By Michael Roberts –
Cricket is many things. Above all, it is a great teacher. It replicates the experiences of life, with joy and suffering in good mix though not always in equal mix. In this teaching school the most profound experiences arise in moments of ignominious defeat. One such moment eventuated over three days at the famous MCG during the equally renowned Boxing Day Test Match when Australia rolled over the Sri Lankan XI by an innings and 201 runs. Mustering only 156 and 102 runs in each innings Sri Lanka was simply crushed.
The toll of injuries which reduced the Sri Lankan XI to eight batsmen in the second innings was only one factor in the eventual outcome. The process began when the leading batsmen batted in needless and careless fashion in the first innings after winning the toss. It was compounded by a series of missed catches – mostly difficult ones to be sure, but nevertheless adding up to sway the outcome decisively in Australia’s favour despite some sharp catches by Mahela and Rangana during the Aussie innings.
A critical factor that gave the Australians the edge in this match was the combination of tall fast bowlers, steady and fierce bowling and a bouncy pitch. Australia has an assembly line of pacemen. Harris, Pattinson, Cummins, Hazelwood and Hilfenhaus may be out injured; but they had Siddle, Bird and Johnston raring to go (and Cutting, Bollinger, Richardson, Coulter-Nile et cetera, et cetera in reserve). A lot has been said about the rotation policy, but few commentators have emphasized the zip and zest it gives to every newcomer in the line-up. Yearning to show their paces in a highly competitive push for places, they reach for the heights.
They also have height. There has been a revolution in the last twenty years. Men six foot six reveal an agility and nimbleness one did not see forty years back: witness Isner, Querry, Berdych, del Petro in tennis; Finn, Broad, Bird, and Starck in cricket. It is amazing that such TV media-men as Taylor, Slater, Nicholas and company were able to compare the capacities of the two teams — during one of the luncheon sessions at Hobart – without reference to the height differences of the average male population in Sri Lanka and India in comparison with their peers in the Caribbean, Britain and Australia.[i]
This is a permanent differentiation built into cricket that advantages the West. It is compounded by the thigh, and body strength of the average males in the West which enable them to gather speed of run-up and thrust of delivery. It is not that India and Sri Lanka cannot produce some speedsters; but that they cannot generate an assembly line of tall pacemen in continuous process.
Add differential bounce, as there was at the MCG, and one found a major skewing of the scales in Australia’s favour during this particular match.
This advantage was doubled and trebled by Dame Fortune in the manner in which cricket, at times, replicates the vagaries of life. In the Sri Lankan first innings one bouncy ball clipped Prasanna Jayawardene on the hand and handle of bat. It not only dismissed him; it fractured his finger. So, Sangakkara took his place as keeper without having practiced this work in the preceding weeks. That evening he missed a difficult catch from Shane Watson which Jayawardene would probably have pouched. Watson went on to make 86 runs.
As in life, moreover, misfortune attended Sri Lanka at many a turn. Australia was a tad lucky with several dismissals: Dilshan and Mahela Jayawardene in the second innings for instance. But both these wickets were preceded and made possible by a piece of brilliant fielding by the mercurial Dave Warner and some careless running by young Dimuth Karunaratne. The speed of both dismissals in two balls in the very first over of the innings meant that Jayawardene rushed unto the pitch in flustered mood. One has prima facie evidence that this state of mind contributed to his dismissal (itself a piece of fortune for the Australians though one has to credit Jackson Bird for impeccable line of attack).
Thus what one saw in this match was a cumulative series of chain events that followed each other and enlarged the gap between the two teams. The old adage “it never rains but it pours” came to mind. Australian brilliance with catch and bat, Australian steadiness, careless Lankan batting, a bouncy pitch, tall Aussie pace bowlers, bad luck, too many missed catches, mounting injuries, all spelt doom and gloom for Sri Lanka.
Whether the Sri Lankan fans and commentators will attend to these facets of the match is doubtful. Ultra-patriotism and disappointment may generate slash and burn abuse. My wife, as sagacious as ever, noted that the defeat could lead to hate mail. Such reactions are indicative of misunderstandings of cricket as life. Disaster must generate reflection and meditative pragmatism – not vituperative retribution in speech-act.
Such comprehensive defeats can be a lesson in life. Adversity demands a reservoir of resilience. I speak from experiences in cricket and sport, having absorbed its vicissitudes in the full from year ten to year fifty. Take one moment when a competent Peradeniya University XI collapsed for 17 runs when batting against Trinity College at Asgiriya in the year1961 or so – being rolled over by Eric Roles and company. I was on the staff as tutor then but had been called up as a batsman because some players were having exams. So, I was party to the slide…. to the grand figure of 17 runs in sum!
Take another moment when Franklin Burke broke my right index finger at St Anthony’s College grounds; and I remained unaware of its seriousness because I thought initially that it was my little finger — already broken and permanently crooked. When realization … INDEX Finger!! ….. dawned on me later that night as I lay awake in agony, “bloody hell” was my immediate thought. Truth was a sledgehammer! But “what to do” as the Peradeniya motto went. I could not play cricket for a while. But there was tennis – with left hand; there were teaching duties, friends and life to pursue. YES, sport has been a teacher. Adversity has to be borne.
Mahela and company:
That captain Mahela had already digested this lesson from cricket and life was amply demonstrated in his post-match comments in the face of the media. Here was a mature young man, a leader. He faced up to the monumental defeat foursquare. He was philosophical. He revealed a reservoir of resilience that should be a lesson to one and all….. a lesson about the virtues of cricket as TEACHER.
But Mahela has more than cricket behind his exposure to suffering. There is, of course, his Buddhist nurturing with its emphasis on the reality of dukkha (suffering). There was, too, that awful moment when as a youngster he lost a brother to cancer.
Moreover, Mahela as well as the Sri Lankan cricket team have gone through three sets of experiences that few Australians have encountered. There has been, for one, the civil war in Sri Lanka from circa 1983 to 2009 with its ever-present possibility of suicide attacks in the Colombo locality.
Secondly, there was the monumental calamity wrought along the coastal shores by the tsunami of 26th December 2004 – an event that impacted indirectly or directly on most Sri Lankans.
Then again, there was that awful moment in Lahore on 3 March 2009 when the Sri Lankan team bus and the mini-bus carrying the umpires were attacked by Muslim fundamentalists. Samaraweera and Paranavithana in the present squad were hospitalized with bullet wounds, while several others had minor shrapnel injuries.
The whiffs of death, in short, have not been that distant in the experience of these Sri Lankan cricketers. Adversity of a terminal kind has been near and ever possible.
It was from within this learning curve that Mahela Jayawardene faced the camera after the MCG defeat. He did so in phlegmatic and realistic vein. He made me proud to be Sri Lankan. In adversity as well as triumph one must remain true to self, as honest as reflective.
*For further detials on the Lahore attack [which is still buried in obfuscation from Pakistan], see Roberts, Incursions & Excursions in and around Sri Lankan Cricket, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2011, ISBN 978-955-53198-0-5
SOME QUOTATIONS FROM MAHELA’S MEDIA INTERVIEW:
- “It was the poor batting in the first innings on a good wicket after winning the toss that proved a disaster.… We should have shown more character and more responsibility. We are not trotting out any excuses.” (from Daily News, 28 December 2012).
- “In Melbourne, things happened pretty fast and we just did not handle any of those situations that well. The injuries are unfortunate but those are not excuses. We really played a bad game of cricket.” ….. “We lost two wickets in no time in the first over itself and that gave them a lot of momentum. You can’t pinpoint and say this is where we went wrong. There were loose shots and loss of concentration. We need to step up to the plate and we need to show more character and dig deep and see how we can perform better, take responsibility in certain situations better and fight.” (from Island, 28 December 2012).