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Cricket's a lot more than a game in Lanka

Among players, it is an object of devotion, which demands intense commitment and an ascetic piety, writes PK Balachandran.

world Updated: Apr 25, 2007 20:25 IST

In Sri Lanka, cricket is not a religion whose fanatical followers burn and vandalise if their Gods fail.

The approach to the game is very un-South Asian - sober and clinical. But clearly, cricket in the island is more than just a game.

Among players, it is an object of devotion, which demands intense commitment and an ascetic piety.

And among the masses, it is a symbol of national achievement, pride and unity, and hopefully, a catalyst of social and political change.

In times of national crises, when the country is torn asunder by pettifogging politicians and ethno-centric fanatics, and when its leaders unabashedly place their self interest over the peoples' interest, sober elements throw up their hands and ask in desperation: "For God's sake, why can't we be like our cricket team?"

Cricket unites where everything else seems to be divisive. There are reports saying that President Mahinda Rajapaksa will go all the way to the West Indies to see the finals if Sri Lanka is playing.

Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe says that if the country emulates the men in blue, terrorism will be wiped out.

"In a country where, presently, there is so little for the masses to be cheerful about, the exploits of the armed forces and the cricket team bring joy and hope for the future," said Malinda Seneviratne, an advertising executive.

"We need to win the cup for the sake of the country. It will lift the spirits of the people," said Bandula Jayasekara, editor of the state-owned Daily News.

Sure enough, people, young and old, men and women, sat glued to their TV sets watching the semi-finals against New Zealand on Tuesday night.

When Sri Lanka won after a nail biting finish, joy knew no bounds. A deafening noise of crackers rent the air in many parts of Colombo, waking up those in slumber.

And the victory stirred the appetite for more. "Will we win? Will your prediction come true?" asked bank official Shakunthala Senadhira axiously, conjuring up images of the 1996 victory.

Most Sri Lankans seem to be reasonably sure that they will make it this time. "There is an all round positive feeling in the country. A victory will certainly boost public morale in the midst of all our difficulties," said Nishani Dissanayake, editor of Lakbima.

Sri Lankans are very much aware and proud of the fact that the non-White world wants Sri Lanka to win.

"One billion people of India are supporting us," exclaimed Nelson Thenuwara, after watching Ajay Jadeja telling NDTV: "I desperately want Sri Lanka to win!"

"I would like a South Asian country to win the cup. It does not matter if it is India, Pakistan or Sri Lanka," said Shakunthala, giving expression to a new found South Asian solidarity, in the context of the grim possibility of cricket's slipping out of the hands of South Asian countries.

Shriyani de Silva, a housewife, said she was moved when she saw Black West Indians supporting the Sri Lankans against the Kiwis.

"I desperately want a brown or black team to win the cup. We should rid the game of the White's domination," she said.

Speaking for Sri Lankan Tamils, N Vithiyatharan, editor of a Tamil newspaper said: "We certainly want Sri Lanka to win, though there are sharp political difference with the Sinhalas. After all, we all belong to this small island. Blood is thicker than water!"

Asked which side people in the LTTE-controlled areas supported, a spokesman said: "The young root for Sri Lanka, but the middle aged want Sri Lanka defeated because they see things through the prism of the ethnic conflict which had effected them badly for over 20 years."

Asked if it was true that Tiger chieftain Prabhakaran was a cricket buff and if he stayed awake to see Tuesday's match, the spokesman said: "I have no idea. I'll have to find out!"