The stylish and successful cricket team are heroes to some but others feel they should not be here at all
Kumar Sangakkara slipped into a smile, as smooth and easy as the shots he had played in the middle. For him the awkward question, which would have been uncomfortable for any other Sri Lankan player, was just another half-volley. “As a group of players from Sri Lanka we represent every Sri Lankan, both at home and abroad,” he said, with a nod of his head. “We are very proud to play for Sri Lanka and very proud to be Sri Lankan. So I don’t think the protests upset us or bother us at all. We are very happy and very proud to be here representing our country.”
They say Sangakkara, like his two old team-mates Arjuna Ranatunga and Sanath Jayasuriya, may try his hand at politics once he is done playing. And that was a politician’s answer. He and his team are proud to be representing Sri Lanka but not all Sri Lankans are proud to be represented by them. There have been protesters at both of Sri Lanka’s games in the Champions Trophy so far and they will be there again at The Oval on Monday, when the team play Australia. When Sri Lanka played England last Thursday the protesters gathered around the corner opposite the Hobbs Gates. There were only a handful, fewer for sure, than had turned out to picket the Test match at Lord’s in 2011, when they floated a red weather balloon above the pavilion. Their message is the same now as it was then. They are calling for a boycott of the Sri Lankan team by the international cricket community.
The aim, the leaflets say, is “to raise awareness about the atrocities that were committed by the Sri Lankan government and the on-going human rights abuses of Tamils in the north-east of the island. Boycotting Sri Lankan cricket is an effective way of applying pressure on the government to allow an independent investigation into its alleged war crimes.”
The protesters strung out a banner beneath the window of a flat on the corner of Clayton Street, with a picture of Sri Lanka wrapped up in police tape labelling it a “crime scene”. Absurdly, because the people who lived below did not want it hanging over their windows, the banner was so small it could not really be read. Aptly, it was also hidden by a bunch of trees and the large TV screen that sits above the stands, so it was invisible from most of the ground. This is a protest that few people hear and fewer still agree with.
Neville de Silva, Sri Lanka’s deputy high commissioner in London, dismissed the protesters as the “tattered remnants of the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam]”, and he is right that several of the campaigners are proud in their support of the old terrorist organisation. Nothing is clear here and only the dogmatic would say who is right and who is wrong, only the strident fall on one side of the argument or the other. But that does not mean ears should be shut to the chants or the banners be ignored.
De Silva, an eloquent man who, once upon a time, worked for this newspaper, believes that sport and politics should be kept apart. “What on earth has the Sri Lanka cricket team got to do with all this?” he asks. “The team is here to play cricket, a game we learnt from the British. Let the players do just that and provide entertaining cricket, Sri Lanka style.”
Fred Carver, the director of the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice, disagrees with that, though the organisation is not joining the call for a boycott, feeling that to do so may alienate many Sri Lankans. “Our main focus at the moment is the Commonwealth summit, which Sri Lanka will host,” he says. “But cricket is similar, in that it is one of these things that the regime uses to whitewash its reputation. They are basically goodwill ambassadors and they are very good at it.”
Carver says “the Sri Lankan cricket team shouldn’t ever visit England and these questions not be raised” but the British cricketing public remain mainly oblivious and the media largely indifferent. When Sri Lanka toured Australia at the start of the year the campaign calling for a boycott garnered more attention and inspired more debate than has ever been the case here in England. Which is odd, given all the attention focussed on the troubles in Zimbabwe in the 2000s.
“Politics,” said Desmond Tutu in his 2008 Spirit of Cricket lecture, “impinges on sport as much as on any other aspect of life.” That seems especially true in Sri Lanka, where the composition of the board is determined by the government, just as it is in Pakistan. It has been exactly two years since the ICC warned its members that they had two years to free themselves from this kind of political interference.
This was one of the key recommendations of the Woolf report into the governance of the game. The demand, announced with great fanfare, and the strong position which the ICC had adopted, were both quietly abandoned late last year. In the meantime the game carries on and the ever dwindling band of protesters continue their vigil, trying to interest the few passers-by who stop to listen.