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A Sri Lankan Childhood: Cricket Minus the War – Part 1

Photograph by: Dev (photos.merinews.com)
Photograph by: Dev (photos.merinews.com)

There is a small island south of India which played some cricket for a while and won the international cricket status in 1982. Beating India! Yes, that is how the story started as they went on to comprehensively beat India in the 1979 World Cup as a non-test playing nation.

The 5th of May 1993: it was a Vesak Poya Day where every Buddhist went to the temple, made lanterns, lit oil lamps in order to commemorate the birth, enlightenment (nirvana) and the passing (parinirvana) of Gauthama Buddha. It was more important to my parents as I was born on this day in hill capital of Kandy, Sri Lanka. The first words I said were “අම්මා” (mother) and අප්පච්චි (father), and it won’t be surprising if I say that the third word I uttered was “Cricket”.

Sri Lanka is a small island with four ethnic groups, where a conflict was prevailing between the main ethnic group Sinhalese and one of the minorities – Tamil. The country was also known as the pearl of the Indian Ocean that revolutionized the game just after 14 years since winning international status, as they went on to win the cricket World Cup in 1996. As Andrew Fernando mentions in his Cricinfo article, “People were hyped and the world was thrilled and some were stunned by the brilliance.” As a three year old kid who watched Sesame Street and other kids’ shows, cricket was one of my favorite cartoons, where the 1996 world cup final was my best episode. It is not because I entirely understood what happened, but I was happy because everyone else around me was happy, and since it was the only cartoon my dad would watch without any hesitation.

The entire world discussed how the country overcame all the racial and ethnic issues and came up with a team which represented all four ethnic groups of the country. This hype was short term as cricket moved on and Sri Lanka continued to play good cricket. No one had any idea about the exact situation in Sri Lanka except for the single fact that everyone in the country loved cricket and thousands of people gathered to watch the island nation play.

As a three year old, I may not have understood a lot about cricket, but as I grew up it didn’t need any effort to realize that cricket was in our blood and part and parcel of our lifestyles. Reading old articles, watching old Sri Lankan victories on YouTube always made me happy. I always enjoyed listening to the older generations who talked about the talents and courage of Duleep Mendis, Roy Dias, Ranjan Madugalle, Sidath Wettimuny and so on.

Sri Lankan cricketing tails all started in the 1990s. The civil war had reached its most critical stages, and at the same time Sri Lanka was trying to rise up as a cricket playing nation. Arjuna Ranatunga who was the captain of the team during that time is the reason behind the success of the nation. He is a leader with character, ability and above all courage to change the system. Sri Lanka was playing cricket just by the book for the love of it until Arjuna entered the game. As Sangakkara mentioned in his speech, Spirit of Cricket, “He revolutionized and converted that love into a shared fanatical passion which 20 million people embraced as their own.”

Darell Hair!! Don’t we all hate him? Some of you would have not even been born in his day, but you still hate him. Sri Lanka, the small cricket playing nation toured Australia to play them in 1995. Australia was a giant of cricket at the time. When Sri Lanka entered to play in the Melbourne Cricket ground, there were spectators with sign boards saying “Terrorist”, at the Tamil kid in the team. Murali was the only Tamil in the team at that time, but he never felt ignored or neglected. The only thing he knew was that he is a Sri Lankan and that he is playing with his own family. It could not have gotten any worse as the umpire called this kid’s action illegal when it was officially proved and accepted as legal. That proved to be a catalyst which spurred the captain, who decided to do the unthinkable by protesting to not play the game. This showed the world how everyone was protective about one another in the team.

A year later, Sri Lanka was crowned as the World Champions. That victory in 1996 was the panacea for all social evils and Sri Lankan cricket had become a harmonizing factor. As Sangakkara mentioned in his speech, Spirit of Cricket, “The cheering of a nation that night was a sound which no bomb or exploding shell could drown.”

Tony Greig may not be alive today, but without a doubt he will always be every Sri Lankan’s favorite commentator. He may not have been born in Sri Lanka or speak Sinhalese but always believed in us and had the courage to back Sri Lankans in the commentary box. He was definitely the 12th man of that World Cup victory. Australia and West Indies were reluctant to play in Sri Lanka in 1996 due to safety issues when neighboring countries like India and Pakistan played in Sri Lanka and proved to the world that it was safe to play.

Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country, Muslims are a minority in the country. Sri Lanka was playing against Australia at Lahore, Pakistan in the World cup final. The ground was packed by Pakistani Muslims, a crowd closer to 35,000 and all of them were supporting Sri Lanka. After the victory the bond between the two countries was enhanced as they treated each other as family. Back in Sri Lanka the world cup was telecasted on television as the people in cities enjoyed the games somewhat peacefully. People in the north went to buy kerosene oil not to burn tires or their houses but to watch the cricket games. They heard the shells and the bombs in the background but they were not worried about what was happening to them, the only thing mattered was a Sri Lankan victory.

To Be Continued…

Chamal Mediwake

Sri Lanka

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