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Batting for a cause: On cricket and protests

“Sport can unite worlds, tear down walls and transcend race, the past, and all probability. Unlike life, sport matters.”

Shehan Karunatilaka, Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew (2010).

In 2007, Amnesty International organised a campaign termed “Sri Lanka: Play by the rules.” The campaign was aimed at putting pressure on the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to allow independent human rights monitors to “document and investigate the increasing number of human rights abuses committed by the Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE”. Supporters of the campaign were asked to sign a cricket ball urging the government and LTTE to invite independent human rights monitors into the country immediately.

This campaign was met with a strong (and predictable) backlash from the government at the time and from more surprising quarters as well. Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA) Director Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu said the campaign “is in danger of being self-defeating and of ricocheting on the efforts, both local and international, for human rights protection in Sri Lanka”. The Free Media Movement (FMM) released a statement asking Amnesty International to retract the campaign, stating that “cricket offers a war-weary nation an important psycho-social release. Cricket is, as the adage goes, almost a religion to many peoples in Sri Lanka. To revel in our victory on the field is to take our minds away, even for a moment, from the bloody reality of conflict.”

Fast forward to 2022, and the country is in deep economic turmoil due to years of gross mismanagement in political and economic governance. There is now a call for cricket fans to show dissent at the ongoing Sri Lanka-Australia cricket series. Despite the needle having moved on many social issues over the past fifteen years, a certain reticence in using cricket to highlight political issues is evident. Even prominent protestors at GotaGoGama, the epicenter of the organic people’s protests since April 2022, disavowed plans to protest at the upcoming cricket match. 

Are protests at cricket matches novel?

Protests at cricket matches are not a new phenomenon. In the recent India-Australia series held in Sydney, spectator-protestors demanded the State Bank of India revoke its decision to provide AUD $1 billion loans to the Adani Group for a controversial coal mine project in Australia. Protestors opposed the Carmichael project on grounds that it would increase Australia’s carbon emissions and accelerate climate change.

Protests are not uncommon in cricket matches involving Sri Lanka either. Throughout the years, at world cricket events and bilateral series in countries with significant Tamil diaspora, political protests were commonplace. Sri Lanka’s inaugural test match played at Lords in 1984 was disrupted by Tamil protestors who highlighted the atrocities committed during Black July in 1983.  

The “sacrosanctity” of cricket

It is no secret that cricket has been a unifying force that has brought about a collective sense of joy in a nation that often had little to nothing to celebrate at the world stage. However, to pretend that Sri Lankan cricket has remained bereft of politics or that the players have upheld this spirit of apolitical community is dangerous naivety. If a 41-year-old Sanath Jayasuriya, UPFA member of the Matara District, coming onto the field to bat as a “farewell game” in 2011 is considered an extreme example of the brazen politicisation of cricket, there have been much more varied examples of election endorsements, advantageous business deals, and cushy jobs within the SLC that have gone on to prove that cricket, especially in Sri Lanka, has been anything but sacrosanct.  

Cricket and the right to dissent

Opposition to protesting at the cricket include those who fear that any disruptive act, be it from the protestors or those with narrow political agendas, would result in the tour being cancelled. This would mean a loss of vital foreign exchange revenue to the country. This argument, while holding some practical value, puts an unfair burden of the present ailments of the country on its people.

A quote from the protestors at the inaugural test in 1984 words it in this manner: “The Sri Lankan cricket team was coming to play their first test match at Lord’s, the home of cricket. It was a big deal. Why don’t we put on a protest there? It would be disruptive, yes, but was there a bigger stage for our message?”

Therein lies the crux of the issue. The aragalaya has passed its 60th day. By all accounts, its potency seems to be waning. The citizens have been ground down with the soaring cost of living and recurring fuel shortages. The zest for protest has been diluted by the realities of life in a bankrupt state. However, it is important to remember all the gains, as limited they are, gained in creating discomfort among the ruling coterie of the country. An executive and a legislative which ignored countless warnings of impending economic doom acted only under the pressure of the protesting public. It is clear with the President’s recent statement that he will not be leaving his office before the end of his term. In a governing system that has given unfettered power to the executive, it appears that only public pressure truly keeps the elected accountable. Perhaps keeping the executive accountable is worth the discomfort it creates. Even at the cricket.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not reflect the opinions or views of Debas.

Cover Photo: “Sri Lankan Fans” is copyright (c) 2022 Nazly Ahmed and made available under a Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 license

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