Cricketing controversies

I have always been a cricket fan.  Cricket turns me into a flag waving, national anthem singing patriot and believer in the power of cricket to unite, to overcome all that is ugly and divisive in our country.  As a child I even collected newspaper articles about my favourite cricketers which I pasted neatly in large exercise books.  I remember reading with pride what foreign cricketing correspondents had to say about Sri Lanka’s first test match at Lords, about the spirit of Sri Lankan cricket, the gentleness, humour and courtesy of our cricket team; I was convinced that Sri Lankan cricket and cricketers could do no wrong.  I have no illusions about this: these are clearly my latent middle class, romantic, public school impulses that years of exposure to a harsher and more realistic world have till recently failed to completely subdue.

Lately though my love affair with cricket (perhaps in best tradition of all great love affairs) has taken a bit of a beating.  It started while watching the last World Cup opening ceremony in Dhaka, Bangladesh.  After being entertained by energetic, vibrant displays from India and Bangladesh reflecting all the diversity and colour of those two countries as well as a spirit of fun and celebration, I waited in anticipation for the Sri Lankan slot.  And what we got to my complete horror was a history lesson, Rajapakse style.  As I first watched in disbelief a group of ‘modern’ Sri Lankan singers pranced around looking neither cool nor entertaining and I prayed fervently that things would improve from that point;  alas, then we had a re-enactment of something that looked like the arrival of Vijaya as chronicled in the Mahavamsa.  In complete contrast to how India and Bangladesh presented themselves, as modern nations looking forward and gaining strength from celebrating the diversity of their peoples and cultures, Sri Lanka presented itself as looking back to history for inspiration (not in itself a bad thing) but a particular history that highlighted only the story of one of its communities.

I was beside myself with frustration.  Didn’t this regime at least have the political intelligence to realise that whatever its intentions it should at least pretend that it is interested in reconciliation?  And that perhaps, to showcase the arrival of the Lion people in Sri Lanka was not the most inclusive message that should be broadcast to the world at the end of a devastating war?  Then I realised that this is nothing to do with intelligence but the sheer arrogance of this regime and an articulation of its truly racist base and that therefore to expect anything different would have been futile.  This regime is nothing if not based on Sinhala Buddhist supremacy thinking and that is evident in everything it does.

I lost any interest in the World Cup from that point.  The thought of how a potential victory would be manipulated by the Rajapakse regime to represent their personal agenda was too much to contemplate and for the first time in my life, I actually wanted Sri Lanka not to win a cricket tournament.  This feeling was merely reaffirmed with the sight of Namal Rajapakse, cocky and shameless as ever, handing out awards at the Mahinda Rajapakse International Cricket Stadium.  The instructions to residents around the Sri Lankan cricket stadiums to clean up their houses, to drape Sri Lankan flags on the roads, to present a ‘tourist friendly’ façade, whatever their actual poverty stricken circumstances merely cemented this feeling of disillusionment.  The spectacle of politicians (including Presidential father and his ambitious son) and cricketing administrators jostling for VIP seats at the final as if their place there was a god given right, rumours of political interference and the glum expressions on the faces of the Sri Lankan cricketers at the final in Mumbai was a fitting end to this World Cup.  I am no cricketing pundit, but clearly the one sport at which Sri Lanka was able to compete internationally and win, has also become a victim of the Rajapakse regime’s insatiable desire to control and invade every aspect of our lives for the sake of their aggrandisement.

And now we have Kumar Sangakkara’s much publicised speech at the MCC. There is no doubt, that Sangakkara is an extremely intelligent, articulate and eloquent man and his speech at the MCC displayed these qualities admirably. However, does the content of his speech warrant the excitement that it has generated?  Can his speech be hailed as a strike against this regime and Sri Lanka’s political structures?  I have no bones to pick with his analysis of Sri Lankan cricket and what happened to it after Sri Lanka won the World Cup in 1996.  The criticisms he made of the politicisation and corruption of the Sri Lankan Cricket Board were spot on. However, to pretend that this speech was anything more than that I think is a mistake.  To consider Sangakkara an anti-establishment hero, would be to read into this speech far more than perhaps even Sangakkara intended.

Sangakkara’s interpretation of key political events in Sri Lanka was either less intelligent or extremely discreet and shrewd. His portrayal of the JVP insurrection of 1989 was carefully one sided and his representation of the 30 year ethnic conflict and the end of the war was from a wholeheartedly Sinhala perspective.  His celebration of the end of the war and resulting ability of his children to go to school without fear left out a whole story about the suffering and pain wrought mainly on the Tamil community that was the cost of that peace.  One could arguably still justify the end of the war, but never without acknowledging the human cost of ending that war.  To do so indicates an extreme insensitivity to the pain and suffering of others.

In presenting this highly sanitised version of the last months of the war, Sangakkara fitted in perfectly with the Rajapakse regimes’ interpretation of events.  It is no accident that Gotabhaya Rajapakse has hailed Sangakkara’s speech or that the ilk of Gomin Dayasiri and S.L Gunasekera too have applauded Sangakkara.  Their approval comes from the Sinhala Buddhist supremacist’s perspective.   From their point of view, Sangakkara achieved what no Sri Lankan diplomat has been able to do so far; to present a sanitised view of the Sri Lankan conflict and to receive a standing ovation for doing so from a mainly white, Western audience – traditionally this regime’s strongest critiques!  The fact that the Sports Minister was unable to recognise this and instead proceeded to put his foot in it by calling for an inquiry on Sangakkara is merely an indication of his own lack of intelligence and foresight.  In doing so, he too contributed to making Sangakkara more of a hero than he need be – not only did Sangakkara speak the truth, now he is being persecuted for it!

Furthermore, Sangakkara’s analysis of cricket’s ability to unite and bring together people, to lead reconciliation efforts in the post-war era, while romantic and resounding with the spirit of the ‘gentleman’s game’ is unrealistic to say the least.  Sri Lankan cricket has never been able to do that.  For all the hype about the multicultural nature of the Sri Lankan cricket team, and Murali being constantly hailed as the symbol of this multiculturalism, Murali let us not forget is a ‘good’ Tamil: one that is acceptable to the Sinhalese.  I very much doubt if any other type of Tamil, or member of other minority group would have made it to the Sri Lankan team.  While Sangakkara’s tsunami stories were touching, they if anything highlighted the generosity and the resilience of the people in those camps than the power of cricket.  I very much wonder if the cricketers visited the IDP camps at the end of the war and what kind of reception they would have got had they gone then.

Finally, there is one other point that perhaps explains the excitement that Sangakkar’s speech has generated; Sangakkara comes from the kind of elite social background that gives him the kind of standing and protection that appeals across political divides.  A product of Trinity College, from a well connected family, his polished English and cosmopolitan ways speaks to a certain class as well.  Unsurprisingly, even the more vociferous critiques of this regime especially of its conduct during the last days of the war have been uncritically admiring of Sangakkara’s MCC speech.  That admiration is perhaps not so much for the content of his speech, but his delivery and image which makes him such a hit within the international community as well as among the Sri Lankan elite community.  Although Sangakkara pointed out the elite nature of cricket traditions in Sri Lanka and applauded its gradual democratisation (at least socially), again, this is not the whole truth.  Sanath Jayasuriya and others may have come from less privileged backgrounds but where are they today?  Do they in any way represent the interests of those whose backgrounds they once shared?

The overwhelmingly warm reception for Sangakkara’s speech clearly affirms that at the end of the day, social and class ties speak louder than any political position. The fact that Sangakkara’s performance was so polished and that he held his own at the Mecca of English cricket would have warmed the cockles of the hearts of most self-conscious post-colonialists.  After all, he showed them; that a Sri Lankan can be as good if not better than any one of them!

Arjuna Ranatunga is perhaps the anti-thesis of this; Ranatunaga would never have been invited to make such a speech in the first place; neither would he have managed to please so many people.  He would definitely have caused far more controversy and garnered far less support.  Ranatunga’s positions (rightly or wrongly) are far more challenging and make more people uncomfortable. Ranatunga could have made a speech similar to that of Sangakkara and it would have been received quite differently; his presence alone which displays a certain carelessness and disregard for norms and conventions can make people uncomfortable. Ranatunga was not a ‘gentleman cricketer’ and he cultivated that image shrewdly to his own and Sri Lankan cricket’s advantage.  I suspect Sangakkara himself is intelligent enough to understand this which is why he dwelt at length on Ranatunga’s contribution to Sri Lankan cricket.

Let’s enjoy Sangakkara’s speech for what it was: an articulate and intelligent analysis of the history of Sri Lankan cricket and its current position.  In doing so, he identified very clearly who was responsible for its current malaise.  Beyond that, Sangakkara played it safe.  That does not diminish in any way from what he accomplished, but it does not make him a political hero.  I very much doubt if he intended it to be otherwise.

  • veedhur

    A great analysis.

    When ‘progressives’ like Vasu/Dew et al sing hosannas to Rajapakse and his ways and ‘intellectuals’ like Dayan and Victor carry the can for the regime….the tamils have to be thankful for the small mercies like ‘Sanga’.

    He was not expected to give a political speech on national politics or ethnic reconciliation, merely to recollect his growing up experience. Valorizing him and the little he said is an indication of the dearth of alternative voices and space for dissent. Nothing more!

  • http://www.twitter.com/ThilinaRa Thilina Rajapakse

    Well Said!!

  • ordinary lankan

    Samanmalee

    I like your analysis.

    But if you ignore the polish and go for the raw substance we are left with his all embracing statement where he identified himself with all races and religions in this country.

    I would still treasure that. It had more sincerity than the ‘no more minorities’ declaration of MR.

    Sometimes Kumar the human being shines through – and i like that the best.

    I detest Kumar the commodity esp when he promotes coca cola (out of all things)

    Anyway – like with Barack Obama you take the good bits and bin the rest. It is a mistake to turn anyone into a hero

  • Pramukh De Silva

    I actually felt the same way when I read and listened to Sangakkara’s speech. It was very much spoken from a cosmopolitan perspective. However, I was wondering when Groundviews would publish a blog/article that would be negative to the Sangakkara speech as it was very much a representation of the government.

    I am truly surprised it took so long for a negative article/blog like this to appear on Groundviews. Better late than never

  • davidson

    Samanmalee
    Thank you. You have spoken for many I know.

  • silva
  • Dr Dayan Jayatilleka

    Sanga praises armed forces Monday, 25 July 2011 20:46
    Former Sri Lanka cricket captain Kumar Sangakkara today said Sri Lankans were indebted to the armed forces for the sacrifices made in bringing about a bright future for the country and that on every possible occasion they would remember these sacrifices.

    Making the comment to the Air Force media before departing to Jaffna on the 25th day of the ‘Trail’ – a fund raising walk to build a children’s cancer ward in Jaffna, Sangakkara also hailed the project vowing to give his fullest support.

    Sangakkara flew to Jaffna from Katunayake on a Helitours Antanov 32 flight of the Air Force.

    Commenting on the fund raising walk, Sangakkara said this was a much needed worthy cause deserving maximum support, the Air Force website said.
    Sangakkara also hailed the service provided by SLAF’s Helitours saying it had the potential to reach international level.

    Courtesy – Sri Lanka Air Force

  • Ravana

    Very thoughtful and excellent critique. I would however, differ with the author on whether Sangakkara should have said any different nor if he represents the Sinhala Supremacist view. Firstly, Sangakkara is an ambassador for Sri Lanka much like Dayan Jayatilleke. And he did his job well. Secondly his views may have coincided with some of the views of Sinhala supremacists but only to the extent that it meets the common objective of affirming a Sri Lankan state that is undivided. I doubt if some of the political rhetoric he made were entirely his personal views. It was projected correctly for the International audience. In this he did his job well (as he was trained to do).

    The only really politically cynical statement he made was against the JVP and in this his stance remarkably coincides with Dayan Jayathilleke. But unlike Jayathilleke, he has no axe to grind against the JVP in terms of blame deflected to it for the spontaneous humiliation meted out on Dayan by an angry crowd. I have to assume that much like I was a few years ago, Sanga is merely ignorant and politically naive about the real state of politics in Sri Lanka. OTOH he is more likely to be a very shrewd servant of certain political genre.

    Whatever the case Sanga did his job well , much like Lakshman Kadirigamar.

    The reason Aluthgamage is acting like a rabid dog is because it is his nature and also because he and his ilk were directly attacked by Sanga. Just because the Rajapakses praised Sanga does not mean that he has not made enemies there. For, the attack on politics in cricket must reflect on their culture of impunity. They will wait and plot for Sanga’s downfall should dare enter politics. They will certainly attempt to muzzle him behind closed doors.

    The author makes a valuable contribution to the political debate stirred by Sanga.

    I wonder if Groundviews should invite an expert with knowledge of the true JVP history to write an article or two on this site. It is time that those who have been ignorant or in denial were educated.

  • silva

    ”Trail” – origin and present: history:history.http://groundviews.org/2011/07/14/trail-sri-lanka-pressure-by-the-international-community-may-have-made-a-difference/

    The garment company is now using the ”popularity” of Sangakkara to get a foothold in the North.

    Instead of a suitable sustainable development planned by its people, haphazard ”gimmicks” pass as ”development” of the North.

    Dayan

    Pl press your President to let appropriate people plan sustainable development of the devastated Northeast.

  • mel

    like your subtle knock on Ranatunga :)

  • Civilised Citizen

    Well said Samanmalee.
    I too felt exactly the same while watching the World cup opening ceremony and I too was turned off from supporting the SL Cricket team from that point onwards.

    To critique Sangakkara’s speech, it also needs to be taken in context with his speech after the finals when accepting the runner-up trophy, where he was barracking for the Rajapakses wholeheartedly (almost to the point of a***-licking).
    Also to remember is the matter regarding the non-meeting with the Dalai Lama during the IPL game in Dhamansala.

    I feel if Sangakkara wanted to genuinely strike a blow against the present regime, he could have included an explanation of his above actions in the MCC speech.

  • Nilesh Fernando

    Firstly, I would agree with the author’s assertion right at the end of the article that it was not Sangakkara’s intention to portray himself as an ‘anti-establishment’ figure. By acknowledging this, the author effectively invalidates much of the subsequent criticism of Sanga’s speech.

    The author unfairly trivializes Sanga’s anecdotes about gradual reduction of elitism in cricket, the importance of cricket towards reconciliation, and — at least from my reading — the allegory that the trajectory of Sri Lankan cricket provides in thinking about our politics and our identity in this post-conflict era.

    Sanga’s speech is about the history of cricket in Sri Lanka but in identifying his frustrations with the SLC he establishes an important precedent of dissent from a popular Sri Lankan personality without the repercussions that ordinarily follow it. For anyone who believes that political restructuring will not happen through violent change, but rather through a gradual easing of controls on expression, acceptance of the democratic will of minorities and in attitudes towards our collective past, this would seem to be a non-trivial step.

    Moreover, I don’t think underscoring the sacrifices of the armed forces or the fear with which ordinary Sri Lankans lived during the civil war is a Sinhala Nationalist position. To suggest the former is needlessly divisive rhetoric that is ignorant of the suffering of ordinary Sri Lankans who felt resigned to the vagaries of indiscriminate violence, and their children who marched in to a seemingly endless war.

    Casting Arjuna as his anti-thesis would also seem misplaced. A simple fact is that Arjuna was invited to address the Oxford Union in 2010 (arguably a more prestigious institution than the MCC), and his (excellent) speech was greeted with rapturous applause. That fact aside, it is unfair to limit the appeal of Sanga to the elite of Sri Lanka simply because of the circumstance of his upbringing. Arjuna, like Sanga have carried the hopes of Sri Lankans from many walks of life and their admiration extends to Sinhalese and Tamil diaspora communities, Tamils in Tamil Nadu and beyond.

    I don’t think anyone expects cricket to actually sow the seeds of reconciliation or to be a substitute for real (institutional) political change. The kind reconciliation that cricket can provide is a starting point for a shared sense of a Sri Lankan identity, both because of its history in crafting a distinctively Sri Lankan brand of cricket (i.e. the allegory) and because of what it means to ordinary Sri Lankans (‘appe kollo’), even those displaced by conflict.

    It matters little what the actual ethnic composition of the team is (this is presumably a function of the distribution of talent, access to resources and the respective sizes of ethnic communities in Sri Lanka) the point is that Sri Lankans of varying socio-economic and ethnic positions for once have common ambitions and a common admiration in an institution that seeks to represent them. To ask whether Jayasuriya represents the concerns of the disadvantaged of Matara is nonsensical. He is an entertainer, one who can provide a sense of pride and inspiration, not a politician tasked with representing a constituency’s interests.

    Talking about the development of cricket in the North and East, is a step towards inclusivity and more importantly a step towards instilling a sense of normalcy to these areas. Reconciliation no doubt requires us to understand the history of the war, but we have a unique opportunity in our post-independence history to craft a sense of shared belonging and purpose that can lead to a lasting ethnic solution, and cricket provides a means (and surely not the only one) through which we might achieve this.

    Perhaps most importantly, there is no sanitized account of the last days of the war in Sanga’s speech. There is no account of the last days of the war in his speech, period. There needn’t be, since Sanga isn’t talking about the war. The author’s article, while eloquently crafted would appear to be an example of needlessly knee-jerk contrarianism. As such, it does little to add substance to this debate apart from perhaps rightfully ridiculing the SLC’s performance antics in the World Cup. Of course, with that as its contribution, it could have been a lot shorter.

  • Dayalan

    Great Analysis Samanmalee,

    I do agree with a lot of what you are saying, but what I value most about Kumars speech is the fact that he called a spade a spade, in a very diplmatic way. I truly feel he was right on the boundary line, meaning, if he had been a fragment more harsh on the govt, he would have been in trouble. MR himself had to hail the speech after many weeks of contemplation. Given the circumstances, the speech was invaluable. Others, including you and me need to emulate him in our own spheres of existence.

  • jason

    I like to high light why the Author has forgot how many innocent lives has taken during the 30 years of war Why he is talking at the last pace of war.almost every citizen in the country lived with fear/ of suicide bombs.and attacks .Sanga is not celebrating that of course he said what he went trough for past 30 years, why you have forgotten that what the ltte Has done over the years. the worst ever Air post Attack,Killing of wold leaders etc. if sri lanka didn’t end the war how much would have been killed by them,with their power ( with own Air craft/boats and loads of weapons they had)why you talk only human cost of ending that war.