Colombia, Sri Lanka — A group of young Sri Lankans dressed in bright shirts danced with abandon on a hot, humid afternoon as a group sang papare, a lively genre of Sri Lankan music, at a packed R Premadasa Cricket Stadium on Sunday .
The festive atmosphere in the aisles belied the action taking place on the field.
Sri Lanka had just been dismissed for 50 runs in 15 overs – their second-lowest one-day international (ODI) total – by Indian fast bowlers in the Asia Cup final. They would go on to lose by 10 wickets.
The crowd – about 80 percent Sri Lankan – resigned themselves to their team’s fate and decided to dance the rest of the night.
Ruchira Mahadev, a Sri Lankan fan, smiled broadly as she began talking about her team.
“Our team may not be cohesive, but they reached the final when no one expected it, so we will take whatever we can get,” he told Al Jazeera while his friends Pathum Chathura and Ishan Madusanaka agreed.
The three Colombo factory workers were just happy to be in the presence of the country’s biggest stars – the national cricket team – and said they would watch the match until the end.
“Cricket is the only thing that makes us smile,” Mahadev said, explaining how the game has brought relief to a country emerging from its worst economic crisis.
“Whenever the nation suffers and suffers, cricket acts as a balm,” the 34-year-old said.
I still can’t get over that crowd at Premadasa Stadium yesterday for the SL vs PAL clash. Sri Lankans are some of the friendliest and most beautiful people I have met. I love the way the subcontinent supports its teams.
– Ian Raphaël Bishop (@irbishi) September 15, 2023
“Cricket helped us forget”
It has been 14 years since the South Asian country emerged from a decades-long civil war resulting from an armed uprising by the Tamil Tigers – also known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – who wanted to create a separate state. State for the Tamil population of Sri Lanka.
The armed group mainly controlled the northern part of the small island, but the entire country remained gripped by fear and violence for almost three decades.
“For these 30 years, cricket helped us forget the war and made us smile,” Madushanka said.
Writer Andrew Fidel Fernando echoed Madushanka’s thoughts.
“Growing up in the 1990s, cricket was the only thing we could be proud of as a country and the only thing that united people,” he told Al Jazeera, hours after the team’s embarrassing defeat. Sri Lanka facing its northern neighbor.
Fernando explained that war divided opinions on the basis of ethnicity, language, race, religion and language, but cricket brought them together.
“It was a very fractured country, but if there was one thing that transcended all those differences, it was cricket,” he said.
A unifying cause
Shanaka Amarasinghe, a Sri Lankan sports broadcaster who grew up in the shadow of the civil war, recalled how cricket was a “welcome distraction” for young and old.
“It was a time when the Sri Lankan team was getting results against the big guns, even though they were the underdogs,” he said.
In 1996 – in the middle of war – Sri Lanka won their first ODI World Cup title, beating favorites Australia.
The triumph brought people to the streets from Colombo to Galle on the coast and from Kandy to Dambulla in the Midlands.
“I can say with some authority that even LTTE cadres would watch the Sri Lankan team play,” Amarasinghe said.
In the years that followed and as the violence intensified, Sri Lanka recorded more victories and unearthed new stars.
Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara, Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan enjoyed godlike status in the 2000s.
“The fact that Muralitharan is a part of the Tamil community while being revered as one of the biggest stars in the entire nation speaks volumes about the power of cricket,” Amarasinghe said.
Dancing in the aisles
Before reaching the Asia Cup final, Sri Lanka defeated Pakistan in a nail-biting last-ball game that ended well after midnight.
Every run of the Sri Lankan batters was met with loud roars, but at one point, when it looked like Pakistan would walk away with victory, the stadium fell into silence.
By then, the unifying force of cricket was visible in the stands.
A group of school-age boys in cricket shirts shouted “Go Sri Lanka!” “, older men held their heads in disbelief and three women, wearing Muslim abayas, raised their hands in prayer.
Prayers were answered when Charith Asalanka scored the winning runs to take Sri Lanka to the final.
There was chaos in the aisles.
Parents tossed their little ones in the air, friends hugged each other and the young group of cricketers waved their arms enthusiastically.
Pitarata Wisthara Mewa – a hit from the Sri Lankan baila and kapirinya style of music – blared from the PA system and within seconds the entire stadium was dancing.
Another aspect of Sri Lanka’s victory, apart from the batting of Kusal Mendis, Sadeera Samarawickrama and Asalanka, was the presence created by the crowd. It was amazing to see them get behind the hitters. Their level of consciousness was something else last night.
–Roshan Abeysinghe (@RoshanCricket) September 15, 2023
“Even if the ship sinks, the band continues to play”
According to sports writer Amarasinghe, fans who are fed up with the country’s politicians look up to cricketers who give them brief moments of respite.
“Watching a cricket match is like being embroiled in a drama that doesn’t directly concern them, whether it’s struggling to acquire a bottle of gasoline or refueling your vehicle,” did he declare.
Current captain Dasun Shanaka and his men are doing for the current generation what the teams of the 1990s and 2000s did for the then war-torn nation.
Sri Lanka is slowly getting back on its feet after two years of economic and political crisis that ended with massive protests in the capital. Some cricketers joined the protesters in the streets.
It was during this period that a little-known Sri Lankan team beat Australia in an ODI series and also clinched the Asia Cup title last year, once again becoming the nation’s saviors .
“When nothing was going well and people were not able to put meals on the table, the team eased the burden on people and that is the role that cricket has always played in the lives of Sri Lankans,” Fernando said.
He then cited a famous Sinhalese saying: “Neva gilunath ban choon”, which means “even if the ship sinks, the band continues to play”.
“It perfectly defines Sri Lanka’s relationship with cricket,” he said with the famous warm Sri Lankan smile.