Back in June, Vic Marks wrote an article on The Cricketer magazine’s website bemoaning the fact that Twitter has removed all the mystique from our sportsmen.
He speaks of Bradman and Hutton et al. as “distant, glamorous men; they were charismatic partly because we did not know everything about them… Now via twitter we would know precisely what they had for breakfast and which TV programme they watched”.
To dismiss Twitter as all noise and no signal, is, of course, dismissively simplistic. For communicating breaking news it is unparalleled – it takes a lot of skill to pack punchy, useful and immediate info into 140 characters. With brevity, there is often considerable wit. Dismissing Twitter because of its bite-size format is like saying that haiku isn’t a valid form of poetry because it’s too fucking short.
And hey, maybe hero-worship of the kind that Marks writes about is over-rated, anyway. People are, after all, just people. Interesting, however, that Sachin Tendulkar has a Twitter account and that doesn’t seem to have affected his god-like status in the slightest.
True, much of what is posted on Twitter is banal. If I had a pound for every time a cricketer mentioned they’d eaten at Nando’s, I would have been able to buy the bloody company. But I like Twitter. It’s like sitting in a crowded boozer with several conversations going on at once. You can tune out what you don’t want to listen to, and join in the ones that are interesting or entertaining. There are days I can live without it. But I like knowing it is there. Communication, in any form, is useful and serves a purpose.
But some things need a bigger platform. There are some things that need to be said, and that take one man, standing in a room in front of others, and an uninterrupted length of time in which to say them.
And last night, while sitting at my laptop, I listened, live and in real time, to Kumar Sangakkara do just that.
Sangakkara is a remarkable individual. Intelligent in an age in which it is unfashionable to be so, a lover of literature in a world where admitting you have never read a single book since you left school is worn as a badge of pride. All that and a cover-drive, as Christopher Martin-Jenkins memorably said in his introduction, to rival Wally Hammond’s.
As this year’s speaker at the MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture, Sangakkara admitted there were many things he could have talked about: spot-fixing, the DRS, the future of Tests and various other issues that have featured heavily on cricket’s radar lately.
That he chose to speak about Sri Lankan cricket in its context of an island nation torn apart by war, and his experiences growing up during it, all the way through to the national team’s World Cup triumph in ‘96, the tsunami of 2004 and the attack on the team bus in Lahore, was really nothing less than you would expect from a classy individual who takes his responsibility as a sportsman and as an ambassador for his country very seriously indeed.
During the one hour Sangakkara spoke, he did what only great writers or orators can do: transport the audience from its comfort zone and enable it to experience the unfamiliar, and, in the case of the incident in Lahore, the terrifying.
Sangakkara’s retelling of this was utterly gripping; bullets hitting the bus “like rain on a tin roof”, Sangakkara’s moving his head seconds before a bullet burying itself in the side of the seat where his head had just been, Tharanga Paranavitana, on his debut tour, standing up and yelling that he had been hit:
I see him and I think: “Oh my God, you were out first ball, run out the next innings and now you have been shot. What a terrible first tour.”
It is strange how clear your thinking is. I did not see my life flash by. There was no insane panic. There was absolute clarity and awareness of what was happening at that moment.
I hear the bus roar in to life and start to move. Dilshan is screaming at the driver: “Drive…Drive”. We speed up, swerve and are finally inside the safety of the stadium.
We all sit in the dressing room and talk. Talk about what happened. Within minutes there is laughter and the jokes have started to flow. We have for the first time been a target of violence. We had survived.
We all realized then what some of our fellow Sri Lankans experienced every day for nearly 30 years. There was a new respect and awe for their courage and selflessness.
We were shot at, grenades were thrown at us, we were injured and yet we were not cowed. We were not down and out. “We are Sri Lankan,” we thought to ourselves, “and we are tough and we will get through hardship and we will overcome because our spirit is strong.”
I admit that while Sangakkara was recounting this, there were times during this part that I had to remind myself to breathe.
Sangakkara was also scathingly critical of the damage done to Sri Lankan cricket since 1996 through the self-interest of certain individuals interested only in two things: money, and power.
Accusations of vote buying and rigging, player interference due to lobbying from each side and even violence at the AGMs, including the brandishing of weapons and ugly fist fights, have characterised cricket board elections for as long as I can remember.
We have to aspire to better administration. The administration needs to adopt the same values enshrined by the team over the years: integrity, transparency, commitment and discipline.
This is, of course, particularly relevant given the ICC’s new recommendation that all national boards make themselves free of political interference within two years. Given Sanath Jayasuriya has only recently flown home after being foisted onto the national team for a grand total of two matches by his country’s government, it would seem Sri Lanka has some way to go in this. It has also now transpired that sports minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage “has ordered Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) Interim Committee to examine the remarks made by Sangakkara during the lecture,” according to the country’s national news agency.
In this respect, it’s not been a great few weeks for cricket.
England’s dire showing in the last two ODIs aside, politics has been foisting its corrupt, immoral and bloated self-interest on the sport too often for my liking. The Jayasuriya affair, the 2009 genocide of the Tamils, the demonstrations outside cricket grounds, hell, even boggle-eyed Eurosceptic and professional little-Englander Nigel Farage made an unwelcome (by me, anyway) appearance in the TMS box.
I’m an idealist, but I am also a realist.
Sport and politics are inseparable: ‘twas always thus, and always will be. Cricket has at various times been the sport of colonial oppressors, an opiate for the masses, and a tool for propaganda, the acceptable face of oppressive regimes to present to the wider global community as “proof” of their reasonableness and fair play.
Sometimes I think we cling to cricket because, like a great number 3 batsman, it provides us with an anchor, something around which this whole crazy and often fucked-up innings called life can revolve and which can get us through to stumps with some respectability. We wish to live our lives the way we would wish to see our cricket played, so we can hold the mirror of one up to the other and not have it break with an almighty crack.
Kumar Sangakkara expressed this more eloquently than I or anyone else ever could when he said at the end of his speech:
My loyalty will be to the ordinary Sri Lankan fan, their 20 million hearts beating collectively as one to our island rhythm and filled with an undying and ever-loyal love for this our game.
Fans of different races, castes, ethnicities and religions who together celebrate their diversity by uniting for a common national cause. They are my foundation, they are my family. I will play my cricket for them. Their spirit is the true spirit of cricket. 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.
I admit I am a cynic. I look for ulterior motives in most things. It does not make me paranoid: it makes me prepared.
I know that in reality, there is rarely any such thing as a unifying force for good.
But when Kumar Sangakkara tells me that cricket can be just that, I believe him.
You can listen to Sangakkara’s speech, in full, and read the transcript at the Lord’s site.