By Theviyanthan Krishnamohan | November 15, 2014
Why do so few Sri Lankan Tamils take to cricket professionally? © AFP PHOTO
A popular theory put forward by some Tamils in Sri Lanka is that the Sri Lankan cricket team does not represent the Tamil speaking population of the island. This is a delicate matter that needs to be looked at objectively rather than subjectively, since manifolds of political agendas have been executed in the past over this topic by both the Tamil diaspora and politicians in Tamil Nadu, India.
Cricket in Sri Lanka galvanises the nation together. It distracts children from homework, men from jobs, lovers from romance, drunkards from alcohol and a country impacted by ethnic crisis from ethnic distinction.
With blue and yellow face paint on, no one at a cricket ground will ask you what language you speak, or which religion you follow.
When the WT20 squad returned to Sri Lanka victorious, the team was received by a large crowd that encompassed ethnic diversity. In the packed crowd was me, a Tamil, standing in between a Sinhalese and a Muslim. We spoke different languages and followed different religions, but our goal was one and the same: to get a glimpse of the hard-earned silverware and the men who fought ruthlessly to bring it home, and if things go well, to get a chance to shake hands with the men who helped our flag soar high. Many Tamil songs were sung that night by Sinhalese singers without any discrimination, and the crowd too didn't hold back from dancing to the tunes. What a microcosm of Sri Lanka it was. That once again reiterated the fact that cricket can help Sri Lanka find solidarity amidst plurality.
Cricket brought a ceasefire between the LTTE and the Sri Lanka Army in 2007, during the course of that year's World Cup.
"In 2007, the LTTE declared a ceasefire with the government of Sri Lanka for the duration of the World Cup." — Shehan Karunathilaka
"Rumours have circulated in Colombo society that the LTTE also celebrated Sri Lanka's victory at the World Cup in 1996" — Michael Roberts
Despite the universal truth that sport is a panacea that heals all evils, cricketers from Sri Lanka have been targeted by Tamil diaspora groups and Tamil Nadu politicians to unleash their wrath on the government of Sri Lanka. Sports should never become a substance for politics, yet , there are those who believe that banning Sri Lankan cricketers from playing will yield results like it did in South Africa to end apartheid.
Some malevolently claim that minorities in Sri Lanka are deprived of the chance of representing their country of birth at international level. These arguments, despite being apocrypha, is fortified by the fact that few Tamils have played for Sri Lanka in the recent past. Is that a credible reason to not to support their nation? Is discrimination the sole reason for the sparse Tamil representation?
Tamils who played for Sri Lanka
The best bowler Sri Lanka ever produced is a Tamil. Sri Lanka's best batsman is also a Tamil (Mahadevan Sathasivam, a Ceylonese batsman who was regarded as better than Don Bradman by prominent cricketers). Even though Muttiah Muralitharan has been a totem of unity, the latter is all but forgotten.
Sri Lanka captain Angelo Mathews's father is a Tamil. Russell Arnold, one of Sri Lanka's best finishers and a popular TV commentator, hails from the Tamil ethnicity. A Tamil cricketer by the name Pradeep Jayaprakashdaran took the wicket of Virender Sehwag in the only match he played for Sri Lanka.
History has the names of 15 Tamil players who have represented the country at the highest level. Apart from Muralitharan, Sathasivam, Mathews and Arnold, there is Raveendran Rathnayake, Sabapathypillai Illangaratnam, Ravindra Pushpakumara, Vinothan John, Sridharan Jeganathan, Roy Dias, Joe Saverimuthupillai, Gajanand Pathmanathan, Neil and Dennis Chanmugam.
If the theory of ethnic profiling within Sri Lanka cricket is true, then none of the above players would have represented Sri Lanka.
One must also consider that Muralitharan received steadfast support from the Sri Lankan cricket board and the entire nation when he was humiliated in Australia. The island nation went on to consider the treatment meted out to Muralitharan as a national insult, and Austalia's downfall on the cricket field is still often celebrated in Sri Lanka for that reason alone. His ethnicity was immaterial, every one loved Muralitharan.
So is there no discrimination?
To deny discrimination completely would be incorrect. There has been discrimination and there is discrimination, but of a different kind.
Cricketers from certain schools were once given precedence over talents from the other schools. The Thomians and the Royalists often scowled at Anandians and Nalandians within the realms of cricket. Kumar Sangakkara, in his MCC lecture, said when Arjuna Ranatunga was a 15-year-old school kid practising in the nets at the club, a senior stalwart of the club inquired about him. "When told he was from the unfashionable Ananda College, he dismissed his obvious talents immediately: 'We don't want any Sarong Johnnie's in this club'."
Even though there is parity in the selection process nowadays, there is still a dearth of talent coming from outside of Colombo. Players from Colombo and the Western province are more likely to be considered for selection than youngsters from other areas, which can be attributed to the poor domestic structure and below par cricket facilities beyond Colombo's borders.
Why aren't there many Tamil cricketers?
The answer to this question is not straight-forward. There are numerous reasons for the decline of cricket among Tamils. War was one big reason. A rational distinction between the residents of the north and east and the Tamils residing in the rest of Sri Lanka needs to be made. Tamils in Colombo have a greater chance of playing cricket professionally than those in previously war-torn regions.
Even the Tamils who played for Sri Lanka in the past have been from the elite schools from Colombo. Cricket in Sri Lanka has not really expanded out of Colombo, with most clubs having their headquarters within the Greater Colombo Area, so the lack of Tamil cricketers can be consigned to the poor cricket infrastructure in areas with large Tamil populations.
Tamils in Colombo are also known to refrain from seeking careers in cricket. The first-class system has almost no Tamil players in their first XIs, which tells us there aren't many Tamils playing at the domestic level. In order to raise the question on discrimination, we need to know for certain if Tamil players are even attempting to enrol in club cricket.
There is obviously no institutionalised ethnic discrimination at school level. The last big match encounter between Royal College and St. Thomas' had a Tamil captaining St. Thomas' and another Tamil playing for Royal College.
The problems faced by players from the north and east should not be looked upon as an ethnic problem but as a regional problem, for all cricketers out of Colombo are faced with the same plight.
But apart from the aforementioned reason, I would like to shed light on various other reasons within Tamil society (that includes Tamils from Colombo and the north and east) that help contribute to the lack of Tamils players in Sri Lankan cricket.
Attitude of Tamils towards extra-curricular activities
The 30-year war has left Tamil parents with the belief that education is the only salvation for their children. Some hold the view that Tamils will not be given equal footing, and they feel the only way of rising to higher levels of Sri Lankan society is by empowering themselves in the field of academia. This in turn results in minuscule number of Tamils in the skills-based sectors. It does not only explain the dearth of Tamils in cricket, but it can explain the scarcity of Tamils in other industries such as fashion, modeling, music, acting, film, dancing etc.
Tamil students are thrust into books and often forced to give up on their dreams, just to have a few letters appended beside their names.
Caste-based and school-based discrimination in Jaffna
Jaffna has a strong caste-based society, hence being discriminated for belonging to a lower caste is nothing new there. Perhaps it is for that very reason Muralitharan was called a 'non-Tamil' by a Jaffna Tamil belonging to a superior caste. Children from the dispelled castes do not get much opportunities, as opposed to the chances 'more privileged' children receive.
Another stark discrimination prevailing in Jaffna is somewhat similar to the school-based discrimination that was once prevalent in Colombo. Elite school children from Jaffna Hindu College, St. Patrick's and St. John's are given prominence over other schools. A friend who played for Jaffna Combined XI in the Murali Harmony Cup in 2013 was deprived of the chance of batting up the order because he belonged to a less prominent school. Talent from small schools often go unnoticed.
Corruption within the sporting system
Complaints are replete about the free cricket equipment from the south failing to reach the hands of the needy. What happens en-route is a mystery. The fact that sports is not taken seriously allows the mysterious disappearance to perpetuate in the north and east. A prominent Tamil boys' school in Colombo has two cricket nets that is used as storage for broken desks and an indoor stadium that is used as a godown. Tamil society here tends not to give priority to sports, and sporting activities are still considered indulging.
The belief that there won't ever be a national call up
Many cricket aficionados in the Tamil speaking regions have constantly been discouraged from turning to cricket as a career, alleging that Tamils will never be given a chance to represent the national team. It must be pointed out that the Sri Lankan net ball team is lead by a Tamil and Sri Lanka's third-highest international goal scorer in football is a Tamil. In the past, the LTTE had been a constant limiting factor in preventing Tamils from taking up sports. Local cricket stars of Jafffna like Kandeepan never became stars due to the LTTE. There is obviously corruption within the hierarchy of cricket administration in Sri Lanka Cricket, but to say there exists discrimination based on ethnicity is preposterous.
We Tamils are responsible for our own plight within the sports arena of Sri Lanka. Of course the diaspora and naysayers will come up with excuses to advocate their aversion to Sri Lanka.
There is a tendency among Tamils outside of Sri Lanka to treat the Sri Lankan cricket team as a 'Sinhala-Buddhist team', even though the team has been made of a diverse group of players over the years. Protests by diaspora groups are not consistent and are only staged when there is a tour by Sri Lanka to their respective countries. Calls have been made to ban the cricket team — a team that transcends all evils and unites — for political feuds. Sri Lankan Tamils must back this team for it represents all Sri Lankans, including Tamils. Everyone has the right to support any team they chose, but rejecting the Sri Lankan cricket team due to myths and half-truths is a disservice to the country you call home.
"I did not feel the difference between the two communities — Tamils and Sinhalese," Muralitharan was once quoted as saying. "There were no obstacles and barriers for me during my long tenure as a Tamil cricketer representing the Sri Lankan team. I was never discriminated by anyone."
There is no discrimination in Sri Lanka cricket. Sri Lankan cricket fans, irrespective of their ethnicity, are eagerly waiting for the pacemen from Jaffna to bleed blue in order to alleviate our bowling woes overseas. They have been waiting eagerly ever since Pushpakumara announced that a northern player would represent Sri Lanka in the near future.
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