Disgrace. What a tediously familiar word; stripped of significance by its overuse, shorn of force by its frequent repetition. Read it again. Roll it around your tongue. Feel its heat and taste its weight, because I am about to use it and I do not want to do so lightly. In the next seven days England are due to play two games against Sri Lanka which will be used as valedictory matches for Sanath Jayasuriya, who has been recalled to the squad at the age of 41. Jayasuriya’s selection is a disgrace and the idea of playing cricket against a team that includes him is a disgrace.
The Test series between Sri Lanka and England was played out to the sound of protests from London’s expatriate Tamil community. During the Saturday of the Lord’s Test they picketed the ground. Nothing epitomised the see-no-evil, hear-no-evil attitude of the cricket community so well as the fact that the protestors were hemmed in behind metal barricades on the far side of the main road, shouting their slogans at a 10-foot tall red brick wall. On the other side business at Lord’s went on as usual, with the brass bands blaring away in Harris Garden all but drowning out the distant catcalls.
Only a fool thinks that sport and politics do not mix. But I can understand the desire to try and keep the two things separate, to stick your fingers in your ears and insist that the worries of the real world should not intrude of the field of play. Sport is supposed to be escapism, after all. But Jayasuriya is not a sportsman any more, he is a politician. His selection is an intrusion of a politics into sport, and means that isolation of the two is not an option.
In April 2010 Jayasuriya was elected as the MP for Matara in southern Sri Lanka. He represents the United People’s Freedom Alliance, the party of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Jayasuriya’s recall was ordered by Rajapaksa’s government. It is an overtly political decision. Kumar Sangakkara’s recent comments on the unique difficulties of captaining Sri Lanka – “it is a job that ages you very quickly” – were a thinly veiled reference to this kind of political interference in team selection. It was a sentiment echoed by stand-in coach Stuart Law in the wake of the last Test, when he said he was learning that the job was about “more than just cricket matters”.
There is no convincing case to be made for recalling Jayasuriya. It has been two-and-a-half years since he scored a century in any kind of cricket, and the fact that he has said he will play only in the first of the five ODIs against England is testament in itself that he is not coming back because he has the interests of the team at heart.
But even if there was any cricketing logic to his inclusion, his selection would still be unacceptable. Jayasuriya is an elected representative of a government who, according to a United Nations report published this April, could be responsible for the deaths of 40,000 Tamil citizens during the final campaign of the civil war in late 2008 and early 2009.
“The number [7,721] calculated by the United Nations Country Team provides a starting point, but is likely to be too low,” the report states. “A number of credible sources have estimated that there could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths.”
Last Tuesday Channel 4 broadcast the documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, a film which detailed the crimes committed against the civilian Tamil population by the Sri Lankan army in excruciating detail. It used nauseating mobile phone footage shot on the ground to substantiate allegations of the systematic rape and murder of Tamils and the direct targeting of civilian hospitals and medical facilities in no-fire zones. Gordon Weiss, a former UN spokesman in Sri Lanka, reported that by May 2009 there had been “roughly 65 attacks on medical facilities that were treating civilians” and that “the no fire zone was taking significant amounts of shelling from the government and it was killing civilians.”
This is an extremely emotive issue. When I wrote about the Tamil protest at Lord’s, I was emailed by one reader demanding to know whether I had “asked the protestors for their opinion of the use of child soldiers, suicide bombings and human shields by the Tamil Tigers?” The UN report confirms that atrocities were committed by both sides on the civilian population, who were ushered into supposedly-safe ‘no fire zones’ by the army and then held there at gunpoint by the Tigers. In the words of Weiss, the army “systematically denied humanitarian aid in the form of food and medical supplies”.
In a recent interview with the BBC’s Sinhalese service, Jayasuriya explained that “the world should realise that the Sri Lankan government has stopped one of the worst terrorist organisations in the world. I am 41 years old. Thirty years of my life, we went through a terrible time in Sri Lanka. Anybody can come into my country now and walk anywhere without fear,” Jayasuriya continued. He added that the world should be “happy” at what the government had achieved.
David Cameron has called for an independent investigation into what happened in Sri Lanka, something Rajapaksa’s government, Jayasuriya’s government, has refused to allow. According to the UN report, there are “reasonable grounds to believe that the Sri Lankan security forces committed war crimes with top government and military leaders potentially responsible”.
The English players once blanched at being made to shake hands with Robert Mugabe. This Saturday they will be expected to play against a man who is a direct representative of a government accused of war crimes on a horrific scale by the United Nations. The politics of the matter is not outside the ground or behind a metal fence any more. It is right there in the middle of the pitch and it cannot be ignored.