By Malinda Seneviratne –
It was the 22nd day of the month of July in the year 2010. Galle was the venue of the first test between Sri Lanka and India. India had avoided innings defeat but was ahead only marginally with 9 wickets down. For fifteen overs and 2 deliveries, much of the cricketing world waited and watched with rising anticipation. Muttiah Muralitharan had already taken 799 test wickets. It was his last test. He had one shot at achieving the numerically satisfying ‘800’ to end an illustrious test cricket career.
Few who watched would forget the 4th delivery of the 116th over. This is how it was described by the cricinfo commentator: ‘Muralitharan to Ojha, OUT, 800 it is! The wait and the tension is finally over! Tossed up outside off and the four men around the bat wait in anticipation! Ojha lunges forward, edges it and Mahela falls to his left and takes the catch at first slip! No need to look anywhere for confirmation, straightforward and Murali is ecstatic.’
Few would remember two other deliveries, the 4th of the 102nd over and the 2nd deliver of the 106th. In the first case, Ishant Sharma steered a Lasith Malinga delivery past cover. There was confusion over a second run but in the end the batsmen reached safety. Someone threw the ball. Muralitharan. Then in the 106th over, Pragyan Ojha pushes a Dilshan delivery to mid-off. Murali picks and has a shy at the stumps. Ojha just makes his ground. The disappointment on his face was clearly not for camera. Murali doesn’t do ‘photo op’, he is not a politician.
On both occasions Murali might very well have won the game for Sri Lanka and denied himself that magic number, 800. Bradman got out for a duck in his last innings. Murali would have been ‘stranded’ on 799 but I think would have dabbed that little bit of grace to his immortality to rise (marginally) over the Don in the romantic history of the game.
That’s Murali. All about team, all about collective even as he recognizes the individual and is conscious of the tasks he has been assigned and the standards he sets himself. On and off the playing field, one might add.
He is not one to be drawn into political discussion but if asked he would offer, as he has, candid opinion.
What does Murali know about Sri Lanka, communal conflict, inter-community relations, and depravations generated by war and natural disasters? He is, ethnically speaking, a Tamil. He has, along with his family, known of ethnic violence and yet it cannot be said that he belongs to an underclass, ethnic or otherwise. He is immensely popular and much loved by all communities. He is a national icon and is internationally recognized as an athlete of rare ability whose achievements of an exceptional character. What credentials does he possess to assess progress made in post-conflict Sri Lanka? The Nation asked. Murali responded.
‘We all belong to various communities; we are Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslims. And we all have religious faiths; we are Hindus, Buddhists, Christians. We can belong to this or that community. What we have to realize is that we have to live together and for this we must respect each other. There are differences of course, but the main difference is not about being a Tamil or a Christian, but the different ideas and ways of thinking. We all need peace and we all want to live in a peaceful country. All countries have conflicts and that’s natural. But we have to overcome and live together.’
The above can be read as a homily that is easily drafted. Anyone can say it. Murali, however, is not a word man. He is a man of action, on and off the field, intense and focused, pragmatic and disciplined. No one will dispute this.
He has not lived in a war zone but this doesn’t mean he is ignorant of war-related realities and depravations. He has visited these areas when he was a Brand Ambassador of the World Food Programme. He recalls that time: ‘You can’t imagine how bad things were. I was there and I saw with my own eyes.’ He was speaking of the year 2003, i.e. at a time when the Ceasefire Agreement between the Government and the LTTE was in force.
This is not the only reason he is qualified to pronounce judgment on progress made post-conflict. The ‘Foundation of Goodness’ he set up in 1999 to improve the lives of people in rural Sri Lanka, has been working tirelessly in the North and East for the past 36 months, concentrating mostly in the areas that saw the heaviest fighting, Kilinochchi, Mankulam, Mannar and Mullaitivu.
‘I’ve been there in 2003. It is now 2013, 10 years have passed. I see the difference. Things are 1000 percent better now.’
He has touched and keeps touching hundreds of thousand lives in a real, practical and tangible manner. His work covers 30 ‘empowerment sectors’. He has set up medical centers, dental clinics, implemented projects to empower women, encourage environment management, develop business skills, offered IT training, set up pre-school educational facilities, organized programs to enable young people develop technical skills, provided all kinds of implements, from cooking utensils to sports equipment, and through it all facilitated people-to-people and inter-community interaction and understanding. All for free.
This is not the place to showcase Murali’s ‘Foundation of Goodness’. The point is, he knows. He visits, talks, smiles, make people feel better and leaves behind that which will support them long after he is gone. How many among his detractors who question his credentials can claim to have done better?
‘It is all about people. Harmony depends on people. It is about how you take it.’
That’s shorthand which describes operational template and subtly takes issue with certain kinds of narratives and interpretations of lived and suffered realities, both then and now. Murali could have ‘taken’ in a hundred different ways. He could have ‘given’ too, in many ways. He chose a particular kind of ‘taking’ and a particular kind of ‘giving’. His way makes for harmony. His way is on-the-ground, people-to-people; there are other ‘ways’ that are not, that are wordy and worse, pit people against one another. Those other ‘ways’ are pernicious also because they are designed and disseminated by those who cannot claim to ‘know’ in the way that Murali knows.
‘The assistance given to me by the Army is immense. There was a time when they developed five grounds in just three months. I don’t think anyone or any organization can do what the Army does and continues to do. They have the human resources and the equipment. They can be counted on at any time to deliver what is needed.’
We didn’t ask, but he said.
It brought to mind the period following the defeat of the LTTE. Certain sections of the media castigated the security forces with regard to the way the IDP situation was handled. It was a tough, tough, tough job. No UN agency or set of UN agencies, no I/NGO collective and no set of state institutions, together or separately, could have managed to feed approximately 300,000 people, take care of their health issues, reunite families and arrange things so that the education of the children would not be totally abandoned, the way that the security forces did. They had the numbers, the equipment, the discipline, the minds and hearts.
What Murali sees, then, has to be extension.
We cannot ask, ‘What do you know, Murali?’ We cannot ask, ‘What right do you have, Murali?’ Few, indeed, can interrogate the man. He knows the dimensions. First hand. He knows eye-wash. He can see through orchestrated demonstrations. Why? He is a person and he knows people. Different kinds of people.
He is a man of few words, when it comes to interviews. He is more about action. He has tossed unplayable deliveries. But what he delivers now and what he has been delivering for more than a decade now are different – makes for engagement. Makes for peace.
On the cricket field he savored of course his personal achievements, but never delighted more than when his team was victorious. It is the same outside. He doesn’t talk about his Foundation unless you ask him. He does his bit. He is accountable. He is transparent. He is about reconciliation. He doesn’t use those words. That’s the difference. That’s Murali.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com