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Cricket in Sri Lanka is increasingly a political affair

Apr 7, 2011 1:33:27 PM- transcurrents.com

Cricket and politics in Sri Lanka

By Namini Wijedasa

The Sri Lankan team lost the 2011 Cricket World Cup to India but were welcomed home like winners. Was this politics or the true Sri Lankan spirit of embracing losers as equally as they would victors?

Cricket in Sri Lanka is increasingly a political affair. While sports ministers are known to dabble freely in the affairs of Sri Lanka Cricket, it is the country’s president who recommends members to the interim board of this administrative body.

Why interim? Not since 2004 have elections been held to Sri Lanka Cricket, earlier called the Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka. A small clause in the law allows the relevant minister to appoint an interim committee to administer the sport but he takes recommendations from the president. Since elections cannot guarantee members whose sympathies lie with the regime, an interim committee has become the norm rather than the exception.

In the run-up to the April 2 final with India, this was much debated within Sri Lanka’s acrimonious, divisive political arena. The row started with a comment made by Arjuna Ranatunga, who captained the team that won the 1996 World Cup. Now an outspoken opposition MP, Ranatunga was asked by an Indian TV channel what advice he would offer the Sri Lankan team. He replied that he no longer counsels the cricket team as President Mahinda Rajapaksa has assumed that role.

If Ranatunga had meant to goad the government- and the president - into a backlash, he succeeded. The state media honed in on the remark, accusing him of destroying team morale and discrediting Sri Lanka internationally. This continues even after the Cricket World Cup in what seems to be an attempt to somehow link Sri Lanka’s defeat with Ranatunga’s ill-advised, politically motivated statement.

That is politics in Sri Lanka. And that is cricket. On the one hand, there is a clear nexus between the two in the presence of former cricketers in parliament. Ranatunga is one while Sanath Jayasuriya, called the “Master Blaster” for his batting prowess, is another. The out-of-form Jayasuriya had aspired to be included in the 2011 team but was dropped from the side. Had he got his wish, Sri
Lanka would have had a parliamentarian on the team.

There is also indirect political involvement in cricketing matters, apparently prompted by a keenness to be associated with a rich and powerful sport that has enormous public following. It is not unusual now to find a sports minister summoning or chairing press conferences related to cricket or its administrative body. And a Cricket World Cup, particularly one at which Sri Lanka performs well, is a windfall for politicians.

On the day of the final, Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror newspaper wrote in an editorial: “Even before the winner of today’s match is known, the politicians in true Sri Lankan style will be sharpening their spurs to ride on the Sri Lankan team.”

After the event, the same newspaper questioned whether Sri Lanka will now change “a corruption-ridden cricketing establishment” and prepare for the 2015 World Cup by, among other things, earmarking a captain. “Who will be the next set of administrators we don’t know,” its editorial read. “But kissing goes by favor and to expect changes in a country like Sri Lanka is also like expecting the sun to rise from the West.”

When Sangakkara’s men lost to India, Sri Lankan politicians were constrained to forego the rich personal benefits accruing from a victory. Many had waited in the wings to take the credit for or to (at least) bask in the glory. With defeat came the realization that runners-up status could only bring them limited mileage.

The team returned on April 3, the day after the match. Bizarrely, they were welcomed at the airport by the minister of labor and labor relations. They were garlanded, escorted a short distance by dancers and drummers and taken to Independence Square in a government-organized motorcade that was originally to have been a victory parade. The only other ministers and officials present at the airport were those who returned from watching the match on the same chartered flight the team took.

At Independence Square, the players were treated to a brief, government-organized reception during which they were praised as runners-up. In attendance was the minister of foreign employment promotion and welfare. Indeed, a larger number of cabinet members were present at Temple Trees on Monday when President Rajapaksa felicitated the cricketers on reaching the final. Had Sri Lanka won the cup, ministers and officials would have been jostling to be in the picture wherever - and whenever – the opportunity presented itself.

Contrast this, however, with the generous response of the public. On Saturday, hundreds of thousands of people turned up at various venues where giant screens were installed, cheering the boys on. Their exuberance suffered as victory slipped away, replaced by a twisting, gut-wrenching disappointment. By Sunday morning, however, they had recovered. By Sunday morning, they were once again proud of their team.

Sure, there are recriminations. The question is being asked why four changes were made to the team that played the final. Fielding was sloppy, a crucial catch was dropped, a run-out was fumbled and bowling was abysmal. And who shoved Chamara Kapugedara into the team? There are even rumblings of “match-fixing”.

But for the most part, the team remain heroes. “Absolutely nothing wrong in welcoming the team back with a bash, in my view,” said Kanchana Peiris, a lawyer and cricket fan. “Heck, they did us proud so it’s the least we can do to show them our support and appreciation.”

“Needless to say, however, I abhor the mileage politicians would have tried to make of this victory,” he added, “and deeply wish that Sri Lankans would see our politicians for the shallow, transparent, power-hungry leeches that they (mostly) are. In a perfect world the welcoming party would be done for the right reasons, but who are we kidding? We don’t live in that world.”

Sri Lankans love their cricket. Cricket does not unite everyone in this fractured nation. Many Tamils are still deeply hurt after thirty years of war and feel there are vastly more important issues to focus on than cricket. Many others do not appreciate the dominant, sword-brandishing lion symbol in the national flag that represents the Sinhalese and find it offensive to see it waved at cricket matches.

But cricket does unite more people in Sri Lanka -Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese - than anything else has ever done.

And so, men, women and children stood on either side of the road on Sunday, flourishing Sri Lanka flags and gazing adoringly as the team passed by. Many more gathered at Independence Square to express solidarity with the tired, red-eyed cricketers. They gained nothing from being present. They just wanted to be there.

Politicians clearly gained nothing from being present either; that’s why they didn’t turn up. courtesy: The Saudi Gazette