Kumar Sangakkara’s Cowdrey Lecture: “The Spirit of Sri Lanka’s Cricket” (Part 3 of 7)


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Kumar Sangakkara delivering the Cowdrey Lecture  at Lord’s at the invitation of the MCC on July 4, 2011.
Kumar Sangakkara delivering the Cowdrey Lecture at Lord’s at the invitation of the MCC on July 4, 2011.

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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 3 of Kumar Sangakkara’s hour-long speech. It is accompanied by its transcript.

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Transcript of  Kumar Sangakkara’s speech
Race Riots and Bloody Conflict (continued)

I did not realize the terrible consequences of my friends being discovered and my father reminded me the other day of how one day during that period I turned to him and in all innocence said: “I hope this happens every year for it is so much fun having my friends to play with every day.”

The JVP-led Communist insurgency rising out of our universities was equally horrific in the late 1980s. Shops, schools and universities were closed. People rarely stepped out of their homes in the evenings. The sight of charred bodies on the roadsides and floating corpses in the river was terrifyingly commonplace.

People who defied the JVP faced dire consequences. They even urged students of all schools to walk out and march in support of their aims. I was fortunate to be at Trinity College, one of the few schools that defied their dictates. Yet I was living just below Dharmaraja College in Kandy where the students who walked out of its gates were met with tear gas and I would see students running down the hill to wash their eyes out with water from our garden tap.

My first cricket coach, Mr D.H. De Silva, a wonderful human being who coached tennis and cricket to students free of charge, was shot on the tennis court by insurgents. Despite being hit in the abdomen twice, he miraculously survived when the gun held to his head jammed. Like many during and after that period, he fled overseas and started a new life in Australia. As the decade progressed, the fighting in the north and east had heightened to a full-scale war. The Sri Lankan government was fighting the terrorist LTTE in a war that would drag our country’s development back by decades.

This war affected the whole of our land in different ways. Families, usually from the lower economic classes, sacrificed their young women and men by the thousands in the service of Sri Lanka’s military.

Even Colombo, a commercial capital that seemed far removed from the war’s frontline, was under siege by the terrorists using powerful vehicle and suicide bombs. Bombs in public places targeting both civilians and political targets became an accepted risk of daily life in Sri Lanka. Parents travelling to work by bus would split up and travel separately so that if one of them died the other will return home to tend to the family. Each and every Sri Lankan was touched by the brutality of that conflict.

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 internationally 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 people. That inspiration was to come in 1996.

An Identity Crisis

The pre-1995 era during which Sri Lanka produced many fine cricketers, but struggled to break free of the old colonial influences that had indoctrinated the way the game was played in Sri Lanka.

Even after gaining Test Status in 1981, Sri Lanka’s cricket suffered from an identity crisis and there was far too little “Sri Lankan” in the way we played our cricket.

Mahadevan Sathasivam (Source: sportskeeda.com)
Mahadevan Sathasivam (Source: sportskeeda.com)

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Although there were exceptions, one being the much-talked about Sathasivam, who was a flamboyant and colourful cricketer, both on and off the field. He was a cricketer in whose hand they say the bat was like a magic wand.

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Duleep Mendis (Source: sportstoday.lk)
Duleep Mendis (Source: sportstoday.lk)

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Another unique batsman was Duleep Mendis, now our chief selector, who batted with swashbuckling bravado.

Generally, though, we played cricket by the book, copying the orthodox and conservative styles of the traditional cricketing powerhouses. There was none of the live-for-the-moment and happy-go-lucky attitudes that underpin our own identity.

We had a competitive team, with able players, but we were timid, soft and did not yet fully believe in our own worth as individual players or as a team. I guess we were in many ways like the early West Indian teams: Calypso cricketers, who played the game as entertainers and lost more often than not albeit, gracefully.

Arjuna Ranatunga’s Leadership

What we needed at the time was a leader. A cricketer from the masses who had the character, the ability and above all the courage and gall to change the system, to stand in the face of unfavourable culture and tradition, unafraid to put himself on the line for the achievement for a greater cause.

Arjuna Ranatunga  (Source: espncricinfo.com)
Arjuna Ranatunga (Source: espncricinfo.com)

This, much-awaited messiah, arrived in the form of an immensely talented and slightly rotund Arjuna Ranatunga. He was to change the entire history of our cricketing heritage converting the game that we loved into a shared fanatical passion that over 20 million people embraced as their own personal dream.

The leadership of Arjuna during this period was critical to our emergence as a global force. It was Arjuna who understood most clearly why we needed to break free from the shackles of our colonial past and forge a new identity, an identity forged exclusively from Sri Lankan values, an identity that fed from the passion, vibrancy and emotion of normal Sri Lankans. Arjuna was a man hell-bent on making his own mark on the game in Sri Lanka, determined to break from foreign tradition and create a new national brand of cricket.

Coming from Ananda College to the SSC proved to be a culture shock for him. SSC or Sinhalese Sports Club was dominated by students from St. Thomas’ and Royal College, the two most elite schools in Colombo. The club’s committee, membership and even the composition of the team were dominated by these schools.

Arjuna himself has spoken about how alien the culture felt and how difficult it was for him to adjust to try and fit in. As a 15-year-old kid practising in the nets at the club, a senior stalwart of the club inquired about him. When told he was from the unfashionable Ananda College, he dismissed his talents immediately: “We don’t want any “Sarong Johnnie’s” in this club.”

As it turned out, Arjuna not only went on to captain SSC for many years, he also went on to break the stranglehold the elite schools had on the game. His goal was to impart in the team self-belief, to give us a backbone and a sense of self-worth that would inspire the team to look the opposition in the eye and stand equal, to compete without self-doubt or fear, to defy unhealthy traditions and to embrace our own Sri Lankan identity. He led fearlessly with unquestioned authority, but in a calm and collected manner that earned him the tag “Captain Cool”.

The first and most important foundation for our charge towards 1996 was laid. In this slightly overweight and unfit southpaw, Sri Lanka had a brilliant general who for the first time looked to all available corners of our country to pick and choose his troops.

The Search for Unique Players

Arjuna better than anyone at the time realised that we needed an edge and in that regard he searched for players whose talents were so unique that when refined they would mystify and destroy the opposition.

In cricket, timing is everything. This proved to be true for the Sri Lankan team as well. We as a nation must be ever so thankful to the parents of Sanath Jayasuriya and Muthiah Muralitharan for having sired these two legends to serve our cricket at its greatest time of need.

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Sanath Jayasuriya (Source: itmes.com)
Sanath Jayasuriya (Source: itmes.com)

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From Matara came Sanath, a man from a humble background with an immense talent that was raw and without direction or refinement, a talent under the guidance of Arjuna that was to be harnessed to become one of the most destructive batting forces the game has ever known. It was talent never seen before and now with his retirement never to be seen again.

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Muthiah Muralitharan (Source: theguardian.com)
Muthiah Muralitharan (Source: theguardian.com)

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Murali came from the hills of Kandy from a more affluent background. Starting off as a fast bowler and later changing to spin, he was blessed with a natural deformity in his bowling arm allowing him to impart so much spin on the ball that it spun at unthinkable angles. He brought wrist spin to off spin.

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Next → Kumar Sangakkara’s Cowdrey Lecture (Part 4 of 7)

← Previous: Kumar Sangakkara’s Cowdrey Lecture (Part 2 of 7)

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