When Sri Lanka’s cricket legends rose against the government
Among those who have protested are Jayawardene, Sangakkara and Mahanama.
Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara have not minced words. Roshan Mahanama, Sanath Jayasuriya and Marvan Attapattu have taken to the streets. Sri Lanka’s sporting legends have risen against the government as fuel scarcity mounts, starvation looms, inflation skyrockets and blackouts become regular.
In the IPL now, Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara have pulled no punches. “Sri Lankans are going through one of the toughest times imaginable. It is heartbreaking to see the despair of people and families as they struggle to make it through the day; and each day for them gets harder. The people are raising their voices and asking for what is needed: a solution,” Sangakkara, currently with Rajasthan Royals as mentor, wrote on Instagram. “The people are not the enemy. Sri Lanka is its people. Time is running out fast, the people and their future must be protected and provided for.”
Amid social media blackouts, curfew and reports of random detentions, Jayawardene, head coach of Mumbai Indians, wrote about the need to let the public protest. “I’m sad to see emergency law and curfew in Sri Lanka. The government cannot ignore the needs of the people who have every right to protest. Detaining people who do is not acceptable and I am very proud of the brave Sri Lankan lawyers who rushed to their defence,” Jayawardene wrote on Twitter. “True leaders own up to mistakes. There is massive urgency here to protect the people of our country, united in their suffering. These problems are man-made and can be fixed by the right, qualified people.”
Former player and ICC referee Mahanama—also the lesser-known half of Test cricket’s highest partnership for any wicket (576, with Jayasuriya, against India in Colombo in 1997) before the turn of the century—too is angry. “Today I joined a protest in my neighbourhood as I see it as my duty to show my support towards the innocent people of our motherland, who are on a path to fight against the power hungry leaders of our country,” he wrote on Twitter. On Thursday, Mahanama’s posted: “Since I have no respect for most of the leaders of our country, I’m of the opinion that we have to come together to hold our leaders accountable for their actions. I request every citizen irrespective of race, religion or political background to come forward to join the protests.”
From Jesse Owens to Colin Kaepernick, Billie Jean King to Muhammad Ali, Naomi Osaka to Megan Rapinoe, history has enough examples of sports persons taking up social and political causes, often at great personal loss. In the 1960 Olympics, the contingent from Formosa—now Taiwan—marched in protest during the opening ceremony after they were forced by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to change their country's name. More recently, Pep Guardiola and Gerard Pique have supported Catalonia’s call for independence from Spain. Guardiola was seen wearing a yellow ribbon in a few matches in support of the Catalan cause. Pique once even offered to end his international career for Spain.
Indian sportspersons criticising the government is rare. In Olympic sport, most athletes are employed by public-sector bodies and train at government-funded Sports Authority of India (SAI) centres. Those who train abroad do so through government grants. Cricket, the only sport that continues to be privately supervised and not need government largesse, too can’t do without help from political patrons, be it to waive off of taxes or arrange security for teams and at stadia.
Amid the growing social media clamour to tell Rihanna to mind her own business, Punjab fast bowler Sandeep Sharma deleted his tweet supporting the pop star’s call for a conversation around the farmers’ protest. But Vijender Singh, Vinesh Phogat, Bajrang Punia and Harbhajan Singh did speak against the farm laws.
Not only the legends, even Sri Lanka’s next generation of cricketers have spoken out. “Even though I am many miles away, I can feel the anguish of my fellow Sri Lankans as they struggle to make it through each day,” wrote Bhanuka Rajapaksa, who is playing for Punjab Kings, on Instagram. “Now they have found their most fundamental rights suppressed, in an effort to quell their voices. But when 22 million voices rise as one, it cannot be ignored.”