Kumar Sangakkara has launched a stirring and eloquent attack on the political power-struggles that continue to bedevil Sri Lankan cricket and to outline the heavy responsibilities on the cricketers to promote reconciliation after the end of the civil war that has riven the country.
Delivering the annual MCC Spirit of Cricket lecture at Lord’s last night the former Sri Lankan captain also described in graphic detail the 2009 terrorist attack against the team in Pakistan, the need for the game to face the danger of an uncertain future and how the 1996 World Cup triumph revolutionized cricket as Sri Lanka emerged as a global force.
Sangakkara, who had reluctantly taken over the captaincy during the recent Test series defeat by England, provided a frank view of the political backdrop as to why he resigned from the captaincy after Sri Lanka’s defeat in the World Cup final, exhausted after two years in charge.
Outlining the need to aspire to better administration he described how, in the 15 years since World Cup victory, Sri Lankan cricket administration had changed “from a volunteer-led organisation run by well-meaning men of integrity into a multimillion-dollar organisation that has been in turmoil ever since”.
“Players from within the team itself became involved in power games within the board,” Sangakkara said. “Officials elected to power in this way in turn manipulated player loyalty to achieve their own ends. At times board politics would spill over into the team causing rift, ill feeling and distrust.
“Accountability and transparency in administration and credibility of conduct were lost in a mad power struggle that would leave Sri Lankan cricket with no consistent and clear administration. Presidents and elected executive committees would come and government-picked interim committees would be appointed and dissolved.
“After 1996 the cricket board has been controlled and administered by a handful of well-meaning individuals either personally or by proxy rotated in and out depending on appointment or election. Unfortunately to consolidate and perpetuate their power they opened the door of the administration to partisan cronies that would lead to corruption and wanton waste of cricket board finances and resources.
“It was and still is confusing. Accusations of vote buying and rigging, player interference due to lobbying from each side and even violence at the AGMs, including the brandishing of weapons and ugly fist fights, have characterised cricket board elections for as long as I can remember.
“The administration needs to adopt the same values enshrined by the team over the years: integrity, transparency, commitment and discipline. Unless the administration is capable of becoming more professional, forward-thinking and transparent then we risk alienating the common man. Indeed, this is already happening. Loyal fans are becoming increasingly disillusioned.”
Sangakkara strongly believed cricket was at “a critical juncture in the game’s history … unless we better sustain Test cricket, embrace technology enthusiastically, protect the game’s governance from narrow self-interest and more aggressively root out corruption then cricket will face an uncertain future.”
Of the civil war and in response to the group of Tamil protesters that has used the Sri Lankan tour to demonstrate against the presence of the team in England this summer, Sangakkara told of how his father had protected Tamils from “politically motivated goon squads” during the riots that sparked it and the long period in which “the terrible race riots of 1983 and a bloody communist insurgency amongst the youth was to darken my memories of my childhood and the lives of all Sri Lankans”.
“The early 1980s was dominated by the escalation of militancy in the north into a full-scale civil war that was to mar the next 30 years. I recollect now the race riots of 1983 with horror, but for the simple imagination of a child not yet six it was a time of extended play and fun. I do not say this lightly as about 35 of our closest friends, all Tamils, took shelter in our home. They needed sanctuary from vicious politically motivated goon squads and my father, like many other brave Sri Lankans from different ethnic backgrounds, opened his houses at great personal risk.”
A generation on, Sangakkara said that responsibilities rested heavily on the Sri Lanka team. “Cricket played a crucial role during the dark days of Sri Lanka’s civil war, a period of enormous suffering for all communities but the conduct and performance of the team will have even greater importance as we enter a crucial period of reconciliation and recovery, an exciting period where all Sri Lankans aspire to peace and unity.”
Having grown up during a period of unrest Sangakkara said he had had little personal experience of bombings and bullets until the terrorist attack on the team’s bus during the second Test in Lahore in 2009. “The bus was at a standstill, an easy target for the gunmen. As bullets started bursting through the bus all we could do was stay still and quiet, hoping and praying to avoid death or injury. Suddenly Mahela [Jayawardene], who sits at the back of the bus, shouts saying he thinks he has been hit in the shin. I am lying next to Thilan [Thushara]. He groans in pain as a bullet hits him in the back of the thigh.
“I feel something hit my shoulder and it goes numb. I know I had been hit, but I was relieved and praying I was not going to be hit in the head. Tharanga Paravithana, on his debut tour, is also next to me. He stands up, bullets flying all around him, shouting “I have been hit” as he holds his blood-soaked chest. He collapsed onto his seat, apparently unconscious. I see him and I think: “Oh my God, you were out first ball, run out in the next innings and now you have been shot. What a terrible first tour.”
Sangakkara received a standing ovation. He is the first Sri Lankan to give the annual Sir Colin Cowdrey lecture, the first current international player to make the address and at 33 the youngest man to deliver it.