Lore about persons — a major form of ‘folklore’ — enters the universe of dry facts in a most unobtrusive fashion. Facts give you the empirical values of a place, act, achievement or person. Only when those are splashed with the colour of stories and legends do we really come to ‘picture’ the impact and magnitude of the person. This is nowhere more real than in the world of sport. Even during the playing days of an individual, he has begun to create a ‘tale’ of his own, spin a legend.
Folklore is always based on some ‘factual’ settings and events but within that reality lies — and grows — with a life of its own a story that brings the protagonist to life.
Here is one.
The place: Chepauk cricket stadium, Chennai. The time: 1947 I think, as my father, who narrated this story to me, was 23 years old. A stylish Sri Lankan batsman, Mahadevan Sathasivam, attired in a full-sleeved white shirt, handkerchief around his neck is dispatching the South Indian IX bowlers to all parts of the park.
All this is known ‘fact’, but what comes next, I think, is a tale! At the crease, ‘Satha’ waits for the next delivery from Ghulam Ahmed (my imagination as my father never told me the name of the bowler). Satha commits to the front foot, only to be deceived by the flight and dip of the ball. Knowing very well that he cannot reach for the ball, he removes his bottom hand from the handle and, with a flick of his left hand sends the ball, over long-off for a six. This story is so important for us to understand the grand impact of Sathasivam on cricket. He was the first Sri Lankan cricketing superstar, one who has been more or less forgotten.
Last week one of Sri Lanka’s current star batsmen Mahela Jayawardene retired from the game of cricket. There is no necessity for me to reel out his record, as a simple Google search will reveal to us the quality of this player.
What we will miss in those numbers is the beauty of his cricket. But when he retired there was much less acknowledgement of this great cricketer than of even lesser mortals from India.
Somehow cricketers from Sri Lanka are rarely mentioned among the lists of wonderful players. They have been in the international world of cricket for a lesser period of time (One-day internationals from 1975 and Tests from 1982) but there seems to be another reason for this amnesia. The big brother (India) has always loomed large over its ‘small’ neighbour’s cricket and cricketers. In just cricket? I wonder!
Whether it is Chaminda Vaas, Arjuna Ranatunga, Aravinda de Silva or Sanath Jayasuriya, they have all seen their achievements fade; their names disappear very soon. Let us not forget that Sri Lanka did win the World Cup in 1996 and were finalists on at least two other occasions.
Players from India who have achieved far less are spoken about as ‘living legends’ across the cricketing landscape. The exception to this collective forgetfulness is Muthiah Muralitharan, but even there this mercurial cricketer was completely ignored by the World Cup organisers when he played his last one-day international in that famous final in 2011. In the chest-beating euphoria of the Indian victory, everyone forgot that the highest wicket-taker in the world of cricket would never again set foot on the field for his nation.
I am certain that, in the near future, another Sri Lankan legend will call it quits, Kumar Sangakkara. He, like his close friend Mahela, has scored thousands of runs, led his nation and even kept wickets with alacrity.
I hope that, when his time comes, we don’t make the same mistake that we have with Mahela. In a decade or so, another neighbour of ours will probably produce cricketing magicians. It is imperative that we don’t do a Sri Lanka on them. The cricketing world and its surrounding solar system has to notice every star that it has nurtured and recognise that each one of those has enriched the game and inspired many to embrace it.
Memory is a tricky thing; it disappears, hides and even lies to us. It diminishes many and enlarges some. All this is done by the number of times names and achievements are bombarded into our psyche. Let us not make the mistake of forgetting Mahela or the many others from this beautiful teardrop island. The cricketing world is a far more beautiful place because of them. Let legends and folk tales be told across the globe about Mahela and his compatriots for as long as this game is played.
Originally written for The Hindu