Sri Lanka's victory at the World Twenty20 has meaning.
It is not just winning a tournament, or beating fierce rivals in India. It is not even just Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara's crowing glory—though they deserve a moment when they wake up today to savour all they have done for their nation, and the seal that this victory finally puts on their majestic careers, just as they retire from the shortest format of the international game.
It seems that in troubled countries; countries of war, of poverty, of hardship—sport matters more than elsewhere. Sport can strike an emotional chord so deep that it heals in a way that supersedes its logical right. It is only a game. But it is so much more.
I've watched Sri Lanka's story as I've grown up. And as they won, I tried to put it into some kind of context.
December 26th 2006, Galle
I am on holiday in Sri Lanka with my family and I’m fortunate enough to be staying in a beautiful, colonial-style, beach front hotel with just a handful of rooms and delightful staff. It is Boxing Day and me and my family swim in the pool, laugh in the sun and play on the beach. Sri Lanka in those moments seems idyllic, tranquil—perfect even.
Yet just 100 metres down the beach from the hotel, round a corner of arching palm trees, back from the white sand, is the shell of an abandoned building. The brickwork, once white, is charred with black as if burnt, and green as if once submerged by water. The windows and doors are crumbling arches. There are no people here. The noise of the hotel around the corner just audible strikes a hollow contrast with the desolation of the scene, somehow heightened as a gnarled, limping dog skulks out from behind the ruined building.
Exactly three years previously an earthquake off the West Coast of Sumatra triggered a tsunami that took 250,000 lives in 15 countries and displaced more than 1.6 million people. Sri Lanka was one of those 15 nations, and the building around the corner from my hotel was one of thousands destroyed by the tidal water; one of thousands that still stand today. Ghost buildings. Reminders of the day Sri Lanka wants to but cannot ever forget.
April 27th 2007, Barbados
Cricket is the national sport of Sri Lanka. The psychological bond that unites a ravaged, diverse nation, and today is the World Cup Final; Sri Lanka, once champions in 1996, are playing the holders and the world's best team, Australia.
Adam Gilchrist, Australia’s opening batsman and wicket keeper, is a child of the style conceptualised by Sri Lanka’s Sanath Jayasuriya in that 1996 World Cup. Jayasuriya broke the traditional mould when he attacked the new ball and the opening bowlers, striking boundaries rather than playing it safe. Jayasuriya is now gone, but today Gilchrist channels his spirit in one of the greatest innings ever played in a World Cup Final.
Gilchrist’s 149 off just 104 deliveries surges Australia to 281 in just 38 overs. A target that proves too much even for Sri Lanka’s star-studded batting order.
In the first World Cup since the Boxing Day Tsunami, Sri Lanka have got so near, yet so far, to national catharsis.
March 3rd 2009, Lahore
The Sri Lankan team bus rolls through the streets of Lahore towards the city’s stadium for the third day of their Test match against Pakistan. Sri Lanka’s captain Mahela Jayawardene is sat at the back of the bus on the phone to his wife when he suddenly hears what sounds like heavy rain on a tin roof. It is not rain though; it is gunfire. It is not a tin roof either; it is their bus.
Jayawardene dives to the floor as bullets puncture the side of the bus. An RPG flies over it. A grenade under it.
Kumar Sangakkara recalled the attack in 2011 when he gave the Cowdrey lecture:
Suddenly Mahela, who sits at the back of the bus, shouts saying he thinks he has been hit in the shin. I am lying next to Tilan. He groans in pain as a bullet hits him in the back of his thigh. As I turn my head to look at him I feel something whizz past my ear and a bullet thuds into the side of the seat, the exact spot where my head had been a few seconds earlier.
I feel something hit my shoulder and it goes numb. I know I had been hit, but I was just relieved and praying I was not going to be hit in the head. Tharanga Paranvithana, 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 on to his seat, apparently unconscious.
I see him and I think: 'Oh my God, you were out first ball, run out the next innings and now you have been shot. What a terrible first tour.' It is strange how clear your thinking is. I did not see my life flash by. There was no insane panic. There was absolute clarity and awareness of what was happening at that moment.
The terrorist attack kills six Pakistani policemen who become embroiled in a gun-fight and two civilians. No cricketers die, but six of them and two support staff are seriously injured. International cricket has not returned to Pakistan since.
May 19th 2009, Colombo
At 9.00 a.m. the President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa delivers a victory address to the national Parliament declaring that following 26 years of Civil War between the government and the Tamil Tigers, Sri Lanka has been liberated from terrorism.
June 21st 2009, London
Pakistani fast-bowler Mohammad Amir, lean and athletic, his short hair flicking back in the wind, charges towards the crease in the World Twenty20 Final at Lord’s between Pakistan and Sri Lanka. His action is tightly-packed until the moment of delivery when his torso whips round a fizzes the ball towards the batsman.
This ball, the fifth ball of the first over, is full, fuller than the batsman Tillakaratne Dilshan expected anyway, and it rushes onto him as he attempts to flick it over the fielder at short fine-leg. The ball balloons in the air, and the fielder Dilshan thought he could clear darts across the short grass and with a melodramatic knee slide, catches the ball.
Dilshan, Sri Lanka’s most in-form batsman is out for nought. It is the worst possible start to a day that ends with Sri Lanka losing another final. And their wait for world glory goes on.
April 2nd 2011, Mumbai
Sri Lanka were never meant to win the 2011 World Cup Final. India were. And India, at home, and after 28 years, did. Sri Lanka were the stooge in a far grander performance; a performance outweighing their presence.
India were the story. Sri Lanka were just there.
And Sri Lanka, for the third consecutive global final, lost. It was as it was meant to be. Yet Sri Lanka mourned while the rest of the world forgot about them. Losers again. Their wait for glory goes on.
Amnesty International release the details of a report that claims as 80,000 Tamil civilians remain detained in military-run internment camps in Sri Lanka, and that another 11,000 suspected Tamil Tiger combatants including more than 500 children, are held by the state in Orwellian-titled “rehabilitation centres”. The Civil War may well be over, but the persecution of Tamil’s in Sri Lanka continues to this day.
October 7th 2012, Colombo
Walking through the Khettarama neighbourhood into the R Premadasa stadium on Sunday afternoon, it was impossible to contain a smile. Police had cordoned off the streets leading into the grounds to ease congestion, but the locals had taken that as a signal to begin the street party early. Stereos were set up on the roadside, pumping everything from baila to Western pop, grown men were dancing with children, Sri Lankan flags were draped across every balcony and awning, and the face painting stands and popcorn stalls were bedecked in blue and yellow. It was supposed to be the warm-up event, the precursor to the night's long celebrations. - Andrew Fernando, ESPNcricinfo
Surely this time. Surely now. The West Indies, batting first in the World T20 final against Sri Lanka are 38/2 after 11 overs. Just 54 balls remain to set a competitive total. Chris Gayle is gone. They are floundering. The global tournament Sri Lanka so crave is tantalisingly close. The home crowd sense the gravity of the next few overs…
Little more less than an hour later the feeling of the occasion has been transformed.
The West Indies have posted 137 in their 20 overs. Still not a daunting total, but in light of the carnage of the final 9 overs, it is terrifying. 99 runs had been scored in those 9 overs.
The Sri Lankans trudge back to the pavilion as if stunned. Shell-shocked, they sleep-walk their way through the first few overs of their innings. The run-rate, not insurmountable starts to climb, the pressure increases.
The air is heavy. The crowd feel closer than normal. Their presence perpetuated by their relative silence. One wicket falls. Then another. And then two more. The collapse is on. The match is slipping away.
The match is lost.
Eight hours later, those same streets were deserted. No anger, no riots, just the profound disappointment only silence can convey. Signs in Sinhala reading "Victory to Sri Lanka" still flapped in between the lamp posts they had been anchored on. No one had had the will to remove them. Sri Lanka had hurtled to a cricket frenzy over the last few days, but their expectations have crashed and burned even more quickly. The country now awakes to gloom. - Andrew Fernando, ESPNcricinfo
April 6th 2014, Dhaka
Another final. Another match against India. Bangladesh this time the venue.
India, unbeaten in the tournament, are favourites. Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara are retiring from international T20 cricket after this match. They will play on to the 50 over World Cup next year, but there is a sense that this is their time. Fifth time lucky?
Jayawardene glides down onto one knee, his bat arches and skives through the air towards the ball. But it’s not right. He’s mistimed it. It skews off the edge and the fielder and short-midwicket dives forwards, catching the ball inches above the turf. Jayawardene has played his final shot. Sri Lanka are 65/3 chasing 130. Ghosts of finals past arrive at the shores of the stadium. Jaywardene’s looks ruefully at his partner Sangakkara as if asking him to somehow turn back time. Turn back time, he cannot - bat, he can.
“There will be new heroes” proclaims former Sri Lankan all-rounder Russel Arnold on television commentary. Indeed, young Thisara Perera dovetails with Sangakkara. His bashful aggression complementing, Sangakkara’s velvet gloved iron fist. Thisara wallops. Sanga glides.
The pressure is released slowly, like air from a balloon.
Indian heads drop. Sri Lankan hopes rise.
Sangakkara reaches his fifty…three balls later, Thisara pounds down the pitch, meets the ball, and with a sledgehammer blow sends it into the stands. Sri Lanka have won. Finally. At the fifth attempt. Sri Lanka have won.
“This was a victory for a new Sri Lanka; for a young breed of men and women in a land more united than it had been for most of their lives. As people of all creeds celebrated together, Tamil victory cries were almost as abundant as Sinhala ones. To have been at the Shere Bangla for the final moments would have been great, but to see Colombo come together and roar to life in wild, unbridled, joy was something else.” - Andrew Fernando, ESPNcricinfo
In our cricket we display a unique spirit, a spirit enriched by lessons learned from a history spanning over two-and-a-half millennia. In our cricket you see the character of our people, our history, culture and tradition, our laughter, our joy, our tears and regrets. It is rich in emotion and talent. My responsibility as a Sri Lankan cricketer is to further enrich this beautiful sport, to add to it and enhance it and to leave a richer legacy for other cricketers to follow.
I will do that keeping paramount in my mind my Sri Lankan identity: play the game hard and fair and be a voice with which Sri Lanka can speak proudly and positively to the world. My loyalty will be to the ordinary Sri Lankan fan, their 20 million hearts beating collectively as one to our island rhythm and filled with an undying and ever-loyal love for this our game.
Fans of different races, castes, ethnicities and religions who together celebrate their diversity by uniting for a common national cause. They are my foundation, they are my family. I will play my cricket for them. Their spirit is the true spirit of cricket. With me are all my people. I am Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim and Burgher. I am a Buddhist, a Hindu, a follower of Islam and Christianity. I am today, and always, proudly Sri Lankan.
- Kumar Sangakkara, 2011 Cowdrey Lecture