Peter Roebuck

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

Peter Roebuck
Peter Roebuck
Kumar Sangakkara speaks at a UNAIDS campaign in Kandy, March 8, 2011

Sangakkara's attack on Sri Lanka's cricket administration was not prompted by personal agenda but by concern for the game  •  Getty Images

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