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Covid, Rajapaksas, food shortage to winning Asia Cup—How Sri Lanka cricket came out on top

Amid political allegations made at the Rajapaksa govt, Covid, ICC's freezing of funds, Sri Lankan cricket continued—Silverwood's perseverance got the team the Asia Cup.

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New Delhi: On 9 July, the second day of the second Test match between Sri Lanka and Australia at the Galle International Stadium, Australian batter Steve Smith was at the crease when protestors climbed up the Galle Fort walls around the stadium and started shouting slogans against former Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

“The protestors were not allowed to flock around the ramparts of the Galle Fort, but no one could stop the numbers pouring in. However, they did not disturb the cricket at all. They rather shouted slogans from the top and then moved ahead,” says Andrew Fidel Fernando, a senior sports journalist from the island nation.

The same day, Sri Lankan protesters stormed into the President’s residence. They dived into the swimming pool to declare their ‘triumph’ over the corrupt government.

Such contrasting scenes in Sri Lanka make one wonder how a bunch of men coming from a country that’s facing political turmoil and deep economic crisis marshalled their way into the finals of the Asia Cup 2022 and beat one of the tournament favourites.

Even the stats were stacked against the Lankans. The 2022 Asia Cup had an upsetting start for the team — they lost their first match against Afghanistan by eight wickets. The team’s T20 record this year before the Asia Cup began was also abysmal, with only two wins in 11 outings. In 2021, they had just eight wins in 20 matches. In a Covid-affected 2020, they lost 5 of the 5 matches played against India (3) and West Indies (2).

“Since the retirement of the trio — Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara, and Tillakaratne Dilshan — the Sri Lankan team was seeing a downfall. From 2017, things weren’t looking promising at all,” former Sri Lankan all-rounder, Farveez Maharoof told ThePrint.

“Economic crises in the country made everyone concerned about the future of our country. Many Sri Lankan players tweeted about it and even went on the ground protesting with the people of Sri Lanka,” he says.

Cricket Covid, crisis

Sri Lanka fell deeper into crisis when countries across the world were dealing with the pandemic — shortages hit the island nation, from fuel to medicines, and inflation skyrocketed under a corrupt government.

Speaking about the situation during the pandemic, Fernando says that women’s cricket in Sri Lanka was the most affected.

“Since the T20 World Cup in Australia, Sri Lankan women’s cricket team hasn’t played a single game. They were the worst sufferer of the situation, after the domestic circuit. Chamari Athapaththu, who is a world-class Sri Lankan batting all-rounder, had to sit for at least one-and-a-half years without playing cricket.” For an athlete at the top of her game to stay out of the playing arena is a recipe for building frustration and becomes a case of talent wasted.

Meanwhile, men’s cricket saw hope in the Lanka Premier League (LPL) that was organised under in a bio bubble in 2020 and later in 2021.

“The LPL 2020 was organised after several rescheduling of the dates. We wanted cricket to overcome the impact of the pandemic,” says Sri Lanka’s former sports minister Namal Rajapaksa.

“When I took over as sports minister in 2020, the major challenges were organising sports events for domestic circuit, LPL in cricket amid Covid restrictions and to emphasise on the betterment of sports performance in cricket and other events,” he adds. Political experts from Sri Lanka criticise his role as sports minister.

The LPL was organised at the Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium in Hambantota, which is involved in controversies for several environmental violations. It was built by the Mahinda Rajapaksa government in the middle of the jungle in an attempt to ‘develop sports’ in the southern province of Sri Lanka. “The LPL 2020 was organised by the government to fetch money out of sports. However, cricket board earned too, but ministers didn’t bother much about sports and its spirit,” says a Sri Lankan political observer who didn’t wish to be named.

Amid these political allegations, cricket continued.

Cricket in Sri Lanka was played mostly in empty stadiums for two years during the height of the pandemic, although a 50 per cent capacity crowd was allowed in for the Test series against the West Indies at Galle in December 2021. West Indies toured Sri Lanka from 4 November to 3 December 2021.

Also read: Coach vs coach: Lovlina Borgohain’s demand at CWG is fair but not all athletes deserve waiver

What Sri Lankan cricket relied on

At the height of the political and economic turmoil in 2022 came Australia’s tour of the island nation. A development lauded by the cricket world, that also brought Sri Lanka some financial aid.

Cricket Australia stated on 11 July that the men’s cricket team players have donated their prize money of AUD 45,000 (Rs 25,36,294 lakh) for relief work—from nutrition, healthcare, to safe drinking water, and education.

“Like the BCCI, SLC (Sri Lanka Cricket) also runs as a private entity. So, the country’s economic crises did not impact the board much. However, during the pandemic, they did slash cricketers’ salaries based on the performances, but most of the earnings come from broadcasting rights, advertisements, media rights and International Cricket Council funds,” says Maharoof.

K. Shriniwas Rao, sports editor with the Times of India explains how ICC funds the associated and full-time members: the amount keeps updating with time, based on the situation of cricket in the respective country.

SLC has already donated $2 million to the health sector. Not just this, but for the Commonwealth Games-bound athletes too, it’s the Sri Lanka Cricket that has released funds to cater to their transportation and lodging facilities in Birmingham, UK. Rao tells that ICC also monitors the functioning of the national cricket boards.

Corruption, cricket

When Sri Lankan cricket was marred in corruption allegations and match-fixing charges between 2015 and 2017, the ICC carried out a series of investigations against the players involved.

The ICC’s anti-corruption unit has been carrying out a long-term investigation in Sri Lanka and has found former cricketers Sanath Jayasuriya, Nuwan Zoysa, Dilhara Lokuhettige as well as Jayananda Warnaweera guilty of breaching the anti-corruption code.

The game’s international governing body froze the funds when the Sri Lankan government in 2018 appointed unelected officials following bitter disputes between rival candidates. In 2019, Sri Lankan cricket’s crisis-ridden governing body announced that it had secured the release of $11.5 million that was withheld by the ICC for eight months due to a row over its leadership. Delayed elections were finally held in February 2019 and Shammi Silva became the president.

Later, Gunawardene became the first to be cleared of all charges in 2021.

Andrew has said that in 2019, a Bill was passed on anti-corruption in sports in the Sri Lankan parliament. However, the ICC investigation played a major role in minimising the level of corruption in the board.

In May 2021, Sri Lankan top cricketers, including Test captain Dimuth Karunaratne, Dinesh Chandimal, and Angelo Mathews, refused to sign central contracts that would cut salaries by 40 per cent. The board cut 24 national players’ salaries citing performance. Just a month before a limited over series with India, all Sri Lankan cricketers signed the contracts.

Revival of domestic cricket 

Farveez Maharoof says, “Earlier, we used to rely on club cricket, but now, after the introduction of the National Super League and of course, we have the Lanka Premier League, youngsters are getting more cricket to play and improve their game.”

This has let Sri Lankan cricket discover new talent — like spinner Maheesh Theekshana who was first noticed in the LPL, says Andrew Fernando. Not just this, overseas league exposure, like the Indian Premier League, also made Sri Lanka find new potential.

“During the pandemic, it was then-head coach Mickey Arthur and Grant flower (batting coach) who did not go to their homes (South Africa and Zimbabwe, respectively) but stayed with Sri Lankan cricketers and actually changed their game. Later captains’ efforts and new coach Chris Silverwood’s perseverance in sticking to the same set of players for two years got us this Asia Cup,” says Maharoof.

Even then, it is the fighting spirit of the Sri Lankan cricketers that continues to sail them through everything — be it the 1996 Colombo Central Bank bombing during the Civil War or the humiliation faced by Muttiah Muralitharan over his bowling action. Sri Lanka won the 1996 World Cup and now the Asia Cup, which has come at a time when the country’s pitch is bouncy, patchy and full of uncertainties. Sri Lankan players were ready to go out in the middle and brave another challenge.

Sooryanshi is an independent journalist based out of New Delhi. She tweets @UnfilteredSP

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