By Shanaka Amarasingha
When Kipling wrote that “East is East and West is West, and never the ‘twain shall meet”, he obviously hadn’t made allowance for the modern game of cricket, nor had he anticipated Sri Lanka’s former captain, his perfect poise or his received pronunciation. The good and bad of international cricket had never received such perfect juxtaposition.
Kumar Sangakkara has played his most significant innings away from home. The former captain of Sri Lanka has cut loose in the genteel surroundings of St. John’s Wood, in a manner that the hostile surroundings of home would not have allowed. Ironic? That’s putting it mildly.
Much has been made of Kumar Sangakkara’s scathing attack on the governance of the Sri Lankan game. In fact, the Sports Minister, whose office Sangakkara criticised for its autocratic – albeit legitimately granted – powers, has now called for an ‘explanation’ and directed Sri Lanka Cricket’s umpteenth newly appointed interim committee, to prepare him a report on the speech delivered by Sangakkara. To those of us in the trenches of the Sri Lankan reality, this potential reprisal comes as no surprise. Sangakkara is unlikely to be surprised either, for this truly is the spirit of Sri Lankan cricket. It is a spirit that hounded out its best captain in recent years – Mahela Jayawardene, a spirit that presumably forced his successor out of office, and it is a spirit that berates its youngsters from public balconies when they are on the verge of history. It is a spirit that promotes the redundant past over the promising future, and still has the gall to vilify Dinesh Chandimal for being ‘selfish’ in pursuit of his hundred at Lords. Sangakkara did not choose to flay the Sri Lankan Cricket administration through the covers. He was compelled to.
For the most part though, the first Sri Lankan to deliver the Cowdrey lecture was reinventing the wheel. The ICC had already taken stock of the politicisation of the cricketing world. They had, before the speech was made, given their members a two year grace period to rid themselves of all political affiliations or risk sanction. In Sri Lanka, this sort of independence will require serious legislative amendments and will, with some luck, positively affect Sri Lankan sports in general. Sangakkara’s point, or indeed his positioning, was that cricket takes such precedence, that the risk of banishment may move a government to take the necessary steps towards accountability and transparency. Something that Robert Mugabe didn’t seem too keen to do, when he had the opportunity. Obviously, aspiring to good governance is not a motivating factor for transparency and accountability and Sangakkara was being democratic to a fault when he brandished cricket as the one thing that may inspire politicians to quit their evil ways. In this regard, he has thrown down the gauntlet to governments both present and future. And Sri Lankans are grateful for it. The Ministerial fang baring is on cue to substantiate all that Sangakkara said was wrong with the Sri Lankan game. After that initial reaction though, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa did, shrewdly, praise Sangakkara’s efforts.
With great power,comes great responsibility
The Spiderman movies insist that with ‘great power, comes great responsibility’. Sangakkara has discharged some of his, by pointing out the obvious flaws in the system. The emphatic, adoring reaction to this blinding flash of the obvious, by Sri Lankans almost without exception, shows how deeply they are in need of a hero.
The need for a hero generally emerges in the direst straits of a country’s existence. Even mythical heroes have generally been born of a great need, such as Hercules to the Greeks. Unfortunately, for Sri Lankan though, the two men most capable of the Herculean resurrection of the system – Jayawardena and Sangakkara – have left the building. Sangakkara’s resignation on the back of a ‘so close, yet so far’ World Cup campaign was received with mixed emotions given the vagueness of its motivation, which remained unclear until the Cowdrey lecture.
“In cricket, timing is everything”, Sangakkara said in his lecture. It is. Which is why this salvo may have best been fired while he was still captain. Before the World Cup final, Sangakkara was coy on the subject of captaincy. His exit after the final was as sudden as it was unfortunate. Clearly, the man had been driven past the point of no return. Yet, he held his tongue. The official reason was that he will be 37 at the time of the next World Cup and he wanted to give the incoming captain a chance to settle in. The only discrepancy with that statement is that the captaincy promptly went to an older player, who was already under a cloud of controversy for various incidents off the field. It must be remembered that Australia barely considered the imminently suitable, on – field genius Shane Warne for captaincy given his off – field indiscipline. The incumbent’s departure, meant that SLC had little opportunity to uphold such lofty ideals and needed to pass the captaincy parcel to someone. Anyone. Sangakkara’s subsequent silence was deafening. After the World Cup final, the rumour mill started its unrelenting threshing. For a man of Sangakkara’s constitution, these rumours would have been anathema, given that his culpability in that final was nothing more than just being human, in the face of a superhuman Indian batting machine. Regardless of the validity of some criticisms like listlessness, seeming lack of motivation and negative body language on the Wankhede pitch – the accusations against, and the condemnation of, the team he led, would have strengthened his resilience and fostered within him, the necessity to state the harsh facts he has now stated. The facts of politicisation and ‘mad power struggles’.
Given that the IPL followed so soon on the heels of the World Cup, and the England tour immediately afterwards, the cricketing reasons for losing the 2011 Final has never really been discussed with Trevor Bayliss or Stuart Law – both now departed, nor has a rigorous post-mortem been conducted by the local press. Despite all the water that has run under the bridge since then, an ‘explanation’ – in the analytical sense – is long overdue. Trevor Bayliss’ parting shot was also a condemnation of SLC and its political quagmire, but somehow nobody paid him much heed. Similarly, Shahid Afridi spoke out publicly against his Board and was promptly banned and sacked. Chris Gayle has been ostracised for criticism of the WICB, Chandika Hathurusinghe was banished due to a clash of egos. Sangakkara’s reception by the cricketing public, on the other hand, has been completely different.
Sanga gets the nod
The irony that reception though, it is the very shackles of colonisation that Sangakkara calls upon Sri Lanka to break free of, that make him acceptable to the MCC cricketing bourgeois. It is this veneer of old – school respectability, that gives him a legitimacy in the global (and sadly, local) game, that Afridi, Gayle or even Simon Katich don’t possess. His suave command of the English language and well mannered sophistication, make him more English than some of the members of the English team. And it is this commonality of culture, and not any unique Sri Lankan idiosyncrasy, that makes Sangakkara the ambassador he is. If a man of his articulation was head of the BCCI, India would by now have made Kerry Packer look like a polite visitor to a stiff upper lipped tea party. It is indeed the colonial hangover that makes Sangakkara a little bit more equal than his compatriots. Muralitharan is Sri Lanka’s greatest ever cricketer. Aravinda, arguably its most talented test batsman. Arjuna, admittedly, its most influential and successful captain – but Sangakkara gets the nod. The fact that he delivered with the aplomb expected of him is irrelevant. Defying the practice of having past greats deliver the lecture, the establishment chose the most familiar voice. If Sangakkara was Pakistani, it is almost certain test cricket would by now be played in Lahore.
Expositions of bad governance aside, Sangakkara regales his audience with a nostalgic, anecdotal, narrative of Sri Lankan cricket. Although not telling them anything they didn’t already know, this account has been thoroughly appreciated in Sri Lanka, with some electronic media running it unedited. Sangakkara cannily called upon the right blend of romance, sentiment and populist rhetoric to cushion the body blows he dealt to the administration. It was a master stroke befitting of the statesman he is likely to become. At a time when the world, and England in particular, was coming to grips with the horrific images of Channel 4’s documentary, Sangakkara touched the right chords and tugged the correct heart strings promoting cricket as the primary tool for reconciliation. Although never a bowler, this delivery of his was possibly more important to Sri Lanka than any of Murali’s 800 wickets.
Microcosm of Sri Lankan society
What Sangakkara stops short of saying though, is that the Sri Lankan team itself is a microcosm of Sri Lankan society. Its potential and its underachievement, its politics, its great betrayals and its nepotism. The lack of transparency, accountability and its nevertheless coexisting ethnic mix. Sri Lanka’s cricket team is its identity. Sangakkara’s plaint should probably have not have stopped at calling for a unified Sri Lankan identity. It should have called for a change in the current structure of fragmentation and self interest. It is possible to wonder whether the popularity of the reception of his Utopian ideals, reveals the gravity of the status quo – whether it be with Sri Lankan or world cricket. That the situation is so bad, that it beggars acknowledgement. The situation is indeed so bad, that castles in the sky are clutched at with patriotic zeal, and we aspire to sprint before we can crawl or walk.
The truth is that the Sri Lanka Cricket’s shambolic administration is a microcosm – there’s that word again – of international cricket’s travails. The West Indies, Pakistan and Zimbabwe are in crisis. New Zealand is losing its already tiny player base to rugby. The ICC, like SLC needs to pull its collective socks up. ‘Corruption’ and ‘mad power struggles’ are not words or phenomena that currently indigenous to Sri Lanka.
In fact that the ‘cause’ that Arjuna and his men fought for in 1995/6, the cause that Sangakkara celebrates in his speech, is all the more apparent now. For Sri Lanka then, it was the enemy without. Now for cricket and the nation as a whole, it is the enemy within. Has Arjuna changed his spots so much that his patriotic bravado has no place within the portals of SLC? His short-lived, controversial tenure at Maitland Crescent would suggest so. Yet, the very man that Sangakkara deifies in his speech, is the very man he defied when asked to report for duty in England. ‘Mad power struggles’?
This was not – as Peter Roebuck would have us believe – the most important speech in the history of cricket. The most important speech in cricketing history will be the one that calls for cricketers not to go down the road of football. A speech that reigns in the avarice of the modern game, and calls on cricketers to respect the game that – despite its colonial baggage – still holds some dignity. A speech that calls upon cricketers not to resort to petty politics to extend their IPL contracts, and subsequently rubbish that very same politics at an international forum. A speech such as that made by Daryl Harper on his retirement, basically accusing the ICC of being in India’s back pocket. Harper didn’t stay on in the game – he was sick of it, so he quit. Disgust with the status quo has only two ethical responses. Quitting entirely, or standing and fighting. A happy self-serving medium won’t do. Not for heroes anyway.
Cricket at the crossroads
Cricket is at a crossroads. So is our country. On Monday last, Sangakkara had this to say: “The leadership of Arjuna during this period was critical for our emergence as a global force. It was Arjuna who understood most clearly why we needed to break free from the…past and forge a new identity.” It would appear that Sangakkara too, has understood that the game needs to free itself. It may even be argued that Sangakkara has a more arduous (Herculean) task on his hands than Arjuna did. In the face of this cause though, he has chosen to relieve himself of the mantle of leadership that would have enabled him to take his fight beyond the Nursery Pavilion and out to the ordinary cricket fan he spoke so impassionedly of. Imagine Ariadne’s surprise if Theseus had sauntered out of the maze saying “Yes…that’s a monster alright. Big, ugly – will probably kill you if it had the chance. That’s it from me then, cheerio.” But Theseus slew the Minotaur, he didn’t just tell us about how horrible it was.
Is this too much of an expectation of Sangakkara? Is it unfair? Perhaps it is. It is, after all, not his fault that he has lit the torch and not had anyone to pass it to. When Arjuna stood up to Ross Emerson and Darrel Hair the whole cricketing world turned its back on him. Yet, he stood firm and fought for the greatest bowler the world has ever seen. If Arjuna abandoned ship, perhaps Murali may never have played again. Modern day cricket brings great power, but with it comes great responsibility. Abdication of that responsibility is a personal choice but will relegate the relinquisher to the level of any other mercenary in the mould of Flintoff, who turned his back on his country for personal fortune. Sangakkara has the tools to muster the entire cricket world behind him, and also to rally an entire country around him. Something lesser men have struggled to do. He must exploit this.
Yearning for an Odysseus
Sri Lanka, like ancient Greece, is yearning for an Odysseus. “My responsibility as a … cricketer is to further enrich this beautiful sport, to add to it or enhance it and to leave a richer legacy for other cricketers to follow”, Sangakkara said. Whether he and his mates discharge this responsibility, only time will tell. Real heroes, slay the beast.