TikaWeeks #40/2023: Sri Lanka update

Posted by John on 3rd October 2023

Papare - a lively genre of Sri Lankan music - goes hand in hand with cricket (courtesy of Hafsa Adil/Al Jazeera)

Despite Sri Lanka’s crushing defeat at the hands of arch rivals India in front of a capacity home crowd in last month’s Asia Cup final, there were still plenty of smiling faces, dancing in the aisles and party music resounding around Colombo’s R. Premadasa cricket stadium. Even at the height of the island’s civil war and during the recent political and economic chaos, cricket has been a unifying force, a soothing balm at the time of crisis.

The following passage is an abridged version of an article published in Al Jazeera online on 18 September 2023, entitled ‘It works like a balm’: How cricket unifies Sri Lanka in times of crisis.

At the final, a group of young lads in bright shirts danced with abandon on a hot and humid afternoon as a band belted out papare, a lively genre of Sri Lankan music, in a packed stadium. However, the festive atmosphere in the aisles belied the action unfolding on the field. Sri Lanka were dismissed for 50 runs in 15 overs – their second-lowest one-day international (ODI) total – by India’s fast bowlers in the final of the Asia Cup. They would go on to lose by 10 wickets. The crowd – roughly 80% Sri Lankan – were resigned to their team’s fate and decided to dance their way into the evening.

Many were simply happy to be in the presence of the country’s biggest stars – the national cricket team – and said they would watch the match until the end: “Cricket is the one thing that makes us smile,” explained one supporter on how the game provided relief for a country emerging from its worst economic crisis. “Whenever the nation is suffering and in pain, it [cricket] works like a balm”, he continued.

It has been 14 years since the end of the decades-long civil war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), better known as the 'Tamil Tigers'. “During those 30 years, cricket helped us forget about the war and made us smile,” said another cricket fan. “Growing up in the 1990s, cricket was the one thing we could be proud of as a country and the only thing that united people,” he told Al Jazeera, hours after Sri Lanka’s embarrassing defeat at the hands of its northern neighbour.

The war divided opinions based on ethnicity, language, race, religion and language, but cricket brought the people together: “It was a very fractured country, but if there was one thing that cut across all those differences, it was cricket,” stated another.

Shanaka Amarasinghe, a Sri Lankan sports broadcaster who grew up in the shadow of the civil war, recalled how cricket was a “welcome distraction” for the young and old alike. “It was a time when the Sri Lankan team was getting results against the big guns despite being the underdog,” he said. In 1996 – in the midst of the conflict – Sri Lanka won its first ODI World Cup title, defeating favourites Australia. The triumph brought people out on the streets from Colombo to Galle on the coast and from Kandy to Dambulla in the Cultural Triangle. “I can say with some authority that even the LTTE cadres would watch the Sri Lankan team play,” Amarasinghe said.

In the years that followed and as the violence worsened, Sri Lanka recorded more wins and unearthed new stars. Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara, Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan enjoyed godlike status in the 2000s. “For Muralitharan to be a part of the Tamil community and yet be revered as one of the biggest stars by the whole nation says something about the power of cricket,” continued Amarasinghe.

Every run from the Sri Lankan batters was greeted with loud roars but at one point, when it seemed like Pakistan would walk away with the semi-final win, the stadium fell into silence. In that moment, the unifying force of cricket was on display in the stands. A group of school-aged boys in cricket shirts shouted “Come on Sri Lanka”, older men held their heads in disbelief and three women, wearing the Muslim abaya, held up their hands in prayer. The prayers were answered when Charith Asalanka hit the winning runs to take Sri Lanka into the final. It was pandemonium in the aisles.

Parents tossed their little ones in the air, friends hugged each other and the young group of cricket fans waved their arms in excitement. Pitarata Wisthara Mewa – a hit from the Sri Lankan baila and kapirinya style of music – blared from the PA system and within seconds the entire stadium was dancing.

According to sports writer Amarasinghe, fans who are fed up with the country’s politicians admire cricketers for giving them brief moments of respite. “Watching a cricket match is akin to being embroiled in drama that does not concern them directly, be it fighting to acquire a cylinder of gas or fuelling up with your vehicle,” he said.

Sri Lanka is slowly getting back on its feet after grappling with two years of economic and political crises that ended in mass protests in the capital. Some cricketers joined the protesters on the streets. It was during this period that an unfancied Sri Lankan side beat Australia in an ODI series and also clinched last year’s Asia Cup title, emerging as the nation’s saviours once again.

“When nothing was going right and people weren’t able to put meals on the table, the team eased people’s burdens and that’s the role cricket has always played in Sri Lankan life,” said another cricket fan. He then went on to quote a famous Sinhalese saying: Neva gilunath ban choon, which means 'even if the ship sinks, the band keeps playing'. “It perfectly defines Sri Lanka’s relationship with cricket,” he said with a famously warm Sri Lankan smile.

The Pekoe Trail – Stage 22: Kandapola to Pedro Estate

This is the final stage of The Pekoe Trail, or perhaps it is the first if you are walking the trail in reverse – any way will do! The last 10.8 km of Sri Lanka’s iconic tea trail is a moderately challenging, 3-hour walk (rather than a hike) along dirt tracks and through a sea of tea bushes and upcountry villages. It is a popular route for foreign visitors as the start and finish points are easily accessible from Nuwara Eliya.

The stage begins in Kandapola, a small yet busy transit town located 14 km east of Nuwara Eliya. Take the road directly opposite the filling station ('petrol shed', as it is called locally) and stay on this road for close to 2 km, where the trail veers off to the left just in front of an old warehouse. Leave the village behind and for the next 8 km the trail is on tea estate tracks. Please note that there is very little shade along this section of the tea trail and on a sunny day you will need high-factor sun screen as your UV exposure is intense. Likewise, on a windy and rainy day, temperatures here can drop and you will need a warm layer and possibly a raincoat.

Circle around Courtlodge tea factory, one of the oldest tea estates in the region (circa 1890), before meandering up and down quiet tea trails and through a remote village at the far end of the valley. After 5.8 km, you will reach the highest point of the trail at 2108 metres elevation. At the 8-km point, the trail passes the estate manager's bungalow surrounded by attractive tea plantations and gradually starts to descend.

After 8.6 km, lookout for a small tea trail that peels off to the left (south) and zig-zags down the mountain through lush tea fields. Directly in front of you across the main Nuwara Eliya to Uda Pussellawa road is the Pedro Estate tea factory, one of the area’s signature estates with a tea factory sitting proudly over the surrounding countryside – factory visits are available – which is the end/start point of The Pekoe Trail and only 3 km from Nuwara Eliya.

Categories: Cricket, News, Sightseeing, Sri Lanka, Travel tips

« All articles