In a football-fixated world, the Sri Lankan passion for the gentler charms of cricket can seem both strange and refreshing.
When the national team plays, everyone watches; the economy suffers as attendance at work drops dramatically, with fans clustering around their radios and TVs without a care for anything else. Cricket is played on any spare patch of grass going. The fact that the players may not have a bat or ball doesn’t stop them: a plank and a piece of fruit will do.
The Test team is one of the main focuses of national identity, and its players are national icons, who become stars, politicians and sure-fire revenue-earners in the advertising world. Adoring schoolboys who speak no other word of English can reel off the names and batting averages of every international cricketer around the world.
Cricket’s origins in Sri Lanka are, of course, colonial, but it wasn’t until 1981 that the national team achieved Test status. Though they proved themselves far from minnows, it was almost 20 years until ‘senior’ nations such as England finally agreed to play them in a full series. In the meantime, they transformed themselves with flair into kings of the one-day international, the game’s shorter form, surprising everyone but themselves when they blasted their way to victory in the 1996 World Cup. The key to their success lay in the attacking batting of the openers, particularly Sanath Jayasuriya, who abandoned traditional caution at the start of an innings and smashed the opposition bowlers from the off, setting unassailable targets. Their success revolutionized the game as all teams adopted these tactics, transforming the one-day game forever.
Serious cricket starts at school in Sri Lanka, and though the game can be a great national unifier, there is an undeniable bias towards privilege. Public school cricket garners enormous media coverage, and its young players are idolized like their senior counterparts – perhaps at its most bizarre in the Sunday Observer’s ‘Most Popular Schoolboy Cricketer of the Year’ competition. Until recently, progress to the Test team was virtually impossible without money, but the national team’s variable showing prompted the game’s administrators to spread cricket to the regions, setting up clinics, seminars and tournaments in the outstations to encourage talented youngsters from less wealthy backgrounds. A role model for many, as well as a political bridge, was the extraordinarily gifted Muttiah ‘Murali’ Muralitharan (retired in 2010), one of the few Indian Tamils to play for Sri Lanka. He won Test matches almost single-handed with his sometimes unplayable off-spin bowling.