In last year’s crisis, Lanka cricketers went all out to help; fans are returning the love

It’s almost 1:30 on Friday night and roughly 25 minutes since Charith Asalanka scored the winning runs against Pakistan, propelling Sri Lanka to the Asia Cup final against India. The presentation ceremony is over and the commentary crew are packing up.

However, at the spectator stands inside R Premadasa Stadium, no one is ready to leave. As chants of ‘Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka’ continue to reverberate around, for many, Sunday’s final against India can’t come any sooner.

There is something unmistakable that swells in from the stands along with the ‘Papare’ soundtrack, grown from Sinhala Baila music: it’s the sound of people falling in love again with the national cricket team, the single unifying force in a country that suffered through an economic turmoil in 2022.

Asia Cup 2023 final training India’s captain Rohit Sharma and other inspect the field before the resume of Asia Cup cricket match between India and Pakistan delays in Colombo, Sri Lanka on Monday, Sept.11, 2023. (AP)

As far as cricketing achievements go, Sunday’s game will be special for India, who have beaten Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the group stages and are looking to win a multinational tournament ahead of the World Cup final. But for the Sri Lankans, the Asia cup has gone beyond mere victory and loss. When the two sides meet Sunday, India will be facing not just 11 players but a packed crowd of Sri Lankans bursting with love and gratitude for their national cricket team.

“This is our way of returning the favour,” said Dayani, a working woman, who took a day off to celebrate at the stadium.

“Let us say it is just a thanksgiving. When we were struggling to make ends meet [during the financial crisis], they helped us in every way possible, including providing food materials and ration. We know they didn’t reveal it in public, but we do know these guys should be shoulder-to-shoulder with us.”

It’s a remarkable turn of events.

Only four years ago, with one cricketing name after another, including Sanath Jayasuriya, getting caught in a crackdown on corruption, and the team’s performance plummeting, fans had chosen to stay away. Even the famous ‘Papare’ band could hardly be spotted during matches.

And with some of the current players embroiled in disciplinary issues (some were sent back from overseas tours, a player was even arrested in Australia on sexual-harassment charges) and inflation hitting the pockets hard, cricket took a back seat.

All that seems to be forgotten now.

“Fans have been amazing in the recent past and the way the guys have performed has attracted more crowds to the game,” said captain Dasun Shanaka. “Especially the youngsters, they have been amazing in the last two years and the record is good so they see that we are fighting in the middle (rather) than (seeing) what the end result is. They are looking to enjoy cricket, apart from their jobs.”

During the match against Pakistan, as Maheesh Theekshana hobbled off the field, he received a standing ovation from the crowd. The cheer came despite Theekshana not having the best of the days with the ball and accounting for only one wicket in the match. They perhaps remembered the economical crisis last year when, just before joining his IPL team Chennai Super Kings, Theekshana visited his alma mater St Benedict College in Colombo to help a few school children.

During the turmoil, while most of their former players including the likes of Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Muttiah Muralidharan were vocal supporters of the protestors, the current team helped by distributing rations, canned fish and even coming to the financial aid of many.

“They (fans) want to see these kids Dunith Wellalage and Pathirana and young batsmen like Asalanka, (Pathum) Nissanka, how they chip in and they eagerly wait for these guys to perform, that’s what the difference is,” Shanaka said. “Now everyone wants to come and see what they are doing. Now we are in the Asia Cup final again, and they are expecting us to do something special.”

The locals have been waiting to throng the stadium since the Super 4 fixtures landed in Colombo. However, with the ticket prices prohibitive — even the cheap concrete seat cost LKR 10,000 (INR 2,500), they stayed away when Sri Lanka faced Bangladesh the previous Saturday, a contest that has evolved into a big rivalry in these parts.

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But when the Pakistan Cricket Board – which is hosting the event in Sri Lanka — woke up to the empty stands, slashing the prices, the fans began to turn up in numbers. Most of the tuk-tuk (as the auto rickshaws are called here) drivers have been cajoling the journalists to conjure a ticket for them to buy.

The few years of difficulty behind, in Sri Lanka, cricket is beginning seems to look promising again. Having won the T20 Asia Cup last year, the team entered this year’s Asia Cup as underdogs and, despite the absence of four of their first-four bowlers due to injuries, are now waiting to seize their moment against top-dogs India.

The Papare band is ready. The people are ready. The love is real.

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