The power of cricket

I have never understood those who belittle the importance of sport. Often these people tend to be irritable lefties who write about how football is the opiate of the masses, and a distraction from more important issues. This piece from Laurie Penny is a quintessential example of that genre. If that doesn’t make you sufficiently annoyed, there’s another similar piece, also from the New Statesman, here.

Anybody who doubts the power of sport, and specifically cricket, to do good, or who thinks that somehow sport and politics can be kept apart, should probably read Beyond a Boundary for starters. The core of the book is about Learie Constantine, the great West Indian cricketer, and about how he “revolted against the revolting contrast between his first-class status as a cricketer and his third-class status as a man”. In a similar vein, although I haven’t seen the film, you could probably do a lot worse than watch Fire in Babylon.

Alternatively, a good place to start would be Kumar Sangakkara’s Cowdrey Lecture, which he gave at the MCC yesterday. You should listen to it if you have a passing interest in any of the following:

  • Cricket
  • Politics
  • Terrorism
  • Class
  • National Identity

And not necessarily in that order.

Sangakkara is one of Sri Lanka’s greatest ever cricketers, and the first Sri Lankan to be invited to give the Colin Cowdrey Memorial Lecture, which began in 2001. As a Sri Lankan he is well-placed to talk about the role of politics in sport. After all, as Sangakkara says in his speech (p. 13) no Sri Lankan team can take the field without the approval of the Sports Minister. Which sounds incredible doesn’t it – imagine if Jeremy Hunt had the final say in England’s team selection, rather than Fabio Cappello. Yet this shows the enormous power cricket has had to unify Sri Lankans behind a common cause.

It is this power that I want to touch upon in this blog. Sangakkara spoke very courageously against the “partisan crones” running Sri Lankan cricket, and has generated both headlines here and enemies back home. He also spoke movingly about the history of Sri Lanka, about their struggle with civil war, and of how the Sri Lankan team bus was attacked by terrorists when touring in Pakistan. However, these are all topics that shall be left for another day, for this blog is about the power of sport. Sangakkara said that during the 1980s the Sri Lankan government was fighting the terrorist LTTE. “Each and every Sri Lankan was touched by the brutality of that conflict.” Many thousands died. Parents travelled separately so that if one of them died, the other could look after the children. He goes on: (p. 6)

People were disillusioned with politics and power and war. They were fearful of an uncertain future. The cycle of violence seemed unending. Sri Lanka became famous for its war and conflict.

It was a bleak time where we as a nation looked for inspiration – a miracle that would lift the pallid gloom and show us what we as a country were capable of if united as one, a beacon of hope to illuminate the potential of our peoples.

That inspiration was to come in 1996 [with Sri Lanka’s win in the Cricket World Cup of that year].

Sri Lanka’s captain was Arjuna Ranatunga, who battled the elitism that had existed in Sri Lankan cricket. Before getting Test status in 1981, Sri Lankan’s cricketers hailed mainly from the elite schools that had been funded originally by British colonisers. Sangakkara notes that before 1981 80% of Sri Lankan cricketers came from these privileged English schools, but the 1996 World Cup-winning side contained not a single player from one of these schools. The victory in that competition opened up cricket to the masses even more so that had happened previously. These players played cricket the Sri Lankan way:

We were no longer timid or soft or minnows. We had played and beaten the best in the world. We had done that without pretence or shame in a manner that highlighted and celebrated our national values, our collective cultures and habits. It was a brand of cricket we were proud to call our own, a style with local spirit and flair embodying all that was good in our heritage.

Most importantly of all (and this is a long quote): (p. 9)

The 1996 World Cup gave all Sri Lankans a commonality, one point of collective joy and ambition that gave a divided society true national identity and was to be the panacea that healed all social evils and would stand the country in good stead through terrible natural disasters and a tragic civil war.

The 1996 World Cup win inspired people to look at their country differently. The sport overwhelmed terrorism and political strife; it provided something that everyone held dear to their hearts and helped normal people get through their lives.

The team also became a microcosm of how Sri Lankan society should be with players from different backgrounds, ethnicities and religions sharing their common joy, their passion and love for each other and their motherland.

It is the passion of ordinary Sri Lankans, as well as the knowledge that cricket has the unique power to unite a society divided by civil war, that Sangakkara has in his mind every time he walks out to bat when wearing his distinctive helmet. It’s a fantastic story, of triumph over civil war as well as race and class divisions. What’s more, (p. 16)

[T]he conduct and performance of the team will have even greater importance as we enter a crucial period of reconciliation and recovery, an exciting period where all Sri Lankans aspire to peace and unity. It is also an exciting period for cricket where the re-integration of isolated communities in the north and east opens up new talent pools.

The spirit of cricket can and should remain and guiding force for good within society, providing entertain and fun, but also a shining example to all of how we all should approach our lives.

Hopefully it shall be a story with a happy ending.

Could Laurie Penny really look Kumar Sangakkara in the eye and say that “Mistrust of team sports as a fulcrum of social organisation comes naturally to me”? I hope not.

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