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Beach cricket in Colombo - a popular version of Sri Lanka's sporting obsession. Deshakalyan Chowdhury / AFP
Beach cricket in Colombo - a popular version of Sri Lanka's sporting obsession. Deshakalyan Chowdhury / AFP

Why cricket's grip is so strong in the subcontinent

India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are consistently among the top five or six nations who play the game. No other sport offers their people that degree of national self-esteem.

It is a cliche to say people from the subcontinent are crazy about cricket. But it is true to say they have few alternatives.

The sport is all-encompassing here, as much pop culture as pastime. It consumes everything else.

This sporting monoculture is easily explained. Cricket has given each of Sri Lanka, Pakistan and India the chance to call themselves world champions. They are consistently among the top five or six nations who play the game. No other sport offers their people that degree of national self-esteem.

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"I believe winning the World Cup was the best thing that had happened to our country since its birth," Arjuna Ranatunga, Sri Lanka's 1996 World Cup-winning captain, wrote. "It internationally increased the profile of the country, earned us recognition and respect and gave a huge boost to the sport at the domestic level."

But if cricket's bat and ball do not stir your soul, what other options are there?

Through the back door of the offices of the Sri Lankan Rugby Football Union is a field which graphically represents the prevailing attitude to Other Sports in a country which seems to be firmly in the grip of cricket.

It feels like a place where games go to die, or where sporting nonconformists are sent to be cleansed of their sins for not obsessing over cricket.

The field is lined on one side by a vast wooden stand, which has been left derelict since the horse-racing track it was built to service was decommissioned.

The stand still serves a purpose. Hanging from its stanchions are rows and rows of washing lines, which the servicemen stationed in this area use to dry their laundry.

In the bowels of the stand is the headquarters of the national Carrom Federation of Sri Lanka. The board game is a popular pastime in many areas of Asia, especially Sri Lanka.

An athletics track is marked out in chalk on the patchy grass field, with a set of football goalposts, with ragged nets, at either end of the pitch.

Yet of all the sports catered for, the sizeable group of young men charging around the field have opted to play rugby.

Sri Lanka's national rugby team are ranked 42nd in the world, sandwiched between the Netherlands and Croatia. Next month they will play the newly formed UAE national team in the HSBC Asian Five Nations. It will be the first time the island nation has played in the continent's top division for rugby.

"Prior to winning the World Cup, rugby was more popular than cricket in Sri Lanka," Rohan Gunaratne, the executive director of the Sri Lankan RFU, said.

"Now cricket is on the TV, which wasn't the case earlier, not on a regular basis, anyway. Because of that, cricket has reached the rural areas and everyone knows about it.

"In cricket, they are always playing within the top five sides. In rugby, we can't reach that level."

Rugby still gets its slice of the television pie, although the revenue it reaps is dwarfed by that of cricket. Next month's match against the UAE will be broadcast live on Sri Lankan TV, and one live club match per week is also televised during the season.

According to IRB statistics, Sri Lanka has 87,602 registered male rugby players, and 15,723 women.

Gunaratne, a former national team No 8 and captain, said that in terms of participation, rugby trails football in Sri Lanka, but the way it is organised is closest to cricket.

The largest domestic sporting events on the island are the annual "Big Matches" between traditional rival schools, in both cricket and rugby.

The Bradby Shield, a two-legged rugby fixture played between Royal College and Trinity, regularly attracts 15,000 spectators. The parallels to the kind of rivalries which exist between the leading public schools in the UK are obvious.

"The love for rugby here is a residue of British sporting culture," said Fred Perera, a neurosurgeon who is in charge of rugby at Royal College, one of the leading rugby-playing schools in Colombo.

"At first it was played by expatriates, the planters, traders and executives, and clubs were whites-only for a long time."

Remnants of the old school tie remain most visible in cricket. Numerous sports fields can be found in the area around the Cinnamon Gardens suburb of Colombo, including the headquarters of Sri Lanka Cricket. The most painstakingly manicured are the cricket fields.

At the Royal College, the rugby pitch and cricket field are separated by a narrow road. Young cricketers awaiting their turn to bowl at nets are dressed in spotless, crisply pressed, mum-fresh cricket whites. The players would be no more neatly dressed if it were Harrow or Eton.

Across the road, anything goes for the rugby players, who are led through their paces by an expatriate New Zealander with a Southern Cross tattoo on his calf.

"If you look at football, the rest of Asia is far ahead, like Japan, Korea, Saudi Arabia, you name it, there are many countries playing," Gunaratne said.

"In Asia, there are only 26 rugby-playing nations, and out of those 26 we are number five now. Soccer is not like that. We can't get to that level in soccer. So, next to cricket, we can reach the regional mark."

However, football remains the "game of the people", to use the term of Chrysantha Perera, the chief executive of the Football Federation for Sri Lanka.

On Galle Face Green, the stretch of grass behind the main seafront promenade, people play football where you might otherwise expect to see cricket.

Rugby is played in seven of the nine provinces of Sri Lanka. Where the oval-ball code is absent, in the north and east, areas which were ravaged by civil war, football has survived.

"Football is played all over Sri Lanka, partly because all you need is a ball and no expensive equipment, like in cricket," Perera said.

What Sri Lankan football does lack are local heroes.

The national team currently sit 161st in the Fifa rankings, level on points with Nicaragua, having reached a high of 122nd in 1998. Whereas cricket's top stars, such as Lasith Malinga and Tillekaratne Dilshan, as well as Indians like MS Dhoni, are universally known, few people would be able to name a Sri Lankan national football player.

However, just as cricket's popularity exploded thanks to the spread of cable television, so football is now experiencing a boom in this part of the world. If aspiring players here are deprived first-hand experience of quality football, they can at least watch the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo on their television sets every week.

"The idea of having role models is not really the same in football in Sri Lanka," Perera said. "It is not the same as in cricket, but we are trying to promote it now. They see players on TV and look up to them, but we hope they will start to do the same with local players also."

Fans in the UAE will soon have a chance to see how far Sri Lanka football has progressed. Their Under 23 side will play the UAE at the Baniyas club on March 8 and 11 in London Olympics qualifying matches.

SKILLS OUTSIDE OF CRICKET

MS Dhoni kept goal for his school football team in Ranchi before donning the gloves in cricket. The India captain is not the only Asian cricketer who transferred skills from another game. Some others:

Upul Tharanga, elle
Sri Lankan cricket is a haven for unorthodoxy. Lasith Malinga’s unique, round-arm bowling action was honed while playing beach cricket near his tiny fishing village home, Rathgama, as he found it most effective for bowling yorkers with a tennis ball. Tharanga, the opening batsman, also grew up near the beach on Sri Lanka’s south west coast, where he played a traditional Sri Lankan sport called elle. Pronounced “ell-ay”, the game is similar to rounders or baseball.

Ajantha Mendis, carrom
Amid a rash of wickets in 2008, Mendis went from playing second-division club cricket with the army to being an international spin-bowling sensation. His mystery delivery, which was nowhere to be found in the cricket coaching book and was at first impossible to decipher, was christened the Carrom ball. Squeezed out between the thumb and second finger, the motion is similar to that used by players in carrom, a board game which is popular in Sri Lanka where disks are flicked into corner pockets.

Muttiah Muralitharan, rugby
Sri Lanka’s most famous player grew up in the hill town of Kandy, which is the main centre for rugby on the island. He played the game in his youth and remains a fan: on one tour of New Zealand, he traded shirts with the former All Blacks scrum-half, Justin Marshall, who played for Canterbury Crusaders, Muralitharan’s favourite team. He is unlikely to have carried over many skills from the oval ball game, but has needed broad shoulders to cope with a huge burden of expectation in cricket.

pradley@thenational.ae

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