'The weight of the country'
Wright Thompson, ESPN.com
Colombo, Sri Lanka. Last night, already in a haze from jet lag, cheap beer and the seething energy on the eve of a Pakistan-India match, I stood in a living room and listened to friends explain the Green Bay Packers to the head coach of Pakistan's cricket team. Andy and Melissa Heger live on a quiet lane in central Colombo, moving here after falling in love with it during a sailing trip around the world, somehow ending up in the inner circle of subcontinent cricket. Andy went to the same college as I did, so we connected for the World Twenty20. Like many residents of Sri Lanka, he hates the Indian cricket team, so he had T-shirts made in the green and yellow of both Pakistan and Green Bay with the words "I Back the Pak."
He held one up to Pakistan's coach, Dav Whatmore, a blunt force trauma of a guy, all shoulders and forearms, with a salt-and-pepper buzz cut and rough moustache. As Andy and Melissa launched into the story of a rabid fan base, about Wisconsin and Lambeau Field, Whatmore cut them off.
"Lombardi," he growled.
The trips I anticipate most are to the subcontinent for cricket matches, mostly because of moments like the one in Andy's living room when something bridges what had been, seconds before, an impossible divide. I'm hoping for one of those moments tonight at my first India-Pakistan match. It is, without question, the most intense sports rivalry in the world.
Right now, I'm sitting in the press box of an empty stadium, waiting on the match to begin. The sun is shining, hot on my face. The seats of the stadium are blue and yellow, and the green pitch below is full of players warming up. It's been about 28 hours since I landed. After I file this story, I'm meeting friends in the upper deck. Beers cost about a dollar. You can buy 12 at a time.
It's also my first trip to Sri Lanka. I knew only what I'd read about in the dispatches from the seemingly endless civil war fought between the Sinhalese government and Tamil rebels. The LTTE - either the Tamil army or a terrorist group, depending on whom you ask - pioneered the suicide bomb, assassinating a Sri Lankan president, a former Indian prime minister and anyone else unlucky enough to be in a blast zone. The war spread to the cities from time to time, with people turning on their neighbours. Three years ago, the government finally crushed the LTTE, releasing photographs of the group's charismatic leader with an enormous exit wound in his forehead. Human rights groups want to investigate the final battle, and the New Yorker reported on Sri Lankan soldiers murdering Tamil civilians. The government wants to move forward. The country is reinventing itself, locking away the past in the place where unspoken original sin goes to metastasise. Given all this, I don't know what I expected Sri Lanka to be like. What would New York have been like in 1868?
Here's what I didn't expect: a garden party in the shaded yard of a white mansion. Andy and I walked through a gate into the birthday celebration of one of his friends, an Oxford-educated Sri Lankan banker. The house, a palace of crown moulding and fresh flowers, belongs to her mother. An infinity pool rippled gently. A jazz band played in the corner of the yard, breaking into Louis Armstrong's What a Wonderful World. A man walked barefoot in the grass. Waiters circled with drinks. Women in willowy silk dresses held delicate wine glasses. Expensive handbags piled up in white-cushioned chairs: Gucci, Fendi, Marc Jacobs. Guys wore Wayfarers and linen pants. We were living a scene out of a Sri Lankan Gatsby. Andy caught me gawking.
"You enjoying your visit to the war-torn, third-world hellhole?" he said.
I met the nation's biggest talk show host - "the Oprah of Sri Lanka" is how she was introduced - and a cake mogul, and a restaurant and nightclub impresario, who had opened his latest place three days earlier. Two patterns emerged. One, every person I met is pulling for Pakistan to beat India; the birthday girl described being Sri Lankan as like being Irish, resenting the dominant big brother a thin channel of water away, cricket once again a safe language for expressing deeply held geopolitical ideas.
And two people, over and over, told me they'd recently moved back. There are generations of Sri Lankans who ran from the war and the hatreds behind it, and now they're coming home, to be the part of a new beginning. There's a streak of fatalism laced through the national psyche - in the way the pioneering spirit is part of America's self-image - but returning is an act of hope. The Tamils and Sinhalese have fought each other for a thousand years. Later, when Andy described the war from the Western point of view, defining the conflict as beginning in 1983 and ending in 2009, a local friend corrected him. "It's not a 26-year-old war," he said. "They have been at each other since Sri Lanka existed." He didn't mean the nation. He meant the island. The next morning, I'll find a newspaper outside my door with a lead story about LTTE survivors hiding in India, trying to regroup.
There's no way to know what will happen next in Sri Lanka, or how the lives of the people at the garden party will turn out, but they are together, partying hard in the afternoon, concerned not with some unknowable tomorrow but with a booze- and laughter-soaked today. So when the Sri Lankan team takes the field in this tournament, it will play not just for itself but also for a nation determined to look ahead.
So what is there to be understood at a cricket match? What does winning a World Cup mean for a country? What can it do? What can it not? Is there value in Sri Lanka winning this tournament? What about in Pakistan beating India? Or the other way around? There's a paragraph I love from a novel about Sri Lankan cricket called Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, set around the 1996 World Cup. It describes the power of sports better than anything I remember reading.
"Of course there is little point to sports. But, at the risk of depressing you, let me add two more cents. There is little point to anything. In a thousand years, grass will have grown over all our cities. Nothing of anything will matter. Left-arm spinners cannot unclog your drains, teach your children or cure you of disease. But once in a while, the very best of them will bowl a ball that will bring an entire nation to its feet. And while there may be no practical use in that, there is most certainly value."
I took a three-wheel tuk-tuk over to a local cricket club to meet Muttiah Muralitharan, lovingly known as, simply, Murali. He's one of the greatest spin bowlers in history, a star of the 1996 World Cup (the real World Cup, not the less prestigious World Twenty20; if you are a cricket fan you know all about this, and if you're not, you don't care).
Murali watched his six-year-old son's cricket training session. He's 40 now, with four or five grey hairs that will soon be four or five hundred.
"I'm just a dad," he said, smiling.
He didn't just take wickets for the world champions. He fuelled the team's anger. His bowling action is unorthodox, and with the naked eye, it looks like he's breaking the cricket rule about bowling without flexing the arm. That would be chucking, and it's not allowed. Even though tests showed he throws a legal ball, an umpire in Australia in the lead-up to the '96 World Cup kept calling him for chucking. Sri Lankans thought it had as much to do with the colour of his arm as the motion of it, and instead of meekly backing down, the team backed Murali. It wouldn't be intimidated.
Winning the World Cup changed his life. Everywhere he goes, he can sense the love Sri Lankans feel for him. It's a palpable thing. While we talked, two kids came up to him and asked for his autograph, one of them too scared to make eye contact. He thinks that the peace will last and that a new country is being born before our eyes. Look at him, he said. He's Tamil and is beloved by everyone.
"Some politicians make us feel there's a separation," he says. "My friends are Sinhalese. They are Tamil. They are Muslim. Christians. Every religion, every ethnicity. In 10 years' time, it will be a different country … Unless the politicians spoil it, like they did in the 1970s."
There are many reasons he believes in the future of Sri Lanka, but maybe the biggest one is hard to articulate. He knows what it feels like when the country is united.
Once, for a moment, it was united in its support of him.
The Indian and Pakistani teams are also playing for something larger, and heavier, than their individual hopes and ambitions. Their nations share a border, a long history and little else. They've fought four wars since 1948 and live every day with nuclear weapons pointed at each other. About the only chance either nation has to measure itself against its enemy is when the cricket teams meet. I will never know what that weight feels like, but I got a tiny window the night before the game. Pakistanis filled Andy's house, flying in from all over the world. The whole town was full of people wearing yellow and green. It's hard for Pakistan fans to get a visa to see their team play in India, so this neutral site provided a rare opportunity. Andy said to expect fights in the stands. It felt like the night before a big game, if that makes sense.
When Whatmore and his wife arrived, Melissa introduced him to their cook.
"This is Dav," she said.
"I know," Matilda said, wide-eyed.
Whatmore, as every person on the island is aware, was the coach of Sri Lanka's 1996 World Cup champions. Now he coaches Pakistan. We hung out in Andy's courtyard. Whatmore described his team at that moment, back at the hotel, guarded by Pakistani security, as a mix of self-doubt and determination. When his guys play India, he said, "They grow a leg."
I sat down next to his wife, who said his calm exterior is a front.
"I can tell," she said.
"How?" I asked.
"I'm not gonna tell you the signs," she said, pausing, then offering a hint. "He's very controlled. I'm really glad I got him out of the hotel."
Later, I saw what she meant. Whatmore stood in the corner of the room, quietly rolling up his jeans and rolling down his sock, showing his leg to Dr Saeed Jaffer, a dermatologist from Pasadena who flew over for the game. A nasty rash spread down Whatmore's leg. Saeed looked it over and chuckled.
"You know what it is?" he told the coach. "Stress."
Sri Lankan cricketer Jehan Mubarak, a member of the 2003 World Cup team, sat across from me at Andy's house. Sharing a tall bottle of Lion Lager, we watched an online video of Sri Lankan star Kumar Sangakkara trash-talking a South African opponent. Sangakkara knew the soft places in his opponent because they exist in every athlete whose play is tied to a nation's self-esteem.
"Local hero," he chirps, his digs caught on a microphone. "Lots of pressure here for the skipper. Gonna let his whole country down. Lots of expectations. Come on. The weight of all these expectations, fellas. The weight of the country, chap. Forty-two million supporters right here."
Right now, as I type this, the Indian and Pakistani teams are in the belly of the R Premadasa Stadium. Eleven men a side. The pressure is enough to make a coach break out in a rash, and he's not even playing. In the dressing room, the players are alone with their doubt and their fear and their hope. Everything is about to stop in India and Pakistan, all over the world, really, generations crowding around television sets. The weight of the country, chap.
After the players finally walk out onto the field, they cannot hide from those eyes, who have doubts and fears and hopes of their own. When the cricketers' careers are over, after their last match, be it tomorrow or in many years, they will move back to their hometowns and be judged on how they did during these few hours. Will they be forgotten? Will they be disgraced? Will they bring a nation to its feet with a single ball? These are questions that can be answered in a cricket match. Long after the specifics are forgotten, the feeling will remain, for those who played in the game, and those who watched it. I am about to pack up my things and head over to the stands to meet my friends. Row 5, seat 107. India plays Pakistan tonight in a bandbox of a stadium, and the place is filling up.