One does not usually associate peace-loving Buddhist monks with violence © Getty Images
One does not usually associate peace-loving Buddhist monks with violence © Getty Images

A group of Buddhist monks tried to stop a Test between England and Sri Lanka at SSC, Colombo, on December 18, 2003. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at one of the more unusual interferences in a Test.

Born in Sri Lanka, the Venerable Gangodawila Soma Thera of the Vajiraramaya Maharagama — a celebrated Buddhist monk and social reformer — remains one of the most celebrated Sri Lankans. He visited Russia in 2003 to receive an honorary doctorate from the Russian Government.

Unfortunately, he passed away of a heart attack at St Petersburg on December 12, 2003 (though some believe that he was murdered by Chinese fundamentalists). A commission of four men was appointed, and though three of them had concluded that it was not a natural death, the fourth found no conclusive evidence. The investigation was stopped.

Sri Lankans, especially the Buddhists, were (quite understandably) not happy with the incident. They wanted justice. If not that, they at least wanted some kind of nationwide mourning. If not anything, at least they could have stopped cricket from taking place at SSC that day. But the Test started on time. The first two Tests had been drawn: England were nine wickets down at Galle, but Ashley Giles and Matthew Hoggard played out the remaining 19 balls; chasing 368 they lost 7 wickets with 25 overs to go, but this time Chris Read and Gareth Batty saved them. Could they be third time lucky?

Michael Vaughan batted first, and played a sedate role as Marcus Trescothick went at the bowlers, all guns blazing. “Tresco” eventually fell for a 98-ball 70, and a flurry of wickets saw England being reduced to 139 for 5 after being 109 for 1. The incident happened after the fifth wicket fell.

Invasion

A mob of Buddhist monks (is that an oxymoron?) invaded SSC. As per an AFP report, the group consisted of several dozens of monks in saffron. They had a simple objective in mind: to stop the match, or at least the day’s play, from taking place.

To quote a fan outside the ground, “The monks wanted the match stopped because the body of a monk [Gangodawila Soma Thera] who died in Russia was brought back today. They wanted cricket fans also to mourn.” Wisden confirmed: “The monks were furious that the cricket had not been halted out of respect for a well-known colleague.”

The organisers held firm: they refused to stop play unless The Government had announced a public mourning. Calling off the match, even the day’s play, was out of the question. Eventually the police had to intervene, stopping the monks from entering SSC. The match continued. Wisden wrote, in a slightly lighter tone: “Deprived of spiritual assistance, England had to make do with [Andrew] Flintoff and [Gareth] Batty.”

What followed?

Batty helped Flintoff (77) put up 87 for the sixth wicket, but England were eventually bowled out for 265, Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan taking three wickets apiece. Sri Lanka then launched a furious onslaught as Kumar Sangakkara and Sanath Jayasuriya added 71 in 71 balls.

Thilan Samaraweera and Mahela Jayawardene both scored hundred, adding 262 for the third wicket. Tillakaratne Dilshan also joined in the fun, as did Upul Chandana — and Hashan Tillakaratne eventually declared the innings 363 runs ahead on the fourth morning.

It took Murali (4 for 68) and co. a little above four hours to bowl out the Englishmen. No batsman reached 40, and England, defeated by a whopping margin of an innings and 215 runs, lost the series 0-1.

Brief scores:

England 265 (Andrew Flintoff 77, Marcus Trescothick 70; Muttiah Muralitharan 3 for 40, Chaminda Vaas 3 for 64) and 148 (Muttiah Muralitharan 4 for 63, Dilhara Fernando 3 for 27) lost to Sri Lanka 628 for 8 decl. (Thilan Samaraweera 142, Mahela Jayawardene 134, Sanath Jayasuriya 85, Tillakaratne Dilshan 83, Upul Chandana 76) by an innings and 215 runs.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here)