x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Hard for Sri Lankan politics to let cricket be

Tamilian expatriates in the UK protest against Sri Lankan team playing in England, which reminds one that its symbolism endures in some nations.

A Tamil protest balloon is seen from Lord’s in London.
A Tamil protest balloon is seen from Lord’s in London.

A week in which the International Cricket Council (ICC) made significant moves to free the game from government interference will conclude with another political protest at the sport's traditional headquarters on Sunday.

The sport in the Asian subcontinent, in particular, has always been closely linked to politics. In Pakistan, the cricket board chairman is appointed by the president of the country, while in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh cricket administrators are government-appointed.

Sri Lanka went to an extreme earlier in this series by fielding an elected MP in their side. Sanath Jayasuriya, one of the most-respected players in the history of Sri Lankan cricket, is now an active member of the ruling party.

It was the government who ordered that he should be allowed his cricket swansong by way of a Twenty20 match and one-day international against England.

Cricket's Dubai-based rulers want the bodies who run the sport in their constituent member nations to be autonomous.

Following its annual conference in Hong Kong this week, the ICC has given its member nations two years to sever any existing ties they have with their respective governments. "This is a significant step towards achieving best practice and, together with the independent governance review, I am excited by the commitment of the ICC to introduce best possible corporate governance," Haroon Lorgat, the ICC chief executive, said.

Despite the ICC's attempts to extricate the sport from governmental interference, its political symbolism in some countries is certain to endure.

When Sri Lanka reached the World Cup final earlier this year, their captain, Kumar Sangakkara, said it was a gift to a nation still feeling the effects of its 25-year civil war. "Cricket has always been the panacea that has healed all wounds in Sri Lanka. Whenever cricket was played, it seemed as if life was back to normal."

However, the national team are not universally popular. While Sri Lanka and England play the third match of their one-day international series inside Lord's on Sunday, a group of UK-based Tamil expatriates will be continuing their "Boycott Sri Lankan Cricket" campaign outside the Grace Gates.

It will be the sixth match this summer to be picketed by the Tamil Youth Organisation, who are protesting against alleged war crimes against Tamils in the north of the country at the conclusion of the civil war.

The protestors have called on Britain "to suspend all bilateral arrangements with the national cricket team of Sri Lanka until there has been satisfactory progress on human-rights abuses and accountability" according to Mario Arulthas, their spokesman.

The drive was initiated with a postcard campaign aimed at the England and Wales Cricket Board, followed by targeted protests and leafleting events at cricket matches across the UK. Some London-based universities have started Facebook pages. A cake sale was staged to raise awareness.

The group's campaign of picketing cricket matches this summer also coincided with a documentary on Channel 4, a free-to-air channel in the UK, titled "Sri Lanka's Killing Fields", which highlighted systematic killing and torture of Tamil prisoners of war and civilians during the final years of the war.

"Despite the evidence of war crimes and the intentional shelling of Tamil civilians by the Sri Lankan government detailed in [the TV documentary] the Sri Lankan state continues to categorically deny that any civilians died and has refused to allow an independent international investigation," Arulthas said.

Today will be the group's final protest of the summer, but their cause will not end there.

"With Sri Lanka's tour of England drawing to a close, we intend to shift our campaign to calling on the England cricket team to boycott their planned tour of Sri Lanka," Arulthas said.

pradley@thenational.ae