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Why Matheesha Pathirana in CSK yellow makes for a good omen

A bowler of Sinhalese origin playing for a Tamil Nadu franchise to raucous applause at the Chepauk: things are changing, for the better

MS Dhoni congratulates Matheesha Pathirana, Mumbai Indians vs Chennai Super Kings, IPL 2024, Mumbai, April 14, 2024

MS Dhoni has championed his new Sri Lankan find and reaped the rewards  •  Vipin Pawar/BCCI

At the cricketing heart of it, Matheesha Pathirana is Chennai Super Kings' sweet revenge.
No bowler had wrecked CSK batting orders on the scale Lasith Malinga managed. With 37 wickets against CSK in 23 games, he is by a distance their biggest destroyer.
But, oh, what's that? There's a young slinger that CSK have had eyes on first? Someone who has an even lower arm action than Malinga and more explosive pace? Okay, less control, less swing, not nearly as much general mastery… but still, CSK's own baby Malinga? It sounds almost too good to be true, right?
Snap him up. Get him in as a net bowler. Have your legendary captain slap eyes on him. Promote him to the main team. Follow him as he becomes one of the best death bowlers in the league. Then on 14 April 2024, watch him rip Mumbai Indians to shreds, taking 4 for 28, while Malinga, in Mumbai Indians colours, watches on.
In a more perfect world, Pathirana's cricketing rise, and the CSK vs Mumbai Indians vengeance arc, would be the only stories. But this is a world in which a 27-year-long civil war was fought in Sri Lanka, where for most of Sri Lanka's and India's post-Independence decades, the governments of Tamil Nadu and the Sinhalese-led government of Sri Lanka have been vehemently opposed. A world in which, only 11 years ago, the IPL's governing council ruled no Sri Lankan players could play in Chennai for any IPL team over security concerns, such was the ferocity of political opposition.
Against that history, Pathirana's rise at CSK, and to a lesser extent that of Maheesh Theekshana, has been almost startlingly smooth. Pathirana showed promise at the end of the 2022 season, when Theekshana was more useful to the franchise. But then, with the onset of the Impact Player rule in 2023, Pathirana has become a go-to death bowler on account of his ultra-specialised skill set, MS Dhoni prodding him forward like a bird its fledgling chick. Pathirana has not merely been accepted, he has been embraced by CSK's yellow army, and wildly cheered for at Chepauk.
It is not certain exactly what political shifts have enabled this, but deductions may be made. Sri Lanka's colossal protests of 2022, which culminated in the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, are significant in the timeline. The Rajapaksas were understood regionally to be champions of Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism, and had also overseen the vicious conclusion to the war, which substantially deepened an already profound divide with Tamil Nadu. But that family having been so chastened by a movement produced largely by the southern (mostly Sinhalese) population likely cast Sri Lankan southerners in a mellower light in Tamil Nadu.
Around this time, Sinhalese animosity towards Tamil Nadu began to abate too. Through the worst of those crisis months of 2022, when the island was cripplingly short of fuel, power, medicines and food, the government of Tamil Nadu came through with humanitarian aid worth around 3.4 billion Sri Lankan rupees.
It is no surprise that the Chepauk fans who first bellowed for Pathirana are people roughly his age - Gen Z and young millennials, who tend to pack out the C, D and E stands. If you can make it there, Chepauk veterans say, you're the rubber-stamped next big thing
Where previous decades had been characterised by a vortex of escalating tensions, here was a mutual softening, and in Sri Lanka at least, long-overdue introspection. It was in that year that Theekshana, then Pathirana, made their debuts for CSK, though there were no home games for the side in 2022.
Additionally, there is the passage of time. Theekshana was ten when the war ended. Pathirana was seven. While injustices persist in Sri Lanka, and the kind of accountability Tamil Nadu has called for remains barely even a promise, there is also the simmering sense that these many years on, people need to move on.
It is no surprise that the Chepauk fans who first bellowed for Pathirana are people roughly his age - Gen Z and young millennials, who tend to pack out the C, D and E stands. If you can make it there, Chepauk veterans say, you're the rubber-stamped next big thing. Enmity, it turns out, does not have to be passed down through the generations.
It's worth clocking too that part of Pathirana's rise among the CSK faithful is down to Dhoni's vocal support of the bowler. When Dhoni struck that 91 not out and sealed one of Sri Lanka's most painful cricketing memories with a six at the Wankhede, who could have guessed what he'd be capable of in the future? Since then, he has graduated from thala to thalaivar in the Tamil imagination. And now he is - however unwittingily - playing a role in a Tamil-Sinhalese connect.
There is also beautiful history here. Pathirana is far from the first Sri Lankan to feel the love at Chepauk, and in fact, Muthiah Muralidaran, in CSK's early years, wasn't either. In the pre-civil war decades, the Tamil Nadu state side was Ceylon's (as Sri Lanka was then known) biggest regular opponent. In 1947, M Sathasivam - a Ceylonese Tamil, if you're keeping track - hit a 215 against them that glittered by all accounts with delectable late cuts, fine glances, and spectacular drives. Right into the 21st century, old-timers who watched that innings would swear it was the greatest ever witnessed at Chepauk.
There is no more legendary Sri Lankan cricketer of the pre-Test era than Sathasivam, and Chepauk was likely the scene of his crowning triumph. Whether or not Pathirana and Theekshana are aware, this too is a story to which they belong. Where their boots now tread, Sathasivam's went first.
These are victories worth celebrating, because despite what nationalists of any stripe would have you believe, hatred is not intractable. Neither, then, is cohesion. If there are many in the world intent on fanning flames, it is vital that when green shoots emerge from the earth, they are seen as worth protecting too.
Right now, one of the brightest fast-bowling prospects Sri Lanka has produced, quite possibly the island's fastest ever bowler, a man of Sinhalese origin, is being invested in and developed by a franchise side in Tamil Nadu. Across Sri Lanka, families turn their televisions on in the evenings and hear entire stands in a Chennai stadium scream "PA-THI-RA-NA".
You'd be foolish to think a few stump-splaying yorkers and stadium chants can heal grievances collected over decades. But you'd be naïve to think they mean nothing.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is a senior writer at ESPNcricinfo. @afidelf