Colombo, Sri Lanka – A group of young Sri Lankan men in bright shirts danced with abandon on a hot and humid afternoon as a band belted out papare, a lively genre of Sri Lankan music, in a packed R Premadasa cricket stadium on Sunday.
The festive atmosphere in the aisles belied the action unfolding on the field.
Sri Lanka had just been dismissed for 50 runs in 15 overs – their second-lowest one-day international (ODI) total – by India’s fast bowlers in the final of the Asia Cup. They would go on to lose by 10 wickets.
The crowd – roughly 80 percent of whom were Sri Lankan – were resigned to their team’s fate and decided to dance their way into the evening.
Ruchira Mahadev, a Sri Lankan fan, smiled widely as he began talking about his team.
“Our team may not be consistent but they reached the final when no one expected them to, so we will take whatever we can get,” he told Al Jazeera as his friends Pathum Chathura and Ishan Madusanaka nodded in agreement.
The three factory workers from Colombo were simply happy to be in the presence of the country’s biggest stars – the national cricket team – and said they’d watch the match until the end.
“Cricket is the one thing that makes us smile,” Mahadev said, explaining how the game provided relief for a country emerging from its worst economic crisis.
“Whenever the nation is suffering and in pain, it [cricket] works like a balm,” the 34-year-old said.
Still can’t get over that crowd at the Premadasa stadium yesterday for the SL vs PAL clash. Sri Lankans are amongst some of the friendliest and beautiful people I’ve encountered. Love how the subcontinent backs their teams.
— Ian Raphael Bishop (@irbishi) September 15, 2023
‘Cricket helped us forget’
It has been 14 years since the South Asia country came out of a decades-long civil war that resulted from an armed uprising by the Tamil Tigers – also known as the Liberation of Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – who wanted to create a separate state for Sri Lanka’s Tamil population.
The armed group primarily controlled the northern part of the small island but the entire country remained under the grip of fear and violence for nearly three decades.
“During those 30 years, cricket helped us forget about the war and made us smile,” Madushanka said.
Writer Andrew Fidel Fernando echoed Madushanka’s thoughts.
“Growing up in the 1990s, cricket was the one thing we could be proud of as a country and the only thing that united people,” he told Al Jazeera, hours after Sri Lanka’s embarrassing defeat at the hands of its northern neighbour.
Fernando explained that the war divided opinions based on ethnicity, language, race, religion and language, but cricket brought them together.
“It was a very fractured country, but if there was one thing that cut across all those differences, it was cricket,” he said.
A unifying cause
Shanaka Amarasinghe, a Sri Lankan sports broadcaster who grew up in the shadow of the civil war, recalled how cricket was a “welcome distraction” for the young and old alike.
“It was a time when the Sri Lankan team was getting results against the big guns despite being the underdog,” he said.
In 1996 – in the midst of the war – Sri Lanka won its first ODI World Cup title, defeating favourites Australia.
The triumph brought people out on the streets from Colombo to Galle on the coast and from Kandy to Dambulla in the midlands.
“I can say with some authority that even the LTTE cadres would watch the Sri Lankan team play,” Amarasinghe said.
In the years that followed and as the violence worsened, Sri Lanka recorded more wins and unearthed new stars.
Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara, Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan enjoyed godlike status in the 2000s.
“For Muralitharan to be a part of the Tamil community and yet be revered as one of the biggest stars by the whole nation says something about the power of cricket,” Amarasinghe said.
Dancing in the aisles
Before reaching the Asia Cup final, Sri Lanka overcame Pakistan in a nail-biting last-ball finish that ended well past midnight.
Every run from the Sri Lankan batters was greeted with loud roars but at one point, when it seemed like Pakistan would walk away with the win, the stadium fell into silence.
In that moment, the unifying force of cricket was on display in the stands.
A group of school-aged boys in cricket shirts shouted “Come on Sri Lanka!”, older men held their heads in disbelief and three women, wearing the Muslim abaya, held up their hands in prayer.
The prayers were answered when Charith Asalanka hit the winning runs to take Sri Lanka into the final.
It was pandemonium in the aisles.
Parents tossed their little ones in the air, friends hugged each other and the young group of cricketers waved their arms in excitement.
Pitarata Wisthara Mewa – a hit from the Sri Lankan baila and kapirinya style of music – blared from the PA system and within seconds the entire stadium was dancing.
One other aspect about Sri Lanka ‘s win besides the batting of Kusal Mendis, Sadeera Samarawickrama and Asalanka, was the Presence the crowd created. It was amazing to watch them get behind the batters. Their level of awareness was another thing last night.
— Roshan Abeysinghe (@RoshanCricket) September 15, 2023
‘Even if the ship sinks, the band keeps playing’
According to sports writer Amarasinghe, fans who are fed up with the country’s politicians admire cricketers for giving them brief moments of respite.
“Watching a cricket match is akin to being embroiled in drama that does not concern them directly, be it fighting to acquire a cylinder of gas or fuelling up with your vehicle,” he said.
Current captain Dasun Shanaka and his men are doing for the current generation what the teams of the 1990s and 2000s did for the then-war-torn nation.
Sri Lanka is slowly getting back on its feet after grappling with two years of economic and political crises that ended in mass protests in the capital. Some cricketers joined the protesters on the streets.
It was during this period that an unfancied Sri Lankan side beat Australia in an ODI series and also clinched last year’s Asia Cup title, emerging as the nation’s saviours once again.
“When nothing was going right and people weren’t able to put meals on the table, the team eased people’s burdens and that’s the role cricket has always played in Sri Lankan life,” Fernando said.
He then went on to quote a famous Sinhalese saying: “Neva gilunath ban choon”, which means “even if the ship sinks, the band keeps playing”.
“It perfectly defines Sri Lanka’s relationship with cricket,” he said with a famously warm Sri Lankan smile.