Some historians say, I think uncharitably, that cricket is really a diabolical political strategy, disguised as a game, in fact a substitute for war, invented by the ingenious British to confuse the natives by encouraging them to fight each other instead of their imperial rulers.
The world is divided into two camps – those who revel in the intricacies of cricket and those who are totally baffled by it, who cannot figure out why a group of energetic young men should spend days, often in the hot sun or bitter cold, chasing a ball across an open field, hitting it from time to time with a stick – all to the rapturous applause of thousands, now millions, of ecstatic spectators across the world. The game has developed a mystical language of its own that further bewilders those who are already befuddled by its complexities.
In the course of my travels I have a hard time explaining to the non-cricketing world – in America , China , Europe and Russia – that a ‘googly’ is not an Indian sweetmeat; that a ‘square cut’ is not a choice selection of prime beef; that a ‘cover drive’ is not a secluded part of the garden; that a ‘bouncer’ is not a muscular janitor at a night club, that a ‘Yorker is not some exotic cocktail mixed in Yorkshire or that a ‘leg-break’ is not a sinister manoeuvre designed to cripple your opponent’s limbs below the waist.
Let me see whether politics and cricket have anything in common. Both are games. Politicians and cricketers are superficially similar, and yet different. Both groups are wooed by the cruel public who embrace them today and reject them tomorrow.
Cricketers work hard; politicians only pretend to do so. Cricketers are disciplined; discipline is a word unknown to most politicians in any language. Cricketers risk their own limbs in the heat of honourable play; politicians encourage others to risk their limbs in pursuit of fruitless causes while they remain secure in the safety of their pavilions. Cricketers deserve the rewards they get; the people get the politicians they deserve. Cricketers retire young; politicians go on for ever. Cricketers unite the country; politicians divide it. Cricketers accept the umpire’s verdict even if they disagree with it; politicians who disagree with an umpire usually get him transferred. Cricketers stick to their team through victory and defeat, politicians in a losing team cross over and join the winning team. Clearly, cricketers are the better breed.
It is said that the task of a foreign minister is to lie effusively for his country abroad. That may be true, but it is certainly true that he has to fight for his country and defend it at all times. Our cricketers may recall that in the run-up to the 1995 World Cup, Australia refused to play a match in Colombo , citing security reasons. Shane Warne said he wouldn’t come to Colombo because he couldn’t do any shopping there. The press asked me for a comment. I said “shopping is for sissies”. There was a storm of protest in Australia … A TV interviewer asked me whether I had ever played cricket. I said I had played before he was born – without helmets and thigh guards, on matting wickets that were full of holes and stones, and I had my share of broken bones to show it. My friend the Australian foreign minister was drawn into the fray and phoned me. We decided to cool things down. A combined India/Pakistan team came to Colombo at very short notice to play an exhibition match in place of the Australian match. It was a magnificent gesture of South Asian solidarity. Against strong security advice I went on to the field to greet and thank our friends from India and Pakistan . When the whole episode was over I sent a bouquet of flowers to my Australian counterpart. Flowers are also for sissies.
I remember vividly the incident that occurred in Australia when Murali was called for throwing and Arjuna led his team to the boundary in protest, but cleverly refrained from crossing it. I was watching TV in Colombo . As a past captain I asked myself what I would have done in Arjuna’s place. In my mind I had no hesitation in supporting his decision. A few minutes later the phone rang. The President of the Board called to ask for advice. I said Arjuna was right because a captain must, on the field, stand up for his men and protect them, but the consequences must not be allowed to go too far; good lawyers must be engaged and a reasonable compromise must be reached. That was done. During that tour I paid an official visit to Australia .. My friend the Australian foreign minister in the course of a dinner speech invited me to go with him the next day to Adelaide , his home town, to watch the final day’s play. I knew what the result was going to be. In my reply I said that at the end of the match I did not want to be the one to tell him that Australia had “won by a Hair”. Accordingly, I went back home, as planned, to maintain the good relations that we have with Australia …
Foreign ministers sometimes find themselves in very difficult situations. Take the case of the Foreign Minister of Uganda. President Idi Amin told him that he wanted to change the name of Uganda to Idi. The minister was asked to canvas world opinion and return in two weeks. He did not do so. He was summoned and asked to explain. He said: “Mr. President, I have been informed that there is a country called Cyprus . Its citizens are called Cypriots; if we change the name of our country to ‘Idi’ our citizens would be called… Idiots”. Reason prevailed.
A story goes that a shark was asked why diplomats were his preferred food. He replied “because their brains being small are a tasty morsel, their spines being supple I can chew on them at leisure – and they come delightfully marinaded in alcohol.”
I wish to speak directly to our Sri Lankan team. Today we lost a match. But you lost to the rain and M/s Duckworth and Lewis. You did not lose to England . Only a few weeks ago you had a resounding victory against South Africa . You will win again tomorrow. What is important is to keep up your confidence and spirits. All of us, your fellow countrymen and women, have been enormously impressed in recent times by the commitment, discipline, athleticism and determination that you have displayed in the field. The people are with you. We all know that each and every one of you, are constantly busy honing your skills. We can see that you are maintaining a high standard of physical fitness. When the people see this it gives them not only immense pleasure but the moral upliftment that Sri Lankans are capable of in rising to the challenge of sustained performance.
Every team loses. It takes two to play a game. One has to lose. It is the manner in which you play the game which gives the promise of success to come. It is a great pleasure to see how youngsters are being drafted into the national team. Our team is united; it affects all the races and religions of our country. Cricket, like all international sport today, is highly competitive; and so it must be, and so it must remain. It must always be regarded as a very high honour to represent one’s country at any sport. All of you are role models for our youth. They will be looking to see how you take defeat. To exult in victory is easy; to remain well balanced in defeat is a mark of maturity. Do not allow yourselves to be disturbed by the armchair critics who will no doubt engage in a display of theoretical learning on how the game was played. Many of these critics have never put bat to ball. It makes them feel good to indulge in the past time of amateur criticism. They do not know what it is to face fast bowling in fading light; to engage in a run race against daunting odds; to find the stamina and sheer physical endurance to spend concentrated hours in the field of play. They know nothing of the psychological pressure that modern sportsmen are subject to. Therefore, my advice to you is – ignore them. Go your way with customary discipline and methodical preparation for the next game, the next series in different parts of the world under different conditions.
For me it has been a great pleasure and an honour to be here with you tonight. When I was invited to be the Chief Guest at this occasion on my way to New York for the General Assembly of the United Nations, I accepted with eager anticipation of meeting our cricketers and relaxing for a moment.
Nobody told me that I had to make a speech, until last night when it dawned on me then that there is no such thing as a free dinner!”