Cricket gives Lankans a reason to relish

Published: Wednesday, August 2, 2006, 23:53 [IST]
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Colombo:As the bloody ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka escalates, people in the island nation are turning to their top-flight cricket team to provide a balm for the misery.

When Sri Lankan troops and Tamil Tiger rebels were locked in the bloodiest ground battle since 2002 on Monday, the nation's cricketers were cheering some 4,000 home fans in the capital with a resounding victory over South Africa.

The massive first Test win by an innings and 153 runs also featured a world-record stand of 624 between skipper Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, further boosting morale at the serene Sinhalese sports club.

"What else do we have except cricket?" asked Colombo resident Rohan Wijesekera. "Prices are going over the roof, the economy is in a shambles, the tourists have dried up.

"Thank God, we still have our cricket."

Cricket and the war in the north-east have co-existed side by side for decades with the country's favourite sport thriving despite the killings and bombings that have become a way of life here.

More than 60,000 people have been killed in the three-decade-old Tamil separatist conflict, but that appears to have had little effect on the cricket.

The 1996 World Cup, which Sri Lanka won on the sub-continent, was almost scuppered when a powerful bomb in downtown Colombo, blamed on the Tigers, killed 91 and injured 1,400 a few days before the tournament.

Australia and the West Indies declined to play their matches in Colombo, prompting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to issue an extraordinary statement that the tournament should go ahead since it did not target sportspersons.

Sri Lanka hosted two other World Cup games and then travelled to India and Pakistan under captain Arjuna Ranatunga to secure their greatest cricket triumph - a win over Australia in the final.

Sri Lanka's leading bowler Muttiah Muralitharan, a Tamil, is regarded as a legend by his countrymen. Team-mate Russel Arnold is a Christian Tamil, as is the nation's under-19 captain Angelo Matthews.

All play happily alongside their majority Sinhalese teammates.

"Our cricketers are Sri Lanka's flag-bearers around the world," said veteran cricket writer Saadi Thawfeeq. "They ensure we are not remembered only for the violence."

When South Africa travel to the Sara Oval in the Sri Lankan capital on Friday to play the second Test, they will enter one of the best-known landmarks of the ethnic conflict.

The Tamil Union Club ground, as the Oval was known then, was burnt down during anti-Tamil riots in July, 1983 and most of the cricket memorabilia destroyed.

What escaped the arsonists was a black-and-white photograph of Australian legend Don Bradman leading his team out during a friendly match at the ground in 1948.

The photograph was found amidst the rubble by club members and many are convinced the rioters deliberately ensured no harm came to it.

Cricket tours to the island have taken place even in the worst days of the conflict. Teams have usually felt safe playing here, although New Zealand abandoned their tour in 1987 after a blast in Colombo's Pettah region, which houses the main bus and train stations, killed 110 civilians and two policemen.

The Kiwis suffered another shock in 1992 when a blast outside their team hotel in Colombo killed the country's Naval chief Clancy Fernando. They, however, went ahead and played two Test matches and three One-dayers.

India played a three-Test series in 2001 just a month after Colombo's international airport was destroyed by LTTE suicide bombers.

War or peace, cricket goes on in Sri Lanka. No one is complaining.

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