World T20 2014 April 7, 2014

Playing for the people

When Sri Lanka's players are marginalised by the board, or are on a poor run, they feel the fans are all they have left. There will be love, respect and admiration flowing in both directions when they take their trophy to the people on Tuesday.

"Each of these stars are now wealthy beyond measure on any meaningful Sri Lankan scale, but yet, they are all so human." © ICC

Among the many great stories from Sri Lanka's 1996 World Cup triumph is one that Arjuna Ranatunga loves to retell. In the days before the final, the team received a fax from Colombo, promising sums of money for runs and wickets. Almost every man in that dressing room had a day-job then. Most had families turning out a modest middle-class living. Team sponsorships barely covered team shirts, flights and equipment. Even the visionary coach was paid by a foreign board.

But as the team read out the bounty for each boundary scored, and catch taken, a collective sense of discomfort rose up. The feeling stretched beyond anger or resentment, Ranatunga says. It was hurt. "We looked at each other and said, 'Is this how people measure us? That we are only here to play for money? That we need an incentive beyond the love of playing for our country?'" Such tales are so often vulnerable to embellishment, but there is no doubting the earnestness in Ranatunga's voice.

"Before the end of the night, that piece of paper was torn into pieces and cast in the bin."

In the 24 hours before the 2014 World T20 team left to Bangladesh, they were told a second-string side may go in their stead if they did not sign the board's contracts. The officials relented on that stance, but the team left without any guarantee of payment for the campaign they were about to undertake. Like the 1996 side, they also had word of an added "incentive" in the days before the final. Whether the team will bank the $1.5 million, given that sum may be conditional, is yet unclear, but as they strode to a second global title in 18 years, there could be no mistake that for Sri Lanka, playing for country and its people had not gone out of style.

They are an easy people to play for. Dwarfed by its neighbours in the north, Sri Lanka is beset by a small-country mentality. The cricket team champions the nation on a global stage, and to support them is to be a patriot. Patriotism is paramount.

Sri Lanka fans feel their team is underappreciated internationally, and if cricket's global media was honest with itself, it would admit Sri Lanka is not a team it cares about, until they tour, mostly at infrequent intervals. It is the reason Sri Lanka's major-tournament record seems an enigmatic surprise to many. It is also the reason why Tony Greig's heartfelt exultations on the island and its cricket still resonated so profoundly with the public, even now, a year after his death.

"It is significant that at each annual contracts loggerhead, the players have never refused to take the field. It is the board who threaten to keep them off it. To not play for the public would be betrayal."

All this binds the fans tighter to their team, and the players know it. Those who have been around a decade or longer know that though the board rifles through interim committees, though governments come and go, and the game itself evolves at warp-speed, bringing new opponents and fresh challenges, the fans do not waiver. In their staying the course, the team finds its own direction. It is collective co-dependence. The Sri Lankan public so often feels ignored and disrespected by the state of the country's governance, many say cricket is their only respite. When the players are marginalised by the board, or are on a poor run, they feel the fans are all they have left.

It is significant that at each annual contracts loggerhead, the players have never refused to take the field. It is the board who threaten to keep them off it. To not play for the public would be betrayal, because in a country fitted with an archaic domestic model, shambolic first-class surfaces and a thousand political landmines, it is the fans who sustain the game and energise its spirit: who are its very lifeblood.

It is why, at the end of a toilsome Colombo day in the field, Kumar Sangakkara veers off to sign autographs and give handshakes before retiring to the dressing room. It is why, when a group of squirming kids are too shy to approach, Mahela Jayawardene goes to them instead, dropping to his haunches to greet them eye-to-eye, flashing that warm, wide smile. It is why Muttiah Muralitharan will return to a corner-shop with the signed photograph he had promised the day before. It is why Sanath Jayasuriya will fling his head back laughing, and throw an arm around a stranger who has just cracked a joke about him.

Each of these stars are now wealthy beyond measure on any meaningful Sri Lankan scale, but yet, they are all so human. Punch them, and they still bleed. Praise them, and they'll glow. So, uniquely among the major South Asian nations, Sri Lankan cricketers are free to live out their lives, as human beings, not hyper-real entertaining entities.

After the tournament win, Jayawardene was visibly choking back tears, as team-mates raised him on their shoulders at the Shere Bangla. Typically, it was Sangakkara who held it together well enough to give eloquent voice to their emotion.

"It's wonderful that the side really meant it when they said they would like to win the tournament for myself and Mahela. But at the same time, we've got 20 million other people we've got to win it for as well. It's not about me or Mahela or any single person, it's about everyone who stands with you, or behind you. I'm thankful for all the Sri Lankan fans, because without them, to have won this tournament - it would have been impossible."

On Tuesday, the team will bring their trophy to their people, on a long, snaking trail from the airport to the epicentre of Colombo's Sunday celebrations, at Galle Face. Tens of thousands will no doubt line the streets, reliving the joy of the game's final moments, grateful to the men who lightened their lives. But from atop the open bus, the team will not be happy just to breathe it in. There will be love, respect and admiration flowing down into the streets as well.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Prashan on April 11, 2014, 15:32 GMT

    Very good analysis indeed. We love our cricketers and no matter how good or bad they are, we adore them. They mean so much to us. We got a major trophy at last and CWC 2015 is the next goal.

  • Dimuthu on April 11, 2014, 13:53 GMT

    I have followed SL cricket since age 12 for over 30 years. Had the privilege of watching the 1996 world cup final and the feeling of joy, national pride and perhaps the most - a personal victory. Since that time I followed SL in major tournaments as an avid follower. Most times due to time difference I woke up 2AM, 4AM to watch my team play. This type of dedication caused issues with my wife not knowing why SL cricket has such a priority in my life. Its simple. I miss my home country very much and its party of who I am. Our country has gone through many struggles in the past and cricket has been a powerful force that provide unity, happiness and peace to many. Although many heart aches of loosing finals in the past, this 2014 T20 victory made it all worth it. So to all the SL fans and cricket fans in general please don't let go of your dreams and passions no matter how hopeless it gets. Keeping believing in yourself and your team and country. Dreams do come trues. Well done SRI LANK.

  • Yogi on April 11, 2014, 7:14 GMT

    School boy cricketers do have an aura of greatness, in general only the boys of that school will know them, however, when they represent Sri-Lanka, they are known by all irrespective of their language and religion. They are down to earth guys, and easy going. I was in Singapore and entered a small restaurant down Serangoon road and whom did I see. Kumar Dharmesena and couple of Sri-lankan cricketers having a meal. Will this happen with cricketers of other countries. I doubt it. I also read an article sometime back, when Sri-lankan cricketers get down from a bus on their way to represent our mother country, they stand in a queue, irrespective whether senior or not. My blessings to these guys. What I wouldn't give to have a meal with Mahela, Sanga, Murli and others in Colombo. Those who are in the committee, please note that it is the cricketers who bring fame to our country and not you guys.

  • Dummy4 on April 10, 2014, 22:21 GMT

    Good article written with emotion. nandiJ@LA

  • Chirath on April 10, 2014, 13:18 GMT

    I thought i might get emotional when T.Perera hit THAT six to win the match, but I didnt. Now that I have read this article, I feel emotional. I sat through each of those four finals, contract crisis etc etc. Thank you Andrew! Thank you, Sri Lankan Cricket Team. Cricinfo plz publish!

  • Dummy4 on April 10, 2014, 8:49 GMT

    Very well written. Andrew is the Sri Lankan voice in Cricinfo.

  • Dummy4 on April 10, 2014, 7:01 GMT

    I think Sri Lankan cricketers energies with some invisible power when they represent the national side. There performance is ordinary when representing franchises . They love to represent the country

  • Placidus on April 10, 2014, 1:05 GMT

    A very nice article. The fact that we have so many cricket fans in Sri Lanka, today (and good knowledgable ones at that) must be attributed to the 1996 victorious team lead by Arjuna. I recall in the years prior to that, apart from the kids who went to leading schools, all the kids played elle. Soon after the world cup victory there was a 360 degree turn-around. In every little patch of space (including lanes, streets, with lamp posts as wickets, footpaths and pavements) one could see kids playing cricket . The immense talent we have today, stems from that eventful day. We should say 'Thank You' once again to Arjuna, Aravinda, Sanath, Vaas, Murali and the rest of the team for this situation.

  • Dummy4 on April 9, 2014, 17:04 GMT

    Hey Andrew , i bashed u about the article about Bangladesh ( which i still dislike ), but this piece is amazing . You captured our way of life in this article , which is amazing for an outsiders to understand. This brought tears to my eyes , this piece is a amazing piece ! Thanks ! Former hater !!!