Sri Lanka Asia Cup 2022 win
Sri Lanka defeated Pakistan in the final to win the Asia Cup for the sixth time. Photo: Twitter/SLC

Power of sport: Asia Cup triumph in Dubai lifts spirits of crisis-hit Sri Lanka

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When Chamika Karunaratne knocked over Haris Rauf to signal the end of the Asia Cup, the 11 Sri Lankans on the field, their dozen-plus colleagues in the dugout and the change-room, and the millions of Sri Lankans and fans of Sri Lankan cricket back home and in different parts of the world erupted in unalloyed joy. From Melbourne to Manchester and Colombo to Kolkata, the party went on long and deep into Sunday night and beyond. As popular victories go, this will be hard to beat.

It’s been a torrid last six or so months for a nation that has stood proud despite the internecine problems that have threatened its spirit. The Civil War is a thing of the past, but a series of questionable decisions by what was not long ago considered the first family of the country plunged the nation into the throes of economic depression and a massive political crisis. Generally patient and extremely forgiving, the Sri Lankans rose as one as their hardships mounted, their ire turned on the Rajapaksas who were eventually forced to beat a hasty retreat as the peoples’ movement gathered force in a chain of protracted non-violent protests that catalysed a coup of unprecedented proportions.

Also read: Sri Lanka lions win Asia Cup crown, glory amid political crisis

Power of sport

Heart-rending tales of young parents standing long hours in vain at departmental stores, desperately hoping against hope for something as taken-for-granted as milk powder, were hard to swallow, particularly given the plethora of friendships one has formed over multiple visits to a land that always gives and asks nothing more than love in return. The peoples’ movement became so powerful and all-consuming, and the disillusionment with the political leaders so pronounced, that even those celebrities who hid behind lip service to the ruling class came out openly in condemnation of the policies that had driven the teardrop island to the brink of disaster.

Also read: Gautam Gambhir poses with Sri Lankan flag

Against this disturbing backdrop, to celebrate a title run in cricket might appear incongruous, insensitive, disrespectful even. But that is the power of the sport. It can temporarily alleviate clouds of darkness and despair, it can put a smile on the faces of people; at a time when worry, tension and uncertainty are constant companions, that is simply priceless.

Dasun Shanka
Dasun Shanka receiving the Asia Cup trophy. Photo: Twitter/SLC

There was a lump in Dasun Shanaka’s throat on Sunday night when, following the 23-run conquest of Pakistan, he said, “We dedicate this win to the whole nation. We have gone through so much, but they have supported us all the way and this win is for them.” Sri Lanka’s phlegmatic, understated captain is fast assuming statesman-like proportions, and by sounding the right notes and striking the right chords, he has taken another step towards entrenching himself in the hearts and minds of his countrymen and women.

Also read: Sri Lankan president under fire over govt expansion amidst economic crisis

Rajapaksa rescues team

That was the theme the Sri Lankans espoused throughout the fortnight of the Asia Cup. “If we can put a smile on the faces of the people back home, then we are happy,” Bhanuka Rajapaska, no relation to the notorious first family, has said more than once. Rajapaksa is one of the few in this squad capable of holding his own in English and has often fronted up at media conferences, ready with a smile, honesty dripping from his voice. The irony wasn’t lost on anyone – a Rajapaksa applying the soothing balm. In so many ways, it was in the fitness of things that he was the ‘Player of the Final’, single-handedly responsible for resuscitating his side from the mind-numbing depths of 58 for five.

A cricket-writing Sri Lankan friend who has trailed the national team for more than two decades but who missed this tournament due to other commitments messaged from London a little after Sri Lanka conquered Asia, for the sixth time, “This is unreal, machan,” he wrote. “I had my doubts after the first game. This is truly remarkable.”

Bhanuka Rajapaksa
Bhanuka Rajapaksa was the ‘Player of the Final’. Photo: Twitter/SLC

That first game was the crushing eight-wicket loss to Afghanistan, when Sri Lanka were bowled out for 105. Rajapaksa, in one of his many forays to the press conference room, banished that performance as ‘shameful’. With their campaign on the brink of ruination, Shanaka’s band of warriors showcased the resilience of their compatriots back home, drawing strength and energy and solace from the power of the pack and working as a group towards singing the redemption song.

Also read: Sri Lanka appoints 37 junior ministers, including nephew of ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa

Every crisis threw up a different hero, every setback was viewed as an opportunity. Without fanfare, Shanaka became the engine room of the side, its heart and soul. He doesn’t believe in drawing attention to himself, but if he continues to stack up the results, he can’t avoid the limelight, however much he might desire to.

A promise for a better tomorrow

At the peak of the crisis in Sri Lanka, with the shops besieged by people who were greeted by empty shelves, cricket was patronaged generously. First Australia, then Pakistan visited Sri Lanka and were welcomed with open arms and beaming smiles. Crowds at the matches spilled over, vibrant full houses indicative of the temporary respite the masses so craved. Their heroes didn’t disappoint, winning the ODI series against Australia, and drawing the Test series against both the Aussies and the Pakistanis.

The aforementioned friend was in Galle for the Australia Tests, and with public transport non-existent and trishaws (as auto rickshaws are referred to) impossible to come by, embarked on a 30-minute walk from his hotel to the Galle International Stadium. Less than a minute later, a two-wheeler drew up and offered a lift, even though the stadium wasn’t on the rider’s route. When my friend offered to pay the rider on reaching the venue, the worthy shrugged it off with a smile and an embrace. “Let it be, aiyya,” he said, in Sinhala. “This is the least we can do for each other.”

Also read: Gotabaya’s ‘hero’s return’ a sign that Rajapaksas still have a chance at Lankan politics

These might be everyday stories to so many of us, but what’s been going on in Sri Lanka is anything but everyday stuff. This Asia Cup triumph will not change their lives, it won’t make the hardships disappear in a trice or immediately return them to their glory days when tourism thrived and the masses came a-thronging. But it holds the promise of a better tomorrow. It instills the hope that it is darkest before dawn, and that a turnaround is never too far away. For that alone, Dasun Shanaka and his men must take a bow.

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