Rugby: Sri Lanka Cricket's New Adversary

Shout the word “Sri Lanka” at a World Stage. For many it is the 30 year war and the various political ploys that surround it, that comes to the mind. For the ones who have the luxury of chillaxing in the  roof terrace with the sky breaking a tinge of crimson mixed with golden hue in the background, it is the Ceylon Tea that comes to the mind. But for the rest, Sri Lanka is known to them through the belligerence of Sanath Jaysuriya, the wiles of  Muralidaran and the suaveness of Sangakkara.

Sri Lanka cannot compete with India, let alone win it economically, technologically or politically. Sri Lankan cities until the foreseeable future cannot have the tranquility of the Australian Cities. Life in Sri Lanka wouldn’t be as soothing as it is in New Zealand. Standard of Education in England is too good to infect Sri Lanka. But there is one thing in Sri Lanka, perhaps the only thing that would make the aforementioned nations cringe in trepidation. That is without doubt is Cricket. Cricket ground is the only  field where Sri Lanka can trounce Countries like India, Australia, England and New Zealand. For decades Cricket and Tea have been Sri Lanka’s only positive identifications.

Sri Lanka’s first success in World Sporting stage came in 1948,  the year of independence when Duncan White snatched a silver medal in the Olympics in London. The next big thing would be winning of the 1995 South Asian Football Championship. In 2000, a lady rose from oblivion and hurtled passed many countries to win us a bronze in the Sydney Olympics, which eventually became a silver medal. But all these victories had one thing in common. None of them managed to instill a culture of winning that could continue to propagate more trophies and medals. After Duncan White’s expertise it took another 52 years for Sri Lanka to win another Olympic Medal. Sri Lanka’s 1995 victory in the South Asian football is the only one of that kind.

In the sport of Cricket, however, the story of Sri Lanka is diametrically opposite. The 1996 World Championship was ensued with several Asian Championships, Bilateral Victories, and a couple of ICC trophies. Cricket became Sri Lanka’s flagship product. It became a part of Sri Lanka, Sri Lankan culture and people’s life. In most families watching cricket is a family occasion. A cricket match is the only proposition where a son can blatantly argue with his father. A cricket ground is the only palce where the Lion Flag can be waved victoriously.

From the luscious hills of Kandy to the woods of Hambantota Cricket has mingled incongruously with not only the landscape of Sri Lanka but also the culture of the nation. The papares, the typical Sri Lankan spicy “Annazis”,  baila songs and the Sri Lankanly unique celebrations have all a part in Sri Lanka Cricket. The only sport that can at least come close to cricket in Sri Lanka is unarguably Rugby.

Even though at international level Sri Lanka rugby is yet to come of age, domestically it has a stronger structure than cricket. Though it may be too early to consider Rugby as a threat to cricketing interests in the island, I personally feel that the terminate button has already been pressed for cricket and the insidious process has begun towing cricket into a chasm.

“Today the game of rugby is a one to two billion rupee investment for the country’s economy, which is just second to cricket. We believe, in the next two decades rugby will overtake cricket,” said Asanga Seneviratne the President of the Sri Lanka Rugby Federation Union. Later the vice president of Sri Lanka Cricket, K. Mathivanan was forced to resign from his post and Asanga Seneviratne, while still being the president of SLRFU was made the vice president of SLC. The process to upstage cricket in Sri Lanka began thus.

The secreatry of SLC Nishantha Eanatunga has been condoned to continue on his merry ways of making imperious and impetuous decisions against the oppsoition of many including players and the other ex-co members of SLC. No one seems to have the power to counter Ranatunga that includes the Minister of Sports and the President of Sri Lanka. The situation has gone off control to an extent, where one is made to imagine whether the silent witnessing of the officials concerned is an act to promote Nishantha Ranatunga which will derail Sri Lanka Cricket.

Cricket has more fan followings than Rugby in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan Cricket Team is recognized better than the Rugby team world wide. Cricket obviously has a vast talent pool  that is viable internationally. Cricket is more likely to churn more finance than Rugby. Yet, Cricket has no Premiere league tournaments in Sri Lanka while Rugby managed to host Carlton 7s that included a myriad of international stars. SLPL was ditched citing lack of financial interests. If a sport that has island wide following cannot do enough to get the interest of business ventures, how could a sport that hasn’t even got half the fan base of cricket win so many sponsors? There is obviously the patronage of the state for Rugby. While Cricket has no such luxuries. Sri Lanka could have easily improvised to host SLPL, but instead satisfied itself by settling in for a Super 4s tournament. The government or the Ministry of Sports could have encouraged SLC or even could have provided finacial assistance to host SLPL. But instead the government has availed itself through the finances of Sri Lanka Crikcet and thus has left it bankrupted.The officials of SLC who no doubt are politically influenced are forced to be inactive with regard to SLPL. The discussion on SLPL is being constantly postponed.

The Government of Sri Lanka ordered a building of a Cricket Stadium in Hambantota with the vision of turning it into a multi purpose sports venue. Hence, SLC was forced to invest its financial mights in a “city” that is not known for producing cricketers or cricket fans. The only reason for building a stadium in Hambantota was because it was the home town of the President of Sri Lanka, even though, the reason that was put forward was that Hambantota is in the dry zone. Dambulla Stadium which was already in the dry zone, and which has produced good crowds was completely ignored.  The idea of building a stadium in Hambantota was to host the 2018 Commonwealth games, but after lavishly spending on the bid to host the event and eventually losing it, the developmental plans on the stadium were halted. The namesake of the stadium didn’t even spend a penny while SLC had to endure financial crisis out of which it is yet to come.

On the other hand various stadiums that can host rugby games have been built all around Sri Lanka with the support of the government, while SLC has to switch off flood lights for cost cutting. Cricket crazy cities like Jaffna, Matara, Moratuwa, Anuradhapura and Kurunagela are bereft of International Cricket Stadiums while Rugby Grounds are in every nook and corners of the country.

It is good that Rugby is receiving state support, even though it is because the heirs to the throne play that sport ardently. But that shouldn’t mean cricket should be ignored. If Rugby wants to overtake cricket it should be by fairly competing and not by undermining cricket. In a sprint  one should look to win by running  faster than the rest and not by trying to impede the opposition. Cricket has established itself as a heritage of Sri Lanka. Heritage should at any cost be guarded.

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