When Angelo Mathews and Virat Kohli met each other for the first time on India’s current tour of Sri Lanka, you didn’t have to stretch your imagination to feel the warmth. There were broad smiles, vigorous shakes of the hand, pats on the back. When Mathews spoke of the Indian team in glowing terms, you could make out that this wasn’t the Sri Lankan skipper being politically correct, that he meant every word said. And when Kohli waxed eloquent on Sri Lankan hospitality and on the generosity of the Sri Lankan cricket team in stepping in at the last minute last year to fill the breach caused by West Indies’ premature departure from their tour of India, it wasn’t because he was playing to the gallery.
The India-Sri Lanka cricketing rivalry is closing in on 40 years, but this isn’t quite a ‘rivalry’ in the strictest sense of the word. This is more a relationship; there is none of the needle and tension and edge of the Ashes, no matter of life or death – at least perception-wise – like when India take on Pakistan, no sense of being bullied by the big brother that Bangladesh feel when it comes to cricket and India.
India is the biggest cricketing nation in the Asian continent. The second most populous country in the world has been playing international cricket for more than 80 years now, and in the last few years has also come to establish itself as the financial hub of the cricketing world. In some ways, it dictates policies and sets out agendas. It is often viewed with suspicion and no little envy by a majority of the rest of the cricketing world; Sri Lanka doesn’t necessarily fall into that majority when it comes to boardroom politics, and the Sri Lanka-India on-field relationship is as pristine and untouched by the vicissitudes of professional sport as you can hope to find.
Particularly when neighbours meet in a sporting contest, it is all but inevitable for residual tensions to spill out on to the field, especially when one of the neighbours is bigger and more powerful than the other. Take the Australia-New Zealand rivalry, for example. Australia are the unquestioned big brother, New Zealand engulfed in the vast shadow cast in every sense of the word by the giant continent nation. Be it in rugby or cricket, New Zealand invariably find an extra gear when they play Australia. Nothing gives a Kiwi – player or follower – greater delight than putting it past the towering neighbour and sometimes, with no quarters asked for and none given, there has been the odd ugly spat on the field of play as the protagonists get sucked into the emotional maelstrom.
The United States of America v Canada and the USA-Mexico sporting standoffs are both colourful and contentious. The Canadians have been determined for ages to challenge the Americans in the most American of sports, baseball, while Mexico have generally had the wood over the US in football, even though the latter has emerged as a reasonably competent footballing nation where the beautiful game is referred to as soccer, and football as they call it is played with a ball that is anything but round.
India-Pakistan contests across sporting disciplines are often driven by jingoism and a misplaced sense of patriotic fervour. Hockey and cricket matches in particular, are regarded as more than sporting showdowns, and that sentiment is gradually percolating into other disciplines such as football and kabaddi. An almost inevitable fallout of the political tensions between the neighbours that seem to be a constant is the occasional pow-wow on the playing arena; while professional sportspersons are expected to be immune to extraneous pressures, they are also only human beings and it is well nigh impossible not to be caught up in all the goings-on around them.
Bangladesh as a nation, and most certainly as a cricketing entity, owes plenty to India. That said, Bangladesh wear a sense of having been hard done by, desperately determined to prove a point every time they take on their neighbours. In many quarters within the nation, there is a strong sense of discontent when it comes to India; recent cricketing clashes between the teams have been marked by unsavoury incidents and mountains being made of a molehill. The persecution complex that Bangladesh are gripped by finds expression in emotional outbursts from players and spectators, though it is no secret that it isn’t India alone that feel the full fury of the deeply driven Bangladesh fan.
In some ways, India dictates policies and sets out agendas. It is often viewed with suspicion and no little envy by a majority of the rest of the cricketing world; Sri Lanka doesn’t necessarily fall into that majority when it comes to boardroom politics. The Sri Lanka-India on-field relationship is as pristine and untouched by the vicissitudes of professional sport as you can hope to find.
It is against this backdrop that India-Sri Lanka cricketing relations come as a breath of fresh air. Sri Lanka didn’t make their Test foray until a little over 30 years back – nearly half a century after their subcontinental friends and neighbours – but while they are as passionate and committed to the cause as any other team, there is no lingering bitter aftertaste, no perceived need to cock a snook, no outward show of trying to put Big Brother in his place. Oh make no mistake, the Sri Lankans are as competitive as they come. Their pleasant demeanour and ready smile mask an inner steel, but Sri Lanka have shown that you don’t need to growl and snarl and play ugly just to make a statement of intent.
As a nation, despite the ethnic turmoil of the past, the Sri Lankans are a buoyant, laidback set of people who retain an innate happiness even in the most difficult of circumstances. Cricket to them is a vehicle through which they can express themselves in a manner that comes most naturally to them. Yes, from time to time they will take offence – like Arjuna Ranatunga did when Muttiah Muralitharan was repeatedly called for chucking in Australia two decades back – but that is only when they feel their angst isn’t ill directed or misplaced. For the most part, they play their cricket like their lead their lives, and as a rule, they bear no ill will or malice towards their opponents.
It has helped India-Sri Lanka cricketing relations that over the years, players from both sides have enjoyed an excellent rapport. Long before Sri Lanka gained Test status, their national team used to travel to Chennai – then Madras – every alternate year to play in the MJ Gopalan Trophy. India might not ostensibly have done as much to turbocharge Sri Lanka’s emergence as a Test nation as they did for Bangladesh, but it has always been around to lend a guiding, helping hand without being overbearing and pompous as sometimes can be the case.
Once Sri Lanka became the eighth Test-playing nation, the borders blurred even more. The Ranatungas and the de Silvas struck up wonderful friendships with the Azharuddins and the like; that tradition has continued over time, and all this is independent of the Indian Premier League with dressing rooms dotted by players from various nationalities. Muttiah Muralitharan is nearly as popular in India as he is in his own island nation, and he is fantastic friends with the likes of Anil Kumble, VVS Laxman and Sachin Tendulkar. Lasith Malinga, Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Sanath Jayasuriya, cult figures in their own right, can count several Indian players big and not-so-big as more than good pals. These relationships have meant that players from the two sides understand each other extremely well, and therefore play the game with respect for one another even in the most extenuating of circumstances.
A goody-goody sporting contest might not always make for the most exciting spectacle, but I would take a smile and a pat over a gnarl and a sneer every single day. What about you?