‘Cricket Under My Skin’ by Gerry Roberts was published in 'Spiral Anthology' in 2020.
I have heard the occasional remark that we Sri Lankans are hardwired to love cricket. My love of cricket is the same as my race, gender and sexuality. I’m saddled with it. It may be genetic. Cricketers flourished in the families of both my parents. My father reached the pinnacle when he represented All-Ceylon, as the then-national cricket team was called, just before and after World War II.
Plagued by timidity, social anxiety and a lack of confidence, I found in cricket a comforting escape. On the playing field I stood tall, thrilling in gladiatorial contests of bat against ball and rejoicing in my modest successes. I never feared a cricket ball, however fast it was hurled or hit at me. I wore my bruises like badges of honour. In my dreams and fantasies, I occupied the highest echelons of my cricketing heroes. And the right spirit was always an integral component. No matter how fierce the battle, fairness, integrity, decency and respect were never compromised. A sound thrashing tasted sweeter than a victory tainted by even a hint of cheating or bad behaviour.
* * *
I had a childhood crush on the Australian cricket team. Throughout those TV-absent times of the 1950s and 60s, I followed Australia’s fortunes by grabbing snatches of cricket commentary between the crackles and hisses of short-wave radio and scouring newspapers for the latest cricket scores. I ripped out cricket photographs and articles from sports magazines, all of which I mounted in scrapbooks.
On my tenth birthday, the gift of a brand-new cricket bat materialised from behind my father’s back and my heart leapt with joy. Not just because I was passionate about cricket and fancied myself as a batsman. The bat was autographed by Norman O’Neill, a dashing Australian batsman regarded as the next Bradman and the absolute love of my life.
A few months later, the ship taking the Australian cricket team to England for an Ashes series docked in Colombo for a day or two. From the back row of the Colombo Oval pavilion, standing on my seat, I watched the Aussies under Richie Benaud take on All-Ceylon. It turned out Norman O’Neill was the pin-up boy of a large vocal contingent of young women who shrieked his name whenever he ventured within earshot.
I was outraged. He’s mine, I fumed. I couldn’t wait to return to the quietness of my bedroom, where I had him all to myself.
* * *
In November 1974, at the age of twenty-three, I migrated to Australia. Many of the early days are blurred in my memory, but Boxing Day 1974 stands out like a beacon. The MCG rose before me like a mighty coliseum. Hordes gathered outside, many clad in shorts, t-shirts, thongs and war paint, which I learnt later was zinc cream, and bearing large metal boxes. As the day unfolded, nothing I had ever experienced in my humble island life prepared me for the onslaught of untrammelled, boisterous, alcohol-fuelled merriment. Approaching stumps, empty beer cans occupied every space not taken up by a human being. One portly gentleman unbuttoned his fly and urinated where he stood.
But the spectator circus was a mere sideshow to the actual cricket. Doug Walters fielding in slips flung himself sideways to take a miraculous one-handed catch. Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, bowling at lightning speed, cut a swathe through the hapless English batsmen. This cricket was a blood sport, played in deadly earnest, at a level of skill, agility, speed, strength and aggression unfamiliar to me.
In my sweet, innocent youth, I was unaware of the implications of my association of white skin with natural superiority over darker-hued people like me. After all, we Sri Lankans had for centuries existed under the dominion of the Portuguese, Dutch and British. Cocooned among like-minded souls, I never realised that my enthusiastic Anglophilia was underpinned by inferiority.
Then, on a mid-winter Melbourne Saturday, an elderly white gentleman, trembling in anger, ordered me to bugger off back to where I came from when I politely pointed out that he had jumped the queue in the Myer food hall. My colonial baggage opened like Pandora’s Box. After weeks of seething and stewing, it dawned on me. I would never prosper in my adopted country unless I developed pride in my brown skin. My heroes of old were of no use here. I needed help from a few brown-skinned champions. Naturally, I looked to cricket to provide them.
I thought my new heroes would arrive with the West Indian cricket team that toured Australia in 1975–76. But I found it impossible to plunge into wholehearted affection for a team whose past champions, like Frank Worrell, Garfield Sobers, Rohan Kanhai and Wesley Hall, were cricketing gods I worshipped from afar.
* * *
I craved a different sort of hero. My father entered the picture. I hadn’t been around in his heyday and carried a pulse of regret for that absence. The penny dropped. My local heroes had to be mortals who were familiar to me, with whom I could identify.
Then, in 1981, the cricket team of the land of my birth was granted full test match status. These men, some of whom I knew personally, would be challenging the mighty Aussies on their own turf. I could latch onto them with the same parochial possessiveness with which my Aussie mates loved their sporting heroes. They vaulted into my heart and love gushed out.
Whenever the Sri Lankan national team toured Australia, from their first summer in 1982–83, my life became an emotional rollercoaster. I exulted in their successes and despaired at their failures. I was outraged when they were ill-treated by their opponents or the media or the umpires or anyone. When Muttiah Muralitharan was persecuted because of a suspect bowling action, arguments in my sedate life experienced a sharp spike. I spoiled for a verbal stoush with anyone who expressed the view that Murali was a chucker.
Sri Lanka did not explode onto the world cricket stage. It would take a few years before they commanded respect and became a force to be reckoned with. But they did. When Arjuna Ranatunga, ably supported by Aravinda de Silva, Sanath Jayasuriya, Romesh Kaluwitharana and others won the World Cup for Sri Lanka in 1996, I found my multicultural niche as a proud Sri Lankan Australian. Later, my eyes moistened with pride each time Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene were lauded as ornaments of the game, not only because of their exquisite skill but also for their exemplary on-field behaviour.
* * *
Through many years of competitive cricket, I became accustomed to the Australian way, a far cry from my childhood experiences and impressions. Everyone was fair game for a ribbing. It was a sign of acceptance even when my very dark-skinned brother-in-law was called ‘Snowy’ by his teammates. I never ever felt I was disliked or disrespected because of my ethnicity. We all laughed easily, we all loved to play cricket and we all loved a drink afterwards. My Aussie teammates taught me that a heart of gold and a little aggression combined with a lot of irreverence are not mutually exclusive qualities. I came to understand that irreverence is an equaliser in an egalitarian society. My skin thickened and I relaxed my strict standards of good behaviour.
But I never warmed to the Australian national team. The rose-hued spectacles I brought to Australia began its slide at the MCG on that Boxing Day in 1974. From that day onwards, an unpleasant reality about Australian representative cricketers manifested in full glare. Instead of the heroes of my childhood, I saw a bunch of overpaid, thuggish brats who regarded winning as an entitlement. They bullied opponents with humourless abuse, taunts and threats, and whinged when some dared to retaliate. Sooner or later they were bound to overreach.
In South Africa in March 2018, the team unravelled hideously. The ringleaders were banished to their waterfront mansions and swanky apartments, where they spent many months licking their wounds and hopefully reflecting on their behaviour. When they returned to play cricket again, the absence of swagger and snarl was noticeable.
* * *
COVID-19 is preventing us from seeing if the lessons have sunk in. But I am reassured by a recognition in Australian cricket circles that fairness, integrity, decency and respect must never be compromised in the pursuit of victory.
A ten-year-old cricket addict in Sri Lanka today will be no less joyful than I was all those years ago at receiving a cricket bat for a birthday present. But their bat will have been autographed by a local hero like Aravinda de Silva, Sanath Jayasuriya, Kumar Sangakkara or Mahela Jayawardene. Lucky boy. Or girl.
Gerry Roberts is passionate about writing. He writes long-form literary fiction, short stories, poetry, essays, opinion pieces and a daily journal, and is working on his first novel. Gerry has come to serious writing late in his life. He is retired and enjoys having more time to smell the flowers.