratic sense. The Sports Minister’s ominous announcement calling for a report on Sangakkara’s comments is a puerile, but sadly predictable, response from the ruling regime, which one hopes for all that is good and great about Sri Lanka, is not pursued with.

In substance, the vision of national identity and sense of contextualised individualism that form the subliminal undercurrent of Sangakkara’s speech hardly constitute a radical manifesto. It is a sensible, centrist, modern, pluralist worldview of unity in diversity that once used to be the stuff of mainstream, albeit high politics in Sri Lanka, and which was first enunciated by the Donoughmore Commissioners. As a society that has historically been exceptionally open to intercourse with the wider world, and within its Sinhala-Buddhist heritage, intrinsic but almost entirely unutilised resources with which to both tolerate and accommodate pluralism, Sangakkara’s views are nothing but the expression of common sense. In reaffirming this self-aware self-esteem, and in rejecting the kind of Orientalist caricature (exemplified in the famous Hargreaves cartoon of the princely Indian cricketer) he pointedly made mention of to his MCC audience, he was setting out a vision of what Kwame Anthony Appiah called ‘cosmopolitan patriotism’. In cricketing terms, the cosmopolitan patriot is one who subscribes to the universalism of the laws and spirit of cricket, but one who defends, with pride and principle, the unique ways in which different cultures and dispositions can enrich the shared game. Sangakkara spoke with affection and pride of many Sri Lankans who have contributed to this tradition in very different ways, including Arjuna Ranatunga, Muttiah Muralidaran and Mahadeva Sathasivam. But it is a tradition that goes back to Ranjitsinghji, and it is not difficult to extrapolate from this cricketing analogy a more general worldview about self and space, society and state.

To the extent this is seen as a departure from the current mainstream, then it is really a comment on how extreme and non-inclusive that mainstream has become. It is possible of course to quibble with the details, including as one friend asked me, how could he take such a critical attitude only to cricket administration but ignore the absence of a post-war constitutional settlement and the frenetic militarisation of the North? There are other issues; including in methodological and ideological terms, his reconstruction of history, his observations on socio-economic class, and especially, the stridently unitary ideal of national identity (i.e., that Sri Lankan unity is synonymous with one nation) that I find is neither necessary nor desirable for the telos of unity he so passionately defends. But I think it is both churlish and beside the point to nitpick. He has articulated a positive worldview of political moderation, and he has used that as a backdrop for his critique of cricket administration, which as an element of the broader panoply of issues relating to democratic governance we encounter in Sri Lanka, is important in its own right.

Taken within its own terms thus, the 2011 Cowdrey Lecture was a consummate piece of work that has raised a voice of integrity and decency in a post-war democratic debate that was going stale. In doing so, Kumar Sangakkara, Sri Lankan patriot and rooted cosmopolitan, has become something more than a cricketer, but quite what that is, remains to be seen. I hope in this that his ideal is C.L.R. James, not Imran Khan.

  • myil selvan

    Well, Kumar finally said it. So now let’s look at the Channel 4 video and the GoSL’s response in this context.

    Who do you believe now?

    • Dr Dayan Jayatilleka

      By all means let us look (as Myil Selvan urges)at Channel 4 and GoSL’s response in the light of Sangakkara’s superb oratory, since he clearly reaffirms the multiethnic, multicultural reality of every day social life in Sri Lanka–hardly an endorsement of the lurid depiction of Sri Lanka as a land of ‘apartheid’ and ‘genocide’. His final declaration, in words that race to the boundary as it were, is that he Sangakkara was and is always proudly Sri Lankan. No self-flagellation or renuciation of identity there; only a broadly inclusionary patriotism.

      Publius’ is an excellent exegesis-cum-critical commentary. It is only in his final sentence that he goes for a Kanhaiesque ‘falling hook’ and gets a thick inside edge: Sangakkara’s speech, as Publius rightly says, was a model of moderation, while CLR James, whom he commends and recommends, was a radical, even a revolutionary of Left persuasion. The author of Beyond A Boundary, he is perhaps best defined by the title of his best known work– The Black Jacobins.

      • Asanga Welikala


        Thank you for the compliment and the critique. Rather than me getting an attempted hook wrong, I think the final sentence was more of a flighted invitation to hook; but I should perhaps be grateful that you did not use the spin metaphor about the piece as a whole!

        You are right of course about James’ politics (in addition to The Black Jacobins, perhaps the even more pointed reference from the James oeuvre that is relevant to your argument is The Case for West Indian Self-Government), which I am fully aware of, but I would point you also to the theme of what he calls ‘puritanism’ that counterbalances his Marxist radicalism (see inter alia, the three chapters of Part I and the chapter entitled ‘Prolegomena to W.G.’ in Beyond a Boundary). It is this nuanced political (and personal) disposition that has made James a more interesting figure than the mono-dimensional ideologue you suggest he was.

        My point in using James in juxtaposition with Khan (and Ranatunga and Jayasuriya by implication) had nothing to do with the substantive politics of either. Based on the distinction between the public and the political, I was hoping that Sangakkara’s post-Cowdrey life would be as an intelligent, cultured and informed citizen-commentator, which would be infinitely more valuable than getting into politics, even though for both forms of activity, he undoubtedly has all the talents. Therefore, the allusion is to James, the man of letters, rather than James, the revolutionary anti-imperialist of the Fanon era.

    • myil selvan

      Dear Dr.DJ,
      Kumar Sangakkara’s well received speech was well received not because of his reaffirmation of the multiethnic and multicultural reality of Sri Lanka. We don’t need him for that, we have the Ministry of Tourism for that. But rather his reaffirmation of the Sri Lankan government’s dishonesty and corruption. He got a standing ovation because he plainly showed to the cricketing world the hypocrisy and bankruptcy of the Sri Lankan government, sometimes descending into raw thuggery.

      Ironically, Kumar is in a convenient position to talk about, proudly being Sri Lankan. Unfortunately the Thamil people in the Northeast didn’t have that luxury. He came from a well to do family, went to a great school and became Cricket Captain of Sri Lanka. Got fame, fortune and endorsements. Does he need to look for greener pastures? I believe, for this speech he had to.

      Hence through his speech Kumar Sangakkara was saying “the Channel 4 video is tragically TRUE!

      People who worked for the GoSL for their own enrichment either for positions or possessions are now trying to hop on the bandwagon and ignore their stained white suits!

      No self-flagellation or renuciation of identity, please.

  • Sadun

    I would have given far more credence to what Kumar Sanggakkara has said if he has chosen to tour England instead of joining IPL when Arjuna tried to arrange a tour there. So I would say Kumar Sangakkara is correct but a dollar late in hindsight.

    And one don’t have to speak in Britain to be recognised as a great orator. They banned Angampora and shot those who practiced it in the 19th century Sri Lanka fearing the sport would overthrow their colonial regime from the country.

    • N

      @Sadun – easier said than done when it’s your bread and butter you are dealing with. Besides its the IPL money that gives Sangha the security to really speak out else Aluthgamage and his corrupt cronies would destroy his livelihood.

      It was the platform that he gave the speech added to its resonance, i.e. ‘Spirit of Cricket’ not so much the country.

  • yapa

    Kumar Sangakkara not only bombed the corrupted castles of the Cricket and Political Administration of this country, also gave a good slap across the faces of the colonials who had eaten our countries to the bones.

    Coudrey and his fellows were kept in the right places, Coudery as a great cricketer and colonials as a menace. By doing so Sanga placed himself as a great cricketer and as a brave lion who does not fear to roar at the right place.

    Three hurrays for Sanga! We need the heroes of your kind.


  • yapa

    I think the writer’s main aim is not to review the Sanga’s lecture and its impacts on our society, but to use the opportunity created as a vehicle to push forward his belief of political ideology to the readers. He shows reluctance to appreciate what should be appreciated in Sanga’s lecture, but find faults with it for not including what he thinks proper to be included in Sanga’s lecture. He also tries to cut down Sanga and his world view just to a “jargon word” of his political vocabulary, the cosmopolitan patriot to undermine Sanga and to inflate his political ego. It seems the writer wants Sanga to talk about everything in the world in his lecture. Criticizing is easier than delivering a lecture, and finding loop holes is much easier. We must prepared to give the due honour and respect to a man who has done something unimaginable considering the context he himself is in at present. No anybody other than a hero would undertake such a valiant task, placing himself in danger.

    One should not use such an occasion to undermine such heroic task just for personal glorification of ego and for the benefit of petty political ideology he believes to be true. We must learn to appreciate and admire what is deserved for them, not letting our egos to interfere.



  • ordinary lankan

    KS as a human being;
    KS as a commodity; and
    KS as a spokesman for the so called ‘rooted cosmopolitans’
    all very interesting facets….

    his excellence is only threatened by his own mediocrity and his seamless connection to the despicable falsehood of commercial advertising. This seems rather inexplicably self-destructive to me.

    It is also a regular sign of Sri lankan mediocrity to be satisfied with partial achievements – like this speech. I think Kumar can and must do better.

    he is not an arjuna ranatunga – and of course he can be himself. but if he is going to be a spokesperson for these suddenly rooted cosmospolitans we have to consider what he is up against.

    After DS and Dudley our pluralist multi-ethnic – liberal what have you’s have lost mass appeal and the common touch completely. whether we like it or not this api venuven api ideology won the war and Gunadasa Amarasekera can put his feet up –

    it does not matter how stupid jathika chinthanaya and Nalin silvas are – they have conveyed something and the masses have found it closest to their hearts.

    So the sooner Kumar switches to the vernacular more the better. and less of these idiotic ads please!!!

    Except for that my heartiest congratulations.

  • “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way” In apology to Kumar Sangakkara

    Much can be said for my admiration of President Rajapaksa and the current SLGov style of bludgeoning ones head with a cudgel when expressing dissatisfaction to their style of dictator-like governance. Truth be said, winning the war against terrorism and making Sri Lanka sovereign once again is the primary factor of my support to him.

    The fact that admittedly I have racist tendencies that I prefer to not hide does also contribute to this admiration. Strange it may be so that I am now a Sri Lankan domiciled in England purely for the reason of making sure my child gets the best possible education available to anyone in the world. Justified by the fact that she won a place at one of the top ten schools in the United Kingdom to sit her advanced levels. Sorry I digress, but this is but to show my selfishness. Yes, and must brag a wee bit no?

    When Kumar Sangakkara first made his talk at Lords I was immensely pleased. I did so and immediately went on to provide a link to this talk on my social media page. Kumar will probably not remember but when he went out to have a hit before his innings at Lords I was one of the people lining up at the Lords nursery grounds to shout out to him ‘Century at Lords Please’. The century came later in the tour, so did the now famous speech. And in my little world of prejudice and jealousy of all things ‘British’ I chose to lash out at Kumar for complaining about Sri Lanka Cricket and political interference of sports in Sri Lanka internationally.

    I completely forget and or actually chose to ignore his courage and bravery. As a Sri Lankan who loves Sri Lanka so much I forgot how important the forum and the talk was.

    Kumar if you ever get to read this, my sincere apologies to you and admiration of you.

    I trust and know that soon a test match will be held at Lords with a win for Sri Lanka. The sun will set and the covers will come on the pitch. There will be awe as the scoreboard reads ‘Kumar Sangakkara 200 not out’, ‘Sri Lanka win by an innings’.

    Kumar Sangakkara is a true Lion of Sri Lanka.

    The entire best Sir.

    Dhammika Dharmawardhane

    • myil selvan

      So are you the epitome of “Hypocrisy is a virtue”?

      The LION is a myth.
      Singapore (Lion city) was thus called because somebody saw a Lion in the area. But historians now say the animal that was seen was most probably a Tiger. Because Tigers habit those areas. In the same way the Lion the sinhalese refer to comes from a myth that a Lion married a woman and their decedents are the sinhalese. But where does this myth come from? It comes from the Bengali area, which is again an area habituated by the Tiger!
      Let’s stop with the myths.
      Most Sri Lankans are probably from South India of Dravidian stock. Thank you.

  • ordinary lankan



    no lions here – just human beings

    the sooner we get over this lion nonsense the better

    • yapa

      Dear ordinary lankan;

      I think there are no human being either according to the philosophy of Nagarjuna, Sunyatha.

      Don’t you think we should get away with the “nonsense of human beings” as well, just as the lion nonsense?


  • ordinary lankan

    Dear Yapa

    (in a kind of lighter vein actually….)

    There are 2 linguistic concepts according to Prof. Kalupahana.

    1. Vijjamana concepts are based on our actual experience – like feelings, emotions and thoughts – the dharma is really based on this essence. This will also include the identification of things – not based on their conventional description – eg a desk but their actual character – ie hardness and earth quality.

    2. Avijjamana concepts based on all the conventional liguistic usage that simple makes life easy and practical. These have a strictly functional value even though the description is not true in the Buddhist sense. It is only our convention to call a desk a desk. If we agree we can call a desk a chair and vice versa. It is all based on our agreement.

    As you will see most of our debate on this site is based on avijjamana concepts – what Buddha called animal talk. perhaps that makes us all different types of animals!!!!

    Not that this has much to do with Kumar. I mean I support him fully for raising the issues he has done with SLC. Whether he should have raised these internally or not etc are more technical issues. His dissent at this point of time is valuable.

    • yapa

      Dear ordinary lankan;

      I totally agree with what you say about Avijjamana concepts, usually taken as “conventional truths”, especially in Buddhist philosophy. They are not considered as “absolute truths” or “objective truths”.It is so because, those “truths” depend not only on the “object” of observation, but also on the “observer” as well. Those truths do not represent only the intrinsic nature of the “object” itself, and hence do not represent the “objective realities” alone.

      For example “red colour” of a flower is not an objective(absolute) truth, because a cat sees that red colour as ash colour. Red is not intrinsic to the flower alone, but should be attributed to the “human nature” as well. For “cat nature”, red becomes “ash”, hence “red” and “ash” are only conventional or relative truths . “Colour” is not an absolute property of the flower. However, as you have pointed out the conventional concepts “red” has a functional value for humans and that “ash” has a functional value for cats.

      Now, you classify the dharma as Vijjamana concepts again as a way of identification of things, based on experience – like feelings, emotions and thoughts and indicates that they are not “conventional truths” but as “actual”.

      While the identifications with a “functional value” are taken as “conventional” or “relative” concepts, you indicate to call identification of things based on “”actual”(???)experience” based on like feelings, emotions and thoughts as “Absolute” or “actual” truths.
      You have not given any special reason why the second type of identification is considered to be absolute or actual. Can’t they be another type of relative concepts different from the relative concepts which have a functional value?

      What are the reasons you have to say the second type of concepts are not “another perspective” of identification of things? One other “relative human perspective”?

      While calling a desk a desk is conventional and relative, why not we call, taking a desk as a “state of ever changing flux” or “Sunyatha” as a conventional and relative concepts? What reasons justify the taking of (all) dharmas and specially “Sunyatha” not as conventional and relative truths but as “actual” or “absolute” concepts(or truths or realities)?

      In plain language how do you justify calling “Sunyatha” as “Reality” or “Absolute” Truth or “Arya Sathya” or “Noble Truth”, claimed by Mahayanists?

      How do you say experiencing “Sunyatha” in meditation is the experiencing of reality? How do you justify it is experiencing “Nirvana” or it is the true path to Nirvana?


      • yapa

        Dear ordinary lankan;

        Do you think you have not got confused Vijjamana and Avijjamana for ech other?

        I think,

        Vijjaman = vidyamana = visible

        Avijjamana = Avidyamana = not visible,

        I think (obviously) visible things are day to day identifications that have functional value and hence should be Vijjamana. In contrast, feelings, emotions and thoughts like are “comparatively difficult to be seen” hence should be Avijjamana.

        That is how I feel like about it, but I am not very sure about it.


  • wijayapala

    Does nobody else feel that Sanga’s inflated oratory skills are absolutely nothing compared to the fabulous performance given by Shavendra Silva at the UN?