For a country experiencing its worst economic crisis since gaining independence in 1948, the picture of a touring team pampered and fussed over might cause consternation. But the Australian cricket tour to Sri Lanka has only been met by praise from the country’s cricket officials, where logic is inverted, and the gaze of responsibility averted. Not even a shortage of foreign currency, precipitating a dramatic fall in medicines and fuel, along with demonstrations that have left nine dead and 300 injured, prompted second thoughts.
A good deal of this crisis was helped by the coming to power of former defence minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa who, in turn, named his older brother, Mahinda, also a former president, prime minister. Their 2020 election victory was thumping, decisive, and corrupting. Graft and nepotism set in. Quixotic decisions to cut taxes eroded state revenue. COVID-19 began its seemingly inexorable march of infection.
Showing a developed streak of obliviousness to the developing storm around them, the Rajapaksas even went so far as to ban chemical fertilizers as part of a drive to make farmers embrace organic agriculture. To do so during this crisis battered and bruised the country’s agrarian sector.
And what of the cricket bureaucrats? “These are tough times for our people,” a regretful Sri Lanka Cricket Secretary Mohan De Silva told reporters in Colombo. “We are indeed grateful to Cricket Australia and the Australian government for supporting this series despite the hardships we as a nation are facing.”
Sri Lanka Cricket, in pushing the positive message, has intimated that all income from tickets for the three Twenty20s, five one-day internationals and two Test matches will be donated to initiatives for the public welfare. De Silva is confident that $2.5 million (AU$3.5 million) will be generated by the tour, along with incidental earnings. “From three-wheel drivers to suppliers of food, all these stakeholders down the line will have an opportunity to earn something for one and a half months. So, economically this will have a significant effect on this country.”
This would seem to be getting things the wrong way around. On some level, this confusion is forgivable, given the poor returns from a game that was played to generally empty stadiums during the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last December, a 50 percent capacity crowd was permitted to see the touring West Indians.
Assessments from the SLC should, however, be taken at face value. In 2018, the International Cricket Council identified Sri Lanka as having one of the most corrupt cricketing cultures in the sporting world. Over recent years, the board has been at war with itself, and with players whom they have, at various times, censured, punished and suspended. Money has been appropriated; matches and pitches fixed.
Sri Lanka’s own 1996 World Cup winning captain, Arjuna Ranatunga, gives us a sense about an organisation that has governed the game with indulgent haphazardness and raging incompetence. Last month, he was unrestrained in claiming that the cricket board, habitually filled with “thieves”, was “the most corrupt institution in the country.”
Australian cricketers, never the sharpest students of culture and their surrounds, have preferred to avoid any detailed examination of cricket officialdom in Sri Lanka. But they have voiced some concern about the visit. “It’s fair to say,” states chief executive officer of Cricket Australia, Todd Greenberg, “there is a level of discomfort around touring in conditions that contrast with those faced by the people of Sri Lanka, such as rising food prices, power cuts and fuel rationing.”
He was confident, however, that the players would not pipe up too much. “Ultimately our players want to continue to play cricket and will take direction, guidance and advice from CA about tour arrangements and planning.”
Cricket Australia, in turn, had satisfied itself that touring the country would be safe. “There is no change in the status of the tour,” CA stated in early May. “Our head of security confirms that there are no concerns about the tour proceeding as scheduled from either side.”
That is all good for De Silva, who sees the Australians as standard bearers for peaceful reassurance and cash. Having them tour Sri Lanka will send “a strong message to the world that Sri Lanka is safe. Millions of people will be watching the telecast during the matches.”
The optimism is pure veneer. While Sri Lanka Cricket markets itself as donor and provider, so far donating $2 million to the health sector to purchase vital medicines, initiatives such as the tour are glaringly sapping. The T20 matches, for instance, are billed as thrilling under-the-light affairs. But to supply them with electricity during a time when Sri Lankans face rolling power cuts lasting for periods up to 15 hours a day, speaks of authoritative condescension.
A former manager of the Sri Lanka national team, Charith Senanayake, is not one to be too bothered by such problems. “We have our own generators and we don’t depend on the government’s power,” he boasted last month. “The political situation has no bearing on the game and the SLC is always apolitical.”
The cricket schedule of the Australians has, given the fuel shortages, has already presented a problem. SLC hoped that the longer matches, which will take place during the day and not require night lighting, will be played in the first part of the tour. “Because of the fuel problem,” De Silva stated, “we had a discussion with Cricket Australia and were trying to persuade them to start with the two Tests because the two Test matches don’t need any [lights].” Unfortunately, Australia, in fielding three touring teams, would have been unduly disrupted. “We didn’t want to push too much because of the fact that the Australians have been very generous in their thinking.”
The thinking here is less generous than loose. While the Australians will delight the crowds and offer succour for distraction, they will do little to shake the impression that both the government of the day and Sri Lanka Cricket share an awful lot in common, little of which is good.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org