It was by pure luck that the 2018 Nidahas Trophy final between India and Bangladesh coincided with one of my recreational, non-assigned trips to Sri Lanka. Being a cricket nut, it was hard even on alleged vacation to ignore the prospect of watching the title clash of a high-octane series from a stadium I had never been to before. More than 24 hours after Dinesh Karthik smacked that last-ball six to work the crowd at the R Premadasa Stadium into a frenzy, the limbs still hurt, but that Sunday-night experience of watching a match from the stands taught me volumes about the love for cricket in this island nation.
Suvik Chandrasiri, a veteran spectator in his late 40s, was deeply hurt by Bangladesh’s antics in their previous game against Sri Lanka. Chandrasiri swears by the gentleman’s game, and claims to have watched almost every match in Colombo – at the P Sara Oval and the Premadasa – since Sri Lanka’s initiation into Test cricket in 1982.
“India has made us proud tonight, we wouldn’t have been able to bear these guys (Bangladesh) winning another match at our ground,” he screamed out, with the papare bands in the background making it impossible to hold a conversation in regular decibels. “What they are doing is not supposed to be done in cricket. Sri Lanka lost, that made us sad, but we were more disappointed with them hurting our dignity.”
Chandrasiri was referring to the sideline arguments that erupted during the must-win contest between Sri Lanka and Bangladesh last week when Shakib Al Hasan exhorted his batsmen to come off the field to protest a judgmental error from the on-field umpires. Thanks to Mahmudullah, Bangladesh won that match to make the final, but the obnoxious celebrations that followed, including a mid-pitch snake-dance, left a very bad taste in the mouth. To add to that, there were reports of dressing-room damage indulged in by the Bangladesh camp.
Apart from Shakib and Nurul Hassan copping a fine of 25% each of their match fee, the incident spurred the Lankan fans on to turn up in big numbers for the final. Every run scored by the Indian batsmen was wildly celebrated, and placards reading ‘No more cobra dance, time to cheer for India’ were a clear indication of which side had the crowd’s support.
In a recent chat with Wisden India, Chaminda Vaas and Upul Chandana had shed light on the current mindset of the fans in Sri Lanka, where cricket continues to be worshipped, but unlike in the past, there aren’t many cricketers who can be adored.
“If you look at our times, we had players like Arjuna (Ranatunga), Hashan (Tillekaratne), Aravinda (de Silva), Marvan (Atapattu) – guys who were not only excellent on the field, but also acted like role models off it.” Vaas pointed out. “Even now, people watch the matches with a hope that one of these youngsters will take the onus on themselves to take Sri Lankan cricket back to where it was. The passion for the game is huge in our country, but there is a lack of discipline among the current lot. Yes, I agree that it is hard to cope when guys like (Kumara) Sangakkara, Mahela (Jayawardene) and (Tillekaratne) Dilshan have retired one after the other, but you have to understand you are playing for a country where the fans worship cricket, and it is your duty to give them good quality cricket.”
Chandana, who has been the fielding coach of the senior and Under-19 Sri Lankan teams, insisted, “Some of us former players are trying to contribute in whatever way we can. We miss those times when Sri Lanka was one of the best sides, and the fans would leave the stadium with happy faces. In cricket, the main thing is discipline and lifestyle. Just like the fans, these young players all love their cricket, but that cannot give you everything. If you do not put in enough practice, or do not control your diet, you cannot be a good cricketer and you cannot win matches for Sri Lanka.”
Vaas chipped in, “We looked up to people like Duleep Mendis, Rumesh Ratnayake and all of them. The legacy of Sri Lankan cricket was so important to us that we couldn’t think of anything else but to protect it. The players of today, what kind of legacy are they going to leave for the future boys? Look at India, the IPL (Indian Premier League) has thrown up so many talented players. We need to find some way to do the same, and like I said before, we need to make sure we give the fans the happiness they deserve.”
The Nidahas Trophy was held in celebration of Sri Lanka’s 70th year of independence, and it was heartwarming to see the fans fill the stands for the final despite the hosts finishing at the bottom. From experienced campaigners like Vaas and Chandana to passionate fans like Chandrasiri, clearly, there is something in common. They are all fans of Sri Lankan cricket, each of them hoping the team relives its glory days of the past.