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Cricket blooms after a war

Up in the north of Sri Lanka, through the decades of ethnic conflict, the fervour for the game has remained intact

Andrew Fidel Fernando

April 12, 2013

Comments: 27 | Text size: A | A

Kumar Sangakkara talks to the Mullaitivu Combined Schools team before their first match in the Murali Cup, 2012
Kumar Sangakkara talks to the Mullaitivu Combined Schools team before their first match in the Murali Cup Thusith Wijedoru / © Murali Cup
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Not far south of the town of Mankulam, six boys are playing a neighbourhood match. All are dark and scrawny, none older than 12. The smallest of them takes guard in front of stumps improvised from a strip of reconstituted wood and propped up by old bricks. He grips his bat near the bottom of the crudely fashioned handle, and taps it on the ground as the bowler, a much taller kid with dangling arms, begins his approach. The run-up is rhythmic and the action smooth, but he has overpitched on where off stump would be. The batsman plants his front foot, raising a small cloud of red dust, then swings and connects. A forceful bottom hand helps the ball over mid-on, for four.

Their field is a vacant plot, surrounded by one-room transitional shelters built by NGOs. About 200 metres away, across the road, is a discarded sign warning of landmines. Not far from that, a single wall that hunches over a scramble of foundations bears a toddler's scrawl in red ink. A nearby concrete water tank, dressed in bullet holes, might have been a machine-gun nest as recently as four years ago, when the war last tore through the north.

"Cricket has always been strong here," says former Sri Lanka fast bowler Ravindra Pushpakumara, "and that makes my job easier." He was appointed Sri Lanka Cricket's regional coach for the northern province, less than a year after the war ended, and his enthusiasm for the role bursts forth in animated appraisals of the skills he has seen there, and his promises that a northern player will represent Sri Lanka in the next few years.

"Talent like you would not believe," he says. "I get boys turn up to my camps without even a pair of shoes on their feet, but when I clock them on my speed gun, they're bowling in the 130s. They don't seem to get tired either. They just bowl and bowl and bowl in the heat, with hardly even a break for drinks. I was amazed when I started, but you start to realise that they've had a very tough life compared to us in Colombo. That's how their bodies have developed."

Jaffna is the big city in the region, located in the triangular peninsula on the tip of the island. It is accessed via the Elephant Pass - a narrow strip of land that was the most constant venue of violence during the war. In July 1983, the peninsula was the scene of an ambush on Sri Lankan armed forces that sparked retaliatory pogroms, leading to the beginning of the war in earnest. The city itself was held intermittently by the LTTE during the conflict's course. Despite that difficult history, however, cricketing traditions lasted amid the chaos, providing respite for a beleaguered town.


Spectators at a Murali Cup match in Mankulam, Sri Lanka, 2012
Spectators throng a Murali Cup game in Kilinochchi in 2012 Hiranya Malwatta / © Murali Cup
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Like elsewhere on the island, school cricket captivates the locals, and the big match doubles as a highlight on the social calendar. St John's College Jaffna and Jaffna Central College played their 107th annual encounter in March in "the battle of the north", and young cricketers from the region have already caught the Colombo establishment's attention. On a trip north in February, chief selector Sanath Jayasuriya spotted S Sulojan, a 19-year-old Jaffna fast bowler so impressive, he brought him to Colombo and enrolled him in the fast bowling academy. Eighteen months prior, S Danushan, an even younger fast bowler from the LTTE's old administrative capital of Kilinochchi, had been scouted and given a scholarship to Royal College in Colombo. The north had had a reputation for producing quality fast bowlers in the pre-Test era, and now, with only rudimentary cricket infrastructure in place, that trend seems to be emerging once more.

"I think anyone can see that what Sri Lanka needs most at the moment is fast bowlers," Pushpakumara says. "What some of these boys do with such little coaching is incredible. If we can give them the right support - get them into academies, and give one or two of them a chance in the SLPL and domestic cricket - there's no telling how much they will achieve."

That potential in the north's cricket system is driven by an enduring passion for the sport and for the Sri Lanka team in particular that has almost always superseded politics. Kilinochchi Central College's 18-year-old wicketkeeper batsman S Sivakarunakaran Vithalyan recalls his neighbourhood staying up through the night to watch a fuzzy feed of the 2007 World Cup final, on a small black and white television. Almost six years on, he curses Adam Gilchrist for taking the title away from Sri Lanka and bemoans the rain that he feels scuttled Sri Lanka's chase. His friends lament the lost finals since then, pondering every "what if" as boys and men do all across the nation.

Staggeringly, Sri Lanka's national side even found support inside the LTTE movement, which denounced above all the disenfranchisement of Sri Lankan Tamils. In a 2005 aid trip to the north after the tsunami, Mahela Jayawardene was blown away by the enthusiasm for the nation's cricket among LTTE soldiers, who were willing to give their lives in pursuit of a separate state.

"When I came here with Russel Arnold during the truce, we met the LTTE hierarchy," Jayawardene says. "Some of the others were coming up and speaking to us about our cricket - they knew our averages and what we've done in various places. These were actual, proper cadres. They gave us advice on who we should pick for our next tour to England, which was coming up. They said, 'You need a couple of good seam bowlers for England. These guys have done well, so you should take them.' They were following us so closely and analysing it as well."

Jayawardene, Muttiah Muralitharan and Kumar Sangakkara have since been among the most fervent promoters of cricket as an avenue to reconciliation. Jayawardene's charity, the Mahela Foundation, has funded cricket equipment and facilities for schools in the north. Murali's involvement with the Foundation of Goodness has helped families begin the long process of rebuilding lives, while Sangakkara's Bikes for Life campaign has delivered over 1000 bicycles to children living in rural, war-struck areas, allowing them better access to education.


Net facilities at the Oddusudan ground, near Mullaitivu, Sri Lanka
The new net facilities at the Oddusudan ground © Murali Cup
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All three were also heavily involved in last year's Murali Cup - an Under-19 T20 tournament run concurrently with a women's tournament - which took high-profile cricket to the north for the first time. Combined teams from war-affected towns like Mannar, Vavuniya, Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Mullaitivu, as well as Jaffna and Kilinochchi, played against top school teams from southern, western and central Sri Lanka. A new cricket ground, nets and a pavilion were built in Oddusudan, near Mullaitivu - the setting of the war's bloodiest battles and its brutal end. The tournament was superbly received and supported by the locals, who turned up in their thousands to watch and steal a moment with their sporting heroes.

"With the situation improving in the north now, we thought it's a good time to give the kids from the north an opportunity to play cricket and for kids from the rest of Sri Lanka to come and mingle with them," Jayawardene says. "We need to break that barrier with these kids, because they've lost so much and they are the ones we need to look after now. There is a huge bonding with the game here, and what we can do is to give these guys a chance to play, not just watch. We all hope we can have someone from here playing for Sri Lanka, and I think on that day, we will be united."

For so long the medium of national unity, in Sri Lanka's north, cricket now has as much meaning as any sport could ever have. The captain of the Dharmasoka College side that played in the Murali Cup spoke of how excited he and his team-mates had been to visit the north, and to play with Sri Lankans who paid a much steeper price for peace than they in the south-west had. The coach of the St Peter's College team insisted that his team dropped their plans for separate accommodation and instead shared rooms with the boys from Kilinochchi. They were not to return to Colombo unless they had learnt at least four Tamil phrases. Friendships were forged and numbers exchanged, along with assurances they would visit each other again soon. The tournament put 19-year-olds at the coalface of reconciliation.

Facilities are developing steadily and the coaching structure is becoming more robust. The Northern Cricket Academy, the first of its kind in the region, was opened in Mullaitivu district in January, and though youth cricket has been their sole focus until now, SLC has given assurances an Under-23 side, and a senior side that will compete at the level just below first-class cricket, are on their way.

But, even by Pushpakumara's estimation, it will be at least a few years before a cricketer from the north earns a place in a national team. It takes time, he says, for systems to become established and for attitudes towards sport as a legitimate career path to evolve. For now, though, the response from Sri Lanka's cricketing fraternity has been immense. They have looked on the plight of northern communities attempting to rise again and embraced them as brothers, bound by their love for some old colonial game.

The northern edition of 2013's Murali Cup will take place in late September

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here

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© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by Palitha-Ferdinands on (April 13, 2013, 20:20 GMT)

This is a great article. Thanks Mr Kirthi Gunarathna (St peter's coach). If everyone follows the suit, our country would be a beautiful place. I wonder what would be the outcome if these kind of articles get published in Tamilnadu Press. Never mind the politics. At least they will stop opposing our cricketers playing in that part of the world.

Posted by MDCP on (April 13, 2013, 13:41 GMT)

@ahead-of-time: the coach of St Peters College is Mr.Kirthi Gunaratna. Former Sri Lanka fast bowler. Great article Andrew. Keep it up.

Posted by lukecannon on (April 13, 2013, 2:00 GMT)

very good move by SLC and our players. I wish them all the success in the world.

Posted by tennakoon63 on (April 13, 2013, 1:06 GMT)

Nicely written article. We hope that the bond created through this yeoman services lasts for =ever.

Posted by   on (April 12, 2013, 21:12 GMT)

Wonderful article. It is great to see how cricket can bright peace to war torn areas. Would love to see another Murali come out of the mix. We need to see more articles like this from Cricinfo

Posted by   on (April 12, 2013, 21:06 GMT)

Cricketers from the North used to be an integral part of the Sri Lankan/Ceylon teams prior to the country attaining Test status. It is time for them to return. Thanks Andrew for a precious article. We need fast bowlers with speed and also stamina!

Posted by   on (April 12, 2013, 20:52 GMT)

In this Sinhalese and Tamil new year I wish that our national team will have a Tamil brother, like every one who have wished and posted to this article. It is 'Cricket For Peace'.

Posted by ahead-of-time on (April 12, 2013, 20:17 GMT)

I am really touched by this article. I had no idea what our cricketers and and cricket administrators are doing in north and east until i read this. I wish Every Sri lankan had the right spirit that St. Peters cricket coach had. " The coach of the St Peter's College team insisted that his team dropped their plans for separate accommodation and instead shared rooms with the boys from Kilinochchi. They were not to return to Colombo unless they had learnt at least four Tamil phrases. Friendships were forged and numbers exchanged, along with assurances they would visit each other again soon. The tournament put 19-year-olds at the coalface of reconciliation. " Will someone please publish his name. Hats off; to all involved in north and east cricket development. Thank you Andrew.

Posted by jackthelad on (April 12, 2013, 20:07 GMT)

Have any of you ever been north of Killinoche? the world looks very different there.

Posted by   on (April 12, 2013, 14:35 GMT)

Cricket is a good bridge to gap between two races. Hope our national cricketers will continue to do the good work.

Posted by   on (April 12, 2013, 14:22 GMT)

As a tamilian and cricket fan ,i sincerely hope and believe cricket can be one of the bridges to bring both the communities together..

Posted by   on (April 12, 2013, 14:06 GMT)

Thanks Andrew. And also all the guys for their enthusiastic comments. For those who are not aware let me ad that Andrew is a New Zealander or rather a Sri lankan New Zealander.

Posted by Aquarius1948 on (April 12, 2013, 13:55 GMT)

Thank you Andrew for a well-written and factual article. This message can only build bridges in a society struggling to come to terms with 30 yrs of lost time! I have been there myself with the Foundation of Goodness and in 2001 visited Jaffna and Trincomalee with a cricket team from Geneva, Switzerland. The hunger for cricket among the youth is immense and with the end of the civil war they are yearning to be participants rather than spectators. In doing so these youngsters can turn out to be true ambassadors in the difficult peace-building and reconcilliation processes.

Posted by Grasian on (April 12, 2013, 13:48 GMT)

A cricketer from the north-east would complete the last part of the puzzle in fielding a multicultural and multiethnic team, which would finally reflect our country's diversity. What I noted on a visit to Jaffna in 2011 was the presence of an oval next to the old Dutch fort, similar to Galle, that could be upgraded to first class or even international status. I would love to see a Test there one day.

Posted by CricketPissek on (April 12, 2013, 13:32 GMT)

It's awesome to have a Sri Lankan to report on Sri Lankan cricket on a website with such far reach as ESPN Cricinfo. Congratulations Andrew on another wonderful piece. For too long has SL been seen in a superficial manner (beaches, tea, and other cliches). Wonderful to see real journalism on real issues faced by real people in SL through the medium of cricket. Well done machang.

Posted by ARad on (April 12, 2013, 13:10 GMT)

This is very good news and KUDOS to the cricketers and those in the administration for doing the right thing! Now, if other ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT initiatives are equally shared with the PEOPLE in affected areas WITHOUT POLITICAL CRONYISM, the future will be brighter for everyone.

Posted by i.Peiris on (April 12, 2013, 12:02 GMT)

Lessons to be learned - Moments to be cherished >>> well versed Andrew. Keep it up Bro!

Posted by   on (April 12, 2013, 11:24 GMT)

I am really moved by this article. As a tamilian when so much fou cry is happening in Tamilnadu (India) about ill treatment meted out to Tamilians in North & East of Srilanka, this is a great news. When the opportunities are given to people living in downtrodden areas especially for games like Cricket, they excel. Cricket is a game loved by the Srilanks and they hold dear in their minds. Mind you they were the world champions in 1996 World cup, when they were underdogs. If cricket can bring peace in Srilanka and especially players from North & East and that too Fast bowlers, it should be welcomed. Hope better sense prevails upon the Cricket Administrators of Srilanka and nurture talent wherever it happens. Sports always bring peace to any cricket and the ICC always enchant "Cricket for Peace".

Posted by   on (April 12, 2013, 10:58 GMT)

Well compiled article. In my view, and that of thousands of other SL cricket lovers, there's no doubt that we lost the services of many talented young cricketers from the North and East due to a mindless, meaningless war for 3 decades - some could have played but lacked the opportunity and some simply perished. The Govt. and SL Cricket need to address the needs in cricketing know-how and material resources of N&E and fast track the under 19 youngsters to firstly play in a zonal competition and then enable them to be considered for a national under 19 team to play against the National Division 2 sides. In the near future, I'm sure SL can be a stronger outfit than ever before.

Posted by spas on (April 12, 2013, 10:17 GMT)

As a Sri Lankan, I must say that Cricket in the Only thing that all the Sri Lankans love irrespectice of their ethnicity (sinhalese, tamil or muslim ) or religion. it is reflected in the article too. Therefore Cricket can be used to bring together the people and heal the wounds (just like in Invictus). At the moment Sri Lanka has a lot of things that divide its people. Politics , extremism etc but lacks something that brings people together. I hope Cricketers, cricket administration and more importantly (in this part of the world) the government /and other polititians understand how important cricket is towards unity of Sri Lankans.

Posted by   on (April 12, 2013, 9:58 GMT)

Nice article by Andrew. It is better if you can add a Sri Lankan map marking the locations mentioned in the artickle. It will be good for a non srilankan to have a good picture of the article.

Posted by PadMarley on (April 12, 2013, 8:26 GMT)

Dear peace loving cricket lovers... please do what you can to promote this article. Its already on my facebook. Andrew! This is the spirit man!! Very touching article.... great job!

Posted by denwarlo70 on (April 12, 2013, 7:51 GMT)

Trust me, I read this article with tears pouring from my eyes. I am so happy to know that our northern and eastern kids are treated in the right manner after such a long long time. My only hope is to see a kid representing the National side from the north or east and I hope it does not take that long. Authorities, please do your part to develop the much loves game of cricket in these regions as well.

Posted by ca2ca on (April 12, 2013, 6:28 GMT)

Great article again. People who look at Sri Lanka with blinkers should read this. Mahela assess the situation rightly with words, "We need to break that barrier with these kids, because they've lost so much and they are the ones we need to look after now" Hope some of these kids play in upper levels soon.

Posted by   on (April 12, 2013, 5:12 GMT)

gud news.. happy to hear :)

Posted by   on (April 12, 2013, 3:23 GMT)

great to see this is happening. good luck.

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