Episode 95: The joy of Sri Lankan cricket, expertly distilled

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.

Given the joy it has given to the world, the history of Sri Lankan cricket has been strangely neglected. A young author, Nicholas Brookes, has now filled the gap with a masterly study: An Island’s Eleven. He shares its rich and often surprising contents as the guest of Peter Oborne and Richard Heller in their latest cricket-themed podcast. In Peter’s absence, Roger Alton is co-presenter of this episode.

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They begin by paying tribute to Eoin Morgan on his retirement as England’s one-day captain, not only as a transformative tactician but also as a character universally admired in the world of cricket. He well deserves to fulfil his professed ambitions in horse racing but they hope that a continuing role will be found for him in English cricket.

Nicholas comments on the dire economic and social crisis which forms the background to the current series between Sri Lanka and Australia. The crowds at the T20 matches and the gratitude they showed to the tourists suggested the enduring power of cricket to give the country something to smile about, however briefly.

He describes his motivation for writing the book and his aim of doing justice to the extraordinary vitality of Sri Lankan cricket in adverse circumstances. It had produced so many people who combined great playing ability with high personal character, who had set out to be role models and ambassadors for their country. Latterly, cricketers had begun to speak out on the social problems facing the country and to join in the peaceful protests for change.

The island’s cricket benefitted from the “whistle-stop” visits of touring sides en route to or from England or Australia or the Indian mainland. He describes the unhappy experiences there of W G Grace and Don Bradman (the latter blamed on a wrongly-measured pitch). The least popular visitor, predictably, was Douglas Jardine – who boosted support for the independence movement.

Nicholas highlights the players that made Sri Lanka’s reputation as a new force in world cricket, starting with the pocket-sized powerhouse Duleep Mendis who thrilled spectators at their inaugural Test match in England in 1984 and came close to scoring two centuries. Aravinda de Silva, the first Sri Lankan overseas registration in county cricket, scored an enthralling century for Kent in the Benson & Hedges Cup Final and an even more important (and winning) one for his country the following year in the World Cup Final. In that World Cup, Sanath Jayasuriya’s batting changed the dynamic of one-day cricket for ever.

Nicholas especially admires Chaminda Vaas, the perfect foil for Muralitharan with his sustained accuracy. Immensely dedicated, Vaas constantly improved his bowling and latterly his batting. Still remorseless in the gym, he prided himself as Sri Lanka’s bowling coach in lapping younger players on training runs.

Muralitharan matched him for hard work and the ability to master new deliveries (particularly when working with his Australian coach Bruce Yardley). Nicholas notes that in his late career the last of his 800 Test wickets arrived at a faster and faster rate. From his own experience, he cites Muralitharan’s genuine modesty and kindness, and describes his many-sided philanthropy.

He analyses the impact of Arjuna Ranatunga, the first Sri Lankan captain with a major reign not to be educated in one of its leading schools. Although not quite fulfilling his promise as a teenage batsman (which had astonished Garry Sobers) Ranatunga’s astute and above all, assertive captaincy in a short time transformed the world’s attitude to Sri Lankan cricketers – and their own.

Lasith Malinga is the most imitated Sri Lankan cricketer: Nicholas describes how he evolved his unique action as a beach cricketer and by immense hard physical and mental application made himself the world’s best “death bowler” in one-day cricket. Sri Lankans are now excited by “Junior Malinga”, a latter-day version, and he has served as an example to young players outside urbanized middle classes and attendees the best schools and colleges which are the traditional nurseries of the island’s cricket. Sri Lanka is full of exuberant local softball cricketers: more could be done to draw them into its red-ball cricket.

Nicholas describes the enduring quality and following of the best school matches in Sri Lanka, which leave their participants better prepared for top-class cricket than almost any others in the world.

He believes that Sri Lanka’s entry into Test cricket was unfairly delayed and that they have been short-changed of international fixtures ever since. He assesses the factors behind this, notably persistent problems with foreign exchange and even more persistent snobbery from other countries, even after Sri Lanka’s World Cup victory. He describes the joys of actually touring Sri Lanka to play or watch cricket and the relaxed atmosphere at their grounds. Cricket tourism makes a significant contribution to the troubled economy – especially when the English come. He describes their first major tour in 2001 – when they emptied the island’s supply of beer.

He looks at the continuing structural problems of Sri Lankan cricket, especially the proliferation of clubs with first-class status and their contribution to the concentration of cricket in Columbo. He sees little obvious hope of resolution for the acute economic crisis which has affected Sri Lankan cricket, and comments on the contribution of communist China, to which it is heavily indebted (the Chinese financed a huge vanity project by the former President which includes a rarely-used international cricket stadium). However, he notes that past great players and their highly successful past coach, Tom Moody, are involved in the future of Sri Lankan cricket and is encouraged by the increasing willingness of Sri Lankan cricketers to engage with the country’s wider problems.

An Island’s Eleven by Nicholas Brookes is published by the History Press

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Peter Oborne, Richard Heller & Roger Alton

Roger Alton, guest host for this episode, was formerly editor of The Observer and The Independent, and is currently the Sports Columnist for The Spectator. 

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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