Cricket in Sri Lanka, as in other countries of South Asia, is not merely a sport that entertains the masses. It is de facto our national sport, a national pastime, a socio-cultural phenomenon and a source of national pride all rolled into one.
However, it was not so long ago that cricket was confined to a few schools of the English speaking elite in the country. Up until the 1970s, when cricket had spread to a few non-English speaking urban schools, it was largely confined to the main urban centres of the country. While there was general interest on the performance of the national team (there were no professional cricketers in Sri Lanka then), in the rural areas of the country interest was at best, fleeting and transitory.
Observers of Sri Lanka cricket would notice a paradigm shift in the cricket culture of the country beginning from the mid-1980s and early 1990s. A sport that largely interested urban masses began to acquire the heart-throb status of the rural folk. In my own hometown of Kumbalgama, Mawanella, in the Kegalle district of Sri Lanka, I remember cricket beginning to replace Elle (an indigenous bat & ball game very much like baseball) during this time, as the choice sport among the village boys.
I have often wondered on the reason for this transition. While I am yet to come across an article or book seriously discussing this issue, many commentators attribute the immense popularity of the game to the 1996 World Cup win. However, even before then cricket had outpaced all other sports as the most popular sport in the country. So it is obvious that the phenomenon is much more socio-culturally deep-rooted than the World Cup triumph. I will here outline my thoughts on this transition and the historical role of Arjuna Ranatunaga behind this effort. In fact, the World Cup win and Sri Lanka’s rise from being the minnows to giants was a direct result of this transition!
Before we go to cricket, let us look at the theoretical basis of what I am going to say. The theory of Constructive Relativism (Nirmanathmaka Sapekshathawadaya) of Prof. Nalin de Silva, expounds 3 ways in which cultures assimilate things from other cultures – imitation (anukāranaya), reflection (aropanāya) & absorption (avāshoshānāyā). While imitation is a fairly straightforward concept to understand (imitating hairstyles, dresses etc. of western rock stars readily come to mind), the other two need a little more elaboration.
Reflection is the process of assimilating something from an alien culture by putting a native gloss to it without changing the foreign essence. A prime example of this, according to Prof. de Silva, is our government run school system which has been modelled after the English, Christian/Catholic schools (St. Thomas’ College, St.Joseph’s College etc.) established by the British. The latter has in turn been modelled (imitated) on the English public school system with its model schools such as Eton and Harrow. Therefore, the Sri Lankan public school system (which simply passes on the knowledge created in west) is a reflection of the English public school system albeit with a native gloss (like teaching in Sinhala/Tamil medium, morning prayers and a few subjects like Buddhism, Hinduism, Sinhala/Tamil).
Of the 3 methods of assimilating something from an alien culture, absorption is the most fruitful since an alien practice becomes a part of the native culture through adaptation and integration. Our habit of eating bread and potatoes is a good example. For the Europeans (who introduced us to bread), it is a dry food eaten in the form of sandwiches. For us Sri Lankans, it is eaten with relish mixed in curries such as parippu (dhal), fish curry, any meat curry or with potato curry which is also a European introduction absorbed into Sinhala culture through the process of “currifying!”
Getting back to cricket, we can see that the game also underwent a process of absorption during the late 1980s. The turning point in the cultural absorption of cricket was the ascendancy of Arjuna Ranatunga as captain in 1988. Arjuna, having made his debut as a school boy in Sri Lanka’s inaugural Test in 1982 had by then aroused the public interest with his attacking stroke play, portly figure, penchant for eating rice and his frequent contributions with the bat leading to Sri Lanka’s not-so-often victories against the giants of the game. Hailing from Ananda College [a reflection (aropanāya) school!], Ranatunga and his brothers, who also played cricket, had endured the sarcastic comments of the elitists at the Sinhalese Sports Club who referred to him and his brothers in derogatory terms as mariya kade kollo (boys from a slum area of Colombo which was in the same geographical location as his alma mater).
Arjuna’s ascendancy as captain began the era of transition from the English-speaking, elitist approach to the game to a more vernacular one. The team meetings began to be held in Sinhala, prayers before/after matches and on departure/arrival at the airport before/after tours were discerning features. But the change was more in the approach to the game. This process was hastened with the mantle of cricket, which had been the sole preserve of the elite, passing to the vernacular. Cricketers (Mahanama, Gurusinghe, Aravinda, Hashan, Dharmasena etc.) began to emerge from the ‘reflection’ schools in their numbers as opposed to a trickle in the 1970s (Warnapura, Anura Ranasinghe, Kaluperuma, Ajith de Silva). In the 1990s, Royal College and S.Thomas’ College (which is incidentally my alma mater) did not have a single cricketer in the national team on a consistent basis. This cultural transformation in the national team enabled rural cricketers like Sanath Jayasuriya to find their feet in the team and later blossom during the mid-1990s, whereas they might have been social discards a couple of decades ago.
Cultural absorption is a process and with time nowhere was it more visible than in the mind-set of the cricketers. The English had taught us to play straight, never question the umpire, told us the virtue of building an innings with a slow-start and that what matters was not whether you won or lost but how you played the game. The team on its way to World Cup glory turned this approach upside down. With Muttiah Muralitharan being unfairly no-balled for chucking, the umpires’ verdict was openly questioned. See Arjuna finger-wagging Ross Emerson in 1998 here . Imagine such an approach being adopted by a captain schooled in imitating the English tradition. Impossible! No wonder the English captain Alec Stewart thought Arjuna’s behaviour was appalling!
For the new team, the first 15 overs were not meant to survive but to hit over the top. It was the first time in the history of cricket that getting 100 runs in 15 overs was adopted as a strategy! Tame Lankans- the perennial whipping boys of world cricket, who had merely made up the numbers, suddenly transformed into clinical executioners annihilating their opponents who had no answer to this new approach. Unorthodox cricketers like Sanath Jayasuriya and Muttiah Muralitharan who did not play according to established coaching manuals became the new heroes of world cricket.
It was Arjuna who was at the centre of this transformation and the innovative strategies which were not weighed down by past notions of what one should and should-not do. The search for and promotion of unorthodoxy remains a cornerstone of Sri Lankan cricketing policy which has enabled it to carve a niche as a giant in the game today and spreading the game into the remotest corners of Sri Lanka. This transformation would never have come about without the pioneering contribution of Arjuna Ranatunga in the absorption of cricket into the culture of the country. When Arjuna was sacked as captain in 1999 following Sri Lanka’s poor performance in the World Cup that year, he attributed this to a long-running problem with a team of elite in the cricketing establishment who had in 1991 recommended his sacking saying that Sri Lanka cricket cannot be saved without removing Arjuna! However, even without Arjuna, as with any cultural absorption, the transformation cannot be easily reversed and cricket is truly a sport of the hoi polloi.
In addition, his defence of team members and standing up for them was more in the tradition of a father figure in Sinhala culture than a cricket captain in the English tradition. Recall in 1993/94 when the selectors sacked Aravinda de Silva, Arjuna resigned from the team in support of Aravinda! If not for his defence of Muralitharan, he would never have gone on to become the highest wicket-taker in the world.
So it is for me, if asked to name the greatest Sri Lankan cricketer, I would say ARJUNA RANATUNGA but for reasons other than just cricket!
Muttiah Muralitharan, Sri Lanka’s star bowler, although hailing from a Roman Catholic school, had a more Hindu-Tamil family background. So did pace bowler Chaminda Vass, a Sinhala-Catholic from Negombo.
 The English did not exactly follow their traditions when it was inconvenient to them as Douglas Jardine did during the Bodyline series in 1932-33.
 Wikipedia has this to say on the episode – “Ranatunga is also remembered for his stand in a One Day International against England. Australian Umpire Ross Emerson called Muttiah Muralitharan for throwing. (Muralitharan was subsequently cleared by bio-mechanical experts hired by the ICC.) Ranatunga exchanged heated words with umpire Emerson and led his team to a point just inside the boundary line, halting play and giving the impression that he was about to forfeit the match, until the Sri Lankan management conferred with him and play resumed. English captain, Alec Stewart, was openly critical of Ranatunga’s behaviour. In a comment caught on the stump microphone he was heard to say to Ranatunga “Your conduct today has been appalling for a country’s captain.”
 commentators frequently noted that when Arjuna led the team there was no dispute as to who was in charge.