New innings for Sri Lanka’s children
The British brought cricket to Sri Lanka and established its first
club, the Colombo Cricket Club, in 1863. Astonishingly, membership was
not opened to so-called ‘natives’ until 1961, around 13 years after the
country gained its independence.
Now the game is regarded as much more than a mere sport and is
considered almost a fourth religion by the island’s Buddhists, Hindus
and Muslims. Players like the Tamil off-spinner, Muttiah Muralitheran,
currently the greatest Test wicket-taker of all time, are revered by all
people regardless of religion and ethnicity.
Mahinda Wijesinghe, the country’s foremost cricket historian, told us
that “interest in the game is so high that all barriers of race and
religion just go by the board when a cricket match is on.”
“People take leave from their offices saying their wife is sick and
their grandfather or grandmother died - they may have been dead many
times - but they keep taking leave and coming to watch matches.”
Sri Lanka was granted test status by the International Cricket
Council in July 1981 and got off to a blistering start.
Four-and-a-half years after it was awarded Test status, Sri Lanka won
both its first match - and series - with a 1-0 victory over India.
But by this time, Sri Lanka was descending into ethnic conflict and
violence, largely due to the emergence of the separatist Liberation
Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE.)
The conflict had devastating consequences for the country as a whole
and obviously for cricket. A large part of northern and eastern Sri
Lanka fell under the sway of the Tamil Tigers and it became increasingly
difficult for sides from north and south to play each other.
Over the years, children in the war-torn north of the country learned
to deal with poorer cricket facilities. Many had to play on wickets made
from coconut matting rather than grass.
Although - to many people’s surprise - Sri Lanka won the 1996 World
Cup under its captain Arjuna Ranatunga. The national side also suffered.
Selectors were not granted access to all the players they wanted to
see and develop.
There is an old adage in Sri Lanka that fast bowlers come from the
north and batsmen from the south. Although this may not be a cast iron
law, there is no question that, as a result of the conflict, selectors
had a much more restricted pool of talent from which to choose.
“Because we couldn’t garner the talent that was in the north and the
east, naturally we couldn’t have a proper selection situation,” says
“We’ve got only twenty million people in this country so we were
probably selecting a team from about ten or eleven million so it will
take some time.”
The Sri Lankan Cricket Board is now investing money, time and
equipment in schools and clubs in northern and eastern towns including
Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Vavuniya and Jaffna.
Recently at a presentation before the second one-day international in
Dambulla between Pakistan and Sri Lanka, youngsters from the north were
presented with bags full of cricket equipment.
Harivadhanan, a 17-year-old from Jaffna, spoke of the difficulties
for young players like him adjusting to playing on turf after years on
coconut matting. “We all want to play on turf so that we can play
elsewhere in the country. At the moment it’s difficult to play on
different surfaces so it will take time to adjust,” he says.
Nishantha Ranatunga, Secretary of the Sri Lankan Cricket Board, says
cricket possesses possible nation-building qualities.
“As we all know, when it comes to team games, people get together and
work on a strategy,” he says.
“So in life, you can always use a sport to develop an individual to
be a person who can work in a society. I think it’s a great opportunity
for the youngsters in the north and east to develop their skills and to
work to develop the country.”