Photo courtesy AFP/ISHARA S. KODIKARA
At the post match conference after the third test against Pakistan, the captain of Sri Lanka said that his team lost; not because they were too negative in their approach to the game, but on the contrary, because his batsmen weren’t defensive enough. His words not only failed to convince, but it all seemed like a scene from a tragic movie about a total amnesiac who had lost all memories of his past, including his own identity and pedigree. Those who let their imagination wonder, would have even heard Daft Punk’s ‘Within‘ playing softly in the background;
There are so many things that I don’t understand
There’s a world within me that I cannot explain
Many rooms to explore, but the doors look the same
I am lost I can’t even remember my name
Sri Lankans have prided themselves on playing a certain ‘brand of Cricket’ that was fearless and entertaining. Before 1995, it may have been carefree and uninhibited by the prospect of losing, but even after becoming the world champions in 1996, the cautious defence of players like Asanka Gurusinghe and Hashan Thilakeratne was conspicuously out of sync with the unbridled aggression of Romesh Kaluwitharana and Sanath Jayasuriya, or the calculated attacks of Aravinda De Silva and even Arjuna Ranatunga who would rather perish in the fight than be dominated by the opposition. A combination of that skill to execute aggression without falling victim to it and the ability to calculate the state of a game and adapt to it became the foundation on which the greatness of Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene would be built in the following decade and a half. Even though the bowling unit almost always lacked menacing seamers on either side of Malinga’s brief test career, it was well served by the reliable swing of the likes of Chaminda Vass or Nuwan Kulasekera who plugged one end while Murali or Herath attacked from the other. Despite limitations, nothing compelled captains to set fields that hinted at any weakness or timidity.
Perhaps the most endearing aspect of Sri Lanka’s Cricket was that no captain or player and not in the least their ardent fans, were ever inhibited in their drive for victory by the paralysing fear of losing. The drums and trumpets only intensified at the prospect of a steep and improbable chase. Pervasive smiles were never dissolved into looks of anguish at the imminence of a loss. We play the game at every dusty street corner, between rows of desks in a class – with thick Maths text books for bats and the previous day’s homework crumpled into the shape of a ball. We play the game for the sheer joy of connecting an improvised bat with an orb – so defined by imagination than by geometry.
Only a few astute observers may have noticed the absence of that joy and energy in Sri Lanka’s premier playing eleven at the end of the first day of their third test against Pakistan in Sharjah. Despite the absence of any vicious turn or signs of uneven bounce, it was far more intuitive to attribute the miserly rate at which they scored on the first two days to a tricky playing surface, and expect a tough battle for batsmen to unfold in the following days. If the average Sri Lankan fan was infused with a bit more optimism than usual, about a second consecutive overseas test win against a side that has never lost a series in the UAE, those shards of hope had been reassembled into an improbbable dream by a team that fought their way back into a glorious draw in the first test, after conceding a lead of 179 in the first innings. Thier execution of a perfect game plan to win the second inspired new hope in a new crop of players who aspired for greatness, and yet knew their place in history. Given how slowly and cautiously Sri Lanka had batted to reach 428 in nearly two days of paralytic defence, a first innings lead of 87 seemed sizable enough to infuse hope of a possible victory; or a tame draw if Pakistan’s top order could muster enough discipline to resist the probing lines and lengths of the newly confident Sri Lankan bowling attack. Even though this was test match Cricket, and nothing could be taken for granted, even as late as the fourth day it seemed decidedly Sri Lanka’s game to lose. Though the openers failed to provide as solid a start as they had by then allowed their fans to expect of them, and despite Kumar Sangakkara ending a series at the crease without scoring a century (a rarity in recent years), the batsmen made proceedings look tough enough to make a history defying feat by Pakistan’s top order to get close to scoring the 302 in the 55 overs beyond improbable and near impossible.
It is unlikely that the Sri Lankan Cricket fan was heartbroken by the sight of Azar and Misbah executing so perfect a chase to reach the impossible. Being lovers of the game, they were in awe and admiration of their courage and flawless execution of a difficult game plan. Yet, those who have long loved and craved for the brand of Cricket that Sri Lankans have loved to play and watch over the years were left despondent at the sight of all nine fielders – bar the bowler and wicketkeeper – retreating to the boundary. Their heroes seemed to be scrambling, not so much in a helpless and desperate defence but rather in fearful trepidation of losing a game. In those last few hours, Sri Lanka lost more than a test match and a series win. In the last two ignominious sessions of pusillanimity, a nation of Cricket lovers that had endured the heartbreak of losing four world cup finals with resilient smiles and unshakable faith in the courage and determination of their heroes, felt forsaken and rejected. A team that was not rattled or terrorised by gunfire and mortars, were debilitated by a fear of something far weaker and invisible. The loss of a test match will take considerably less to make up for. The honoured ambassadors, of a nation that had emerged from a 30 year civil war with their optimism and passion for Cricket enhanced, seemed to have either forgotten how to play their game or forsaken the true identity and spirit in which Sri Lankans have played in living memory. The tragedy of that game was not merely that we lost out of timidity and lack of imagination and self belief; but in how our heroes remorselessly betrayed the joyous abandon with which we have always played the game of Cricket; the kind of joy that a bunch of kids were probably just beginning to discover just down the street.