July 5, 2011

Sangakkara's challenge to cricket

His speech at Lord's should serve as a wake-up call to administrators to use the game to serve people, and not for selfish gains

Kumar Sangakkara has made the most important speech in cricket history. Brushing aside the twin temptations of romance and sentiment, the erudite Sri Lankan has dared to confront the truths about cricket in his country. Along the way he struck many meaty blows on the game's behalf. His discourse was nothing less than a challenge to cricket to set higher standards for itself, to reject jealousy, pettiness and greed, and to become part of the enlightenment.

Both cricket and Sri Lanka deserve better from the governors. Alas, the worst remain in office in so many places, with Ijaz Butt running amok in Pakistan; Givemore Makoni, with terrible inevitability, returning to official ranks in benighted and betrayed Zimbabwe; Gerald Majola still in charge in South Africa; and a mixture of government lackeys and bookmaking families running the show in Sri Lanka. Nor is there any reason to retain faith in Giles Clarke, England's puffed-up principal, or Australia's Jack Clarke, whose limitations have been exposed often enough.

Sangakkara, Sri Lanka's second-best cricketer, has never scored a hundred at Lord's, but his lecture can be put alongside the finest innings played on the ground. Actually it was not so much a speech as a plea for proper governance. Nor was it motivated by the darker forces observed in lesser men. Like the rest of us, Sangakkara is no saint, but his denunciation of the controlling forces at home spoke of frustration not ambition, affection not scorn, contribution not calculation. Its value lies in its very independence

That Sangakkara is a man of substance has long been known. Not long ago he visited a school in the north-east of the country, and spoke movingly about the need for all Lankans, Sinhalese and Tamils, to work together. It was a timely gesture because the government had recently banned the Tamil version of the national anthem. Likewise it prevented outside scrutiny of the allegations of executions, rapes and other abuses in the last months of the civil war. Channel 4's devastating exposé has put that back on the table. Sri Lanka is listed as one of the five most dangerous countries in which to work as a journalist.

As Sangakkara observes, Sri Lanka's cricket troubles began in the 1996, the year the World Cup was won. In the wrong hands success can be as damaging as failure. Hitherto the board had been run by benevolent and capable gentlemen from the old school. None had a finger in the pie, none needed the money, and all accepted stringent codes of conduct. In short, they were men of integrity. Over the years I have not spent much time siding with the "establishment" (itself a glib word) but these were men of honesty and honour, and I took their side in the subsequent struggles. The reason was simple: they were right. Accordingly I presented their case in a column in the Sunday Leader, a fearless newspaper whose fearless editor, also a friend, was assassinated.

Success attracted the charlatans as light attracts moths. A new guard realised there was money to be made in cricket. Thilanga Sumathipala appeared on the scene, looking not unlike Napoleon - an energetic man versed in the arts and crafts of manipulation, and with strong connections with the bookmaking fraternity (a custom that continues in the current administration). Inevitably the unscrupulous and opportunistic sided with him. He had the drive of new money, the ambition of the upstart. It was easy to see the attraction. He was ruthless too, and swiftly manoeuvred himself into power by persuading the majority of the 72 voting clubs to support him. That many of these clubs existed only in name did not deter him or his impatient backers.

Sangakkara has once again served Sri Lankan cricket with distinction. Only those with empires to protect will resent his words. Only those blighted with the curse of nationalism will deny him his voice. He spoke as a patriot, a higher calling altogether

Ever since, Sri Lankan cricket has been in turmoil. Indeed, it's been a shambles. In the last few months alone the board has been burdened with huge legal bills, allegations about malpractice in World Cup ticket allocations, allegations about cronyism in appointments, threats of bankruptcy as World Cup costs spiralled out of control, and posturing from a sports minister apparently intent on provoking the Indians and thereby supposedly scoring points with the masses. That the minister concerned was promptly removed from office was little consolation. His outburst lacked gravitas. Unsurprisingly the Indians, the IPL franchises and senior players ignored him.

If the ICC is serious about tackling corruption and stopping political interference in cricketing matters, it could start by sending a working party to Sri Lanka with the task of setting up sustainable democratic institutions.

Sanath Jayasuriya's selection for the limited-overs matches in England confirmed that politicians are involved in team operations. It had been a move long resisted by the team elders on the grounds that he was past his prime.

Sri Lanka took a bright young team to Australia in October 2010, and beat the hosts 2-1 in the ODIs. On the surface all seemed well. Behind the scenes, though, the team management was worried. Jayasuriya had long since been a liability and they feared he might be imposed upon them, thereby compromising the team and affecting its morale. It did not happen, because the incumbents kept winning and the think tank stood its ground.

But the Jayasuriya issue did not go way. He is a Member of Parliament, representing the governing party, a ruthless outfit intent on controlling all the levers of power, and to that end prepared to lock up the leader of the opposition, a popular soldier responsible for the final crushing of the LTTE. Arjuna Ranatunga, an opposition MP, took part in a protest about his leader's imprisonment, whereupon an arrest warrant was issued. Such are the joys of life in Sri Lanka.

By bringing its strengths and weaknesses to the attention of the wider public, Sangakkara has once again served Sri Lankan cricket with distinction. Only those with empires to protect will resent his words. Only those blighted with the curse of nationalism will deny him his voice. He spoke as a patriot, a higher calling altogether. Significantly he raised his concerns on behalf of his people, pointing out that "the administration needs to adopt the values enshrined by the team over the years: integrity, transparency, commitment and discipline. Unless it is capable of becoming more professional, progressive and transparent then we risk alienating the common man."

Happily, Sangakkara also spoke about cricket's ability to promote enlightenment, an opportunity so often wasted. Indeed, his criticisms were directed towards that end. After all he has seen civil war, strife, greed and selfishness, and wants no more of them. He pointed out that "cricket played a crucial role during the dark days of civil war… but the conduct and performance of the team will have even greater importance as we enter a period of reconciliation and recovery… Cricket can and should remain a guiding force for good within society, providing entertainment and fun, but also an example of how we should approach our lives."

That is the crux of the matter. When cricket falls into the hands of the narrow-minded it withers. To prevent that it's essential that men like Sangakkara speak out, and that governing bodies accept their responsibilities. So much has been accomplished. The Berlin Wall has fallen, apartheid is gone, the Arab uprising is underway, a Muslim has played for Australia, and a Tamil has taken 800 Test wickets for his beloved country. Just that there is a lot more to do. Cricket is connected with the world and ought not to pretend otherwise.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Aditya on July 8, 2011, 22:39 GMT

    I must convey to Mr Roebuck, that if something like the Berlin Wall had existed in Sri Lanka, then the love for the game of cricket in that nation would have brought in down. All that needs to happen, is for Sri Lanka to loose some series in a bad way. The organisers of Sri Lankan Cricket will come to their senses. India, since the 1980's, when Imran Khan's Pakistan Team defeated the Indian Team badly, has worked hard to see the present context unfold. From the 80's through the 90's the BCCI has done it's level best, to enthuse the Indian cricket fan. India and Pakistan might have been one nation today, but the two nations need to rival each other on the cricket field, and also in other international fora. This seems to be the greater need of the two nations. Unfortunately, cricket could not bring down the Berlin Wall's hypothetical equivalent in India and Pakistan.

  • Tharuka on July 8, 2011, 0:57 GMT

    Totally agree with CricketFan2011WC!

  • Pubudu on July 7, 2011, 23:10 GMT

    Al Millington - I believe Mr Roebuck is referring to one Muralidharan? The greatest cricketer Sri Lanka has produced?

  • Dummy4 on July 7, 2011, 15:10 GMT

    For those who wish to speak the truth, the only response would be punishment by using the power these cronies enjoy.The people who have ruined all forms of sport in Sri Lanka, will continue to do so.In this context Sanga will not become a hero but a victim. It is high time that the freedom of speech is regarded as a right of the people but not as violation of contractual obligations on the part of Sanga. The truth cannot be hushed under the carpet to prevent the nudity of those who have committed frauds and responsible for mis-management of affairs within the cricket board.

    The idiosyncrasy clearly displayed by the country's so called sports minister by the stance taken by him on this occassion must be rejected by examining his decisions in the recent past involving the players who refused to make themselves available for the tour of England & leave their IPL contracts.He clearly displayed that he was not capable of making such decisions or did not have the power.

  • Dummy4 on July 7, 2011, 14:57 GMT

    2nd best cricketer? Whos better?

  • Dummy4 on July 7, 2011, 9:28 GMT

    sangakkara has been a great servant for his nation.his words cannot be ignored.the situation all over the world especially India,Sri Lanka,Pakistan doesn't appear to be fine.the transperancy has not been maintained and cricket boards have not been subjected to the best of treatmentsaround the world.

  • Ankan on July 7, 2011, 9:11 GMT

    Kumar is a hero. It takes guts to speak like that. And his speach was much more beyond cricket. It gave me goosebumps to read it. He's a role model.

  • Roshini on July 7, 2011, 1:22 GMT

    In a country among 21M plus population n widely known as a land for rare gem stones, we Sri Lankans are indeed fortunate beyond words to have unearthed a very very rare human gem in the shape of Kumar Sangakkara. My first moral obligation is to stand up n salute his parents for giving this wonderful rare gem to be in the midst n enjoyed by all Sri Lanka. Secondly his school Trinity college Kandy for bringing out the best in this great soul. In cricket our passion has no boundaries n this most remarkable gutsy speech should be viewed in the best interest of the nation. I have listened to Kumar's speech over n over again n never gets tired in the hope that our much cherished n loved game would some day be saved for all generations n should not be allowed to wither n die at the hands of few power hungry self centered individuals. Let us all celebrate this unique personality called Kumar Sangakkara for so fearlessly bringing the SLC misdemeanors in to the open. To be continued,Roshini Vaas

  • Sahan on July 7, 2011, 0:38 GMT

    @fazlanka - Yes CricketFan2011WC is serious. That's the overwhelming feeling in Sri Lanka.

  • FAZ on July 6, 2011, 19:43 GMT

    @ Cricketfan2011WC

    Mahinda Rajapakse is a great person? Are u serious? I vehemently condemn the actions on the LTTe and a few haters who bring down the country and its wonderful people. But honestly brother, mahinda is some way from being a great person

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