Sangakkara sounds warning

In the week following the World Cup final, and his subsequent resignation as captain of the national team, Kumar Sangakkara made a visit to a school. The kind of visit, you might think, that sportsmen make all the time: meet and greet, make a speech, inspire a budding cricketer maybe, and return to a comfortable, if occasionally pressurised, existence.

In one sense, you would be right. Sangakkara was there to inspire but his message was more important than that. St Patrick’s College, you see, is in Jaffna in the North of the island, where warfare rather than sport has been the norm for the last few years. A year or two ago they sent out the kind of letter that schools often send to their alumni, except that the appeal for funds was to repair damage inflicted by war and floods.

Sangakarra’s visit was unusual for the region and, naturally, he was feted. He brought with him a message of unity, the hope, he said, that soon ‘cricketers from the North and the East will be playing in the National team.’ It would, he said, be a ‘great symbol of unity in the country.’ Sangakkara then returned to Colombo, a capital city that had been under siege and a constant target until two years ago from suicide bombers from the Tamil heartlands in the North.

Sri Lanka’s presence here in the early part of the summer is another reminder that cricket is played mainly in parts of the world where democracy, freedom, stability and good governance are still a dream. Given the backdrop of political interference, financial mismanagement, constant allegations of corruption and a talent base diminished because of years of civil war, their success on the cricket pitch has been nothing short of staggering.

If results on the field are in any way affected by what happens off it, then we should expect a one-sided series this summer, an expectation not diminished by closer inspection of the Sri Lankan team itself. They are shorn of three Test-class bowlers, two of whom, Muttiah Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas, have done more than anybody else to underpin Sri Lanka’s competitiveness in Test cricket which, unlike its one-day equivalent, can only be sustained by wicket-taking bowlers.

There will be demonstrations- nothing yet approaching the kind indignation that accompanied any mention of Zimbabwe a few years ago- but demonstrations nonetheless from those Tamil groups and others opposed to any contact with a nation accused of gross human rights abuses as the civil war was brought to a close.

Will they affect the cricketers? Who knows, but there are decent men amongst the Sri Lankan team who would perhaps blanche at a cursory glance at the US State Department’s latest analysis of the situation in their country: the state-sponsored, extra-judicial killings, the denial of press freedom, the election violations and, as the war in the North came to an end, the indiscriminate bombings of hospitals and the murder of civilians. Suddenly, kissing the badge after scoring a hundred doesn’t seem so appealing.   But Sri Lanka’s cricketers will be careful to show few signs of dissent because their place in the team may depend upon a certain level of loyalty.

There was hand-wringing about playing against a team whose titular head was Robert Mugabe, but even Zimbabwe cricket is less politicised than Sri Lanka’s. Not for nothing was the new ground built for the World Cup in Hambantota, the President’s fiefdom, called the Mahinda Rajapaksa International Stadium. His family members fill critical positions in a government that controls the interim committee which in turn runs Sri Lankan cricket. The link between cricket and politics on the sub-continent is nothing new but the level of control in Sri Lanka now is unhealthy.

Sportsmen, such as David Gower and Darren Gough, were persuaded to enter the AV debate last month, but in Sri Lanka the endorsement of a star cricketer is seen as far more fundamental to carrying votes. The greatest of them all, Muralitharan, had stayed firmly on the political side-lines until recently, when, following the completion of the World Cup ground in his home town of Kandy, he endorsed President Rajapaksa. Keerthi Tennakoon, head of the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections, insinuated the pressure someone like Murali might have been feeling: ‘state media, especially, is using artists and cricketers to support the ruling regime. If they say no they face problems,’ he said.

In the opposing political camp are former cricketers such as Arjuna Ranatunga and Hashan Tillakaratne, both of whom have made allegations of corruption. Ranatunga has drawn attention to the missing millions- Sri Lankan cricket has been called the ‘third most corrupt institution in the country’ (after the police and education departments) and that by a former sports’ minister- Tillakaratne to the match-fixing he alleges has been rife since the early 1990s when he was not just a member of the team, but its captain, too. As ever, given the political sensibilities, proof is essential and since making his allegations, Tillakaratne, according to one ICC official, has gone ‘shy’.

The politicking and the administrative incompetence was too much for Trevor Bayliss, the Australian who coached the Sri Lankan team to the World Cup final in India. He stepped down following the final, urging as he did so better administrative support for a group of players he had clearly grown close to. ‘I am constantly amazed how well the players do with the all the distractions put in front of them. That is a skill in itself.’ A skill that is too often under-appreciated in more stable climates.

These distractions proved too much for Sangakkara, the captain, and his deputy, Mahela Jayawardene, both of whom followed Bayliss out of the door, as did the entire selection committee. Imagine England without, suddenly, Andrew Strauss, Andy Flower and Geoff Miller. The resignations of Sanagakkara and Jayawardene have left a vacuum of leadership and their continued absence in the Indian Premier League whilst their colleagues were beating Middlesex did not auger well. Are they as committed as before?

Tillakaratne Dilshan, the new captain, is a bold and aggressive opening batsman but few of his type have been successful Test match captains. To remain true to his instincts will be doubly difficult in England (if the rain ever arrives) as the ball darts around like a chased buck. Given his green-as-grass bowling attack, though, his own form may be the least of his worries.

Sri Lanka’s tour of England marks the beginning of the third phase of their cricketing journey since admission. The early struggles were followed by a golden period in one-day cricket and steady progress in Test cricket, powered by one of the greatest spinners the world has seen. The post-Murali era will be more challenging on the field, not helped by the unhealthy mess that Sri Lankan Cricket finds itself in off it.