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Australia must go in to bat for Tamils


Trevor Grant

Cricket Australia and the government must consider a ban on future fixtures against Sri Lanka.

Illustration: John Spooner.

Illustration: John Spooner.

MICHAEL Atherton is a former captain of the England cricket team and now a skilled writer and commentator on the game. He is also a man of conscience.

In 1995, an unashamedly racist article decrying the number of foreign-born players in the England team, including non-whites such Devon Malcolm and Phil DeFreitas, appeared in a British cricket magazine.

The writer, under the headline Is it in the blood, questioned whether foreign-born players had the same commitment as "unequivocal Englishmen" and suggested that non-white players should not be selected. A defamation action by Malcolm and DeFreitas was settled out of court.

Atherton, opening the batting for England at the time, objected strongly to the article. And he still does.

"The idea that an English upbringing makes for a greater commitment out in the middle has never struck me as having one grain of truth in it," he wrote on his website, adding that it has to be a good thing to see people able to overcome the "lottery of place of birth" by choosing a better place to live. It is one more step towards a more humane, civilised and enlightened world."

Atherton's credentials as a cricket writer who thinks beyond the boundary were further enhanced last year when he addressed the controversial political issue of the Sri Lankan government and its treatment of the minority Tamil population.

Alerted by Tamil protests at English Test grounds against the visiting Sri Lankan team last year and then a UK television documentary, also shown on Four Corners in Australia, he posed the question about sporting links with Sri Lanka.

"Channel 4's distressing documentary that highlighted the systematic killing, torture and sexual abuse of Tamil prisoners of war during the civil war was more shocking than anything seen on television since the Ethiopian food shortages," he wrote in The Times.

"Increasingly the United Nations' inaction on the evidence of war crimes looks inexcusable. If that continues it is likely that questions will be asked about the suitability of England's tour to Sri Lanka [it went ahead].

"After all, there seems little to differentiate [Sri Lankan] President [Mahinda] Rajapaska's brutal regime from that of Robert Mugabe's in Zimbabwe, about whom English consciences were severely pricked." It is now time for Australian consciences to be pricked, as the Sri Lankan cricketers prepare for star billing against Australia in three Tests this summer, in Hobart, Melbourne and Sydney.

Sri Lanka is a team that packs a punch these days. Its cavalier brand of cricket is full of runs, wickets and cheek. It is sure to have thousands of expatriate supporters cheering on its daredevil exploits, adding so much to the colour and movement of the season.

But what will be forgotten in the excitement is the dark side to this team. It's not so much the individual players but, what and who, they really represent. In other words, the rich and powerful in the Sri Lankan nation and an elected government that is alleged to be engaging in genocide against the poorest of its own people, many of whom are seeking refuge here.

The Sri Lankan President is part of this elite and a man who loves to align himself with sport, especially cricket. He has openly influenced selection, made sure the new national stadium in Colombo was named after him, and rarely misses a photo opportunity with a star in creams. Brutal oppressors love to use sport to launder their image. But Rajapaksa can't fool anybody who reads about world affairs.

The President and his military have been under pressure since a UN-commissioned report said there was evidence that the government, and the Tamil Tigers, committed war crimes at the end of the war in 2009 and recommended an investigation.

There are also credible reports that thousands of Tamils have "disappeared" after being picked up by government security forces. Many journalists have suffered similar treatment. The editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper, Lasantha Wickremetunge, who was a noted government critic and had publicly forecast his death at the hands of the government, was murdered on his way to work four years ago. The crime remains unsolved.

The links between this regime and the cricket team are there for all to see. The recently retired captain, Sanath Jayasuriya, is now an elected representative of the Rajapaksa government. Spinner Ajantha Mendis, named on stand-by for the Tests but likely to play in the one-day series, is a second-lieutenant and gunner in the Sri Lankan Army who saw active service in the civil war. Rajapaksa was guest of honour at his wedding last year.

The former captain, Arjuna Ranatunga, is a politician who was in the government camp before switching further to the right in recent times. He described General Sarath Fonseka, the military commander of the Tamil massacre, as a wonderful man who can "save" Sri Lankan politics.

Very few Tamils have worn the nation's colours on the cricket field. Like all oppressed minorities, lack of opportunity as children denies them the chance to match the majority Sinhalese in the team.

Cricket Australia and the Australian government cannot keep avoiding this issue. They must seriously consider a ban on future fixtures against Sri Lanka.

As protests and calls for a boycott continue this summer, the message to the Sri Lankan government, via its cricket team, is the same one used against apartheid South Africa 40 years ago. There can be no normal sport in an abnormal society.

Trevor Grant is a former chief cricket writer at The Age and now works with the Refugee Action Collective.

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  • War, its groteque and civil war is the worst form. If teh sriLankan government committed excesses then its a war crime investigation required and the crimes against humanity need to be punished. This requires international action. Australia should be preapred to lead the way.

    G Sacramento
    Date and time
    December 11, 2012, 9:06AM
    • Australia should mind it's own business for once and let Sri Lanka sort out it's own affairs. Always ready to meddle and always offering advice because we think we know better. We are a small country of 23 million people in the South Pacific and have a delusional sense of self importance.

      cape republic
      Date and time
      December 11, 2012, 4:17PM
  • For one thing this article is factually incorrect and also motivates the reader to link politics and sports. What the writer doesn't know is that when Sri Lanka won the world cup in 1996, the team had diverse players; Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Christian, Buddists etc. Murali is a very good example where talent was seen early and nurtured early. He is the lading test wicket taker and a great ambassador to the game. When he was no bowled incorrectly by Australian Umpire Darrel Hair, it was Arjuna Ranatunga who stood up risking a repurcussions to his career. There are many Sinhalese and Tamils who line in harmony in every part of the country. I think it is unfair to put 14 players who play for the love of the game and proud to represent their motherland under pressure nor link politics to sports. If anyone suggests that by banning future series it will put pressure on the govt, that person is taken....sports is a strong binder that glues people together and if that is taken out(especially the game of cricket), the poeple of Sri Lanka will loose the right and the previledge to play, watch and follow this beautiful game no matter where it is played....
    Keep politics out of place please.....

    An independent
    Date and time
    December 11, 2012, 9:36AM
    • The arrticle is correct. A few Sinhalese and Tamils lving in harmony does not hide the fact that the overwhelming majority have a very different opininion of the Tamils and want the Tamil identity in the island destroyed, The government is doing just what they want. Destroying the anceint Tamil identiy in the island .

      Date and time
      December 11, 2012, 11:14AM
    • Good article and counter-comment. Bad comment.

      When South Africa was treated as a pariah state in its sports, that had the backing of the ANC because it put pressure on the government to change.

      Sri Lanka needs to change. It is brutal in the way it treats the Tamils.

      It is also VERY active in its attempts to stop criticism in Australia.

      An Australian activist who has also been active for Tibet said that not even the Chinese Government were as spiteful and nasty as the Sri Lankan Government in quashing dissenters in Australia.

      A real independent
      Date and time
      December 11, 2012, 11:47AM
    • Sinhalese, by any chance?

      Billygoat Gruff
      on an island
      Date and time
      December 11, 2012, 11:53AM
  • I wonder why no one in the UN is actually doing something about this? It has been going on for decades, not years! Oh, that's right, Sri Lanka has no real resources to offer the greedy nations, same as Zimbabwe had nothing to offer so no one stepped in there either??

    But it'll be ok as all of the affirmitive action people on population control to reduce humanities climate footprint will be praising the efforts of the Lankin & Mugabe's governemnts, wouldn't they?

    Date and time
    December 11, 2012, 9:43AM
    • The Tamils started a war, and lost. The Tamil Tigers committed many atrocities in the name of their "struggle".
      The war is now over. They should get on with living with their fellow Sinhalese, rather than living in the past. If they dont like it, they should move to Tamil Nadu in India, where the majority of Tamils live

      dont believe the spin
      Date and time
      December 11, 2012, 9:46AM
      • I don't agree with your opinion. Ethnic troubles were created by the British who had a divide and rule policy. S W R D Bandaranaike set it on fire by winning the election promising to make Sinhala the national language within 24 hrs. He did it isolating the Tamil population. He scapped English language, the common language, and sent his kids to England and France to study. Opressed Tamils had no alternative but to rise up.
        However as stated by an earlier commentator I feel it is wrong to mix sport with politics. It is best if sport journalists with little knowledge of the politics of another country limit their commentaries to what they know.
        Just for the record I am a Sinhalese.

        Date and time
        December 11, 2012, 10:44AM
      • Sensible, it is actually very sensible to recognise that sport is already political.

        As above, the African National Congress in South Africa supported boycotts of South Africa's sporting teams. It isolated apartheid on the world stage.

        So too here. Boycotting Sri Lankan teams would help isolate the cruel rulers of Sri Lanka, putting pressure on them to change.

        Cultural boycotts are good too. When the wife of the Syrian President was shown to be regularly visiting London and being "high society", it was right to point her out to the public as the wife of a mass-murderer.

        Certain people who don't care at all about politics will care about sport and culture and pressure the Sri Lankan Government to stop murdering and torturing its own people (the Tamils), if sporting boycotts are put in place.

        A real independent
        Nope, not saying
        Date and time
        December 11, 2012, 12:17PM

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