Can cricket heal Sri Lanka’s divide?

Hindustan Times, in

A world cup win for Sri Lanka on April 2 and even the interest generated here by the home team’s steady performance in the lead-up to the final could carry the sport beyond the boundaries of cricket. Many are looking at this cricketing opportunity as a part of the process to reconcile the Sinhala and Tamil communities in country emerging from a bloody ethnic war. President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s call to win the cup for Murali, an ethnic Tamil, is being seen as an endorsement of that. Murali has contributed more than just his talent and over 1000 international wickets to Lankan cricket; in a society divided on ethnic lines, he is seen as the champion whose popularity cuts across the ethnic rupture.

Captain Kumar Sangakkara’s recent statement after a visit to the war-ravaged, and Tamil dominated, north has also been hailed as a positive. “[The people of the north] have been deprived for 30 years of everything that we’ve taken for granted in Colombo. Sometimes Colombo seemed a world away from the war. We’ve never felt it as much as the communities in the North and East did. And sometimes we have to understand that we owe them our very lives and all the comforts we enjoy,” Sangakkara, a Sinhalese, said.

“Sri Lanka’s cricket team is …is a microcosm of what we should be and ought to be – a multi ethnic and religious group based on merit and performance and working together successfully as a team. It is something of which we can be justifiably proud of as a country,” Groundviews, a citizens’ journalist website said in write-up on “World Cup cricket aiding reconciliation in Sri Lanka: Fact or Fiction?”

The last time Sri Lanka won the World Cup in 1996, the civil war between the separatist Tamil Tigers and government troops was raging in the north and east of the country. In 2007, when Sri Lanka reached the final, the LTTE carried out its first air attack on Colombo, dropping bombs on the city while cricket lovers were glued to the game on television.

This time will be different. The war’s been over for nearly two years and the process of rebuilding the north and east is on, though not at the expected pace. Like in 1996, Murali remains the only ethnic Tamil in the team.

Adelaide-based Lankan teacher of anthropology and cricket historian, Michael Roberts was cautious. “Ethnic animosities are due to multiple factors. So one channel is not adequate,” he said via email. “We enjoy good cricket, but I don’t think a World Cup victory will make it any better for us,” opposition Tamil legislator Marvai Senathirajah told AFP.

“Cricket offers a happy, episodic escape, yet may not address these underlying problems. Cricket has little or no presence in some parts of the country, especially in the North and East. If you don’t have grounds to play or facilities to train and practice, you won’t see cricket, or any national sport for that matter, as a healing or inspirational,” Groundviews said in the same article.

But for many, Saturday could indeed bring together two communities long divided along ethnic lines and by a violent history.

Additional Note from Web Editor: “Cricket unites communities… We can use the game to reach out and help those who are less privileged than us, to make their lives a little bit easier.” Muralitharan quoted in ESPN cricinfo after the final as supplement to the cricinfo note — “Murali will also spend time working on his plan to build a sports complex for war-displaced civilians. “

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