By Nishad Pai Vaidya
It was a speech that radiated passion, emotion and true spirit of the game. Kumar Sangakkara’s MCC Spirit of Cricket Lecture grabbed the headlines because of the remarks he made on the Sri Lankan Cricket Board. Those remarks may have got copious media attention, but it was his overall memorable speech that was worthy of the standing ovation he received. Anyone who may not have had access to Sangakkara’s speech and going merely by the media headlines would be under the impression that it was all about bad administration, board politics etc. However, his speech was about the real “Spirit of Cricket” and what the cricketers themselves stand for in their respective countries.
One doesn’t have to be a Sri Lankan to connect with Sangakkara’s speech. The word “connect” is used because the way he describes the importance of cricket to the small island nation tugs one’s heart. When the words “Spirit of the Game” are used one often thinks of sportsmanship on the field, absence of sledging, a batsman ‘walking’ when he knows he is out… But the true “Spirit of Cricket” lies outside the playing field. It’s in the hearts of the fans and the players. It defies explanation. Sangakkara’s speech highlighted this very bond and the true “Spirit of Cricket.”
In his introduction, Sangakkara described cricket as “A game that brings the nation to a standstill; a sport so powerful it is capable of transcending war and politics.” He went on to describe how the game evolved in his country as it started from a sport for the higher classes and then trickled down to capture the imagination of the common man. Throughout his speech he described how the game brought happiness to the people of his country in times of war and suffering.
The best part of Sangakkara’s speech is the way he highlighted the beauty of the player-fan relationship. Such a relationship as we know is very different from the ones we see around us every day as there are a few players and millions of fans. We hear about this relationship from the fans but it is always special to hear about it from a player. He described how the players became the nation’s “sons, brothers” after the Muttiah Muralitharan no-balling controversy in Australia in 1995-96. The entire nation stood behind the team and started referring to them as “our boys” or as Sangakkara put it “Ape Kello.”
Although Sri Lanka is a small nation, it is diverse as it is a home to several religions, castes, languages etc. The World Cup 1996 win brought the nation closer and it knit a strong bond of unity. To the Sri Lankans, the team represented their nation’s character. As Sangakkara described, “Here were 15 individuals from different backgrounds, races, and religions, each fiercely proud of his own individuality and yet they unified not just a team but a family. Fighting for a common national cause representing the entirety of our society, providing a shining example to every Sri Lankan showing them with obvious clarity what it was to be truly Sri Lankan.”
His speech echoed what cricketers stand for in modern society as their role transcends the field into the lives of normal people. It was really interesting to know how the fans react to players during interactions after some tough times. Sangakkara recalled an instance in the aftermath of the tsunami and another after the Lahore terror attack. These instances just showed to us that players had become a part of people’s lives and were indispensable in the role they played.
When some of the Sri Lankan cricketers went around in relief camps after the tsunami they were well received by the people who had lost almost everything in the disaster. Some of them even enquired about the families of the players who were in towns affected by the tsunami. Despite their personal situation they still enquired about the families of the men who brought them happiness with performances on the cricket field.
Sangakkara then narrated an incident which took place after the Sri Lankan team returned home after the Lahore attack. He met a soldier who enquired about his health to which Sangakkara replied that “what they as soldiers experience every day. We only experienced for a few minutes, but managed to grab all the news headlines.”
The soldier replied that had he died it would have been during his job and he was ready for such an eventuality. The soldier then said, “But you are a hero and if you were to die it would be a great loss for our country."
What Sangakkara said after narrating this incident gets you really thinking: “How can this man value his life less than mine?”
Media headlines of the Sangakkara speech have been about the board politics, corruption and the need for restructuring in Lankan cricket. However, one must remember that all those controversial remarks were made in passing and in real terms the lecture was an ode to the spirit of cricket in a small nation which faced its problems yet managed to rejoice its favorite sport. When he ended the speech by saying, “With me are all my people. I am Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim and Burgher. I am a Buddhist, a Hindu, a follower of Islam and Christianity. I am today, and always, proudly Sri Lankan” one felt that this is what a cricketer truly represents. Most of us very easily say that a cricketer plays for his “country” but Sangakkara has defined what it means and what it is to play for one’s land. This is the real spirit of cricket.
You may not have been at Lord’s to appreciate this lecture, but wherever you maybe you must stand up and applaud for this absolute masterpiece.
(Nishad Pai Vaidya, a 20-year-old law student, is a club and college-level cricketer. His teachers always complain, “He knows the stats and facts of cricket more than the subjects we teach him.")