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Sri Lankan cricket gets the scholarly overhaul

Bradman and Sathasivam at the Toss, 29th March, 1948.

It's hardly the week to talk of cricket with attacks on Dvoras on the one hand and a decidedly pious Vesak - but we are irrepressible people, and last week, here in Colombo was Michael Roberts.

Roberts fielded questions at he ICES auditorium that's generally the place for atom and quark splitting type of lectures on matters of international geopolitical concern. But. Roberts was delivered questions of this nature: "We know Sathasivam scored magically at the Chepauk stadium... but then what was his score at what's this other place?'' "Well I couldn't remember'' deadpanned Roberts. ''It depends on how much he drank the previous night.'' Then he took us through a smorgasbord of cricket trivia presented with a scholar's thoroughness.

It was the valedictorian's equivalent of Sanath Jayasuriya on song - but the icing on it was that Roberts knew the modern politics of the gladiatorial contest of test cricket, such as the fact that Australian wicketkeepers take drama lessons (..yes, real lessons in theatre) to click the tongue, for simulating the sound of a snick when the ball misses the bat by a whiskers space.

The ICES audience was listening with rapt scholastic attention, which meant that cricket had a quality of being frozen in time and space. This could have been the pavilion at Lords, and if the air conditioner was turned up to maximum, we would have felt a big chill that may have fairly completed the time-frozen tableau.

Cricket's elitism seemed not to have given way in this country, but on the contrary, its elitist character had grown into the Sri Lankan psyche, accompanied by statistics, love for trivia, and a head-shake at the sight of a bad shot.

Roberts held the hand of every audience member with his speech and led them gently through the seamier side of cricket politics in Sri Lanka, and convinced everybody present that we should have received Test cricketing status much earlier - at least a decade earlier - - if some cricketing officials including the well known Mr Abu Fuard had not pursued personal glory and doctored the selection process.

But, there wasn't much by way of any involved concern about why elitism still reigns in Sri Lankan cricket, often exemplified by hard fact such as the inability of the most efficient organisers to get a proper provincial tournament off the ground.

“Kehel Yaka”; speedster T. B. Kehelgamuwa of Dharmaraja College scares the pants out of a local batsman, 1960s. (Courtesy Forces and Strands in Sri Lanka’s Cricket History by Michael Roberts)

Roberts advocated a house and a car or something like that at least for key provincial players as inventive to keep their feet on the provincial grass, but that kind of local Packer-isation of cricket still doesn't seem to pack the punch in terms of a mass appeal.

Roberts walked a listener through a forest of photographs, which showed that the body language of the average cricketing Joe in Sri Lanka changed incrementally with Gamini Dissanayake's brash but unstoppable foray into the cricketing world, in trademark national of course, to bring back what was then considered the best trophy of all - just the permit to enter the global cricketing fray as test players.

Micheal Roberts did speak of the Thomians dominating cricket, but perhaps an article by him in these columns would be the best means of putting across his own cricketing philosophy to the reader.

My own concern was how Roberts had identified the same fault lines in cricket that run through international politics. For example, he calls a chucker a terrorist. Cricket's 'terrorist' is a chucker, and somehow then, for Australians, Muralitharan is the equivalent of Prabhakaran, and we Sri Lankans would see the racially loaded significance of that.

Cricket was also the best arena for Ceylonese and then Sri Lankans to strut their stuff internationally and not be self conscious about it, partly because, as a new Zealand rugby coach hired by the Army once told me on a Sri Lankan Airlines flight '"Sri Lankans are well fitted for cricket, because there is no body contact in the game.'' I laughed out loud, but he didn't see it was funny - he thought of it as fact.

Until Michael Roberts came into the scene cricket doesn't seem to have been squeezed through to the scholarly ivory towers, and therefore to see a lady chairing a cricket seminar at the ICES was somehow like seeing Nelson Mandela at the head of a gathering of Ku Klux Klansmen.

But if we are to invert the expression, the chicken-littles of cricket, the Sri Lankans have come home to roost - or at least they have come to Kynsey Road. We arrived internationally long ago, but now we have the definitely been there, done that, bought the T shirt and written the treatise.



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