Cricket: Hands up for Sri Lanka's sport of national pride

By Andrew Alderson

Sri Lanka may have looked slightly out of sorts at the World Cup so far but it has not detracted from the enthusiasm the people have for cricket - and life in general.

There are not many sports where Sri Lanka can claim to have been world champions. This is a nation that has never won an Olympic gold medal, so beyond cricketers there are few sporting heroes.

When Arjuna Ranatunga's side triumphed in 1996 over Australia in the World Cup final in Lahore it sealed cricket's place as the national sport indefinitely.

That win featured a then 23-year-old off-spinner called Muttiah Muralidaran who has gone on to be the world's leading wicket-taker in tests and one-day internationals.

Murali is revered in Sri Lanka. He comes from a region near Kandy, where the World Cup is hosting matches at an immaculate new stadium bearing his name. Social instinct suggests it would be unwise to use his name and the word "chucker" in the same sentence over the next couple of days.

Regardless of your stance on that curly one, there can be little doubt he has done good for his country, be it through cricket with his repertoire of deliveries, or philanthropy after his dedication of time and money in the rebuild after the 2004 tsunami.

It is also no stretch to state that as a Tamil, albeit from a family that owns a successful biscuit-making business, Muralidaran helped ease the unification process after years of civil war.

The residue from that conflict remains evident, despite its official end almost two years ago.

Like many Sri Lankans, Ravi, our driver from the airport is optimistic the current stability will endure but that can't take away the scars from bullet wounds on his 30-year-old arm.

He received them during a five-year stint in the army.

He says he did a lot of driving during that time and, judging by his performance behind the wheel, that is believable.

Ravi had the habit, at least from the front passenger seat, of making you feel like you were fielding at silly mid-off when Brendon McCullum is advancing to drive. His penchant for passing on blind corners that often concealed oncoming trucks was literally breath-taking.

Observations suggest that in a now peaceful Sri Lanka, people are relishing the prospect of hosting another World Cup. Everyone you talk to, from waiters to local business owners, knows the players and has a thorough knowledge of cricket.

There is disappointment Sri Lanka could not dish it out to Australia over the weekend when their match was washed out in Colombo. In fact, after listening to several locals you suspect that is the match at this tournament they most wanted to win. They have their reasons.

Australia beat Sri Lanka in the last World Cup final in Barbados; Australia refused to play in Sri Lanka during the 1996 World Cup because of terrorism concerns; Australian umpire Darrell Hair no-balled Murali multiple times for throwing during the 1995 Boxing Day test in Melbourne.

Sri Lanka might have peace but there lurks a competitive streak behind the mild-mannered, cheery dispositions. That is somehow reassuring.

- NZ Herald

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