The Cricketing world will pause for a moment, to celebrate the legendary career of Kumar Sangakkara that draws to a close, and then move on; a bit richer for the legacy he leaves behind, for the standards he raised, expectations he upheld and for his story being entwined with the story of Cricket. He has already confirmed his place among the greatest test batsmen the game has ever seen.

Yet the people of Sri Lanka will pause for longer and with heavier hearts; not merely beset by doubts about who now will rescue their hopes the next time their openers get dismissed in quick succession. To most Sri Lankans, he is more than the greatest Cricketer their country has ever produced. By far the most loved and respected Sri Lankan on his generation in Sri Lanka and throughout the Cricket playing world, for Sri Lankans, he is also their Hero.

Our choice of heroes – as individuals and as nations – reflect more deeply and authentically, our history and character as well as our hopes and aspirations. Every civilization, culture and historical epoch is characterised by the heroes they spawn, whose lives personify the values and aspirations of their time and whose tales become the template by which heroes of subsequent generations will be cast, and judged by.

The first popular hero of the Sinhalese was a king named Gamini from Sri Lanka’s Deep South, whose mythology is constructed around his vanquish of a popular Tamil king from South India who ruled over the Northern half of the island. Gamini was a rebel from his younger days, raging against his father’s inhibition to evict Ellalan: a Cholan invader who occupied richly irrigated Northern plains – the rice bowl of Sri Lanka. It earned him the nickname ‘Dutugamunu’, meaning ‘Gamini the Wicked’.

When Gamini eventually waged his successful military campaign against Ellalan, he did so with the army that his father had built, having marched along the East Coast through Tamil villages where his father had nurtured friendships in order to supply his troops. Gamini’s army is said to have been led by ten ‘giant’ generals with superhuman powers that his father had recruited and around whom he had organised his troops. The impassioned king and his ten giants led a heroic campaign against many odds to unify the island politically – in 205 BC – for the first time in the islands recorded history. Despite the connotations of this event, Tamils and Sinhalese continued to live rather peacefully together for centuries to come.

Yet, for two millennia, as Sri Lanka came under constant attack and threat of invasion, the quintessential Sri Lankan hero conformed to a version of Gamini’s prototype – usually a tragic-heroic king or royal princeling who defended his race from foreign invaders and protected of his faith from heresies. Every generation and historical epoch that followed was characterised by the nationalism and fervour of heroes they spawned; whose lives reflected the fears and aspirations of their time and whose tales become the progenitor of heroes that came after. The stereotypical Sri Lankan hero therefore, was invariably a brave nationalist. From Dutugamunu in the third century BC, to Veera Puran Appu in the nineteenth century, this type of heroism crystallized in the national psyche to the exclusion of all others. The notion of a stable, independent and unified Sri Lanka did not materialise for another two thousand years, and the intermittence of political and geographic unity never allowed a coherent and inclusive national identity to emerge, let alone the unity of hearts and minds of the diversity of people that inhabited the island and came from afar to trade and settle.

Like Gamini, for much of the island’s long, rich and conflicted history, its heroes have been cast on the field of battle. They distinguished themselves in conquests waged to unify their land politically; but opinions about their heroism or villainy remained divisive because they often fought to protect their own ethnic, religious or cultural identity to the exclusion of others. It has therefore been a common feature even during its struggle for independence from British rule in the aftermath of WWII, that Sri Lankan heroes of one community were often perceived as villains by others.

Therefore at its birth as a modern nation state in 1948, the Dominion of Ceylon faced a serious deformity that would cripple it for decades to come. Strong nation states – more often than not – are born out of collective struggles; through which emerge their defining values, legends, myths and – perhaps most importantly – heroes that personify and embody all the vital elements of a nation’s identity as well as the aspirations of its people. While each community had their own leaders and historic legends, there weren’t a single heroic figure that represented the identity and aspirations of the young nation as a modern, united and pluralistic state. Instead, narrow visions of national identity and short-sighted politics led to decades of divisive communal violence. Most notably at the end of the war in 2009, Sri Lanka needed – more than ever – a voice of intelligent cosmopolitanism that could elevate the island nation from the divisive legacy of its past heroes and give cause for the myriad cultural and religious groups to unite. Yet, it was a void that the island’s conflicted history was ill-equipped to solve by itself.

Sri Lanka required a different kind of battlefield and a new and revolutionarily new type of heroes to emerge – who could unite its ancient peoples in heart and mind like never before. They came in the form of Arjuna Ranatunga and his own band of ten ‘not quite giant like’ men. As diverse a group as the people they represented – they came from the all walks of life including the urban middle class and the rural heartlands that had rarely filled the heroic template of heroes past. Their vocation was even more peculiar. Cricket was very much a symbol of foreign conquest and occupation of the island. Heroes were more likely to be made fighting it than playing the game. Besides, heroes and are often those inclined to imperil themselves in pursuit of immortal glory – not those who side with pragmatism or caution as Cricketers were required to be. Upul Tharanga was ever lauded for bravely chasing deliveries outside off stump nor Chandimal for courageously hooking bouncers down deep square-leg’s throat. But they nevertheless managed to achieve something that Sri Lankan heroes have never done before. 2201 years after the famous campaign of Dutugamunu and his ten giant worriers had briefly united it politically, a contrastingly modest and unassuming band of eleven men united Sri Lanka in heart and mind for the first time in the island’s history in 1996: when they won a world cup (or “THE world cup” – if you are Sri Lankan).

Until 1996 and then again in the early 2000s, Sri Lanka’s cricketers, much like the celebrated kings and rebels of their ancient past, were tragic heroes who valiantly resisted foreign attacks; but often failed despite their own bravery and ingenuity. Most notably, they failed against better equipped and organised conquerors. Yet, whereas history had often trickled down in little streams, they were a torrent that carved out in the space of a decade – a special space for Cricketers to stand among its pantheon of heroes. The legends of Aravinda and Sanath were created on the field. Underdogs for much of their careers, they rose heroically to often rescue Sri Lanka against intimidating oppositions and sometimes, singlehandedly carried the hopes of their nations to victory. But they were hardly consistent enough to be relied upon and their legends rarely not extend beyond the boundary ropes the same way their shots did.

The colonial legacy in Sri Lanka had left a deep and enduring imprint in its society and culture, and Cricket was no exception. Aside from a few exceptions like Duleep Mendis – Sri Lankan Cricketers were rather timid – easily satisfied with a draw against major test nations. Much like the Israelites who had to wonder in the wilderness for 44 years after being rescued from slavery in Egypt, it took the passing of two generations of Sri Lankan Cricketers, for them to unshackle themselves from the game they were drilled to play, and discover the way they were meant to play it. So, it was only with the generation of Cricketers that emerged in the 90s, that they had the lightness of memory and force of their own identity to disregard the text-books and express themselves more authentically. Romesh Kaluwitharana, Mahela Jayawardene, Avishka Gunawardene and Kumar Sangakkara – unlike even Arjuna and Aravinda’s generation – had no direct links to the Cricketers who had only played the game as they were taught by the masters of a forgotten era.

With the opening up of the Indian economy and the advent of dedicated sports TV channels in the 90s, the modern international game transformed into a commercial enterprise – almost unrecognisable from the refined pastime that it used to be, both on and off the field. In that context, it makes little sense to compare modern Cricketers against the greats of its past; the yardstick had changed. Yet, even in that comparison, Kumar Sangakkara statistically ranks among the best three test batsmen of all time. But Sri Lankans who celebrate his heroism don’t often cite statistics to quantify their argument. Where Cricket is much more than a sport, even numbers don’t mean what they say. As much as he has been relied upon consistently to bat his team and country to victory, people all over the world remained glued to their TVs after the match was over – to hear him speak. Though his hero’s journey had started on the pitch with bat in hand, he came to the fore with a microphone in hand at a podium.

Heroes are more inclined to monopolise the limelight than share it, so it would not have been a surprise if the war hero of Sri Lanka’s past and the Cricket hero of its present eventually clashed before one would emerge dominant while the other is relegated to the shadows of time. At an august gathering at Lord’s, two years after what mercifully turned out to be merely an ordeal in Lahore, Kumar recalled an encounter he had with an unknown soldier, at an obscure checkpoint somewhere in the labyrinth of Colombo’s streets. By the soldier’s own admission, the Cricketer was the more dominant and valuable of the two. Remarkably, Kumar had survived an armed attack just a week earlier. It is possible to imagine that the soldier would have never experienced the heat of battle himself – but could only hope that the next vehicle he hailed down to inspect would not be a fatal choice. Yet, the unknown soldier and the great Cricketer took turns appreciating each other’s contribution to their own lives and the life of their country – calling each other ‘heroes’ before departing, perhaps never to meet again. They were both right of course; but the Cricket star and soldier both were enhanced by that experience.

In that speech, Kumar went on to brew a cocktail of emotion, wit, humour passion and rage with his words that tugged at the heartstrings of the Cricketing world. From Sri Lankans in his worldwide audience, it drew tears. A few months earlier in November 2010, Mathews and Malinga had turned an impossible chase against the odds at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Jayawardene had scored a match saving century just weeks before. But, in the years since Arjuna and his team won the world cup in 1996, it was through Kumar’s voice that Cricket spoke most compellingly to Sri Lanka’s identity and aspirations. They were note merely tears of joy – his words also made Sri Lankans look at themselves in a way that made them sad, and angry, and laugh. That story and the broader content of his speech, has since become a mirror in with Sri Lankans can look at themselves and take stock in their bravest moments. Cricket writers all over the world have invariably wove it into the story of Cricket. Kumar grabbed the conscience of the world on that day in a way that it could never escape. Those who doubted him before could not escape his charm afterwards. His moving lecture at Lord’s was perhaps the inception of his heroic status in the international game, and the way he spoke and conducted himself outside the field has been the foundation of its longevity. But the roots of his legend lay buried deeper in the land and its history, up in the hills of Kandy.

Through much of the island’s history, the irrigated lowlands of the North and the fertile South Western plains nurtured Sri Lanka’s cultural, political and economic centres. The wealth of ancient Sri Lanka and its heroic architects were made in its northern and western plains. Vestiges of great monuments that had witnessed bygone times of immense prosperity and creativity, as well as the continuous cycles of conflict that raged over them, still lie in ruins there. Kandy did not feature in any legend or myth in all that time; no hero of consequence in Sri Lanka’s glorious past was ever known to have been born or raised there. Even with the ripening of time, Kandy could not produce a hero on its own accord. It required a long and remarkable collaboration with an occupying enemy and a struggle with its own geography.

A game like Cricket could never grow organically in the mountains around Kandy. Even when it was brought in as a foreign implant, roads had to be straightened and mountains – quite literally – had to be moved before the game could dig in its roots and draw from its fertile soils. One such effort was sparked by the vision of a man named Alek Garden Fraser who took over as Principal of Trinity College at the turn of the twentieth century. He wanted Trinity to have a Cricket field and ambitiously acquired crown land spanning over two nearby hills to build one. There was no heavy machinery or equipment at hand, so the students and staff of the school made their way to the site a few hundred yards from the school premises, every day; where over a couple of years, they cut down the bigger hill and filled the valley below to make a Cricket field. Kandy nurtured the two greatest Cricketers that Sri Lanka ever produced. Kumar learned his Cricket at Trinity and played much of his Cricket on the Ground that Fraser built; and nearly a century later, scored two test centuries and a double century there.

Fraser was not done however. Much to the displeasure of his own colonial secretary, he envisioned that his school should nurture Sri Lankan leaders who were immersed in their own culture and learn about their own history and proud heritage. Fraser made social service, the teaching of local languages and comparative religion a cornerstone of his education policies, much to the dismay of the colonial authorities at the time. Perhaps Kumar Sangakkara was innately predisposed to reach out to his own people with respect and empathy and speak against injustice. Perhaps it was instilled in him but the individuals and institutions that nurtured him. Whatever the case may be, the quality that people of Sri Lanka would later celebrate as his ‘heroism’ was not cultivated on the Cricket pitch alone. His empathy for the struggles and triumphs of life in many corners of Sri Lanka and of the world not only reflects the best features of the rebellious past and proud heritage of his people, but is also informed by a deep and heart-felt knowledge of it.

Heroism is always bestowed by popular consensus. It is the common man who elevates heroes to their status and immortalise them in legend. Heroes are made exceptional among the common and ordinary men and women of the land and that relationship is symbiotic. The legend of Kumar Sangakkara the man was made among victims of a Tsunami and inhabitants of a war-ravaged landscape in the North and East as much as by a fairy-tale test century at Lord’s. Kumar still speaks of the power of Cricket to unite and heal the diverse communities of his war ravaged country. If the reception he gets whenever he visits the north and east of Sri Lanka is anything to go by, few Sri Lankans have personified that message as effectively as he has. That is what makes him a hero. If heroes like him had lent themselves to previous generations, Sri Lanka could well have been a different place. Loved and respected by Sri Lankans of all cultural and religious backgrounds, as well as fans and opponents all over the world – the power of his personality has been unique among Sri Lanka’s pantheon of heroes in its ability to unite as well as inspire humility.

Especially in contemporary Sri Lanka – emerging from three decades of war – celebration of the lives of ‘war heroes’ comes naturally. Cricketers – at least until they won the World Cup in 1996 – were not more than celebrities, among actors and music stars. Merely six years after the war ended, Kumar and Mahela in particular have become iconic and exceptional heroes of their time – eclipsing even the heroes of contemporary military campaigns. The association of Cricketers to heroism – even after 1996 – especially in a country at war, was not only improbable but cut against the grain of the traditional mould of the nationalist heroes of the past. Yet, the privileged place that Cricket occupies in hearts and minds of people has deep roots in the grand and conflicting historical narrative of the island. ‘The boys’ – as Arjuna and Aravinda often referred to their teammates – have been a beacon of hope and an example of what Sri Lankans could be as a nation and as individuals. Heroics on the Cricket field infuse hope – and that hope is very different from the kind that military victories inspired. Kumar Sangakkara’s sensitivity to the heartbeat of his people and the humility with which he served the game and its fans has entwined his story and the story of Cricket with the proud history of his country and of the people for whom he played his Cricket.

But it was with these famous words, that he unites them;

I am Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim and Burgher. I am a Buddhist, a Hindu, a follower of Islam and Christianity. I am today, and always, proudly Sri Lankan.

Through those words, he epitomised the hero that Sri Lanka, in his generation, so desperately needs. Described by Michael Roberts as an ecumenical Sri Lankan; in him, the diverse ethnic, religious and cultural communities of the island have found a hero they could all love and possess in equal measure. For a country that enjoys neither great influence nor privileged status among world powers, he has risen to capture the love and admiration of the world and represent the best of the proud history and rich culture of his people in a way that hardly any Sri Lankan has been able to do before. For that alone, he is without equal among all the heroes of our generation, and is arguably unparalleled in his Sir Lanka’s history and civilisation.

In a post-match interview, Kumar once famously called on his team mates to understand their place in history.  As much as history is made by heroes, they are nevertheless fallible human beings. As much as they reflect what we can hope to be, they also stand to warn us against blindly attaching our future hopes and ambitions to individuals no matter how brave or virtuous they may be. Very few Cricketers have retained their ability to inspire and awe in life beyond the boundary. Some have even turned into villains. Therefore, being the astute student of history that he is, he will have an important message to deliver to his fans and team mates on the eve of his retirement; that the legends of heroes like him are not meant to be venerated, but to inspire. Their heroism is worth nothing if all they inspire is nostalgia and longing. The greatest heroes are those who make others feel they too can, and indeed must, become heroes themselves. Kumar is the son of a lawyer and a teacher – not of a Jewish carpenter and his virgin wife. In the years after his retirement, he will probably devote his time to raising his own children to be independent and productive citizens because every parent must by default, also be a hero. As much as he became a hero to his people when his country desperately needed one, the greatest tribute to his legacy would be to see more heroes like him emerge in years to come; not only from the Cricket fields but from many other walks of life.

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Harendra Alwis as a Cricketer of dubious significance and an umpire with an incurable prejudice against batsmen who have bad footwork. He currently lives in Melbourne, Australia.

  • Nick

    A good article, however the writer has overlooked Muttiah Muralidharan who has not been mentioned in this article. He was also great Sri Lankan cricketer who united all Sri Lankans.

    • Harendra Alwis

      Indeed, and very much so. That is a serious omission on my part not to name him specifically – though i insinuate that in him and Sanga, Kandy has produced the two greatest Cricketers of Sri Lanka.

  • the_consigliere

    The greatest Cricketer their country has ever produced? I think Murali fans and Wisden may have something to say about that.

  • colpetty

    Murali is the greatest cricketer we have ever produced. He is to bowling what Bradman was to batting, just so far above everyone else that second place is the only realistic option for mere mortals.