Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Cricket in the killing fields

Today 25,000 people around the world will die needlessly of hunger, while three billion people will scrape less than $2 to live off. Today Sri Lanka play England in a Test match. It is obvious and frustratingly trite to point out that sport doesn't matter. Of course it doesn't. Except that millions of people believe it does. The countless number following the Colombo Test will smile, scream, tut and cheer because of it.

Those of us who do believe that it matters are not just a brazen minority with a skewed sense of perspective. By investing meaning in the teams we follow we form a community that, in the case of international sport, helps keep the precarious idea of nationhood alive. When a Dhoni six prompts the same delight for a dalit woman in Bihar as a Mumbai executive, a kinship forms that momentarily gives India a common bond. It's why the cliché about sport and politics not mixing misses the point entirely. Sport is politics.

While the Ten Sport commentary may insist otherwise, politics and sport are deeply intertwined in Sri Lanka's current Test series against England. The cricket is happening in the midsts of a recent genocide. Channel Four's Killing Fields unearthed serious evidence that 40,000 civilians, mostly Tamils, were systematically murdered in the final weeks of Sri Lanka's civil war. The government accused is intimately tied to the Sri Lanka cricket team, even affecting - as we saw last summer - the make up of the side. When you add that SLCB's corruption means some of the world's best cricketers are not being paid on time you have a strong case that international cricket should not be supporting the regime by touring.

But that would miss sport's significance. In Kumar Sangakkarra's brilliant MCC address last year he recalled his shock at meeting a soldier who told him: "It is OK if I die because it is my job and I am ready for it. But you are a hero and if you were to die it would be a great loss for our country.” It again sounds like an absurd lack of perspective.

Yet as Sri Lankans – and many others - are discovering to brutal effect, holding the idea of a nation together is incredibly difficult. Different histories, classes, ethnicities, religions and genders have to be subsumed under an identity strong enough, ultimately, to override all others. When American schoolchildren swear their allegiance to the flag each morning it's a nod to just how much work goes into keeping the imagined community alive.

Angelo Matthews, the Sri Lanka vice captain, has returned from injury for the second Test. Matthews is the highest-profile Tamil in Sri Lanka cricket since Muttiah Muralitharan retired. His presence is practice, however fleeting, of the ideal of a diverse country unified by common interest. When Sinhalese and Tamil supporters cheer for Sri Lanka cricket, they stick a finger in the eye of the forces that aim to rip the nation apart. It's why cricket must continue to be played in the country.

The recent cricketing boycotts have been precisely because diversity was sucked out the 'national' team. South Africa refused to allow the idea of a multi-racial nation be demonstrated by a multi-racial cricket team and were rightly boycotted. Discrimination happens, of course, in far more subtle and bureaucratic ways: you only have to think of Australia's inability to find non-white players and England's inability to find cricketers from less privileged backgrounds. Equally the fact Matthews is Sri Lanka's only Tamil player and was himself brought up in a Sinhalese area shows that significant obstacles exist. But directly blocking an ethnic group is different and Sri Lanka's government are yet to do that.

This isn't to say that calls for reform should be ignored. Ten Sports' continual promotion of Sri Lanka tourism and its studied indifference to the political context is difficult to stomach. A board as cash-strapped as Sri Lanka's are in no position to make demands of a TV company. Likewise the ICC and the other member nations' total silence over the SLCB's endemic corruption is a disgrace.

Yet those are off-field matters. National identity is about more than administration. It's about people who never meet sharing the same symbols and experiences and feeling united because of them. As the national sport, cricket is a vital part of that.

4 comments:

Abhik said...

Nice one. Makes a point while presenting the facts. Quite the style adopted by many writers on Cricinfo. Conveys the sense of dilemma felt by most fans of sport - an emotional love for the game contrasted by the harsher truths of its setting. Nevertheless, it seems to me its beyond time that esteemed cricket writers like yourself started delving into the relationship between sport and society further. Indeed, this itself was the primary aspect of Sanga's speech that held me in raptures - a high profile sportsman making the connection between sport and society.
One question about the quote from Sanga's speech: who's lack of perspective are you talking about? It can't be the soldiers', for who else can have perspective than one who spends each moment on the frontline. It can't be Sanga's cause he does confess to being shocked.

Ashesinsomniac said...

Thanks plenty, that's awfully kind. I think there are writers who do the sport/society thing in far more subtle and impressive ways - Christian Ryan, Sharda Ugra, Gideon Haigh, Rahul Bhattacharya - are excellent. The best for me, in that particular respect, is Mike Marqusee. You are very right, sitting far away we're in no position to question the soldier's perspective and I wasn't aiming to do that, but point out how absurd it *sounds* so from a distance.

DeekshaSpeaks said...

Beautiful article! Absolutely splendid. Brilliantly written and it makes for delightful reading.
Sorry, there's no other analyzing that I can possibly do because your article was just that perfect. Just wanted to let you know. :)

Ashesinsomniac said...

Good grief. Thanks Deeksha, very kind.