Arjuna's real-life Hobbits
When I was around eleven years old a man who worked for my father showed me a photograph. It didn't really show much of anything. It wasn't a snapshot of breathtaking scenery or a tranquil beach. It was just a couple of people standing in front of a staircase. They weren't posing. They weren't smiling. They weren't even looking at the camera. One of them was wearing a sarong. Jayathissa was the name of the man who showed me the photo. I don't know if he had taken it or if someone had given him the photo. I never quite asked or found out. Jayathissa was proud of this picture. He was beaming as he showed it to me. I didn't recognise anyone at first. But later my eyes settled on one man in the picture.
A few years later I saw that same man again. Only this time he wasn't in a photograph. He was on television. He wasn't wearing a sarong this time. He was wearing blue cricket kit. He wasn't looking away from what was in front of him. His focus was dead-eyed. He guided a ball to the third man boundary. He pulled out a stump. He hugged his friend at other end. He had won a match, and with it a World Cup for Sri Lanka. He was Arjuna Ranatunga.
I hadn't thought about that picture in a long time. But when I did I was reminded of a time that seemed like a different life altogether. Back when I was just another kid in Sri Lanka. Playing street cricket from morning until there was no light left to see the ball. With the occasional dash back into the house to check if your favourite player was batting or bowling. It is wonderful to see your heroes on the screen while they take down giants from across oceans. For a Tolkien lover, the Sri Lankans were truly real-life Hobbits slaying dragons and challenging evil in a grand old adventure.
That 1996 World Cup win is hard to describe. The euphoria the country experienced could only be felt by those living there at the time. Old heroes were vindicated, new ones born, villains vanquished. It made dreams seem possible. It was inspiration. It was hope.
So what reminded me of that photograph after all these years? It was another picture. Very much like the one Jayathissa showed me. Only this time I saw it on a cricket forum on the internet. There were nine people in in, in the same oblivious pose as Arjuna. They were standing in front of a tree, on what looked like a hot day. Some were sitting on the grass. Most of them were dressed in shalwar-kameez and sandals. They were the Afghanistan team from 2006. It depicted their humble beginnings. Now, nine years on, they are playing in their first World Cup.
What this picture made clear to me was how lucky I have been as a Sri Lankan. To have never seen the Sri Lankan team's place in the World Cup under threat. To have seen my heroes on the biggest stage, competing against the best in the world. To have seen those heroes given the chance to play, to improve, and to put their own stamp on the world game.
Afghanistan and the other "Associate" nations, for lack of a better word, might not have this opportunity any more.
Kids growing up in Kabul, Dublin, Aberdeen, the Emirates, Rotterdam and Kathmandu might not get a chance to see their heroes slay their own giants. When the ICC threatens to take these teams out of the World Cup, it threatens to snuff out the inspiration and hope in those children. It is denying them a chance to feel that indescribable euphoria we have all felt while watching and playing the game. It is denying them the enchantment that cricket holds on all of us.
The win in 1996 meant many things for Sri Lanka. It meant cricket seeped into our DNA. It meant the rest of the world held our adventurers in awe. It meant a sport was allowed to breathe and captivate a generation. It will be hard to find any player in the current Sri Lankan team who was not inspired by 1996. Kumar Sangakkara illustrated this best in his MCC speech in 2011.
"Until that time I was playing cricket with no real passion or ambition. I never thought or dreamed of playing for my country. This changed when I watched Sri Lanka play Kenya at Asgiriya. It was my final year in school and the first seed of my vision to play for my country was planted in my brain and heart when I witnessed Sanath, Gurusinha and Aravinda produce a devastating display of batting. That seed of ambition spurted into life when, a couple of weeks later, I watched on television that glorious final in Lahore. Everyone in Sri Lanka remembers where they were during that final."
You shudder to think how differently things may have played out for Sanga and countless other players had Sri Lanka been treated as callously as the Associates are now.
It is not a farfetched dream to believe that the next Tendulkar might come from Nepal, the next Akram from Afghanistan, the next McGrath from Holland or the next Murali from Papua New Guinea. But as long as the ICC's stance is dictated by the self-interests of a few boards and the bottom line while contradicting their publicly stated aim of growing the game globally, it will head down the path of fiction rather than what one day might eventuate.
I called my mother the other day to ask if the photo had survived. It had, hidden away in an old scrapbook. The story of the Associates should not be encapsulated in a photo tucked away in some kid's bedroom collecting dust. It should, instead, be allowed to shine proudly and radiate hope and inspiration. As a fan, the best I can do is sign a petition (one that everyone one who cares about the issue should sign) and passionately share the stories that writers such as Jarrod Kimber are putting together to give the teams a voice. I hope our collective voices are heard to a point where we will not be denied our future heroes.
Damith Samarakoon is a Sri Lankan cricket fanatic living in Sydney. He blogs regularly at www.theflyslip.net