It is one of the contentions of our book Right Off the Bat that cricket and baseball have long had similar histories of political interference—usually around race and ethnicity—and have both been the focal points of conflict and the means by which those conflicts are resolved peacefully. Evander has already talked about the legendary Jackie Robinson on this blog, and I (Martin) discuss whether he has any equivalent in cricket elsewhere. One can assume that baseball in Venezuela and Cuba are deeply linked with a rhetoric of national resistance to American hegemony. Nonetheless, it seems safe to say that baseball no longer carries as much politicized baggage as it did a generation ago.
Cricket is different—especially in the Indian subcontinent. A case in point is the presence of Sanath Jayasuriya in the Sri Lankan team, which is currently touring England. Jayasuriya recently became a member of parliament in his home country for the United People’s Freedom Alliance, the party of president Mahinda Rajapaksa. A recent UN report suggested that the government was responsible for extensive human rights abuses (including the deaths of 40,000 civilians) in its successful destruction of the Tamil Tiger rebellion in 2009. Writing in the Guardian on June 21, Andy Bull noted that, while Jayasuriya is not personally responsible for any wrongdoing, he nonetheless belongs to a government that has some very, very serious questions to answer, and that the dissent shown by the U.K.’s Tamil community to his presence is understandable.
Jayasuriya has responded by arguing that the Tamil Tigers were terrorists, who regularly used suicide bombers and brutal tactics throughout their decades long campaign for a separate Tamil state in the north of the country, and that the fact Sri Lanka is finally at peace should be celebrated. True enough. But beyond the rights and wrongs of this civil conflict lies the question of just why Jayasuriya is in the side in the first place. He’s forty-one years old, was meant to be retired, and he’s only playing a few games. The official argument is that the games will offer the great cricketer a proper send-off. This blather doesn’t seem to be washing with the current (stand-in) captain Kumar Sangakkara, and the Sri Lankan coach, Stuart Law, who’s dropped broad hints that Jayasuriya’s appointment is political interference.
None of this bodes well for Sri Lanka’s cricket team (finalists in the recent World Cup) as they embark on the one-day stage of their tour, having lost the Test series 1–0. But wherever you stand on the terrible issue of what happened in 2009, cricket once more has become invested with much more than meaning than twenty-two players contesting ball and bat—even if that was all you’d hope it would be.