Shehan Karunatilaka blunders into ethnicity in Sri Lankan cricket


By Michael Roberts | May 8, 2011

This is the second part of a two-part review of Shehan Karunatilaka’s essay in the Guardian on Sri Lankan cricket and its political context. My essays relate to two different temporal contexts within Sri Lanka –hence the separation. The first part can be found here.

Muttiah Muralitharan
Muttiah Muralitharan, an ethnic Tamil, is a national icon and loved by all. AFP PHOTO/Lakruwan WANNIARACHCHI.

In his venture into journalistic commentary, on the Sri Lankan cricket scene, when cricket-hype was at its height because of the 2011 World Cup, Shehan Karunatilaka sets the scene within the island’s recent political history. He emphasises the marginalisation of minority communities as a result of “staunch Sinhalese nationalism” since the 1950s.

Such a contextualization is pertinent. With typical flair, Karunatilaka then dramatically sharpens this backdrop by alluding to Sri Lanka’s cricketing triumph at the World Cup in 1996 in this manner,

“By the time 1996 came along, we had a full-blown civil war, a debt-ridden economy and a 14-year-old Test team that had been hammered around the world since being inducted in 1981. Two bomb attacks had cancelled two international tours. And two Marxist revolutions had cost more lives than the seating capacity of Colombo’s Khettarama stadium.”

There follows a further contextualization and a theatrical coup de grace,

“In hindsight, it’s easy to romanticise 1996. But truth be told, we were lucky. We qualified for the second round thanks to forfeits by Australia and the West Indies, scared off by our security situation. … But what a way to win. We had the world’s most freakish bowler, a Tamil named Murali, whose action had been condemned by umpires in Australia. Perhaps 30 years ago we might have sidelined him, so as not to ruffle the feathers of our masters. Perhaps 30 years ago, we may have hesitated to send unorthodox stroke-makers such as Sanath and Kalu to open our batting. But by 1996 it was time to abandon the straight-bat approach we had once been taught. And a bunch of poorly paid amateurs, spurred by a decade of frustration, blasted their way to the cup.”

Thereafter we are provided with a caveat,

“While the victory did serve to unite the country, minorities were still under-represented in our national team. The call-up for international duty continued to elude many Muslim and Tamil cricketers who excelled at club level. Murali was merely the exception that proved the rule (emphasis added).”

It is, here, in this proviso presented with such authority, that Karunatilaka does a disservice to the cricket world in Sri Lanka and aligns himself with disgruntled Tamils (mostly Tamils of the diaspora), who make allegations of the same kind because they have been alienated by the currents in Sri Lankan politics.

The issue here is one of empirical specifics. It is incumbent on Karunatilaka to provide the names of Tamil (and Muslim) cricketers in the 1990s and 2000s who have been hard done-by because they were not elevated to the ranks of the A Team or the top international squads.

It is possible that, like many cricket fans, Karunatilaka is not aware that Russel Arnold and Angelo Mathews are Tamil. Thus, in a comment on Amarasingam’s article on “Nationalism, Cricket and the Religio-Politics of Sport” in, one “srilankan” had this to say:

“The absence of minority representation other than Murali on the cricket field is a sympton of the disease afflicting our society. Lack of opportunity for minorities is not restricted to sports. Walk into any govt office or ministry or in the higher echelons of public service and you will see just a handfull of minority members.”

He drew this response from “crickfan”:

“SriLankan, our national cricket team during recent times has seen a wonderful mix of individuals. Murali is Tamil, Farveez Maharoof, Jehan Mubarak are muslim, even TM Dilshan was at the start of his career. Angelo Matthews, Russel Arnold, are Burgher.”

Russel ArnoldWhen two individuals from opposite sides of the fence get their facts wrong, one becomes alive to the complexities of the Sri Lankan scene and the manner in which names can mislead.

Let me here assert that in my reading, there has been no systematic or even intermittent discrimination towards cricketers from the minority ethnic communities. [1] I am fortified in this generalization by the opinions on this point provided recently by Chandra Schaffter, Ranjit Fernando and Jehan Mubarak.

I, too, must back up this assertion by providing details.

Given Karunatilaka’s age, I will focus on the temporal period 1991-2011, while noting that 1991/92 is a good dividing line because international tours to Sri Lanka resumed only in 1992 after an interregnum between 1987 and 1991 arising from the southern civil war between the JVP and the government.

Parenthetically, however, it should be noted (1) that Tamils who played for the country between 1948 and 1991 were, with one exception [2], drawn from schools in Colombo; and (2) that by the early 1980s this strand of supply was drying up – so much so that the Tamil Union in the 1980s had few Tamil players. This requires stress: between 1979 and 2005 only 12 Tamils represented this particular club (and most of them were men in their twilight years playing in the late 1970s and early 1980s). [3]

In the second block of years, 1991-2011 the following Tamils have represented Sri Lanka at the highest level in either ODI or Test formats or on tours abroad as members of the top XV: Muttiah Muralitharan, Mario Villavarayan, Russel Arnold, Pradeep Jayaprakashdaran and Angelo Mathews.

Damien Nadarajah also played for the A team in the early 1990s. Nadarajah (b. 1968) may conceivably be an example of someone who was discriminated against, but one would require a detailed study of the squads chosen between 1989 and 2000 set against Nadarajah’s statistics in the domestic arena.

It is a futile exercise for anyone to list the names of those who represented Sri Lanka from 1991 to the present day and thence to argue that the vast majority are Sinhalese in patrilineage. [4]

The stark fact is that few Tamils have played cricket in the top tier of domestic cricket over the last 20 years. As noted elsewhere, I found it difficult to name even ten.

When I asked Jehan Mubarak if this was a valid statement, he was quite certain that, at best, no more than 15 Tamils had taken to the field in the top tier of domestic cricket during his span of experience dating from schoolboy days at Royal College to the present. [5]

He did provide me with one name that I was not aware of: Nalliah Rajan (b. 1975), a bowling all-rounder who captained Royal College and then played in the premier domestic competition for some years.

As matters stand, my count of Tamil cricketers in the top level of domestic cricket between 1991 and 2011 is limited to these names: Arnold, N. Devarajan ((b. 1965), Jayaprakashdaran, Mathews, Muralitharan, Nadarajah, N. Rajan and Villavarayan.

Even if I have missed a few, they add up to a miniscule proportion of the cricketers who have vied for the limelight at the domestic level.

Again, there have not been that many Muslim Moors or Muslim Malays playing cricket at these levels. I am certainly not aware of any Muslim cricketers who were not given an opportunity to play for the A Team or top XV even though their records provided grounds for inclusion.

Jehan MubarakIn fact, there were many on the Dilmah Cricket Forum website who were convinced that Mubarak received undue favour in being retained in the top XV for so long.

In overview, then, the questions one must ask are these: (A) why did the supply of Tamil cricketers from the schools in Colombo, which had provided several outstanding cricketers in the first 25 years of independence, dry up from the early 1980s if not a few years earlier?

And (B), has there been discrimination at the junior levels in these particular schools? These are questions I do not have enough information to answer in any conclusive manner.

In overview, therefore, I emphatically contest Karunatilaka’s assertion about discrimination in the realm of cricket.

I stress here that my counter-assertion is limited to the cricketing universe. If anybody attempts to deploy this picture of the cricketing scene as an illustration of the happy position of Tamils, Muslims and other minority communities in the competition for jobs and advantages in island society, it would be an extension that I would dismiss as emphatically.

The Tamils in particular have been disadvantaged in access to jobs in the government sector for quite some time. The most outstanding instance of victimization was the terror that was unleashed on Tamils residing in Sinhala-majority districts during the pogrom of July 1983 which involved government functionaries, segments of the armed services and popular action in varying mix. [6]

These memories remain. Tamils who have moved abroad over the last 50-60 years have been rendered bitter by recollections and tales associated with such incidents; and by the stories disseminated in many modalities about the sufferings associated with the four Eelam Wars between 1983 and 2009. While a few Tamils, such as the Muralitharan family, have come to terms with such experiences, others remain profoundly anguished and angry.

This tendency is most pronounced among Tamils of the Diaspora. Such migrants are primed to swallow any tale of discrimination and any assertion of discrimination. They provide a fertile field for those who fabricate grievances amidst half-truths and true facts.

Indeed, their hostility to the Sri Lankan state and society is so deep-seated that they attack any Tamils who are closely linked to the government.
It was on such political grounds many Tamil nationalists, both LTTE and non-LTTE, considered Lakshman Kadirgamar, a Trinitian and Oxonian from a distinguished Tamil patriline, who was a Foreign Minister in the 2000s and a fierce proponent of state interests, to be a traitor and thus by definition “non-Tamil.”

It is probably on this reasoning that one Dr. Balachandran asserted that “we do not consider Murali to be Tamil” (though caste prejudice and bigoted Jaffna Tamil prejudice against all recent Indian Tamil migrants, those referred to, often disparagingly, as vadakkathayan (northerners), could also have motivated the good doctor’s remark).

Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Just as it is false to stretch analogies from cricket to society; from a clinical perspective, one can question those who extend analogies from the societal scene to the cricketing universe without any empirical grounds for such conclusions.

But, of course, emotion intrudes… and distorts.

I am indebted to a Tamil friend for stressing this aspect in the course of his response to my essay on Balachandran’s victimization of Muralitharan. A keen cricket fan, he remarked that he had no problem cheering for the Sri Lankan team, but was quite critical of the Sri Lankan state and fully empathized with those reacting against perceived legitimization of the state via the cricket team.

It is his additional note that is significant here as empirical data. He himself knew many Tamils who could not support the Sri Lankan cricket team because of their deep hostility to the state. [7] Equally significant was the grounding for such thinking: “for many sl tamils, politics seeps into everything, including as to whether one ‘feels’ (and it is about feeling) one can cheer for the sl team!” [8]

This insight about minds wounded by anguish, bitterness and hate is illustrated in a slightly different vein by one young Tamil Australian named Vikram Sambasivam who participated in a demonstration organised by an LTTE arm at Manuka Oval in Canberra on 12 February 2008 and explicitly asserted: “How can I [support Sri Lanka] when they do what they do to my people!” [9]

It is one thing for those subjectively enmeshed in anger and vendetta to present extreme claims that have no empirical foundation. It is quite another for journalists and intellectuals to retail fabrications and/or unfounded “facts.”

It is impossible for observers to discern whether Karunatilaka has been misled, or is hostile to the regimes that have brought such traumatic decades to Sri Lanka, or is he proclaiming his radical-liberal credentials to the world; has he inspired a combination of these inspirations or other influences I have not considered?.

Whatever the imperatives, my simple point is that he has got his facts on cricket selections wrong, totally wrong.

[1]. “Intermittent,” in my thinking. connotes at least three instances in the span of 20 years.

[2]. C. Balakrishnan by virtue of his performances for the University of Ceylon side while attending Medical School at Peradeniya.

[3]. These were S. Shanthikumar, S. Skandakumar, Indrajit Coomaraswamy, Gajan and Dac Pathmanathan, Dynanesh and Amaresh Rajaratnam, Rajiva Benedict, Sanmuga, Lakshman Aloysius, Damien Nadarajah and Jayaprakashdaran (information communicated personally by S. Skandakumar in 2005).

[4]. As contended by one “SriLankan” in the comments on Amarasingam’s article in

[5]. International telephone conversation in late April 2011.

[6]. Kanapathipillai, V. 1990 “July 1983: the survivor’s experience,” in V. Das (ed.) Mirrors of violence. Communities, riots and survivors in South Asia, Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 321-44. and Roberts, 1994b “The Agony and Ecstasy of a Pogrom: Southern Lanka, July 1983,” Exploring Confrontation. Sri Lanka: Plitics, Culture and History. Reading: Harwood, chap. 13.

[7]. He did not think the animosity extended to Sri Lankan society. I am doubtful on this point: for many Asians state and society are intimately linked –as, indeed, my friend’s subsequent remark indicates.

[8]. Email note, 24 April 2011.

[9]. Roberts, “Cricket as Protest Arena,” in Roberts, Incursions and excursions in and around Sri Lankan Cricket, Colombo, Author, 2011, p. 100. My Tamil friend insisted that the thinking impelling Balchandran and Sambasivam was quite different. I disagree.

© Island Cricket/Michael Roberts

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