Forces and Strands in Sri Lanka’s Cricket History

Binod Kumar Mishra — reviewing Forces and Strands in Sri Lanka’s Cricket History, by Michael Roberts, Colombo, Social Scientists’Association, 2006, 64 pp., 21 photographs, bibliography, Rs. 300 (paperback), ISBN 9559102826

Cricket brought to Sri Lanka the reputation of, and a genuine recognition as, a nation. The rationale for such an observation is the infamous reputation Sri Lanka has earned due to decade-old ethnic rivalry and insurgency that has threatened the concept of nationhood in the country. The World Cup triumph in1996 and the heroic performances before and after that event have put Sri Lanka prominently not onlyo n the sports map, but also on the political map of the world in a positive sense. But the story of the rise of Sri Lankan cricket is not a normal rags-to-riches story but is filled with events that in some sense correspond to its political history.
Arise Deshamaanya Davenel !!

Michael Roberts’ work presents this interesting story of Sri Lankan cricket. Written in the year 2004, the booklet recapitulates, albeit briefly, the entire history of the game within this country. It is a vivid description of the evolution of cricket in the former colony of Britain.Throughout the evolutionary history of cricket, the author finds a clear reflection of the socio-political situation of Sri Lanka. The author focuses on the demonstrative effect of the leisurely activity of the colonial masters in the minds of the native Sri Lankans. He shows that while the natives disliked the racial chauvinism of the British, they emulated their pastimes such as sports. The emergence of a unique class namely the ‘Burgher’, meaning the descendants of the colonial powers, had far reaching impact on Sri Lankan cricket as it was this class who, owing to their exposure to the English language, felt themselves to be elites and emulated the British in all fields including cricket.

But by the mid-nineteenth century they realized that they had to assert their indigenous character as they were branded as ‘half caste’ and‘natives’. This was a turning point in the history of Sri Lanka. It was this class that articulated, what the author calls, the ‘Ceylonese nationalism’. The Burghers dared to take on the might of the colonial masters. Realizing the futility of open confrontation, they chose the cricket field to challenge the colonizers. In the first challenge, in 1881, the team of ‘Young Ceylon’ lost badly but the challenge was renewed from time to time, primarily by the Burghers.

The author gives a descriptive account of the spread of the game in the breadth of the country and establishment of native supremacy over the whites in cricket. In their attempt to fight the Europeans in a European game, the Sri Lankans showed remarkable unity,which Roberts attributes to the power of cricket which transcended politics. Cricket evolved under the colonial patronage during the first half of the twentieth century.

The author provides a brief but highly informative account of the trans-country affinities between Indians and tSri Lankans in matters of cricket. The short discussion on the involvement of Sri Lankan cricketers in Indian cricket and reciprocal cricketing tours by Sri Lankan and Indian teams provides a nuanced comparative perspective into the evolution of cricket culture in India and Sri Lanka.Roberts provides evidence of natural cricketing talents that flourished during the colonial times and even after independence. Sri Lankan cricketers making it to the club and university teams of Britain and faring well is informatively summarized.

It is clear that during the first half of the twentieth century, high level cricket remained an opportunity available only to the elites of the Sri Lankan society, who could afford to go to London to study and thus be part of the club and universities. In the post-independence era, cricket evolved as a sport of the middle class with many limitations. Though the game attracted much popular attention, little effort was put in by the sovereign government to improve the facilities for the game. The author points out that until the late 1970s investment in cricket was deemed imprudent as the game was considered trivial. Cricketing policy formulation and regulation of the game in the country remained in the hands of wealthy and influential persons who financially supported the game without any self interest. Roberts identifies the democratization of the cricket administration in the context of the induction of big money into the game after the World Cup victory of 1996.

It is due to the efforts of a few personalities who remained in charge of the game for a considerable period of time between 1948 and 1994, and their leanings towards the lower strata of the society, that helped the game to achieve the popularity it currently enjoys in the island nation. The author considers the contribution of Gamini Dissanayake to be of prime importance as it was under his reign that Sri Lanka saw massive progress in cricket infrastructure and arrived at the highest level of cricketing fraternity, by becoming part of the test playing countries in 1981.

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A NOTE from Michael Roberts:

I have never ever described the Burghers in Ceylon (or later in Sri Lanka) as a “class.” They were an ethnic segment within the “middle class” that emerged in British times. In this usage the concept “middle class'”encompasses individuals/families that  possessed both status and power — and thus included not only the capitalist bourgeoisie, but also personnel who had status and clout even though they did not employ productive labour. Examples of the latter were those in the higher echelons of the government service. In the  mid 20th century I knew several upper class Burgher gentlemen who did not even own the houses they lived in.


Roberts: “Elites and Elite Formation in Ceylon, c. 1830-1930” in KM de Silva (ed.) History of Ceylon, Vol. III, 1973, pp. 263-84.

Roberts: A New Marriage, An Old Dichotomy: The ‘Middle Class’ in British Ceylon in The James T. Rutnam Felicitation Volume, Jaffna, 1975, pp. 32-63.

Roberts: Elite Formations and Elites, 1832 – 1931″ in Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Publications, pp 153-213.

Roberts: Caste Conflict and Elite Formation: The Rise of a Karava Elite in Sri Lanka, 1500-1931 (Cambridge University Press, 1982)

Roberts: “Pejorative Phrases: The Anti-Colonial Response and Sinhala Perceptions of the Self through Images of the Burghers,” in Swedish in Lanka. Tidskrift om Lankesisk Kultur (Uppsala), No. 2, March 1989…. also Chapter One in People Inbetween, Colombo 1989.




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