SL Cricket and political culture


by Izeth Hussain

West Indies' cricketer Chris Gayle, left, shakes hands with Sri Lankan captain Mahela Jayawardene after winning the ICC Twenty20 Cricket World Cup final match defeating Sri Lanka in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012.(AP)

What is the explanation for our national team's debacle at the Final of the T 20 World Cup Tournament? An explanation along the following lines will probably get a consensus. Three of our best batsmen got out to surprisingly injudicious strokes. There were two run-outs due to poor calculation. Our most renowned fast bowler gave away as much as a half-century of runs without taking a single wicket. His being allowed to bowl the full quota of four overs was an unexpected egregious error on the part of our Captain, who would certainly be counted as among the best in the world. Our selectors erred grievously in leaving out Rengana Herath when it was known that it would be a spinner's wicket. And, on the West Indies side, Marlon Samuels exploded into a blitzkrieg brilliance that we had expected to come only from Chris Gayle.

A complex of factors was behind our debacle. But the detail that as many as five of our batsmen got out like inexperienced schoolboys suggests strongly that the major factor was a failure of nerve. It is known that cricket is a game in which nerve counts for a great deal, far more perhaps than in any other game, a fact so well-known that I need not go into much illustrative detail about it. I will merely mention the strange case of Brian Lara. For quite some time after he secured a regular place in the West Indies national team, it was found that he could not get much beyond fifty, the reason for which he himself could not fathom. The elders of West Indian cricket, their former batting greats, were consulted. Their advice was that after getting his fifty, Lara should simply refrain from worrying about getting his century and continue to play his natural game. He followed that advice and became one of the most prolific scorers of all time. So, even one of the greatest batsmen had a problem with his nerves, not just on special occasions but all the time, until he gained control of his nerves. Furthermore, we must remember that at the Final the West Indian side also had its problem with nerves, as shown by the abysmally low scoring rate for the first ten overs. We must remember also that the only time we won a World Cup was when our side was led by a cricketer who significantly merited the sobriquet of Captain Cool.

So, we need not get overly het up against our present national team. That will only make them even more nervous when they have to meet crisis situations in the future. What is really worrisome, of course, is that this is the fourth successive defeat at ICC Finals. The question to be asked is this: Have our national teams been more prone to nerves than others, and why this should be so? It appears that our four successive defeats constitute a unique record, so that it does seem plausible that our national teams have been prone to nerves to a unique degree. Some time ago Aravinda de Silva pointed to the successive defeats and gave the explanation that it was due to a lack of the fighting spirit. But I can recall occasions on which our teams were heading for defeat and fought back magnificently. The problem is that our national teams have the fighting spirit, but it dies out when it comes to ICC Finals.

It could be useful to look at this problem in terms of Sri Lanka culture as a whole and also in terms of our political culture of the moment. A fact that could be relevant is that since colonial times we have had low self-esteem, shown in the national habit of self-denigration. I recall that the late and great Rector of St. Joseph's, Fr. Peter Pillai, telling his students in molding them into useful citizens that as long as we Ceylonese go on proclaiming that we will never amount to much, we will, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, never in fact amount to much. I must state parenthetically at this point that it was this low self-esteem that led several of our Governments to believe that the LTTE could never be defeated. I believe that if not for this low self-esteem Sri Lankan cricket would have got test status several decades earlier. In 1943 the visiting Indian team which boasted five Indian batting greats of all time in Merchant, Mankad, Amarnath, Hazare, and Mushtaq Ali, was given a torrid time by our cricketers. Some years later Sathasivam's 98 against the West Indies made the great Frank Worrell declare that he would be his choice for the prime position of first-wicket down batsman in a World Eleven. There were also other stunning performances such as C.I. Gunasekera's century in partnership with Keith Miller, and Mahes Rodrigo's 138 against the West Indies. If our cricketers had been nurtured properly and our authorities had been serious we could have attained test status in the 'fifties. But our low self-esteem forbade it.

Other facts about Sri Lankan culture as a whole might be cited as relevant to our inquiry. For instance there is our notorious divisiveness, which in a team game such as cricket could have decisive negative consequences. As this is meant to be a brief article, I will not go into all the possibly relevant facts. Instead I will here make some observations on our widespread sense of insecurity, which can certainly lead to nerves on the cricket field. There was a time when apart from the Burghers Sri Lankans did not want to emigrate, except for a minuscule proportion of them. That changed in the course of the 'seventies. There has been impressive economic growth since 1977 and Sri Lanka has become a middle income country, but the urge to emigrate has become much more compulsive than when we were comparatively poor. Part of the explanation is doubtless the failure of neo-liberalism, which may enrich many but certainly impoverishes a substantial proportion of the people. It may be understandable that the poor want to emigrate. But members of the middle class and the very affluent - even if they themselves don't want to emigrate - are desperate to equip their children to be able to exercise the option of emigration by educating them at international schools. There is a deep sense of insecurity behind that desperation.

Our political culture has certainly been aggravating the deep underlying sense of insecurity. There is now a widespread mind-set in Sri Lanka according to which anything can be done to anybody by the powerful with total impunity. The "culture of impunity" is not as bad as it was during the war against the LTTE, but it does continue to a shocking extent. There now seems to be a fairly widespread perception that the rule of law is brittle and liable to breakdown. It appears furthermore that our authorities act beyond the law with scant regard for it. There is nothing in the law against anyone entertaining females in a hotel bedroom, but those three British females found in Gayle's bedroom were arrested - which reportedly provoked the ire of the President himself. There is much unease about the militarization of society that has been going on since 2009 - seen as part of an ongoing relentless assault on democracy. I will not go into further details about the features of our present political culture that aggravate the underlying sense of insecurity as they are much ventilated in the press.

A plausible case can be made out along the lines suggested above to show that factors such as low self-esteem, divisiveness, and a deep sense of insecurity have made our cricketers prone to nerves to a unique degree. What should be done about it? Some features of a culture may change, if at all, very slowly, while others may change fairly fast. We must draw inspiration from the fact that we did after all win the 1996 World Cup, spectacularly as we were still ranked among the minnows of world cricket. We must bear in mind the case of Brian Lara that I have cited above. Awareness of the underlying problem - that of nerves - could help our cricketers surmount it, as suggested by the case of Lara. There is no cultural determinism according to which all our cricketers should be prone to nerves to the same degree. I recall that in our inaugural test against England we lost the first four wickets very cheaply, with our established batsmen showing obvious signs of nervousness, until Arjuna Ranatunge came in and scored a fluent 54 in a beautiful partnership with Sidath Wettimuny. A mere schoolboy, he batted with all the cool aplomb to be expected of a veteran with a hundred test innings behind him.

So, the problem of nerves can be surmounted. But what exactly should be done? I really don't know. Perhaps a psychologist should be brought in. What is certain is that continuing to berate our cricketers will prove to be counterproductive. After all, we can be sure that in a crest-fallen nation the eleven most crest-fallen were those cricketers on that terrible evening.

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...