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Cricket has long evoked considerable interest among Sri Lankans, even before the country won its first World Cup twenty years ago. We are writing about this sport, not to bemoan the national team’s current string of poor performances in Bangladesh but to reflect on recent comments made by Sri Lanka Cricket President Thilanga Sumathipala.

Sumathipala has berated former national captain Mahela Jayawardena for providing his services as a batting coach to the England cricket team at a time when Sri Lanka will be playing against them in the T20 World Cup and then undertaking a tour of that country. Sumathipala was apprehensive about the possible leaking of inside information relating to players’ strengths and weaknesses.

Sumathipala speaks of introducing clauses in to players’ contracts to prevent a recurrence of this type of situation but says it is more about the ethics surrounding the issue. How could you, after playing for your country for decades and then leading it for several years suddenly switch your loyalties to another nation overnight, he asks
Sumathipala does have some merit in his argument. One of the negative consequences of the 1996 World Cup win was that it created cricketing superstars. They were rightly hailed as heroes but that also gave them the licence to do as they pleased, especially after big money came into the game thereafter.

We had Sanath Jayasuriya – a star who  rocketed to superstardom after his heroics in the 1996 World Cup –  staying in the game well past his prime and arguably to the detriment of many up-and-coming players. It is no secret that he wielded considerable political clout and was not shy to use those influences to stay in the national team.

Then we had Lasith Malinga arbitrarily deciding, at the age of twenty-seven years, that he would retire from test cricket citing injury concerns. He said he would concentrate on the shorter forms of the game. These injury concerns however, did not prevent him from playing as many cash rich T20 tournaments as possible, around the globe!

Jayawardena and his bosom pal Kumar Sangakkara have long been hailed as ‘gentlemen’ in the game. But their records have not been squeaky clean either. After the 2008 Asia Cup win, the duo spearheaded a campaign to scrap the England tour in favour of the much milked cash cow, the Indian Premier League (IPL). It is well known in cricketing circles that they pursued political patronage to do so. They shamefully preferred to play for money over national duty. Arjuna Ranatunga, the then Board President, correctly opposed the players and earned their wrath for his efforts.

They were at it again in 2011, when they avoided tour matches on the England tour due to the IPL. So, they may have been great batsmen and done yeoman service to their country and broken many a record between them but when it came to counting the coins, they were more mercenaries than patriots.

This brings into question an entire new dimension: in a country which idolises its cricketing heroes, do we allow them to hold the game to ransom while they further their pecuniary interests? Surely, national cricketers of today get paid enough to live a very comfortable life even if their earning potential is limited to about fifteen years? And they don’t really have to tout sausages, shirts and supermarkets on every billboard in town to make ends meet, do they?

So, Sumathipala does have a point. The country’s governing body of the sport needs to draw the line somewhere and make sure the game and the country’s performances do not suffer. This may be the one (and perhaps, only) issue on which Sumathipala and Ranatunga agree on!

Jayawardena has summarily dismissed Sumathipala’s criticism as ‘laughable’ but this is not a laughing matter. He would have been more astute if he questioned Sumathipala’s commitment to ethics, having returned to Parliament on the National List after having lost at the general election. But then, that is a different story altogether!