Sri Lanka's cricket crisis

Sri Lankans playing cricket
Image caption Impromptu cricket pitches are a common sight on Sri Lanka's streets

On a Saturday afternoon in one of the poorer parts of Colombo, a group of men and boys are playing street cricket, Sri Lankan-style.

Some of the fielders stand on the adjacent railway line. Between them and the batsman there is a pile of rubble.

The wicket is an old piece of wood sitting on two bricks and propped up by a plank.

"Cricket is the best sport in Sri Lanka - I like to play for my team and I do my best," a beaming 14-year-old tells the BBC. He means the Sri Lankan national team.

Someone climbs a railway signal for a better view. A suburban train rumbles past. The game continues.

Cricket is Sri Lanka's universal game and almost nothing gets in the way of it, whether it is played in the street or at the Kettarama Stadium.

In 2007 the Tamil Tigers even declared a ceasefire throughout the World Cup.

But the national team's recent loss of form, combined with endless tribulations off the pitch, has plunged many fans into gloom.

'No interference'

When the former national captain Kumar Sangakkara gave the Cowdrey Lecture at Lords in July he said the sport in his country was corrupt, controlled by cronies, and had lost transparency.

He, his vice-captain, the selectors and coach had all recently resigned for no clear reason.

"No team can be fielded without the final approval of the sports minister," he said.

"It is indeed a unique system, where the board-appointed selectors at any time can be overruled and asked to reselect the side already chosen."

The audience at the Marylebone Cricket Club gave Sangakkara a standing ovation for his mixture of plain speaking and yet evident love of his country.

But the Sri Lankan government was not pleased. The Minister of Sport, Mahindananda Aluthgamage, said Sangakkara should not have spoken on such matters.

Speaking to the BBC this week, Mr Aluthgamage denied interfering.

"If there is politics in cricket, in the past World Cup Sanath Jayasuriya should have been in the team. Because he's a member of parliament and he was in our party," he said, referring to the great batsman who was elected an MP in 2010 and retired this year.

"But he was not in the team. So as the minister I should say there is no politics."

Yet for 12 years the game has been run by politically appointed, unelected committees, something that will only change with board elections in January as demanded by the International Cricket Council.

Financial crisis

Other factors have caused disaffection among players and fans.

Three of Sri Lanka's greatest players have retired within two years and the team's form has plummeted with defeats in match series at home and away.

Image caption Photos of the greats take pride of place in Sri Lanka's cricket clubs

There was a doping incident involving an opening batsman, Upul Tharanga.

And co-hosting the World Cup left the cricket board with massive debts. Fans wondered why three shiny new stadiums were built - one in the president's home district of Hambantota - whereas other older stadiums were ignored.

Hambantota was also the site for an expensive but unsuccessful bid for the hosting of the 2018 Commonwealth Games, a bid which left many Sri Lankans indifferent.

The players' salaries have not been paid since March and in early November the armed forces started running the three stadiums as the cricket board could not afford to.

"The armed forces are doing only the maintenance - cricket is run by the cricket board," says the minister, who says he took this decision because of what he calls the game's financial crisis.

Arjuna Ranatunga, who captained the side that won the World Cup in 1996 and is now an opposition politician, says that makes no sense: "You need people who can run the stadiums rather than people from the forces.

"When it comes to any issue in this country, the political interference has come in - whether it's court cases, whether it's cricket, whether it's rugger - anything you talk, some political interferences are happening. That is the biggest problem we face today."

Peace on the pitch?

Not everyone is so gloomy, though.

The sports clubs clustered near each other in the leafy Colombo district of Cinnamon Gardens recall the sport's bygone era, with their wood panelling and framed photos of cricket greats.

In one of them I meet Chandrashan Perera, curiously a former national rugby captain but also a former media officer at the national cricket board.

Image caption Some hope the future of Sri Lankan cricket will be brighter

He says there is currently a "darkness" associated with cricket in Sri Lanka but that it must be reinvigorated because it is the game that put the country on the world map.

"I've seen my country go through some of the worst - we thought our country had gone," he says, referring to the long civil war, now over. "We now have it back - we need to sort [it] out ourselves.

"For cricket the mess is sorted out as soon as we get the idea that we are a professionally-based organisation, that we have some of the best cricketers in the world... we need to get proper professionals looking after the game.

"Sport for me is about no religion, no caste, no name - just one people, one nation, playing together, one team. If we can do that, our world gets a lot better."

As Sri Lanka emerges from the war it does have skilled new players emerging, some of them from the areas where the war was fought.

Fans hope the changes in Sri Lankan society will lead to success on the pitch once more.

More on this story