It used to be said that Sri Lanka’s two major religions were Buddhism and Cricket. The successes registered by Sri Lanka in international cricket, particularly the winning of the World Cup in 1996, had added more religious fervour to the game. The country was the best in the world, and the Sri Lankans were ecstatic. Besides, the game transcended ethnic differences plaguing the strife-torn country. The Tamil spinner Muraleetharan, for instance, was almost a national icon.
In the run-up to the 1999 games, Sri Lankans deluded themselves into believing that their team was still on top of the world four years later. Aided and abetted by an adoring media, there was an unrealistic yet powerful expectation that “King Sri Lanka” would win the cup for the second time in succession, a feat that had only been performed by the West Indies in 1975 and 1979.
This make-believe world came crashing down when Sri Lanka did not even make it to the second stage of the 1999 games in England. The collective psyche of the country was bruised. Overnight, the darlings became demons.
When the first batch of seven players returned home, a strong contingent of policemen were there to protect them from irate fans. Graffiti accusing the team of betrayal were visible everywhere. There was no VIP treatment as players had to go through customs just like ordinary citizens. From “Heroes to Zeroes” was how one newspaper described the return.
Compare this with the delirium that greeted the team when they came back with the World Cup in 1996. There was unprecedented exhibition of national adulation, starting from the thousands that thronged the airport. The cricketers were treated like national heroes and bestowed with the high civilian honour of “Deshamanya” (honoured by country). Even the reserve players were honoured. The players received land grants and cash prizes, and advertisement and endorsement opportunities came by plenty. Love mails, too.
Now there is a lot of hate mail. Some even want the income tax authorities to be let loose on the team. A major reason for the people’s resentment rises from the perception that the cricketers had become rich individually, but had not bothered to repay their gratitude to the country.
Ultimately, it was the other religion, Buddhism, that came to the rescue. Buddhist precepts emphasise the impermanence of all things. It is also supposed to teach one how to handle success and failure with equanimity. Newspaper editorials sermonised along these lines to assuage the wounded ego of a whole nation.
But that did not prevent the leader of the pack, Arjuna Ranatunga, much loved until recently as “Captain Cool”, from turning into the pet object of hate. With several of his close family members controlling the Sri Lankan cricket board, it was an open secret that the rotund skipper exercised hegemony over the working of the team, even stepping out of the captain’s brief.
Ranatunga is said to have been responsible for the unfair exit of Dave Whatmore, the Australian coach who had helped propel the team into world champion glory. There were other instances of deserving players being victimised and cronies getting rewarded. As long as Sri Lanka was winning no one bothered, but having failed abjectly it is now a different cup of tea and Ranatunga, despite his powers, has been among the first casualties of the witch-hunt, with Sanath Jayasuriya replacing him as skipper, and Whatmore being reinstated as coach.
Further complicating matters is the politics of cricket. In the runup to the elections for the board presidency, the current president, Thilanga Sumathipala, was pitted against Clifford Ratwatte, brother of Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike and maternal uncle of President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Sumathipala, the eventual winner, had the backing of the Ranatunga family, headed by pater familias Reggie Ranatunga, a deputy minister who enjoys a certain amount of political clout.
Sports Minister S.B. Dissanayake is also known to be partial towards the Ranatunga clan, while two of the former skipper’s brothers are key officials of the board. So, it would not be surprising if Ranatunga’s captaincy had been decided not by his performance on the cricket but in the corridors of politics.
Even as Sri Lankan cricket gets about setting its house in order, it is more important that the attitude towards cricket change. When the team left for Britain there were religious ceremonies to invoke blessings, with a sacred thread tied around the arm of each player. Expectations were high.
Sri Lankans stayed away from work and sat glued to their TV sets watching the preliminary matches. But when the team started losing, the sets were shut off in disgust. Few seemed interested in cricket for cricket’s sake. Notions of sportsmanship vanished. There was conspicuous apathy towards the matches played by other nations. Clearly, Sri Lankans (and other South Asians, given similar reactions in India and Pakistan towards their own teams) should treat it as a sport instead of a pseudo-nationalist cult.