“Probe the Minister, Not Sanga” — Rex targets Sports Minister Aluthgamage

Rex Clementine, in the Island, 9 July 2011

For all its charm, tradition and history, Lord’s can be a funny place. If your skin is dark, stewards tend to tell you, ‘Oi! Where do you think you are going?’ But the spellbinding speech of Kumar Sangakkara the other day at Lord’s is sure to turn things around completely. That Monday evening itself, after Sangakkara delivered the Lord Cowdrey Lecture on the Spirit of Cricket, there was a remarkable change in stewards’ attitude. ‘Excuse me sir, can I help you?’ A complete turnaround within an hour!

Eight Lankans have scored hundreds at The Home of Cricket, but the greatest knock of them all was played off the pitch by Sangakkara when he delivered the annual Lecture.

The handful of Lankans who were present at Lord’s on Monday, including former Board Chairman Vijaya Malalasekara, were almost in tears – the sheer brilliance of the speech proved so emotive. It was a moment of glory for all Lankans. The British agreed too. The standing ovation one of our own received from the guardians of the game lasted for more than a minute. What more do you want? His speech will be spoken about for many years to come.

The reference he made toSri Lanka’s cricket administration was about one percent of his lecture. The speech was about how the game of cricket evolved inSri Lankaover the years. Maybe, what irked the minister was the reverence with which Sangakkara addresses former captain Arjuna Ranatunga, calling him the ‘Messiah’ of Sri Lankan cricket. Ranatunga clearly is no admirer of Aluthgamage.

We were over the moon. Many right thinking Lankans who heard the speech later on-line were highly taken up as well. Some were in fact going to suggest that the government should groom Sangakkara to be the next foreign minister. But when we got up the next morning we were proved wrong. Sports Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage had opened his mouth. He wanted a probe. Sadly, what should have been a moment of celebration and joy for the entire nation was spoilt by the action of a minister, against whom the government mind you promised a probe after his goon squads ran riot inKandyduring the last general elections.

This was the same minister who turned a blind eye to the malpractices taking place at Sri Lanka Cricket. The appointments of family members to the highest paid jobs of the board, the mass scale World Cup ticket scandal, the millions paid to board officials in the name of overseas travel and other allegations that were frequently highlighted by the media did not spur him to action. Neither did he discipline controversial former Interim Committee Secretary Nishantha Ranatunga for falsely claiming that the ICC had given Sri Lanka Cricket a letter stating that SLC was the best of the three hosts during the World Cup. But he was quick to shoot the messenger for speaking the truth. Does he feel that skeletons on his own cupboard too have been rattled by the lecture?

One of the first things Aluthgamage did after being appointed Sports Minister was to name two of his close pals to the Cricket Interim Committee. When we inquired for their credentials, we found that they had been schools pals of the minister! Way to go Sir.

The World Cup ticket scandal was ugly. Only the politically fortunate and the friends of the two cousins who ran the World Cup had access to tickets. Since then it has been alleged that the Minister of Sports was one of the recipients of a large number of tickets! Subsequently the ICC said that it will probe how a large number of tickets ended up in politicians’ and policemen’s hands during the showpiece event. Since then, two computer hard discs containing valuable information at the World Cup Secretariat have gone missing. What a shame!

Sangakkara’s speech was welcomed by all and sundry. Some commentators have called it the greatest speech made on cricket while others have said that it’s the best speech delivered by a Lankan. Aluthgamage, however, doesn’t agree with them.

When Sangakkara received the standing ovation at Lord’s, there were some eminent individuals present there. There was Christopher Martin-Jenkins, the President of MCC, Lawrence Booth, the Editor of Wisden Almanack, other leading figures of international cricket such as Michael Holding, Andrew Strauss and several distinguished members of MCC.

They thought Sangakkara deserved a standing ovation, but Aluthgamage recommended a probe!

MCC carefully chooses who delivers their annual Spirit of Cricket Lecture and one of the key factors for selection is that the lecturer should have a clean record and should have played the game in the right spirit. Sangakkara was not only the first Sri Lankan to deliver the lecture; he was also the youngest and the first active cricketer to be invited to do so by the MCC.

Sangakkara is a likeable fellow. Ever since his debut 11 years ago, he has carried himself as well as any sportsman on the planet. History recalls not one single incriminating incident, not one drunken escapade, not one reported affair, not one spat with a team-mate, administration or journalist. Throughout, he has maintained his integrity, standing up to the demands of the situation and the team. We often wonder whether this man is human.

The mood at Lord’s that day was summed up by Master of Ceremonies Mark Nicholas, who at the end of the speech said; “You are a hard act to follow, Sir. Many congratulations. We are all struck by the immense pride you have in your land and of your people and we are humbled by the brilliance of your language and your use of it.”

“We are struck by your messages. Archbishop Desmond Tutu received a standing ovation (here) and you have matched it.”

“If Adam Gilchrist hadn’t been born, I think you would have been considered the greatest wicket-keeper batsmen in the world; but it’s tight. But certainly the greatest lecturer of them all, Lords, ladies and gentlemen… Kumar Sangakkara,” Nicholas concluded.

After the World Cup, the callous attitude of our cricket administration sawSri Lankalosing the best captain produced by the country since the inimitable Arjuna Ranatunga. If the Minister of Sports begins a witch hunt, we could end up losing the best batsman the game has seen since Ricky Ponting as well.

Furthermore, the attitude of successive cricket administrations saw cricketers such as Ranjan Madugalle, Roshan Mahanama and Rumesh Ratnayake going elsewhere rather than supporting Sri Lankan cricket. Madugalle, who was in the running to be the CEO of the Board and Mahanama, who was tipped to become Sri Lanka ‘A’ coach joined the ICC, due to the board’s lack of transparency while Ratnayake, who was to be appointed as Assistant Coach to Tom Moody in 2005 joined the Asian Cricket Council.

The Minister of Sports seems to be doing all he can to drive away Sangakkara as well. Sri Lanka’s loss will be Aluthgamage’s gain!

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