Till recently, the only times you heard the names Oddusuddan, Kilinochchi, Jaffna or Vavuniya was in bleak dispatches about skirmishes that took place in the North and East of Sri Lanka, with the regions bearing the brunt of a three-decade long civil war. With peace returning to the region, cricket has not been far behind, and some remarkable men have worked tirelessly to bring on-field action to a group of youngsters who have been deprived of the soothing balm of sport when they needed it the most.
The Foundation of Goodness, a charity set up by Kushil Gunasekara with Muttiah Muralitharan as the chief trustee, in association with the International Cricket Council, and supported by the Sri Lankan Army and Red Dot Tours, a travel company, took the Murali Harmony Cup to areas where even two months ago, there were no proper cricket grounds. The tournament, which is now in its second year, was the brainchild of Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardena, but this was the first time matches were played in the North of the country. Significantly, the competition, which featured some English school teams in the first year, was an all-Sri Lankan affair in 2012 and the results were instantaneous.
Trinity College, one of the strongest teams on the island, was the first to be given a taste of the untapped talent in the North, and lost to a team from Jaffna. “Obviously, there is talent in the region,” said Jayawardena in the early part of the tournament. “It’s all about giving people the right opportunities, and when you do that, the results are there to see.”
St Peter’s, the boys team that went all the way, was also given a fright by unfancied opposition, scraping through by one wicket against a combined Trincomalee-Batticaloa team.
As Gunasekara puts it, though, there was more to this tournament than finding quality young cricketers. “You all know what winning the ICC World Cup 1996 did for Sri Lankan cricket. Arjuna Ranatunga’s team gave the entire country the belief that they could beat the best in the world,” said Gunasekara. “And if you see what’s happening here in the North, it would be no exaggeration to say that this tournament will have the same galvanising effect on the region.”
For the players, just the chance to compete in a structured tournament and show what they were capable of was a big opportunity, but there’s more to come. A team comprising the best players, named the Unity Team, will travel to Singapore to play two matches against the Singapore Cricket Club. “Look, the ground at which there was a crowd of 4000 spectators just the other day, was a paddy field till we brought cricket here,” said Gunasekara. “The kind of work the armed forces have put in to get this tournament off the ground at such short notice is amazing. You have to remember there was no infrastructure here – no pitches, no grounds, no place to stay or eat. I don’t know if I’ll be popular for saying this, but without the efforts of the Sri Lankan army, this tournament could never have become a reality.”
The symbolism of the tournament is not lost on anyone. “For decades now, Muttiah Muralitharan has been an icon that everyone in this country could look up to,” said Gunasekara. “He has done so much for the game, and through it all, the way he has carried himself is an example to youngsters. You go anywhere in the world, and Murali is loved and respected. He put Sri Lanka on the global map, so we didn’t have to think twice before naming the tournament after him.”