As I write this, England’s cricketers appear to be on top in the fourth match out of five versus Sri Lankan in Nottingham. Fast bowler James Anderson has blown away the top order, including the captain Dilshan and last week’s centurion Chandimal without troubling the scorers. Only one batsman has withstood the opening salvos. One batsman has scored one-third of Sri Lanka’s runs at the halfway stage.
On Monday evening, Sri Lankan cricketer Kumar Sangakarra delivered what Peter Roebuck has described as ‘the most important speech in cricket history’. Amidst vivid descriptions of Sri Lankan cricketing culture, the island’s history, its internal strife and its natural disasters, Sangakarra sensationally branded his country’s cricketing authorities as having been “lost in a mad power struggle” for many years, with corruption rife and administration inconsisent. He is optimsitic that Sri Lanka can mend its own ways. However, failing far-reaching reforms to “accountability and transparency”, Sangakarra called upon the International Cricket Council (ICC) to intervene and even to ban his country from international cricket until changes were made.
Kumar Sangakarra, erudite and self-effacing, is one of the greatest Sri Lankan cricketers of all time. A correct and versatile left-handed batsman, for many years he also kept wicket ably in all formats of the game, and became the world’s number one batsman on more than one occasion. The son of a prominent lawyer, he is still working towards the law degree that was put on hold when he was selected to represent his country in 1998. He captained Sri Lanka from 2009 until this year’s World Cup. This week he became the first Sri Lankan to give the prestigious MCC Cowdrey Lecture. Evidently, Sangakarra’s words carry weight, at home and abroad. His audience at Lord’s responded with a standing ovation.
Quite the opposite of what Sangakarra can expect at home: the Sports Minister, Mahindanda Aluthgamage immediately ordered an inquiry into the matter. According to Mr Aluthgamage, as a contracted player Sangakarra “can’t talk about the cricket administration or cricket.” In light of Sangakarra’s allegations about the interference of politicians, the Sports Minister’s outburst is a frightful own goal. The world knows that problems exist; it does not help the Sri Lankan game’s governors by confirming them so starkly. Following the ICC’s recent ultimatum that national boards have two years to democratise themselves and reform, Sangakarra knows that he has an international consensus behind him.
Sangakarra described cricket as “an integral and all-important aspect of our national psyche”. In the aftermath of the famous World Cup victory in 1996, cricket became “one point of collective joy and ambition that gave a divided society true national identity” and “would stand the country in good stead through terrible natural disasters and a tragic civil war”. In this country it is probably quite hard for most people to imagine something as simple as sport having such political and social impact. For people in the British Isles, sport can more often divide rather than unite, whether between the English and the Celtic fringe in sports like rugby union and football, between Catholics and Protestants in Glasgow, or merely between senseless individuals in different coloured polyester shirts on a Saturday afternoon.
Yet in Sri Lanka, sport is being used to reunite a country after the ravages of thirty years of civil war. “I don’t believe any cricket-playing nation in the world today better highlights the potential of cricket to be more than just a game.” Sangakarra believes that this is “an exciting period for cricket” in Sri Lanka, “where the re-integration of isolated communities in the north and east opens up new talent pools.”
Britain, the former imperial power, continues to have a strong relationship with Sri Lanka. DfID contributes £2 million a year to aid through the Conflict Prevention Fund. Following the end of the civil war, the UK has led the way in responding to the humanitarian crises, such as sending aid to support the clearing of landmines and offer assistance to the ongoing efforts of the UN, the Red Cross and other agencies. As concerns remain about governance in the country, all funding goes via these international agencies rather than direct to the Government of Sri Lanka. Sangakarra’s message, however, is that if you want to get to the heart of what makes Sri Lanka tick, of what the missing piece is on the road to recovery and reconciliation, it is about re-discovering integrity in cricket’s administration, removing political interference, and quashing the detrimental influence of corrupt bookmakers and jobbers.
As I check once more the scorecard from Nottingham, Sangakarra is still there, battling away on 64 not out as his team struggles into the final ten overs of their innings. He is nearly 34-years-old, with 97 Test matches and nearly 300 one-day internationals behind him. A fine career is coming to an end – perhaps, after his courageous words this week at Lord’s, sooner than it ought. With cricketing success behind him and other pursuits ahead of him, Sangakarra may indeed have had nothing to lose; but Sri Lankan cricket and by extension sport in general has everything to gain from his honesty.
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