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ICC Cricket World Cup 2023 & the ICC’s Hard Decision on Sri Lanka’s Beloved Sport

Yesterday the whole cricketing world gazed upon the final match between India and Australia at World Cup ODI 2023 held in Ahmedabad, India. Australia emerged victorious over India in the men’s Cricket World Cup, dashing the hopes of the host nation, which was overseeing the tournament fully on its turf for the first time. Under the leadership of captain Pat Cummins, the visiting team secured a comfortable six-wicket win, leaving India disheartened as they aspired to reclaim the trophy after a 12-year gap.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka, the first Asian country to hold the Cup in 1996 was banned from the ICC following a series of allegations. The ICC Board (https://www.icc-cricket.com/media-releases/3777114) convened to address the concerning situation with Sri Lanka Cricket. It was concluded that there is a significant violation of membership obligations, specifically in the aspect of independently managing its affairs and preventing government interference in the oversight, regulation, and administration of cricket within Sri Lanka. The specifics of the suspension terms will be determined by the ICC Board shortly.

ICC Bans Sri Lanka

Cricket, Sri Lanka’s most beloved sport, has been entangled in a web of misgovernance, corruption, crony politics, and clientelism, casting a shadow over the joy it once brought us for over a long time now. Last September Sachithra Senanayake (https://sportstar.thehindu.com/cricket/sri-lanka-cricket-sachitra-senanayake-match-fixing-allegations-granted-bail-remand-arrest/article67343911.ece ), an off-spinner, faced allegations of attempting to manipulate matches in the 2020 edition of the Lanka Premier League. During this period, he was purportedly involved in enticing two players to engage in game-fixing activities through telephone communication.

The current state of affairs has not only disrupted the administration of cricket but has also had a profound impact on the performance of the Sri Lankan national team. Coached by the experienced Chris Silverwood, Sri Lanka managed to secure victories in only two out of nine matches at the World Cup in India. Placed second from the bottom in the table, with additional fixtures yet to be played,  Sri Lanka’s chances of qualifying for the 2025 Champions Trophy appear bleak.

In a disheartening turn of events in Sri Lankan Cricket, Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Sport has ousted the cricket board, robbing the nation of its sporting aspirations. The dismissal of the Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) board and the imposition of an interim committee, led by Arjuna Ranatunga, by the Ministry of Sport, is a blow to the very heart of our national pride. Despite a court ruling that reinstated the old board, the political intervention seemed to be a catalyst for the ICC’s decisive action. This action will be further discussed by the ICC board on November 21, adds another layer of uncertainty to our cricketing future.

The implications of the ICC suspension are severe for Sri Lanka Cricket. Funding from the ICC will be frozen, and both the men’s and women’s teams will be excluded from participating in ICC events, effectively barring them from competitive international cricket matches. Given Sri Lanka’s precarious economic situation, with a sovereign debt default barely a year ago, the impact on the domestic game could be significant, as poorer members often heavily rely on ICC funding for various cricketing expenses.

Unfolding Sri Lankan Cricket in Crisis

The Political interventions in Sri Lankan Cricket have been a persistent and complex narrative, challenging the notion of keeping sports separate from political influence. While history reflects attempts to consider cricket above politics, the reality has been quite different. The roots of this entanglement trace back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries when even under British imperial rule, cricket played a role in reinforcing nationalist sentiments for teams like Australia, South Africa, and the West Indies.

Desmond Tutu’s 2008 “Spirit of Cricket” lecture emphasized that politics inevitably impacts sports, and cricket’s core values of fair play and respect have often provided a universal framework. The sporting boycott against apartheid South Africa, sparked by cricket, notably contributed to liberation.

However, these core values have faced continuous strain, evident in historical events like the “bodyline” series in 1932-33 and ongoing political interference in cricket, particularly in the case of Sri Lanka. Despite the nation’s cricketing glory in winning the 1996 ODI World Cup and subsequent successes, the sport has been marred by controversies, crises, and allegations of political interference.

In 2012, former captain Arjuna Ranatunga criticized political interference, stating it was “ruining cricket” and lacking a long-term vision for the sport. Another former captain, Hashan Tillakaratne, claimed match-fixing in Sri Lankan Cricket (SLC) as early as 2011 ( https://www.thehindu.com/sport/cricket/Hashan-Tillakaratne-alleges-match-fixing-in-Sri-Lanka/article14853104.ece ), facing rejection and even death threats for his revelations.

Sri Lanka’s unique approach to sports associations requiring approval from the sports minister before international events reflects the deep connection between politics and cricket. Even in times of civil unrest and economic crisis, cricket remains a unifying force in Sri Lanka. The sport’s ability to fuel political expression was evident in a protest during a Test match against Australia, highlighting the critical relationship between cricket, politics, and the people of Sri Lanka.

With the country slated to host the under-19 men’s World Cup in January, there is a pressing motive for the ICC to swiftly resolve the suspension issue. However, Sri Lanka Cricket vehemently denies corruption allegations from the government in Colombo, particularly regarding the transfer of approximately $2 million from its accounts to third-party accounts connected to preparations for hosting the tournament. In the face of these challenges, the cricketing community in Sri Lanka grapples with the emotional toll of political interference jeopardizing their only sporting hope. As the fate of Sri Lanka’s beloved sport hangs in the balance, the emotional toll on fans and players alike is immeasurable. Sri Lanka, a nation that thrives on the passion for cricket, is set to host the Under-19 Men’s Cricket World Cup in early 2024, and a three-Test tour of England is scheduled for August. Yet this will mark another black mark on the politically motivated tragedies in Sri Lanka’s history.