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.

Follow the National Times on Twitter