July 11, 2009


Diversity before wicket: When Pakistani journalist Abid Shah visited Sri Lanka, everyone wanted to talk to him about the attack on their national cricket team in Lahore, and Shah began to see South Asia’s differences through the prism of the sport. (Abid Shah, 7/11/09, The National)

Flashing my press pass, I reached the cricket stadium just as the Sri Lankan team was being airlifted by army helicopter to the airport (they flew to Sri Lanka that day). The team bus was standing at the stadium, as was the bullet-ridden, bloodstained umpire’s van, its front seat covered with shattered glass. Incredibly, the van and its passengers had been abandoned in the middle of Liberty Circle, forgotten by the gunmen; the umpires and officials escaped by crouching on the floor, listening to the sounds of gunshot, nursing their wounds as their driver died.

The attack brought cricket to the forefront of any discussion I had in Sri Lanka; from analysing conspiracy theories about the attackers, to comparing the merits of different players, I started seeing Sri Lanka through the prism of cricket.

The Sinhala Sports Club is Colombo’s main cricket ground. It is pretty and lush green. With only 10,000 seats, it’s smaller than I expected. The scoreboard dominates the view, and club members have a good, intimate view of the pitch.

Nabeel, a member of the club, took me along. He is a young man who works at an office during the day and unwinds at the club’s bar. We ordered drinks, chicken and a cheese concoction. Outside the bar’s windows, the shadows were lengthening and a three-day, school cricket game was in its final stretch. Alumni guzzled drinks in the stands, children cheered and parents clapped. Spectators with no connection to either school watched. At the finish, an announcer distributed prizes.

School matches are regularly played in the national stadium, several schools end their season with a match there, giving schoolboys the opportunity to dream.

I don’t know of a similar practice in Pakistan.

At the wood-panelled offices of the Sri Lankan Cricket Board, I met Nasantha Ranatunga, the secretary. A press officer told me that I was the first Pakistani journalist to visit the Board in Colombo since the Lahore attacks. Colombo had been crawling with Indian journalists looking for that all-important newsbite. None of the 21 or so Pakistani news channels made the trek.

I told him I wanted to talk cricket, not politics.

And so Ranatunga talked to me about the latest Sri Lankan grassroots initiative. The Sri Lankan Cricket Board is distributing free cricket kits around rural Sri Lanka – bats, balls, pads and wickets. Board members travelled across the country, identified weaknesses in rural facilities, and planned to introduce more children to playing cricket with kits, including professional hard leather balls, unlike the soft tennis balls I used to play street cricket with.

In fact, Colombo has a soft ball cricket association too, which organises tennis ball matches.

I never managed to visit the soft ball cricket association, but I desperately wanted to play soft ball cricket. Somewhere, on this island.

Arriva deSilva had scoffed at Pakistan’s low literacy levels and told me that Sri Lanka had good infrastructure. I thought of him when I met Sunila Galappatti because she disagreed with him.

“There is a lot of rubbish on the streets,” she said.

I met Sunila in the leafy courtyard of Colombo’s Barefoot Café. Sunila is the co-ordinator of the Galle Literary Festival, and was grilling me for the names and contacts of Pakistani writers she could invite to the southern city this winter. And so, discussing our countries, I had asked why there was no rubbish on Colombo streets. Of course there was rubbish on the streets, but the small piles of human discard I saw did not compare to the mountains of refuse in Pakistani cities, towns and villages. Sunila was surprised; I was surprised.

Here is a society that has been at war for a quarter of a century, with a high military budget, with a capital city where security is so high it seems to be under siege, and yet basic services such as rubbish collection are delivered adequately and the literacy rate is more than 90 per cent.

Compare that to Pakistan: a society fighting a low-level war and civil insurgencies, with a high military budget, but with relatively lax security in the cities, and where basic services such as rubbish collection are just that: rubbish, and where the literacy rate is a joke.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 11, 2009 6:57 AM
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