Peter Roebuck provides an analysis of the importance of sportsmen holding their governing bodies accountable

2011-07-09 00:00

WHEN officials invited Sri Lanka’s Kumar Sangakkara to deliver the annual Cowdrey lecture they knew it was a bold move. Those responsible for asking Ellen Johnson-Souris to deliver the Mandela address a few years ago took the same risk.

The Liberian president did not disappoint. “Africa is not poor,” she pointed out “it’s poorly managed”. Every year we get $132 billion (R886 billion) in foreign aid yet we have $154 billion stashed away in overseas accounts.”

It was a breaking of ranks. Still the words echo. Sangakkara likewise seized a rare opportunity to address a serious topic. He is an intelligent man with a strong sense of justice.

He has a law degree, is widely read and speaks several languages fluently. Moreover he is the second greatest cricketer Sri Lanka has produced, which gives him some protection. His country is teetering in the hinterland between democracy and tyranny and by all reliable accounts its cricket has descended into a chaos of racketeering and maladministration.Sanga did not waste his time discussing the LBW rule or the wet weather rules or the other minutiae that mysteriously transfix some followers of the game.

Instead he provided a history of cricket in his country and ended with a scathing denunciation of its current administration. It is hard to remember any contemporary sportsmen subjecting his bosses to such a withering attack.

It’s bad for business. Decades ago a soccer player did contribute a chapter called “What soccer officials know about the game.” The page was empty.

Sanga said that the World Cup triumph in 1996 changed the way the game was run and the nature of the people running it. He is right. As it happens I was caught up in the subsequent struggles. It was a battle that pitted men of high repute against upstarts intent on power and plunder. Of course the newcomers portrayed the established administrators as crusty old fogeys.

In fact they had served with distinction, and before there was any money in it. Inevitably it turned nasty. Naturally the ingénues cooked the books, rigged elections, filled pockets, indulged in cronyism and treated the game as their own private empire. Their leader was the second biggest bookmaker in the country.

At first even Arjuna Ranatunga took his side, but he has now come to his senses. The current chairman has close family ties with the biggest local bookie..

Appalled by the corruption, dismayed by the interference from sports ministers intent on imposing favoured players upon the selectors — Sanath Jayasuriya is an MP in the governing party — Sanga realised it was time to speak out. If not him, who? If not now, when?

Observing that cricket could unite the country and inspire youth, he called for proper governance, independence and farsightedness.

Hopefully enough people were listening.

Sanga’s call to arms was widely covered on websites and in newspapers. As it happens Sri Lanka had been in the spotlight anyhow because of a television documentary showing footage of executions, abuse and rapes occurring in the closing stages of the civil war (and lets not pretend the Tamil Tigers were saints). Subsequently the exposé was aired in Australia and at least one prominent player has been having nightmares ever since.

Apparently the Players’ Association phones have been running hot. The film ought to be shown in prime time on every news channel, including SABC. If man’s inhumanity to man is hidden, it will continue.

Now there are talks of a sports boycott of Sri Lanka. But it’s hard to know where that starts and stops.

Iraqi civilians have suffered terribly in an illegal war. Are those nations to be isolated? If not, why not?

Perhaps the difference lies between wicked actions and evil systems. Admittedly that is poor consolation to the victims, but at least these debates draw attention to their plight.

Sangakkara’s truth telling ought to be encouraged. His words told of love for his country and frustration at its rulers. He spoke without fear, favour or personal ambition. He provided an insight into his country that reached beyond patronising images of smiling inhabitants.

For decades, too, Barbados was portrayed as a happy-go-lucky place. The truth is always more complex.

Cricket has been weakened because so many tongues have been silenced by conflicts of interest and so many snouts are deep in the trough.

Since Sanga spoke out, Simon Katich condemned the selectors in his country and respected figures like Mike Atherton, Sanjay Manjrekar, Ian Chappell, Ranatunga and Michael Holding also spoke their minds. All are in agreement that power must be called to account.

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