Cricket, and moments of national angst | Daily News

Cricket, and moments of national angst

Jubilant Sri Lankan cricket fans.
Jubilant Sri Lankan cricket fans.

How much does cricket distract — if at all — from the civic conscious political mobilization that has been taking place in the country since the economic crisis took hold? Some say that cricket —akin to religion in this country — is a balm, or some sort of palliative at least in these hard times.

Others say it’s a curse, because people are lulled into a false sense of complacency with each success that is notched up by the Sri Lankan team.

But for long, cricket has been a salve of sorts when the country had been through times of tumult and unrest.

It is remembered that some of the best times Sri Lanka had been through as a champion cricketing nation has been when the country was under a considerable terror threat. This was an era of almost un-abating angst. When we played a World Cup final once upon a time a blackout was declared because the LTTE is said to have chosen the day to bomb Colombo with improvised aircraft.

But the spirit of victory endured, and even though the team lost that particular final, cricket was at that time the wholesome alternative to the slow torture that was being inflicted on the nation through the unbridled impact of continuing hostilities.

But even then, different analysts of the passing scene had various interpretations of what our success at cricket entailed. Some said that there was a faux sense of national togetherness that was engendered.

This writer remembers the late Quadri Ismail, a Sri Lankan professor at the University of Minnesota USA, a former journalist, writing contrarian articles about the value of cricket as a vehicle for national unity. If the recollection is correct, it was his take that cricket should somehow be something other than what’s celebrated by partisan i.e nationalist ‘groupie’ support squads.

It seems he was among those few who felt that cricket gave Sri Lankans a false sense of national pride. It was a correct assessment that the game had become something more than a passing national distraction.

TSUNAMI

But our cricket was always connected viscerally to the travails that the nation was going through at that time. During the hostilities, as stated earlier, cricket was the national salve. But, cricket played a major part in the rebuilding of a sense of nationwide purpose, after the catastrophe of the 2004 tsunami.

It is remembered that post-tsunami big names in cricket came in droves to hard hit places like Galle to contribute in the effort of national reconstruction. This is because somehow cricket seemed to have made Sri Lankans the darlings of the international sporting community that was particularly interested in this sport.

It is supposed that this had to do with the fact that we were the plucky underdogs from a nation that was war-torn and embroiled in a searing conflict that took a massive human toll. There was also the fact that our cricketers has carved out a unique style and were seen as being unconventional rule breakers.

In all, this was the stuff of a bit of cricketing lore. As a result when the tsunami happened and Galle stadium was destroyed for instance, the world’s attention was easily focussed on this country because there was a tale there that was worth telling about i.e that the ‘home-ground of the plucky boys having being completely ruined by a force of nature...’

But the other aspect of Sri Lanka cricket seems to be that whenever the game was not tied to adversity, our performances were mediocre. There was no major adversity in, say for example the 2014-21 period, and after we won the T20 World Cup it seemed that there was not much that happened that the country could celebrate in terms of cricketing achievement.

Is this coincidental? Well, it could be, but probably not. When the country is beset by adversity, the ‘cricketing nation’ seems to deliver, and that seems to be what’s happening in 2022 as well.

Our excellent performances so far against Australia, if they are not a flash in the pan, seems to be in part due to the fact that the country that’s embroiled in crisis needs a salve and it’s usually the cricketers that stand up to be counted.

But this time around other than the cricketers there are responsible citizens who have put their hands up to keep the powers that be under check. The general consensus among the people of this country is that there should be far greater accountability from the elected people’s representatives and other elected potentates.

REACTED

The people of this country are shouldering the burden of ensuring that there is public accountability. For that they have to be saluted and a lot of young people have come together and stood up to be counted.

In this context some say that cricket which is usually the antidote, is now the distraction. They see that the cricketers are heroes but that the people who are enamored by the spectacle of a contest with a cricketing powerhouse — Australia — are not entirely tuned to reality.

But cricket in this country transcends all that some people think, because the people they feel need a sense of purpose.

Cricket and the success of Sri Lanka as a cricketing nation, they feel, is owed to the ordinary folk whose sons and daughters have taken to the game. Cricket they say gives people motivation these days to feel that they — ordinary folk — could storm the citadels and feel motivated.

It may be correct that there are others who do not get inspired but get distracted but on the whole can cricket be useful in this time of national angst, or be a distraction and an anomaly at best — in a nation that is undergoing the trauma of economic meltdown?

Only time would tell, to use the cliché. All that’s certain is that the people have reacted overwhelmingly by responding to the series against Australia with a thunderclap of support.

The stadiums are packed to capacity, and sometimes the queues for tickets are cheek but jowl with the queues for petrol.

REBUILD

As if on cue, a team that has been hapless for quite some time is emerging as a force to reckon with. As with the national reality, a bunch of tough and plucky youngsters seem to have taken over the fortunes of Sri Lanka cricket. They seem to have the guts and the staying- power.

When the history of this period is written perhaps the cricketing heroes would get but grudging admiration because they may be seen to have offered a distraction. But most folk do not see things that way.

They see that sports could be the glue that binds and brings people together. This time around people are united in crisis in any event because the economic situation impacts them all. But there are times when the eye is taken off the ball.

The vested interests have offered resistance even as the people of this country have tried to reinvent the systems that have sadly brought them to this pass. They have to destroy those systems and rebuild on their ashes, is the belief. But nobody believes that cricket is viscerally part of any of those bad ‘systems’.

There may be the oblique impacts of systemic influence on the game, but cricket doesn’t survive without brave new and young talent. The emergence of such frontier talent at the current moment is in sync with what is happening in the nation today, is the best hope. The ordinary people of this country would feel they have stormed the citadels of what used to be the preserve of the elite. Yes, with cricket they did that.

They feel that they can do so with the fates of the country too, particularly when things are as decisive as they are today. The country is ready to reinvent itself, and what role its sporting heroes would play is not clear yet. But if history is anything to go by, cricket will help, and not hinder.


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