Most cricketers are known for their cover drives, their hook shots, their googlies, their beamers or their eccentricities. Very few cricketers are known for their oratory skills. The only time we can hear them talk their heart out is at press conferences, interviews, post-match ceremonies and in some rare cases, the stump microphone. Kumar Sangakkara has been heard by everyone on all the above mentioned occasions. His gift of gab has always been as popular as the video of him sledging Shaun Pollock at the World Cup match in 2003. It has always been a known fact that Kumar has a way with words that few other cricketers have, be it his gracious talk after losing the World Cup in 2011 or his sledging ability. But what the cricketing world did not know was the power, the conviction and the effect his words would have. Had the MCC known it, they would have offered him the annual MMC Spirit of Cricket Lecture long before.
On the 4th of July 20011 former Sri Lankan captain Kumar Chokshanada Sangakkara addressed a packed Lords Stadium to deliver the Cowdery Lecture. In doing so he became the only Sri Lankan, the youngest and the only active cricketer to be given this honor. As he stood on the podium to begin his speech, little did he anticipate the fierce and wide spread reaction his words in the next hour were going to have. From the starting greetings to the culmination, the audience hung on with bated breath and as he finished, he received a standing ovation, the only speaker to receive it after Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu. Kumar Sangakkara had just delivered the most important speech in recent cricketing history.
The topic that he had chosen was something half the world was probably unaware of – “The story of Sri Lankan cricket.” A small South Asian island country in the India Ocean, it has always been in the global consciousness for its 30-year long civil war, its violent race riots and the one of the most dreaded terrorist groups The LTTE. Very few people in the world know anything about Sri Lanka apart from its violence and political turbulence. Those of us belonging to cricket playing countries have at least heard of Sri Lankan names beside V Prabhakaran and Mahinda Rajapakse, we know who Arjuna Ranatunga is, we know the contribution of Muttiah Muralitharan to cricket and we know that there is more to Sri Lanka than just ethnic conflict. Sangakkara strived to do just that, to highlight what Sri Lanka as a country is apart from its blooded history and political anarchy. His speech was more than just an address made in a cricket club, it was form of rebellion against the prevalent anarchy and corruption and a plea to resolve all conflict and restore the nation to its former pride.
Politics aside, Sri Lankan cricket has been plagued with a number of problems recently. From the terrorist attacks on the cricket team in Pakistan on March 3rd 2009, the claims of match fixing by former captain Hashan Thillakratne, the rampant corruption and the political interference which led to Sangakkara’s resignation from captaincy. Kumar in his speech touched upon all these issues and laid down the harsh facts without second thought. He spelled out exactly what was wrong with the cricket administration in his country, what was the reason for the corruption and what were going to be the consequences of it. He explained the important role played by cricket in rebuilding the war-torn country and why it was crucial that cricket was kept away from political or selfish motivations. Fearlessly he attacked the cricket Board and its greed for money, their elitist attitude and its politics. He expressed his concern that all this behind the scenes shenanigans were going to ruin cricket in his country and thereby ruin the pride and glory they derive from it. His sole aim was to protect cricket, which in his country occupied a place of pride as a “panacea that heals all wounds.”
Judging by the buzz this speech has created and the negative responses from ministers and politicians in Sri Lanka, Sangakkara has hit the mark with his words. He has brought to light all the overt operations which threatened to tarnish the game he holds beloved and has taken a stand against the forces of power back home. It takes great courage to go against the organization that employs you to bring out the truth and now that he has gone all out, he will have to face the music. But I am sure he takes hearty from the fact that the 20 million people that he referred to in his speech as the fans who form his foundation are standing behind him. The media, the social leaders and the ordinary citizens have all appreciated his courage and have come out in full support of him. Newspapers like The Island have carried strong editorials condemning the political interface in cricket, eminent cricket writers like Peter Roebuck have labeled his speech as a turning point in cricket history and fans have used social media to express their solidarity with Sangakkara. In a situation like this the entire island nation has chosen to stand behind their sporting hero and with this Sangakkara has achieved the aim with which he delivered his speech. What remains to be seen is how far reaching the after effects of his speech are and how much change can it bring about in cricket administration. But one thing is for sure, Kumar Sangakkara’s speech was no ordinary lecture. It was more than just a speech, it was a wakeup call for the cricketing world.