Posted on April 7th, 2021

Rohan Abeygunawardena

“These Sri Lankans are giving the Aussies a real hiding.” This was how Tony Greig described his favourite ‘’little Sri Lankans’’ when their captain Ranatunga’s six cleared the fence at World Cup 1996. Yes, 17th March 1996 was the ‘’Red Letter Day’’ of Sri Lanka cricket. Sri Lanka beat mighty Aussies at 1996 final in Lahore, Pakistan.

The story of how a proud island nation overcame bombings, boycotts and near-bankruptcy at its cricket board to reach the top of the world 25 years ago was vividly described in an article published by Sam Sheringham and Matt Davies of BBC Sport on 27th of 2021 under the caption ‘’Sri Lanka’s 1996 Cricket World Cup success – the inside story.’’ The silver jubilee of this victory was celebrated with much fanfare few weeks ago by the cricketers and the cricket lovers of Sri Lanka.

Today, cricket has become second religion of all Sri Lankans irrespective of sex, caste, creed, race or economic status.

History of Cricket in General

It was said that cricket was started by the children living in the Weald during Saxon or Norman times. At the beginning cricket was played with a hockey stick type of a bat and then introduced a straight bat after 1860. A dictionary published in 1611 defined cricket as a boys’ game. In the same year the cricket became an adult’s game and it was mostly confined to the royals in Lords, Earl and the Dukes in England. However by middle of eighteenth century cricket was the most popular sport in London and the south-eastern counties of England. Cricket became so popular and a women’s Cricket match was played in Surrey in 1745. A documented set of cricket rules was established in 1744 and subsequently amended in 1774. Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) at Lord’s was formed by Thomas Lord and some enthusiasts in 1787. MCC built the Lord’s cricket grounds in 1814 and named after Thomas Lord.

First official test match was played between England and Australia on 15 March 1877   at the famous Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). Aussis won the game by 45 runs in front of a large crowd of 12,000 spectators on 19th March. England won the second Test and leveled the series. Later this rivalry between England and Australia came to be known as the Ashes with the competition beginning in 1882.

Cricket was introduced to North America and West Indies via the English colonies as early as the 17th century and in the 18th century it arrived in other parts of the globe.  British East India Company mariners introduced cricket to the most influential cricketing nation today, India, in the 18th century.

MCC became the governing body and custodian of the Laws and has made revisions ever since then till a world governing body for cricket, Imperial Cricket Conference (ImpCC) was formed by Australia, England and South Africa in 1909 as they were the only recognized test playing nations at the time. Later West Indies, India, New Zealand and Pakistan were admitted as test playing nations. ImpCC took over making and revision of cricket laws but the copyrights are still with MCC. ImpCC agreed to introduce a category call ‘’Associate Members.’’ In 1965 USA, Ceylon and Fiji were admitted under the new category and renamed the governing body as International Cricket Conference (ICC).

History of Cricket in Sri Lanka

British introduced cricket to their crown colony Ceylon (Sri Lanka now) and first match supposed to have been played in 1800, but the first recorded match was in 1832 according to a report published in the Colombo Journal of 5th September 1832. Cricket was initially played by the British officials in Ceylon, both in the government and armed forces, and the British businessmen. The first cricket club to be formed in Ceylon was the Colombo Cricket Club (CCC) in 1863. CCC was exclusively for the British and the other Europeans. Nine years later with the blessings of the British, the Malay Cricket Club (now Colombo Malay Cricket Club-CMCC) was formed in 1872 by the Malay troops of the Dutch Colonial Army who were absorbed into the Rifle Regiment formed by the British. CMCC could be considered as the oldest Ceylonese cricket club.

The game began to attract the attention and fascination of the Ceylonese who were often called up to augment the numbers in the teams when the British played afternoon cricket during weekends. It became popular among local folks mainly after Royal-Thomian annual cricket match was introduced in 1879 between Royal College, Colombo and S.Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia. Thereafter several big matches commenced among the schools throughout the island.

By the latter part of 19th century Cricket was the most popular sport among the islanders and many a club were formed mainly on ethnic basis. The Singhalese Sports Club (SSC) and Tamil Union Cricket & Athletic Club were formed in 1899. Burgher Recreation Club (BRC) was established in 1896 with the membership restricted to the Burgher community and Moors Sports Club in 1908 for the Moors. Colts Cricket Club (1873), Nondescripts Cricket Club (1888) and Bloomfield Cricket and Athletic Club (1892) were established and membership was opened to all irrespective of ethnicity. Teams consisted of young school leavers who had played cricket at school.

In 1882, an English team en route to Australia played a game in Colombo against an all European team. An English team led by George Vernon toured Ceylon and India in 1888/89, and played an 11-a-side game against All-Ceylon at Kandy. An Australian team en route to England played in Colombo in 1890. As a practice, English and Australian teams en route to each other’s country for ‘’Ashes” started playing a warm-up game in Ceylon. Colombo became a popular place for stopover games for test playing nations during travel by sea days.  As a result Ceylonese were exposed to international cricket.

Dr John Rajathurai Rockwood, one time commanding officer of Ceylon Medical Corps and a leading administrator and a patron of Ceylonese cricket since 1914 instrumental in founding Ceylon Cricket Association (CCA) in July 1922. Ceylon won the inaugural first-class match played on 12–13 February 1926 between Rockwood’s Ceylon XI and W. E. Lucas’ Bombay XI. This match was played at the Nondescripts Cricket Club grounds in Colombo. In 1931 a CCA team easily defeated a touring European team proving that Ceylonese players were equal or if not better than their counterparts from Europe. Cricket lover Rockwood organised 47 cricket matches in Ceylon, including five of Ceylon’s first nine first-class matches. He gained nothing but donated the proceeds to charity or to the CCA. Due to the efforts of Rockwood and other cricket lovers the game formally took root in Ceylon by first half of twentieth century.

The name of the CCA was changed to Board of Control for Cricket in Ceylon (BCCC) in 1948 when the island nation got independence. In 1972 it was changed as Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka (BCCS) when the country became a republic and changed the name to Sri Lanka. During the tenure of Thilanga Sumathipala as the President of BCCS, name was again changed as Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) in 2003.

Robert Senanayake (President of BCCC from 1956 to 1972) worked hard to obtain associate membership for Ceylon in 1965.

Gamini Disanayake (GD) was elected President of BCCS in 1981 and due to his unstinting efforts the country received ‘’Test status’’ in 1982. His first move was to bring most popular and greatest all-rounder in cricket in sixties, Sir Garry Sobers to coach the team before Sri Lanka played its inaugural test match against England at the P Sara Oval in February 1982. Arjuna Ranatunga who was a 15 year old school boy from Ananda College was discovered by Garry, and GD protected him against socio-political environment prevailing in the country at that time. One of the greatest cricketers Sri Lanka has ever produced Kumar Sangakkara vividly presented the socio-political culture prevailed in cricket at that time when he delivered his famous 2011 Cowdrey Lecture. The famous former cricket captain of Ceylon who called Arjuna a ‘sarong Johnny’ didn’t realise that this young man was the much awaited messiah to change the entire history of Sri Lankan cricketing heritage. 

According to Kumar Sangakkara rightly said, it was Arjuna who understood most clearly why we needed to break free from the shackles of our colonial past and forge a new identity, an identity forged exclusively from Sri Lankan values, an identity that fed from the passion, vibrancy and emotion of normal Sri Lankans. 

It is rather unfortunate that GD, who laid the foundation for a transformation of cricket from an elite sport to a game for the masses, could not live to watch Sri Lankan cricketers reaching its point of culmination in 1996 when Sri Lanka became World Champions under the leadership of Arjuna. However returning grateful members of the champion team led by its captain went straight away to GD’s residence and presented the world cup trophy to Mrs. Srima Disanayake (wife of GD) as a mark of respect to the statesmen.

During pre-champion era only the dedicated cricket lovers came forward to hold positions in the BCCS. Some of them have to be persuaded to be an office-bearer and provide their expertise to run the board. They did that for the love of cricket and sometime pocketed out their own money for the benefit of the game.   In fact when Ana Punchihewa became the president in 1995 his main problem was the poor financial situation. The board had only three lakhs of rupees. He had to appeal to many Sri Lankans abroad for help and Cricket Australia supported with funds to pay the International Coach Dave Watmore.

Tony Greig’s little Sri Lankans also had a tough time. Some members from outstation were accommodated by the senior players living in and around Colombo at their residences, to enable them to attend practices on time.

The Post champion period was a different story. With the success at the World Cup 1996 entire population became cricket fans overnight. BCCS started earning good money through TV and other media rights, match grants etc. Some years its income surpassed the turnover of some of the blue-chip companies in Sri Lanka.

As a result chronic capitalism set in and the matches started to be governed by commerce.  Many accusation of match fixing, corruption, bribery tarnished the sport. A sex scandal was also reported few months ago. Our cricket is at a low ebb right now, and ICC ranking wise we were at 7th, 8th and 9th position under test, ODI and T20 respectively.

Many former cricketers, administrators and Sri Lankan cricket lovers feel that cricket in Sri Lanka deteriorated in the recent past due to the weakness of the constitution of Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC).

A writ petition was filed by 12 civil activist and former cricketers seeking the creation of a new constitution for Sri Lanka Cricket before the next SLC election.

Petitioners were Muttiah Muralitharan, Sidath Wettimuny, Michael Tissera, Vijaya Malalasekera, Kushil Gunasekera, Somasundaram Skandakumar, Ana Punchihewa, Rienzie Wijetilleke, Dinal Phillips PC, Hon Justice (Retd) Saleem Marsoof PC, Dr. Palitha Kohona, and Thilan Wijesinghe.

They have mentioned that they would like the Sri Lankan judiciary to order the Government of Sri Lanka to invoke provisions in the Sports Act of Sri Lanka to form an independent committee of governance experts to draft a brand new Constitution for SLC with input from the International Cricket Council (ICC). They have also requested that the new Constitution passed as an Act of Parliament to avoid any dilution or compromises at the hands of those who have vested interest.

 The respondents named in the petition were Minister of Sports Namal Rajapaksa, Chairman of SLC Shammi Silva, Deputy Chairman Ravin Wickramaratne, Jayantha Dharmadasa, Thilak Wattuhewa and Secretary Mohan De Silva.

Few days ago young sports minister Namal Rajapaksa appointed a five-member Management Committee (MC) presided by Prof. Arjuna de Silva to carry out the administration activities at Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) until elections are conducted on May 20. However if the court decide in favour of the petitioners, term of the MC may have to be extended or an interim committee to be appointed to take over the administration, of course with the blessings of ICC till a new constitution is drawn up and established.

 Cricket lovers of Sri Lanka all over the world are awaiting the outcome of this court case and to cue the sick patient ‘’SLC.’’

Rohan Abeygunawardena

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