Episode 38: What happened to the magic of Sri Lankan cricket?

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

In 1996 Sri Lanka won the World Cup with electrifying, innovative cricket. They brought solace and hope to a deeply troubled nation and joy to all the world’s neutral cricket-lovers. For the next fifteen years or so, players such as Sanath Jayasuriya, Aravinda de Silva, Muttiah Muralitharan, and the brothers-in-arms, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, delivered often magical performances which kept their country in the top flight in all forms of the game.

But now Sri Lanka is struggling to keep up its standards. The young historian Nicholas Brookes explains why in his forthcoming book An Island’s XI, a masterly study of Sri Lankan cricket since the British first arrived in 1796. He lived there for two years and taught at one of the country’s top cricket schools, St Thomas’s Colombo. He is the guest of Peter Oborne and Richard Heller in their latest cricket-themed podcast.

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Nicholas describes the intense cricket culture at St Thomas’s, especially the annual three-day match against their rivals Royal College – an even bigger social event than the old Eton versus Harrow match at Lords. “Thousands  of boozy old boys… singing horrible karaoke.” For years the two schools were the biggest nurseries of cricket talent in Ceylon, later Sri Lanka, and produced virtually all its captains until the transformational Arjuna Ranatunga.

Schools cricket in Sri Lanka remains very strong, but Nicholas analyses the formidable barriers to young cricketers achieving their full potential after they leave. The first-class cricket system is still based on members’ clubs which fall below the standards needed for Test cricket and do not offer enough opportunities to school and college leavers, especially in the north and east of the country. Pitches favour batsmen or spin bowlers and offer nothing to pacemen. A group of brilliant players, brilliantly led by Ranatunga, carrying out well-executed plans seized the World Cup in 1996, but Nicholas suggests that Sri Lanka then failed to keep up with progress in the rest of the world. Without matchwinning players to mask the weaknesses in Sri Lanka’s cricket system the country’s present slide will continue (he argues) but essential reforms are perpetually blocked by factionalism and politicking in its cricket administration. Sri Lankan governments have had a heavy influence over cricket decisions since 1973, in the aftermath of a scandal in which two national selectors picked themselves for Ceylon’s projected major tour of England in 1968.

Kumar Sangakkara laid bare the weaknesses of Sri Lanka’s cricket administration in his inspiring Spirit of Cricket lecture in 2011. Nicholas says that this provoked an official inquiry  – into Sangakkara, not the administration, and the weaknesses are still there.

Against the background of Sri Lanka’s long and terrible civil war, Nicholas unpicks the complex relationships in its cricket between Sinhalese and Tamils. He cites the tremendous positive effect of the Sinhalese captain, Arjuna Ranatunga, standing up fiercely for his great Tamil bowler, Muttiah Muralitharan, in his early career when he was no-balled by umpire Darryl Hair. The Sri Lankan team then showed the potential power of a united nation, but the civil war tragically denied other Tamils the opportunity to perform. Tamil players still find it hard to break through, given the uneven distribution of clubs and opportunities, and many are encouraged by their families to pursue more reliable careers than cricket and sport.

Nicholas traces the island’s vital cricket links with India, especially the annual Gopalan trophy against Madras/Tamil Nadu. (Gopalan was a famous South Indian cricketer who might be related to Kamala Harris, Vice-President in waiting of the United States.) Sri Lanka also received vocal support for Test status from Pakistan’s cricketing emperor, A H Kardar. It has retained a close cricket relationship with Pakistan, despite occasional onfield disputes over umpiring. Nicholas shows how it survived the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan players in Lahore in 2009. He suggests that Sri Lanka’s own experience of terrorism helped the players escape death, with the help of their brave coach driver, Mohammed Mehr Khalil, heroically guided by Tillekeratne Dilshan.

Nicholas reviews the current Sri Lankan team, with some key players yet to fulfil their potential. He presents fans’ and media responses to the calamitous batting performance on the first day of the current Test match in Galle, and their cumulative disenchantment with recent wildly inconsistent results.  He suggests that politicking has made some of the recent greats of Sri Lankan cricket unwilling to help guide current players, or to be frustrated when they attempt to.

Get in contact with the podcast by emailing obornehellercricket@outlook.com, we’d love to hear from you!

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Next episode – Episode 39: The sky is the limit for Alsama Cricket Club, where refugees from Syria get new lives

Previous Episode – Episode 37: The United States: Paradise Regained For Cricket?

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Peter Oborne & Richard Heller

Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.

Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.

Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership

Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.

Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.

The Podcast is produced by Bridget Osborne and James Willcocks at The Chiswick Calendar.

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