Rex Clementine, in the Island, 1 August 2011
Among the modern Sri Lankan cricket fans, there’s quite a bit of animosity towards Australian cricket. Asoka Atapattu who has travelled around the world to see the Sri Lankan team compete says, “I used to be a die-hard Australian supporter, but after what they did to us in 1995, I want even Bangladesh to beat them.” Asoka is not alone as there are several other Sri Lankans who think on same terms. Many Sri Lankans were thrilled when England regained the Ashes in December not because they like English cricket (the English cricket team is half South African at the moment), but when Sri Lanka is not involved in a cricket contest, there’s no better feeling than to see Australia being beaten and that too by such thumping margins.
Pic from Essaying Cricket
This hostile feeling towards Australian cricket stems from the bitter experience ofSri Lanka’s acrimonious tour toAustraliain 1995-1996. “No tour ofAustraliais easy. When you land in Australia you get that feeling that everything is working against you in unison. You feel like even the Australian media is targeting you,” Arjuna Ranatunga, the man who has fought many battles with the Australians on and off the field says.On that 1995-1996 tour, the Sri Lankans were accused of ball tampering in Perth and later were exonerated but all hell broke loose when Muttiah Muralitharan was called for throwing on Boxing Day at MCG in front of 55,000 spectators. If Ranatunga hadn’t been the captain that day, Muttiah Muralitharan would have been history. The Sri Lankans’ disappointment incensed when they felt that the umpiring during the latter stage of the Benson & Hedges series was extremely poor after they had beatenWest Indiesto qualify for the finals against the hosts.
But overall, Australian cricket’s support for Sri Lanka has been overwhelming since the island gained Test status. In the pre-Test era, Australia did block Sri Lanka’s case for Test status as they enjoyed veto power along with England at the International Cricket Council (ICC). But after Sri Lanka gained Test status, their support has been genuine. The first Test Australia played in Sri Lanka was in 1983, a year after Sri Lanka had gained Test status. They first played a three Test series against Sri Lankai n 1992, long before the Sri Lankans had beaten them in a Test Match.
But England awarded the Sri Lankans a three Test series only nine years after the Australians did so in 2001 and that was after Arjuna Ranatunga’s side had humiliated them in the one off Oval Test in 1998 with a ten wicket win. Ranatunga then rubbed salt into the English wounds at the post match media conference. The Sri Lankan captain was asked whyEnglandcontinued to give his country just a one off Test every time. Ranatunga’s tongue in cheek comment was, “Well, maybe they are scared that if they give us three Tests they will lose 3-0.”
The Sri Lankans have been regular visitors to Australia to play the popular annual tri-nation tournament. Since they first participated in the Benson & Hedges Series in 1984,Sri Lanka have toured on eight other occasions to play the popular tri-nation competition. In fact, afterIndia and Pakistan, it is against the Australians they have played the most number of ODIs numbering 72. But the biggest contribution for Sri Lankan cricket byAustraliawas explained by revolutionary former Board Chairman Ana Punchihewa who was instrumental in bringing Australian coaching expertise in the form of Dav Whatmore and Alex Kontouri.
“When I took over the board, we had a bank balance of Rs. 300,000. When I signed the contract with Dav, my committee was asking Ana, what are you doing? Where is the money? How are you going to get the money? I said, don’t worry, you have to be positive and I told them I will get the money. Then I told Dr. Quintus (de Zylva), our representative inAustraliathat I needed 100,000 dollars. After sometime, he called me back and said, sorry Ana, no luck. I was wondering what to do and just one week before Dav came he called me again and said Ana, I have got the money. I asked him how did you get it. He said the Australian Cricket Board gave it. I was stunned. I said, what, Australian Cricket Board?,” Punchihewa recalls. “The guarantee money for our tour later that year toAustralia was 100,000 dollars. But the Australian Board agreed to make it 200,000 dollars when we desperately needed it. They said, don’t tell anyone, but use this money on Dav.”
Sledging has been another reason why the Sri Lankan public hate the Australians. Sledging was rampant during that series in 1995-1996 and why the 1996 World Cup win is all the more sweet is that it came against the Australians. That was the time that the Australians were given a clear message that at a neutral venue and with neutral umpires,Sri Lankacould beat them. Most Sri Lankans believe that sledging should not have any part in the sport. But leaders like Ranatunga believed in giving the Australians a taste of their own medicine whenever they had an opportunity.
When the Australians were in Colombo in 1999 soon after winning the World Cup, Steve Waugh was fixed by television presenter Brian Thomas. “Steve, you guys play fantastic cricket. The Australian team captained by you is so exciting to watch. But tell me, why do you have to sledge?” Thomas asked in one of his shows. “Why are you complaining mate?” Waugh hit back. “You guys have got the biggest sledger in world cricket. One Arjuna Ranatunga is equal to 11 Australians,” Waugh added.
The Waugh brothers have been involved in quite a few charities inSri Lankawithout ever trying to get public attention for it.
But more than individual contributions, it’s how the whole ofAustraliastood up soon after the tsunami disaster springs to mind. In less than a week after disaster struck theSri Lankacoast on the 26th of December in 2004, Australians were busy arranging to play a charity game to help raise funds for the victims of the disaster.
Stars from all over the world flocked toAustraliafor the charity game and to a large extent that helped most Sri Lankans to change their attitude towards Australian cricket and public.