On July 4, 2011, at the invitation of the MCC, Kumar Sangakkara, the former Captain of the Sri Lankan Cricket Team, delivered the Cowdrey Lecture at Lord’s titled “The Spirit of Sri Lanka’s Cricket – A Celebration of Our Uniqueness”.
This video is part 2 of Kumar Sangakkara’s hour-long speech. It is accompanied by its transcript.
Transcript of Kumar Sangakkara’s speech
The History of Sri Lanka
It (Sri Lanka) has long attracted the attentions of the world at times to our disadvantage and at times to our prosperity.
It is beautiful and it is inhabited by a wonderfully resilient and vibrant and hospitable people whose attitude to life has been shaped by volatile politics both internal and from without.
In our history, you will find periods of glorious peace and prosperity and times of great strife, war and violence. Sri Lankans have been hardened by experience and have shown themselves to be a resilient and proud society celebrating at all times our zest for life and living.
Sri Lankans are a close knit community. The strength of the family unit reflects the spirit of our communities. We are inquisitive. We are a fun-loving people, smiling defiantly in the face of hardship and raucously celebrating times of prosperity.
We live not for tomorrow, but for today, savouring every breath of our daily existence. We are fiercely proud of our heritage and culture; the ordinary Sri Lankan standing tall and secure in that knowledge.
Over four hundred years of colonization by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British has failed to crush or temper our indomitable spirit. And yet in this context the influence upon our recent history and society by the introduced sport of cricket is surprising and noteworthy. Sri Lankans for centuries have fiercely resisted the Westernisation of our society, at times summarily dismissing western tradition and influence as evil and detrimental.
Yet cricket, somehow, managed to slip through the crack in the anti-Western defences in our society and has now become the most precious heirloom of our British Colonial inheritance. It maybe because it is a result of our simple sense of hospitality where a guest is treated to all that we have and at times even to what we don’t have.
If you a visit a rural Sri Lankan home and you are served a cup of tea you will find it to be intolerably sweet. I have at times experienced this myself and upon further inquiry have found that it is because the hosts believe that the guest is entitled to more of everything including the sugar. In homes where sugar is an ill-affordable luxury a guest will still receive sugary tea while the hosts go without.
Sri Lanka’s Cricketing Roots
Fittingly, as it happens, Colin Cowdrey and Sri Lanka’s love for cricket had similar origins: Tea. Colin’s father, Ernest, was a tea planter in India. While he was schooled in England, he played on his father’s plantation where I am told he used to practice with Indian boys several years his elder. Cricket was introduced to Ceylon by men like Ernest, English tea planters, during the Colonial period of occupation that covered a span of about 150 years from 1796.
Credit for the game’s establishment in Sri Lanka, though, also has to be given to the Anglican missionaries to whom the colonial government left the function of establishing the educational institutions.
By the latter half of the 19th century, there grew a large group of Sri Lankan families who accumulated wealth by making use of the commercial opportunities thrown open by the colonial government.
However, a majority of these families could not gain any high social recognition due to the prevalence of a rigid hierarchal caste system which labelled them until death to the caste they were born into. A possible way out to escape the caste stigma was to pledge their allegiance to the British crown and help the central seat of government.
The missionaries, assessing the situation wisely, opened superior fee levying English schools especially in Colombo for the children of the affluent from all races, castes and religions. By the dawn of the 20th Century, the introduction of cricket to this educational system was automatic as the game had already ingrained itself deeply into the English life, as Neville Cardus says “without cricket there can be no summer in that land.”
Cricket was an expensive game needing playgrounds, equipment and coaches. The British missionaries provided all such facilities to these few schools. Cricket became an instant success in this English school system.
Most Sri Lankans considered cricket beyond their reach because it was confined to the privileged schools meant for the affluent.
The missionaries in due course arranged inter colligate cricket matches backed by newspaper coverage to become a popular weekend social event to attend.
The newspapers carried all the details about the cricket matches played in the country and outside. As a result school boy cricketers became household names. The newspapers also gave prominent coverage to English county cricket and it had been often said that the Ceylonese knew more of county cricket than the English themselves.
Cricket clubs were formed around the dawn of the 20th century, designed to cater for the school leavers of these colleges. The clubs bore communal names like the Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC), the Tamil Union, the Burgher Recreation and the Moors Club, but if they were considered together they were all uniformly cultured with Anglicized values.
Inter-club matches were played purely for enjoyment. Club cricket also opened opportunities for the locals to mix socially with the British. So when Britain granted independence to Ceylon in 1948 it is no wonder cricket was a passion of the elitist class.
Although in the immediate post-independent period the Anglicized elite class was a small minority, they were pro-western in their political ideology and remained a powerful political lobby.
In the general elections immediately after independence, pro-elite governments were elected and the three Prime Ministers who headed the governments had played First XI cricket for premier affluent colleges and had been the members of SSC.
The period between 1960 and 1981 was one of slow progress in the game’s popularity as the power transferred from the Anglicized elite to rising Socialist and Nationalist groups. Nevertheless, Sri Lanka was made an associate member of the ICC in 1965, gaining the opportunity to play unofficial test matches with players like Michael Tissera and Anura Tennakoon impressing as genuine world-class batsmen.
In 1981, thanks to the efforts of the late Honourable Gamini Dissanayake, the ICC granted Sri Lanka official Test status. It was obviously a pivotal time in our cricketing history. And, this was the start of a transformation of cricket from an elite sport to a game for the masses.
Race Riots and Bloody Conflict
I do not remember this momentous occasion as a child. Maybe because I was only five years old, but also because it wasn’t a topic that dominated conversation in our home. The early 1980’s was dominated by the escalation of militancy in the north into a full-scale civil war that was to mar the next 30 years.
The terrible race riots of 1983 and a bloody communist insurgency amongst the youth was to darken my memories of my childhood and the lives of all Sri Lankans. I recollect now the race riots of 1983 now with horror, but for the simple imagination of a child not yet six it was a time of extended play and fun. I do not say this lightly as about 35 of our closest friends, all Tamils, took shelter in our home. They needed sanctuary from vicious politically-motivated goon squads and my father, like many other Sri Lankans from different ethnic backgrounds, opened their houses at great personal risk.
For me, though, it was a time where I had all my friends to play with all day long. The schools were closed and we’d play sports for hour after hour in the backyard – cricket, football, rounders. It was a child’s dream come true. I remember getting annoyed when a game would be rudely interrupted by my parents and we’d all be ushered inside, hidden upstairs with our friends and ordered to be silent as the goon squads started searching homes in our neighbourhood.
- Kumar Sangakkara’s Cowdrey Lecture: “The Spirit of Sri Lanka’s Cricket” (Part 1 of 7) (tvaraj.com)
- Kumar Sangakkara’s Cowdrey Lecture: “The Spirit of Sri Lanka’s Cricket” (Part 3 of 7) (tvaraj.com)
- Kumar Sangakkara’s Cowdrey Lecture: “The Spirit of Sri Lanka’s Cricket” (Part 4 of 7) (tvaraj.com)
- Kumar Sangakkara’s Cowdrey Lecture: “The Spirit of Sri Lanka’s Cricket” (Part 5 of 7) (tvaraj.com)
- Kumar Sangakkara’s Cowdrey Lecture: “The Spirit of Sri Lanka’s Cricket” (Part 6 of 7) (tvaraj.com)
- Kumar Sangakkara’s Cowdrey Lecture: “The Spirit of Sri Lanka’s Cricket” (Part 7 of 7) (tvaraj.com)
- Uniqueness of Sangakkara’s MCC speech (ceylontoday.lk)
- Cricket World Cup: Sri Lanka hoping to repeat triumph
- Michael Tissera has served Sri Lanka cricket well (sundayobserver.lk)
- Anura Tennekoon (en.wikipedia.org)
- Cricket World Cup: Sri Lanka hoping to repeat triumph