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