Sri Lankan Cricket, Nation and Tribe


by Izeth Hussain

In this article I want to make some observations on the connection between Sri Lankan cricket and the nation on the one hand, and between Sri Lankan cricket and tribalism on the other. I shall begin with some illustrative anecdotes. The ongoing Asia Cup series in Bangladesh has turned out to be historic as it marks the coming of age, at long last, of Bangladesh cricket. By defeating Sri Lanka with an innings of assured mastery by Tameem Iqbal and fine performances by two others Bangladesh qualified for the Final, something that was unthinkable during the many long years Bangladesh has been playing international cricket. The joy of the Bangladesh crowd knew no bounds. In earlier matches some Bangladeshis were seen crying when their team was faring badly, and many more were praying with their eyes fervently fixed on the sky. Most of them were Muslims, some were devotees of cricket, but all of them were devotees of the Bangladesh nation. Their intense emotional reactions showed that they had understood that a nation is respected for its achievements, not for the power wielded by the fellows at the top.

One of our cricket writers – I believe that it was Rex Clementine – wrote that after Sangakkara’s speech at Lords a new respect towards Sri Lankans was shown by the staff there. Earlier it was "Hoi! Where do you think you are going?" After the speech it was, "This way, Sir". The quality of that speech made it an achievement and it was that that was being respected, not power, and the respect was extended to individual Sri Lankans as the constituent members of a nation. I recall Carlo Fonseka writing that on a visit to Australia in 1996 he was surprised by the respect that was being shown to him, a respect that he had not encountered on earlier visits. He realized that it was the consequence of our winning the World Cup that year. Again an individual was being respected over a national achievement.

So it seems that in the modern world nation and achievement go together, and it is achievement that is respected, not power. Of course power can lead to achievement, in which case it is the achievement that is respected not just power over people. I now want to make the point that achievement and power are not just distinct but that they can be antithetical to each other. I will provide an illustration of what I have in mind. I believe that it was in that same Lords speech that Sangakkara referred to his encounter with a soldier who was manning a security checkpoint. The soldier recognized him and declared that if anything adverse happened to him it would not matter, but it would be serious if it happened to Sangakkara. He obviously meant that in his case it might be an individual tragedy, but in Sangakkara’s it would be a national tragedy. We can be certain that if that soldier had a powerful position that could impact on SL cricket, he would not have dreamt of doing anything that might be deleterious to it in the slightest degree.

A stark contrast is provided by the fiasco over the selection of the team for the last World Cup Final. Powerful personages intervened and introduced four cricketers of their choice into the team, upsetting its balance and probably contributing in no small measure to our defeat. Thereafter there was a ceremony at the President’s Palace for the award of medals to members of the team. It is said that some were included who were not in the original fifteen because they had political pull. Then of course there are all those stories of corruption at Sri Lanka Cricket, the appointment of the totally unfit at astronomical salaries, and so on, all of which impact very adversely on our cricket. There is no need to go into details to establish the point that power in Sri Lanka can be antithetical to achievement and the nation.

But, to be entirely frank, I am not quite sure of my ground here. It could be that there are very powerful personages who attach little or no importance to achievement in cricket, but it does not follow that they attach no importance to the nation. It could be that they have a conception of the nation that does not accord much space for cricket. It seems to me that there are three different conceptions of the nation in Sri Lanka, two of which are predominant in the State. According to the first Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhala Buddhists, while according to the second it belongs to the Sinhalese irrespective of religion. For the first in particular cricket is not indigenous, it is an import from the West, and giving it much importance is an expression of Thuppahi culture. Therefore, if Sri Lanka Cricket destroys our cricket it does not particularly matter, and nothing need be done about it. There is also a third conception of the nation according to which every Sri Lankan citizen is equally a Sri Lankan. This Sri Lankan nation has flourished down the centuries, and is alive and kicking though not at the level of the State.

It is my contention that it is only under the third conception of the nation that Sri Lanka will be able to attain a high degree of unity, without which unity we will never be able to perform to our full potential. Under the other two conceptions, which amount to retrogression from the national ideal in to tribalism, Sri Lanka will remain deeply disunited with all the dangers attendant on deep disunity. To make sense of what I am saying here, we have to have an adequate conception of what constitutes the modern nation-state, about which I can provide only very brief clarification here. Nations have existed from time immemorial, the Sinhalese being among the oldest of them, but the modern nation-state dates from the eighteenth century. Basic to it is the idea – according to Ernst Gellner, one of the foremost theorists of the nation – that culture and state should be congruent. Peoples of various ethnic origins flocked into France and the US and came to constitute a common culture, which became the basis of those nation-states. England, Wales, Scotland, came to constitute a common British culture which was the basis of Britain. I must emphasize two salient, indeed defining characteristics of the nation-state, one of which is unity. A far higher degree of unity was realized under the nation-state than was possible under any previous state-formation. An important part of the reason for this is that nations came to be conceived as having, or being entitled to, permanently bounded territories whereas earlier the boundaries changed for reasons of dynastic succession and so on. The other defining characteristic is achievement-orientation, with achievement being accorded far higher value than under any previous state-formation.

We should look at the situation in Sri Lanka with that broad conception of the nation-state in mind. The modern state is conceived of as symbolizing the unity of the nation, working steadfastly for a unity transcending ethnic and all other divisions. In Sri Lanka the state has worked relentlessly for the disunity of Sri Lanka. As for achievement-orientation the Sri Lankan state has shown an utter contempt for it. The situation prevailing in the world of our cricket is the polar opposite. Muralitheran became a national icon though he is a Tamil, and we can be sure that if a Moor, a Burgher, a Borah, a Memon, or a Parsee emerges with the same cricketing prowess he too will be accorded national icon status. As for achievement-orientation, we all know the vagaries of our selectors, but we also know that for the most part merit and achievement are decisive in the choice of our national team. What is going on in the world of our cricket is the manifestation of the national unity that exists at the level of the people. Right through history our people have lived for the most part in amity and co-operation with each other, despite continuing ethnocentric prejudices, and we will continue to do so. I have in recent times come to see, therefore, that although I am a Muslim I belong to Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka belongs to me, but something’s the matter with Sri Lanka because it is going round and round. The reason why it’s going round and round is the power-drunk idiocy of Sri Lanka’s tribalist state.

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