“… turned the power to the have-nots,
And then came the shot.”
The cover of the self-titled debut album of American band Rage Against the Machine features a famous photograph of the self-immolation of a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thích Quảng Đức, who was protesting against the South Vietnamese government’s oppression of Buddhism.
Music and images have an innate quality of traversing the realm of time and geographical boundaries. Three decades since the song was penned down, the visuals of immolation returned, nearly ten thousand miles away from where the band is from – in Sri Lanka.
Following a similar theme, an enraged crowd protested against the Sri Lankan government, as their lives turned into the worst of dystopias. Caught amidst a severe fuel crisis among other things, the only bit that was left was used in burning the empires of those responsible for the situation as the dignitaries fled the land for survival.
The power, indeed, returned to the have-nots and now, the shots were coming.
The Antidote Amid Impending Doom
Over the last few months, the majority of Sri Lanka's 21.6 million natives had to endure economic hardships, struggling to make ends meet amid a severe shortage of food, electricity, fuel, and medicines. Inflation rose through the roof and for many, a roof seemed to be a luxury.
In the face of the paramount tribulation, Sri Lanka found an antidote in cricket, when the Australian team visited the island nation in June. Not all battles are fought with ammunition as by winning the Asia Cup 2022, Dasun Shanaka’s team showed how a starving nation can solicit unbridled joy from sporting success.
The country was gearing up for another such antidote, with Sri Lanka being the host nation of Asia Cup 2022. That is, until one fine day in July, the Asian Cricket Council (ACC) decided that the current political climate in the nation was not fit for a cricket competition.
Darkness reigned, again.
Unwillingly, the Sri Lankan cricketers had to find a ‘new home’ over 3,000 kilometres away from their land, as the tournament was shifted to the United Arab Emirates. In theory, Sri Lanka was among the frontrunners for they had won five Asia Cup titles before the 2022 meet.
Yet, in reality, they were nothing more than ‘also-rans.’ Sri Lanka lost 12 of their last 15 T20I matches, and here they were, competing against the likes of India and Pakistan with no so-called ‘superstars’ in their squad. Ideally, they should have harboured humble expectations, showcased an instance or two of occasional brilliance, and bid adieu to the competition without causing widespread disruption.
But when a sport becomes a nation’s catharsis amid overbearing adversity, being humble becomes an offence and being audacious is the norm.
When Dasun Shanaka lifted the trophy after beating Pakistan in the finals of the Asia Cup 2022, it was not just a bunch of cricketers winning a contest of bat and ball, but a nation overcoming dolour to rediscover euphoria.
The Resurgence Following a Nightmare
The journey was no less than a fairytale but, in complete contrast, the start was a nightmare. Sri Lanka were bowled out for only 105 runs in their first match, before their opponents, Afghanistan, chased the total down in all but 61 deliveries.
The country that produced stalwarts like Kumar Sangakkara, Arjuna Ranatunga, and Mahela Jayawardene was already reduced to ‘underdogs,’ but after the first defeat, they went further down in their seemingly never-ending downward spiral – now matching gaze with the impending existential crisis.
The second match against Bangladesh transitioned into a knockout contest, and though luck favoured the Lankans as they won the toss, their bowlers did not favour themselves, conceding 183 runs.
In the chase, Sri Lanka found themselves at 171/8, needing 13 runs from 7 deliveries. While the figure in itself does not look too daunting, one needs to factor in the two batters who were out at the crease – Maheesh Theekshana and Asitha Fernando – who had a combined T20I total of 20 runs.
Fernando, interestingly, was included in the team as Matheesha Pathirana’s replacement to pick up wickets with the new ball, but the move backfired. He was his team’s most expensive bowler, conceding 51 runs in his four overs. Yet, when his team needed him, Fernando smashed two boundaries to take his team over the line.
Beyond the macrocosmic perspective, where Sri Lanka qualified for the Super Four, there was another victory being celebrated from the microcosmic perspective. Chris Silverwood, whose tenure with the England team did not end on a high, got his gamble with Fernando spot on, although not in the way he intended to.
Redemption all around.
The Rise of the Anomalies
Shanaka’s boys faced Afghanistan in their first Super Four match, and traversing the just-another-match narrative was the agenda of vengeance. Sri Lanka were once again subpar while bowling first, conceding 175 runs.
However, their batters came to the rescue once again and the highest scorer, among many other important contributors, was Kusal Mendis, who was not initially expected to open the inning until Silverwood decided to try out his partnership with Pathum Nissanka.
The very same partnership ran riots yet again, this time against the most successful team of the competition – India. Chasing a target of 174, the opening pair accumulated 97 runs for the first-wicket stand.
Yet, it was only a job half done. After four wickets fell in as many overs, the Lankans needed a leader and they found one in their captain Dasun Shanaka, who scored unbeaten 33 runs from 18 deliveries.
For an all-rounder who had a T20I average of around 20, playing a match-winning knock was an audacious anomaly. So was Dilshan Madushanka, the young left-arm pacer, who despite playing only his fourth T20I match, picked up three wickets. Lest we forget to mention, one of his victims was a castled Virat Kohli.
Then came the twin challenges from Pakistan – one in Super Four and one in the final. Having beaten two top-quality teams on the trot, many would not dare to change a winning combination. Sri Lanka, however, remained an unflinching oddity, making two changes.
All-rounder Dhananjaya de Silva was back in the playing XI, but the real surprise was Pramod Madushan’s selection, given that he had not played T20I cricket before. It proved to be another masterstroke from Silverwood and his coaching staff, as the duo combined to pick three wickets in 6.1 overs, conceding only 39 runs.
The Disruption of Status Quo
Sri Lanka won that match but the bigger prize lay ahead. In the finals, de Silva played a crucial knock of 28 runs, stabilising the Lankan inning after both openers and Danushka Gunathilaka departed for single-digit scores. In the second half of the match, Madushan scalped a four-wicket haul, destabilising the Pakistani batting contingent in their run chase.
Despite their incredible performances, the show-stopper was someone else. Coming into bat when Sri Lanka were reeling at 36/3, a 30-year-old left-handed batter played a scintillating knock of unbeaten 71 runs from 45 deliveries. It was the very same player who was axed from the team not very long ago, for not maintaining the necessary skinfold level, or in simpler terms, for having excess body fat.
In an epic turn of events, the 21 million Sri Lankans were now rejoicing the surname that had made headlines for all the wrong reasons only a few months ago. The nation found a new hero in Rajapaksa – albeit it was Bhanuka this time around, not Gotebaya.
Between one Rajapaksa to the other lies the story of two arduous battles. One was fought in the streets, the other on the pitch. Both gave us numerous tales of valour and moxie, both had the audacity to disrupt the established status quo.
In the end, as the power shifted to the have-nots, cricket proved how cricket is, on the face of adversity, beyond cricket.