Thursday, May 8, 2008
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For a figure short and somewhat wider than the average cricketer, Sri Lanka's captain Arjuna Ranatunga cast a long shadow during the 1998-99 summer. Whether strolling his singles, commenting severely on Australian crowds, or wagging his finger at an umpire, he tested a host of assumptions about cricket behaviour. Did his militancy constitute, as Alec Stewart decided, "a disgrace"? Or was Arjuna Ranatungahe, in the words of no less an authority than Peter Roebuck, "a cricketer on beautiful provocations"?
Rather than addressing this question directly, it is perhaps more fruitful to ask two others. From where does Arjuna's intense competitiveness spring? And why does he arouse, especially among Australians such intense feelings?
It is not as if Ranatunga is a newcomer to the school of cricket combat. International cricket's longest-serving player, he has always been a fighter, often at the outset of his career in losing causes. Australia saw evidence of his resilience in their first two Tests against Sri Lanka, at Kandy in April 1983 and Perth in February 1988. Deteriorating pitches on both occasions favoured the team winning the toss, and in both cases the Australians made the most of these advantages in completing victories by more than an innings. But in both cases Ranatunga stood tall, making 90 and 92 in the former match, 55 and 45 in the latter, top score in three of the four innings.
Ranatunga also stood out in other on-field circumstances. Sri Lankan cricketers were renowned for their gentlemanly qualities. Asked about "sledging" on their 1981 tour of England, their assistant manager replied ingenuously: "Sludging? What is sludging?" Ranatunga soon discovered it, and was apt to return it. The story goes that on an occasion, Captain Ranjan Madugalle was being subjected to a fearsome assault, by ball and mouth from Imran Khan. Ranatunga told Madugalle to concentrate on his batting and began needling Imran so that the abusive focus shifted towards him, at which point Ranatunga issued Pakistan's skipper a typical challenge, "You have the ball. I have the bat. Let's see who wins."
The incident gains sharpness from its cultural context, for it involves a reversal of traditional Sri Lankan hierarchy; it is a mallie (younger brother or junior) protecting an aiyya (elder brother). And it is not the only way in which Ranatunga represents an inversion of cultural form. Indeed, the roots of Ranatunga's feisty nature and streetwise cricketing style cannot be understood without attending to Sri Lanka's social and political background.
The higher echelons of Sri Lankan (Ceylonese) cricket in the three decades after 1945 were dominated by cricketers emerging from the elite denominational schools of Colombo and Kandy as well as the premier government school, Royal College. These were westernised, English-speaking men. They profited from the social clout attached to a fluency in English and a particular upper-class lifestyle. A few of them were not above adopting airs and looking down on the vernacular-speaking yakoes (wild rustics) and "sarong-johnnies" - to use Ceylonese English jargon. The power of the English language in this era is indicated by the fact that Sinhala speakers subject to its force referred to it in the 1960s as the kaduva, or sword.
The westernised elites, however, were under challenge. The electoral overturn of 1956 that brought to power the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, a centre-left coalition led by the Bandaranaikes, has even been referred to, in exaggerated terms, as "the revolution of 1956", because it was a groundswell of the underprivileged seeking a place in the sun. It was also an expression of linguistic nationalism among the Sinhalese and included an explicit hostility to the primacy of English. But the transformations in the political order took time to permeate the cricketing arena. It was not till the late 1960's and in 1970's that talented cricketers from Ananda, Nalanda and Mahinda began to challenge the primacy of the Royal Thomains et al. These were also the elite schools but had originated in the Buddhist revival of the late nineteenth century, and their schoolboys were Sinhala-speakers partial to the directions arising from the transformations of 1956. One can consider Bandula Warnapura's appointment as captain of Sri Lanka in 1979 as an approximate marker of the moment when products of these schools gained primacy in the highest levels of Lankan cricket. Ranatunga, therefore, represents the second and third generations of players from this background.
The Ranatunga family was in the vanguard of this social change. Arjuna's father was a politician within the SLFP. Democratic politics in Sri Lanka has, for many decades now, been punctuated by intimidation and violence. It is said that the Ranatunga home was vandalised and a car burnt on one occasion - presumably by local supporters of the United National Party. In brief, young Ranatunga is familiar with the hurly-burly of politics.
None of which is to say that Ranatunga is abrasive in demeanour at all times. Indeed, in common with the majority of his cricketing peers in the Sri Lankan teams in recent decades, his interpersonal style is characterised by a measure of shyness. On social occasions he is courteous and restrained. An English journalist expressed amazement at the ease and patience shown by Ranatunga during the official function for the cricketers in Adelaide recently. On countless occasions his fork-with-morsel of food was arrested on its journey so that he could respond to requests for autographs and pictures.
Two gestures on Ranatunga's part after Sri Lanka had won the World Cup in March 1996 display his instincts for healing. On returning to Sri Lanka he made a point of taking the trophy to the home of Srima Dissanayake, the widow of Gamini Dissanayake, a former President of the Board of Cricket for Sri Lanka, who had been instrumental in securing full Test status for Sri Lanka at the ICC in 1981. As UNP leader, Dissanayake had been assassinated by a suicide bomber in 1994 as he addressed an election rally during his presidential campaign. Party lines are firmly demarcated in Sri Lanka, and the son of an SLFP politician displaying such reverence to the memory of an ideological enemy was remarkable.
The second gesture was caught on camera immediately after the triumph at Lahore. Referring implicity to the victory over Australia, after encountering so much strife in that land a few months previously, Ranatunga was asked whether "revenge was sweet". With a broad smile Ranatunga replied, "I would not use those words." Few Sri Lankans would have been so magnanimous. Many would have thought the defeat of the Australians, whose umpires had so maltreated Muttiah Muralitharan, and who had declined to visit Sri Lanka during the Cup because of a perceived threat to their safety, could not have befallen nicer guys.
The Australians, by contrast, have not kept their thoughts innermost. Mark Taylor, Shane Warne, Ian Healy and Mark Waugh have been blunt in expressing their dislike for Ranatunga, and the Australian media has often published similar sentiments; long before, in fact the incidents at Adelaide Oval on January 1999 blotted Ranatunga's copybook further.
In doing so, however, they have probably revealed as much about themselves as about Ranatunga. Consider, for example, the criticism of Ranatunga's physique, and his style of walking some singles. This vexes Australians sorely. When Ranatunga was runout in a one dayer after the Australian tour, the television round up programme Sports Tonight made footage of his wicket, its "Play of the Day", its gleeful presenter gloating, "We enjoyed that." Yet when challenged about it while acting as guest commentator during an England-Sri Lanka match at the SCG Steve Waugh struggled to explain why Australians found Ranatunga's habit so annoying. Tony Greig raised the issue in non-confrontational style when Ranatunga was batting and asked, "Does it matter (that he walks)?" Waugh could not clarify how it did except to affirm that it was irritating.
The irritation arises, perhaps, not from the original habit, but in its continuance when Ranatunga knows how annoying it proves. He has even claimed that his walking/running is designed to manufacture overthrows. This seems a post-hoc rationalisation. I suspect that any study of videotapes from the 1980s would show Ranatunga walking his runs occasionally, especially in the tropics. It is, as Sunil Gavaskar would say, a means of conserving energy so as to bat the better.
Other elements of the Australian chorus against Ranatunga may arise from cultural misunderstanding. One ritual complaint has been that Ranatunga and his cricketers seldom fraternise at the end of a day's play by attending the traditional post-match drinks at which the rigours of the day are laid to one side.
But, speaking broadly, there is no bar culture in Sri Lanka. Though the Sinhala speaking players of the 1970s and after, did develop a familiarity with Western lifestyles in the course of their cricketing travels, most are ill at ease in pubs and bars. This discomfort is compounded for some by a lack of fluency in English. If they do imbibe alcohol, the Sri Lankan players prefer to do so in the cosy environment of verandahs or drawing rooms.
It is also possible that a degree of cultural misunderstanding was at work during the contretemps at Adelaide Oval when Muralitharan was no-balled.
Many Australians considered Ranatunga's finger-wagging to be deeply offensive. However, finger-wagging is commonplace in Sri Lanka as a form of emphasis. It is particulalry pronounced in political speeches, but can punctuate any debate.
Among Sri Lankans it is perhaps a more conscious tool when one is chastisng someone for an unethical transgression. Emerson, the umpire even in the opinion of non-partisan commentators such as Botham and Roebuck, was transgressing, grandstanding. There is no doubt that Ranatunga deemed Emerson's action to be a transgresion that called for chastisement. His responses, of course, also consituted a transgression. In the heat of the moment, however, the Sri Lankan cricketers were in an impossible position - whatever their response they were going to be losers.
Even without this plea in mitigation, one might also, in the righteous response from so many, detect a hint of double standards. Wasn't the last Test captain to remonstrate so forcefully with an umpire an Englishman, Mike Gatting, who brought a Faisalabad match to a standstill by assailing Pakistani Shakoor Rana? And how many Australian teams have moaned and bitched about umpiring across the subcontinent? Perhaps there is the taproot of the antipathy that western cricketers, media representatives and spectators feel for Ranatunga; the way he demonstrates that what's good for the goose is also good for the gander.
Michael Roberts is on a quick trip to Sri Lanka, Tita Nathanielsz was able to persuade him to release this interesting article. We also acknowledge the courtesy extended by The Wisden Cricketers' Alamanack, Australia.
Courtesy Sunday Times (LK)