Does cricket love the public?

Sri Lanka’s Cricket World Cup campaign came to an end this past week following what was an unflattering performance by the team. Defeat at the hands of New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa coupled with two washed out games was enough to end what was a campaign that never really started.

At the time of writing, Sri Lanka was preparing to take on big brother India in what is largely an inconsequential game. While India has secured their spot in the semi-finals, Sri Lanka will have one eye on the flight home and the rebuilding phase to follow.

Sri Lanka Cricket has had a long and colourful past. Having entered the international stage as far back as in 1926-27 (having then played touring teams as Ceylon), the country was officially awarded Test status in 1982. Since then, the cricketing fraternity saw a transformation from being a team inhabited by part-time cricketers to full-time professionals who enjoyed being household names. As a country, Sri Lanka Cricket brought home much success and pride, including the 1996 World Cup and the 2014 T20 World Cup.

Sri Lanka Cricket was the quintessential underdog story; entering the 1996 World Cup, no cricketing pundits gave them much chance to progress in the tournament. However, their experimental brand of hard-hitting cricket upfront revolutionised the sport and brought home the trophy.

Their success on the biggest cricketing stage led to the attention being turned to this small island nation. Suddenly, a team made up of part-time bankers became a team of national icons. The State was showering them with gifts of vehicles and houses, the corporate sector was chasing after them for endorsements, and children were replaying their heroes’ antics in roadside cricket. Unfortunately, along the way, the development of the sport was neglected.

A colourful past in a blur

For Sri Lanka, cricket was an escape from what was an otherwise uninspiring period in the country’s history. The civil war was dragging on and had left the nation divided, the economy was stagnant, and the political spectrum was corrupt and despised by many. In cricket they found an escape. It was an opportunity for the world to see a new side to the country. The heartache of the war and the disappointments in the politicians were put aside as Sri Lanka was known as world beaters in the game of the colonialists.

The country did not have the powerhouse players to fill up the team, but those who took the field knew they were backed by millions of passionate supporters around the world. The supporters’ motto “win or lose, we booze” was known the world over. Sri Lankans were fun-loving spectators who just wanted to enjoy a game that had brought them so much joy.

The 1999 World Cup was a rude awakening for Sri Lanka Cricket – from being the “dream team” of the previous tournament to the administration and the public being given a reality check. The defending champions were knocked out of the tournament in the first round, the former winning captain was sacked, star batsmen who were able to do no wrong in the preceding years were cast aside, and the cricketing world was moving on from the tiny island nation.

As the international cricketing community settled in for over a decade of being dominated by the Australians, Sri Lanka was struggling to come to terms with their fall from grace. Failing to recognise that the sport needed to be developed domestically to keep up with the changing game, the administrators were desperately searching for a trump card.

The likes of Muttiah Muralitharan, Mahela Jayawardene, and Kumar Sangakkara provided the cover for what was an otherwise stagnant team. The following World Cups in 2003, 2007, and 2011 saw Sri Lanka beat the odds and make it to the finals, only to be defeated on all those occasions by teams that were not only more talented, but more professional.

The world had woken up to the fact that the 1990s were over; teams no longer relied on the mystery of a Muralitharan or the unconventional power of a Sanath Jayasuriya. Unfortunately, for the Sri Lankan public, the governors of the game back home had not awoken to this fact.

When the 2019 World Cup rolled around, most of the cricket-loving public lost interest in the team and expected very little from them. The instability and infighting amongst the players, the corruption and interference on the part of the board, and the overall lack of investment in the development of the game was enough to leave the viewing public disenchanted.

Sri Lanka was soundly beaten in their opening game against New Zealand – they scraped to a victory over a recently promoted Afghanistan team, saw two tricky games against Pakistan and Bangladesh washed out, and promised much against Australia before ultimately capitulating.

It looked as though Sri Lanka’s campaign was well and truly down the drain. Their next opponent was hosts and pre-tournament favourites England.

Rising to fall back down

Against all odds, Sri Lanka put up a fight. They scraped their way to a par score on a bowler-friendly wicket before proceeding to dismantle the England batting line-up in a methodical manner.

Suddenly, the public began to believe, cheering on their team through social media, and the sleeping fans of Sri Lankan cricket were having their voices heard. The team triumphed over England and suddenly, their campaign was alive and kicking. From being disinterested, Sri Lanka’s supporters were counting down the number of wins till the trophy was lifted.

The heroes who had been villains the previous week were once again hoisted by the fans. Sri Lanka’s next game was against South Africa, a team who had failed to impress and had been eliminated from the tournament. The people began to believe.

It all came to nothing when Sri Lanka once again failed to perform. South Africa kept their best performance for Sri Lanka – they bowled them out cheaply and knocked off the runs in emphatic fashion. In the space of five hours, Sri Lanka’s world cup was over as they were eliminated with two games remaining. There was no outpouring of grief, there were no messages of commiseration to the players, and there were no promises from the fans that the team would bounce back. For a brief moment, the cricketing public loved their players and loved the sport that had brought them so much joy in the past. As is fast-becoming the norm for Sri Lankan cricket, the love had not been returned. The tournament continues, the cricketing world watches as the top four teams line up against one another, and Sri Lanka Cricket returns to the sleepy indifference it inhabited for the past several years.

(The writer can be followed on twitter @dinouk_c)