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Feature

In Sri Lanka's hour of economic and political crisis, their cricketers have spoken up

The country is on the brink of economic collapse brought on by poor governance, and its sportspeople have added their voices to those of common citizens

A protester waves the national flag in front of the police brigade during the protest near the president's house, Colombo, Sri Lanka, May 24, 2022

Protests outside the president's residence in Colombo in late May  •  Pradeep Dambarage/NurPhoto/Getty Images

"Cowardly… I am disappointed to see we even have such leadership"
- Wanindu Hasaranga
"Disgusting… Intentional and planned."
- Kumar Sangakkara
"Entire world can see how pathetic your actions are."
-Mahela Jayawardene
"They did not take any action to prevent this…"
- Roshan Mahanama
"Disgusting behaviour."
- Sanath Jayasuriya
These are all quotes from tweets by Sri Lanka's biggest cricketing stars, and several of the most beloved sporting figures in the country. Each of them was clearly incensed. But they were not tweeting about a dismissal where a non-striker was run-out when backing up. This wasn't about a dressing-room spat, a fight with a coach, or even corruption on the field.
All this was in response to the violence that each of them felt Sri Lanka's government had unleashed on peaceful protesters on May 9. Those initial attacks sparked nationwide reprisals. By the end of the day, nine people had been killed, and dozens of politicians' homes had been torched.
Sri Lanka, if you hadn't read, is going through an unprecedented economic crisis, which has prompted a popular uprising taking aim - in particular - at the Rajapaksa family, who have governed the country for 12 of the last 17 years and are seen as having led Sri Lanka to this precipice.
"We send politicians to parliament for them to have full parliamentary benefits, and for them to lead a very luxurious life," Mahanama says, capturing just a fraction of the public sentiment. "The only thing people expect from them is to give them what they promise, and to live peacefully. Now everything has been taken away. We're talking about the bare essentials. There is no electricity, there are long blackouts. There are shortages of medicines. No fuel. No kerosene. No milk powder.
"I've been seeing four or five kids share a loaf of bread. People have been going down from three meals a day to two. From two down to one. I'm hurt. I'm sorry to see fellow Sri Lankans going through this. It was the politicians who basically pushed everyone onto the streets."
What has happened on the streets since March are mass protests, many led by young Sri Lankans. They have found an epicentre near Colombo's Galle Face Green, where many of the earliest cricket matches in the country were played. There, a vast array of tents, banners, stalls, a makeshift library, a "teargas cinema" that screens films on themes relating to the protest, and various other platforms for public education, discussion and dissent have been erected by a loose collection of protesting groups. Around the country, more Occupy-style movements have begun in Kandy and Galle, most notably. But there have been large and spirited demonstrations all over the island, many of which have been met by water cannons, tear gas, and occasionally fatal gunfire, by Sri Lanka's police and armed forces.
It is impossible to separate the protests from their main demand, "Go home, Gota" (referring to Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka's president), and "Go home, Rajapaksas." To support the protests is essentially to align yourself with these political aims.
What is unusual about these demonstrations from a cricket perspective, however, is that they have had substantial support from past and current cricketers. Long before Hasaranga tweeted his disgust at the "cowardly and barbaric… attack on innocent and peaceful protesters" on May 9, he had expressed his unequivocal support of the "aragalaya" (the struggle), even as he took his first steps in what would eventually become a phenomenally successful IPL season. "To the brothers and sisters involved in the aragalaya, you have my utmost respect," he tweeted on April 9, along with a photo of the mass demonstrations at Galle Face. "You're the real heroes of the present day," he wrote, tweeting a bicep-flex emoji and a Sri Lankan flag.
By this stage, several high-profile cricketers had already been seen at the protests. Dimuth Karunaratne, Sri Lanka's current Test captain, had made an appearance. As had former Test captain Marvan Atapattu. Upul Tharanga, and Jayasuriya had tweeted their support as well. Others put up social media posts that were at least "support adjacent" - meaning, they weren't decrying the Rajapaksas outright but were in some vague sense showing solidarity with a growing people's movement.
Mahanama, though, was one of the first on the ground, one of the most vocal online. "When I saw people struggling like this, I thought to myself, 'I can't just stay at home," he says. "I need to be there for people because they've been there for me throughout. We need people with a strong voice to come out and show their displeasure. By the day, things were getting worse. We need these politicians to be accountable. Some of these people have been there for years."
Former fast bowler Dhammika Prasad had had similar thoughts. "People were really facing a lot of difficulty just to live, because of the economic crisis," he says. "They were facing an aragalaya for their lives. They still are. As a responsible citizen, I had to do something. When I was playing, these are the same people who would support me. I have a responsibility towards them.
"Young people have got down on to the streets to protest. When they are there demonstrating peacefully to ask for something completely reasonable, you can't just stay at home. Perhaps there's a tendency among us to save your own skin. But there are times when you have to have a backbone and stand up for what's right."
Although far from the biggest name in Sri Lankan cricket, Prasad's was the most committed, and profound of the anti-government demonstrations by Sri Lanka's cricketers. In addition to the Rajapaksas' perceived economic mismanagement and corruption, support for a variety of long-standing social-justice causes has found loud expression at the protests. In April, chief among these was the call for justice for the victims of the 2019 Easter bombings, which primarily targeted Christian places of worship. Although a presidential inquiry into the bombings was carried out, largely during Gotabhaya Rajapaksa's tenure, there has been widespread criticism that it was insufficient, and that those who masterminded the attacks - or at least set them in motion - have not yet been identified.
Prasad, a Catholic, said he could not help but take up this cause as the three-year anniversary of the attacks approached. He first took part in a 40-kilometre protest march between the Katuwapitiya Church in Negombo and St Anthony's Shrine in Kochchikade - the latter was the site that had the most casualties in the attacks. Later that month, he staged a 24-hour hunger strike at Galle Face, during which he called relentlessly for justice.
"I remember in 2019 I went to the church at Katuwapitiya with Dasun Shanaka and Dushmantha Chameera," Prasad says. "The church was totally destroyed, and there were parts of human bodies everywhere. Of the 269 people who had died, I wondered how many would have clapped for me, and how many would have loved cricket. I wanted to do right by them.
"People are really struggling, and on top of that, there has been no justice for the victims of the Easter attacks. It was for those reasons I was at the aragalaya."
There has been criticism of the aragalaya, including that the protests became a trendy place to be seen. However, defenders of the protests have argued that the conversations, slogans and discourse seen at the protests have helped bring vital political issues that were previously the domain of wonks and academics into the mainstream. Jayawardene is among those defenders.
"The aragalaya has triggered a lot of awareness around the country - how we need this change and how we can make those changes, which the country desperately needs," he says. "I'm very, very proud of the people who have got together in the protests around the country - not just in Colombo but in the outstations as well. And they've been strengthened by a lot of others."
Among the issues the protests have put a microscope on, for example, is Sri Lanka's constitution, which many critics think concentrates too much unchecked power in the office of the president. Prasad, Mahanama, and Jayawardene all support amending the constitution to dilute the powers of the president, or a completely abolition of the office. As a first step, though, the current head honchos need to leave, Jayawardene says.
"In a company, if the CEO and the CFO have made bad decisions and that company is in a crisis situation, the first thing that should happen is that those people resign. It should happen the same way with a country.
"We need all parties to come together, but that's going to be tough because first of all people have to put their hands up and say, 'We've done something wrong' and step down."
Just as the protests have reflected diverse political interests that have - at least momentarily - come together, many cricketers have expressed varying visions for Sri Lanka. In the course of the interviews for this story, Jayawardene called for better-educated politicians, but Mahanama suggests that well educated people are not necessarily always good decision-makers. "Sometimes the guy at the petti kade [local eatery] knows more about what's going on than the so-called political experts."
Not all cricketers have endorsed the anti-establishment sentiment. Muthiah Muralidaran, the most high-profile Tamil cricketer ever, has refused to criticise the Rajapaksas. In fact, he more or less defended them on an Indian news channel, asking protesters to calm down until the government provided solutions. Murali's story, however, is profusely conflicted and complex.
But as the protests have brought complex political discussions into the mainstream, Sri Lanka's cricketers have become more vocally engaged in more political conversations as well.
Jayawardene, who is Sinhala-Buddhist, the majority ethno-religious identity group in the country, puts it this way: "One good thing with these incidents over the last three or four months is that we as a country have come together. There are no ethnic, or religious, or caste, or social divisions. For a long time a lot of people benefited from keeping everything divided. That's something that the younger generation has realised."
His friend Sangakkara has also spoken out against majoritarian politics over the course of the last few months. Other cricketers from Sinhala-Buddhist backgrounds have also been critical of the island's political culture. Prasad called outright for a "system change".
What has been clear through much of the economic crisis, and the political crisis that economic nosedive precipitated, is that many of Sri Lanka's cricketers have either been unwilling to remain idle as their nation suffers, or at the very least have been forced to take a stance because of the intensity of the anti-government demonstrations.
Jayawardene, who was one of Sri Lanka's most respected captains and players as well as a globally recognised coach, but also the head of a national sports council under a Rajapaksa regime, explained it this way: "Sri Lankan cricket is about people in the country. Without the Sri Lankans supporting us, we wouldn't have achieved anything over the last 30 years. All the sportsmen and women in the country owe a huge gratitude to the people in this country. We're a small country, and we're part of society.
"Yes you still have to work within that framework, but that doesn't mean you are part of that establishment. We grew up here, and most of us will be here till we die. You are part of Sri Lanka. You're part of that society."

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf