A devastating war in Sri Lanka may have ended seven years ago but if not for a band of former cricketers and an ex-administrator of the sport, the lives of countless numbers of young boys and girls in the once battle-scarred region would have been utterly hopeless to the say the least with politicians still bickering for a long-term solution and very little or nothing to look forward to.
Come September 21 and for the fifth time the northern region of Sri Lanka will be bustling with cheer-leading youngsters and cricketers, fanfare and fireworks and an elite trio of former Sri Lankan cricketers along with a man who has engineered numerous humanitarian projects that has now made him something of a folk hero.
The occasion will mark the Murali Harmony Cup-tournament in honour of the retired Sri Lanka cricketing great Muttiah Muralidaran who has a cult following in the north not just for his on-field exploits but also for his outspoken nature when it comes to humanitarian issues.
“This is about building bridges through cricket and bringing people together. Giving youngsters a chance to play cricket (in the North and East) and learning new cultures will only help the country. I wish all the players the best and hope they will enjoy the new experiences that this tournament will bring,” said Muralidaran, a onetime critic of a bloody civil war in the North and East of the country, at the tournament’s media launch in Colombo last week.
The tournament pits the country’s northern and eastern schoolboys many of whom are Tamils against their better organized counterparts in the rest of the country most of whom are from the Sinhalese majority who now enthusiastically look forward to the five-day showpiece modelled on the lines of international T20 cricket.
But the main architect of the Murali Harmony Cup, Kushil Gunasekera who at one time served as the secretary of Sri Lanka Cricket and then turned his back on a politically-fraught administration, is more determined than ever to ensure that all budding cricketers in the country are treated as one.
With his calm and collective nature and the support of Muralidaran and two other retired high profile players Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardena, Gunasekera has been able to raise as much as Rs.18 million (125,000 USD) from sponsors to work out the tournament where 360 players will be attired in coloured clothing and new boots provided by his Foundation of Goodness (FOG).
“Through this tournament we will cement goodwill and harmony. We have had a lot of positives from the past four tournaments and it keeps expanding. Schoolboys from the North visit the south and schoolboys in the south eagerly await this annual visit to the north”, said Gunasekera who heads the FOG humanitarian organization where Muralidaran, Sangakkara and Jayawardena are trustees.
Gunasekera and the FOG have gained international recognition to the point that not only have ex-international cricketing icons like Ian Botham and Shane Warne come in as patrons, but it has also won the applause of global pop idol Bryan Adams who auctioned a guitar and donated proceeds that helped in the construction of a swimming pool in the South of the country for underprivileged boys and girls.
But it appears nothing can give the FOG more desire and drive than the Murali Harmony Cup to be played in five army-refurbished venues in the once war-torn North.
Two elite cricket-playing schools in Colombo, St. Peter’s College and Ananda College won the tournament twice and made a lasting impression on schoolboys in the North, two of whom, Edward Ratnam and Rishantha Tudor now play for a club in Colombo in the
“There is so much of talent in the North of Sri Lanka to be unearthed and we are helping Sri Lanka Cricket to develop the game beyond boundaries. The smiles that we see when we go up North is something money can’t buy,” said Jayawardena.
He will be following the action closely.