A Wide-Ranging Compendium on Cricket in Sri Lanka

J. Neville Turner … a review presented circa 2007

The literature on Sri Lankan cricket is rather sparse. Two histories have obtained currency outside the country itself. One, written in 1924, is by S. P. Foenander, with an Introduction by P. F. Warner, and deals with the period 1863 to 1923. The other is a more recent and comprehensive work published by Janashakthi Insurance (itself run by a cricketing family, the Schaffters) is written by S. S. Perera. Thorough though this latter work is it contains some vital errors and is stronger on detail than on comment.

cover of first edition

This new book by Michael Roberts, a native of Sri Lankan, but long time resident of Adelaide where he taught anthropology at the University of Adelaide, can unequivocally be heralded as the most substantial literate and stimulating analysis of Sri Lankan cricket ever published.

The format is distinctive. Of coffee-table size, it is spiced with more than 150 photographs and imprints of paintings, together with facsimiles of scoresheets, dinner menus and even stamps and a miscellany of other memorabilia. The captions of these are revelatory of the impact that cricket has had on this small island.

 Some of the reprints are of considerable beauty. In particular the paintings and sketches of a remarkable Sri Lankan supporter, Joe Hoad, an ebullient West Indian who has resided for some time in Adelaide, are noteworthy. His pastel painting, “The Winning Shot,” depicting Arjuna Ranatunga’s delicate glide to seal Sri Lanka’s victory at the World Cup in Lahore in 1996, is masterly. As striking are the real life tales of two different scales of disaster: one (no. 157) revealing the scenes in front of the Galle Fort and embracing the Galle cricket grounds after the tsunami had struck –made all the more poignant by an idyllic shot (no. 152) of cricket on the same ground, the author’s home turf, taken well before the grounds achieved international status; and the other a wonderful naturalistic photograph of Steve Waugh’s broken nose after he was floored by Jason Gillespie as both went for a catch during the Test Match at Kandy in 1999.

COL01:SPORT-CRICKET AUSTRALIA:KANDY,SRILANKA,10SEP99 – Australian fielders Jason Gillespie (left) and captain Steve Waugh collide in attempting to take a catch from the bat of Sri Lankan Mahela Jayawardena on the second day of the first cricket test at the Asgiriya stadium in central Kandy September 10. Jayawardena survived with his score on 34 but the two fielders were taken to hospital with Gillespie rushed on a stretcher with a broken leg and Waugh with an injured nose. The Jayawardena swept a ball from Colin Miller and Gillespie came in from long-leg while Waugh rushed down from short fine-leg to take the catch. Sri Lanka went in for lunch at 181 for 5. al/Photo by Anuruddha Lokuhapuarachchi REUTERS

The substance of the book consists of reproductions of articles published for the most part in journals or on the internet. The first 178 pages contain writings of Michael Roberts himself, written mostly in the years 2000-04. The remainder are guest essays from a wide variety of writers. Some are Sri Lankans themselves. Others are internationals.

Roberts’ writings reveal two aspects of his character. first there is the dispassionate historian/anthropologist. Secondly there is the passionate patriot. But even those essays that purport to deal with the facts (e.g. the sections entitled “Sri Lanka and Its Cricket Politics” and “Sri Lanka at Cricket”) express the bias of an informed, but uncompromising critic.

Some of Roberts’ prejudices will arouse surprise – for instance, an apparent animus against Romesh Kaluwitharana. But his informative insights into the shenanigans of the BCCSL (pp. 120-23) amount to reasoned polemics.

 This forthrightness leads to stimulating reading. Much of it is directed at Sri Lankans themselves. Arjuna Ranatunga’s’s captaincy comes in for strong querulousness. Little love is bestowed on Australian combatism. Roberts constantly emphasises the cultural iniquity of sledging, often directed at South Asians whose first language is not English and who have been educated to revere politeness and respect their elders.

     The “Guest Essays” are of varied quality and on varied topics. But Roberts has gathered together a galaxy of distinguished authorities. Naturally, a considerable number deal with the throwing allegations against Muttiah Muralitharan. For the most part the tenor of these is in support of this great and humble bowler. Particularly perceptive essays in this mode are those of Bernard Whimpress, Sambit Bal and Glucka Wijesuriya.

But there are other non-adversarial writings that excite attraction by virtue of their charm. Neville Jayaweera’s account of Don Bradman’s visit to Ceylon in 1948 and Lucien de Zoysa’s description of the 1936 tour of Australia by the boys of Royal College (one of two elite schools that used to dominate cricket in before it became democratised) are real gems.

 Most of these chosen essays take Sri Lankan cricket as their theme. But there are exceptions. Mike Marqusee trenchantly describes the furore caused by David Frith and Robert Henderson in their calumny against foreign-born cricketers selected to play for England. This led to defamation actions successfully brought by Devon Malcolm and Phil De Freitas. Marqusee’s piece is a telling diatribe against racism.

Michael Roberts has presented a work of substantial scholarship, pungent writing and handsome production. Not merely does it illuminate the remarkable history and background of a troubled but beautiful cricket-mad country, but it also brings to the attention of a new audience several vignettes of some talented players of the past. Not least it draws attention to topical issues in the contemporary cricket scene that should concern serious cricket-lovers of whatever country or persuasion.

                                               J. NEVILLE TURNER of Melbourne

Michael Roberts, ESSAYING CRICKET; SRI LANKA AND BEYOND, (Vijitha Yapa Publishers, Colombo, Sri Lanka, 2006) ……. pp xvi,= 372 with 157 photographs. ISBN 955-1266-25-0 & ISBN 955-1266-26-9

The photograph depicts Neville Turner at a cricket match in Australia. A multi-skilled and talented Lancastrian who dwelled in Melbourne in his latter years, Neville passed away in 2017 ……. ………………… see my Vale at https://thuppahis.com/2020/10/12/in-appreciation-of-neville-turner-a-renaissance-allrounder/

Note that the classic photograph of Steve Waugh and Jason Gillespie crashing into each other as they went for a catch was taken by Anuruddha Lokuhapuaratchci of Reuters [ who has since migrated to UK]. Gillespie was eventually invialided home but the sturdy Waugh returned to the cricket field a week or so later. The Asgiriya grounds are relatively small, so both injured palyers were taken by ambulance to the Bogambara playing fields where an SLAF helicopter summoned via the good offices of Sanath Jayasuriya whisked them to Colombo. Friendship links do matter in Sri Lanka … and the medical services are usually first-grade.

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