Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Kumar, cricket, life

Next week, the Beeb start a four-part serial on the weather, and how it has shaped British history and culture in big ways and in small. To a long, long list, add the unforgiving rainclouds that dogged Sri Lanka's tour, because it was during those interminable breaks that Kumar Sangakkara wrote his Spirit of Cricket lecture.

It was a lecture delivered in the manner of his batting, with a sure and certain lightness that disguises the treatment being meted out. It was immaculate stuff, sometimes magical, always resolute. The headlines have flowed from it; Peter Roebuck has called it 'the most important speech in cricket history' [a piece of hype it didn't need]; a Sri Lankan minister's initial response was a threat [always the first refuge of the despot, not to mention of the tosspot too].

Yet what was really lovely and resonant about it, and what will ensure that it remains a glowing memory long after the wrangling over board politics are done, was the way it showed cricket and life as symbiotic and intertwined. For Kumar, for Sri Lanka, for many other of us too, one cannot be unwound from the other.

First there was Kumar the kid, six years old, delighted to have his house filled with 35 Tamil friends his father was hiding during race riots, innocently oblivious to 'the terrible consequences' should they be discovered. A few years later, a communist insurgency meant that: 'the sight of charred bodies on the roadsides and floating corpses in the river was terrifyingly commonplace.'

His first cricket coach, rather charmingly still known to Kumar as 'Mr DH De Silva', was ambushed and shot on a tennis court, only surviving because the gun pointed at his head jammed. Then came civil war and suicide bombs, more darkness and more terror. What Sri Lankans yearned for was 'a miracle that would lift the pallid gloom and show us what we as a country were capable of if united'.

It came, the miracle, at the 1996 World Cup, where a disparate, almost rag-bag collective led by 'an overweight, unfit southpaw' became a team that not only won the World Cup but that redefined the way the game is played. 'It inspired people to look at the country differently... it helped normal people get through their lives'.

The team came together and then the country too. And what brought the team together? Well, good old Darrell Hair and his no-balling of Murali in Melbourne in '95: 'few realised it at the time, but the no balling of Murali for alleged chucking had far-reaching consequences. The issue raised the ire of the entire Sri Lankan nation. Murali was no longer alone. His pain, embarrassment and anger were shared by all. No matter what critics say, the manner in which Arjuna and team stood behind Murali made an entire nation proud.'

Cricket and life, life and cricket. After all of the death, all of the riots, the exploding bombs, the non-firing guns, one man no-balls another in Australia at Christmas and a change comes along.

It's not that simple of course, and Sangakkara does not suggest it was, but its impact is undeniable, indelible. After '96, cricketers occupied a new, higher place in Sri Lanka. With power and money came responsibility.

Sanga recounts well the first text message, received by Sanath Jayasuriya in a dressing room in New Zealand, describing 'waves from the sea' flooding in to coastal towns. Back home days later, the players visited the hastily established camps. 'In each camp we saw the effects of the tragedy written upon the faces of the young and old. Vacant and empty eyes filled with a sorrow and longing for homes and loved ones and livelihoods lost to the terrible waves. Yet for us, their cricketers, they managed a smile.'

Incredibly, there was more. Next came Lahore, which Sanga recalled with such poise and humour in his speech that the words lose some of their effect on the page alone, but even here, when death was as close as the bullet that ripped into a seat where his head had just been, Sanga's reaction, on seeing Tharanga Paranvithana stand up after being shot, was: 'I see him and I think: “Oh my God, you were out first ball, run out the next innings and now you have been shot. What a terrible first tour.” Life and cricket again, a smile in the dark.

A few weeks later, Kumar encountered a soldier, a man who experienced situations like Lahore many times. 'That soldier looked me in the eye and replied: “It is OK if I die because it is my job and I am ready for it. But you are a hero and if you were to die it would be a great loss for our country.” I was taken aback. How can this man value his life less than mine? His sincerity was overwhelming. I felt humbled. This is the passion that cricket and cricketers evoke in Sri Lankans. This is the love that I strive every day of my career to be worthy of.'

Kumar Sangakkara is the man who has expressed this, but Sri Lanka has many more remarkable cricketers, both on and off the field. They don't teach you the kind of stuff they know in a centre of excellence. To them, cricket means everything and, in the right way, nothing. There's an old maxim that usually holds true: if you can play like it means nothing when it means everything, then you will be okay.

King Kumar averages 56 in Test cricket for a reason, and it's not just because he has a good eye. The cricket boards can politik away; Sangakkara's speech was about much more than that. It was about cricket, and about life.


Abhik said...

The media has chosen to focus primarily on the part of the speech in which he attacks the administrators. However, the speech was much more than that. It was one of the best expressions of how mutual the relationship between sport and society are. If I were a Sri Lankan, I would have been a very proud one upon listening to that speech.
This speech needed a holistic comment, not just focusing on the hard-hitting aspects. This post does that. Nice summary.

Tony said...


mili tulsi said...

sangakara is one of the biggest sledgers in cricket, he cheated at the toss in the world cup final and also denied sehwag a 100 by instructing his bowler to bowl a no ball to finish a game his team had already lost. yet he's lecturing us on the spirit of cricket? and what a surprise that the western press pack lap it up all the while ignoring the way he brushed off his late arrival for the england tour ash he whored himself to the ipl. pathetic.

Anonymous said...

Well done mili tulsi, you've completely missed what Sanga (and the Old Batsmen pointed this out) was talking about. That cricket is bigger and can have wider effects than what goes on ON the field.

Nice article, OB, thank you. And you are right about Roebuck. Somehow he manages to lessen everything.

John Halliwell said...

I caught up with Sangakkara's lecture on YouTube and was greatly impressed, primarily because of the riveting content, but also for the remarkable calmness, and the almost complete absence of fluffed words. As you say OB, it reflected his batting. I hope that he will not be lost to the game beyond his playing days.

I hope that another great sub-continental cricketer, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, is invited to present the Spirit of Cricket lecture on a future occasion - he is a man who also impresses immensely.

mili tulsi said...

i didn't miss the point at all. if cricket is to be a force for good then the first place to see this in evidence is on the field of play. sangakara has repeatedly shown with his behaviour when playing that he doesnt care for the spirit of cricket. no amount of back patting from the white press for his well drilled 'old school' charm can gloss over his disregard for ethics when it suits him. the man is a hypocrite.

John Halliwell said...

Here I am lauding the great MSD, and I now find he's refused a perfectly reasonable challenge to win the Test in W I. Please tell me it was Fletcher who forced the decision on Dhoni. It surely wasn't the great man's decision?

mili tulsi said...

john, that was scandalously poor cricket from the indian team. if pakistan were to decline a straight forward chase like that we'd all shake out heads thinking the worst. i'm embarrassed as an india fan and i hope some of the journalists have the balls to question dhoni as to why the match ended so anti climatically. does anyone think the great australia team would have settled for the nil one series win? this number one ranking means nothing if this is the brand of cricket we can expect.

John Halliwell said...

I agree with you, Mili, it was a strange decision, and can only cause further damage to the international public's view of Test cricket. But I don't think it will take away much, if anything, from the great anticipation of something special as we approach the Lords' test.