An Island’s Eleven: The History of Sri Lankan Cricket
Martin Chandler |
Author: Brookes, Nicholas
Publisher: The History Press
Rating: 4.5 stars
In the last sentence of his preface, Nicholas Brookes expresses the view; As much as I have tried to “tell the story of Sri Lankan cricket”, this work is only a starting point. This is, I presume, a reference to the paucity of existing literature on Sri Lankan cricket rather than an attempt to downplay his own contribution to this particular genre. It is inevitably regrettable and disappointing that to date none of Muttiah Muralitharan, Arjuna Ranatunga, Samantha Jayasuriya, Chaminda Vaas, Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara or Rangan Herath has been persuaded to write an autobiography, but the play in Sri Lanka does at least now have a full story, and hopefully it will become the touchstone for similar stories from the game in Ireland, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh.
One of five countries to achieve test status in my lifetime, Sri Lanka was the first to do so in 1982, so we are now forty years on from that historic milestone. Despite this relatively short history as a full member of the ICC, cricket in Sri Lanka has a long history and dates back to 1796 and the first third of the book covers this ‘prehistoric’ period.
There are, for anyone who has read much about the game, cricketers from what was then Ceylon whose names are familiar. Some, like Kelaart, De Saram and Sathavisam are just names in the history books who played no significant cricket outside their own island. From the end of the Second World War there are, however, more household names, Laddie Outschoorn, Gamine Goonesena, Stanley Jayasinghe and Clive Inman all plying their trade in England. My late father spent most of his two years of national service in Ceylon playing cricket and knew Goonesena. It’s probably a disappointing thought for both of us that despite our shared love of cricket, we never really discussed how and why the two met, and that was only while reading X of an islandI knew I knew very well a man who was clearly a very good all round cricketer, or even much of the lives, careers and personalities of all the others whose names I mentioned.
Life at Test level was a struggle for the Sri Lankans, whose early years contained far more downs than ups, and when they finally discovered a match-winning bowler at Muralitharan in 1995, Australian referees Darrel Hair and Roy Emerson didn’t criticize him for throwing. Internal strife and unrest resulted in Australia and the West Indies subsequently refusing to travel to Sri Lanka to play matches there as the Lankans co-hosted the 1996 World Cup. was expected of the joint hosts of this tournament, but in the event that the team spirit forged by Ranatunga brought Sri Lanka to the final where, finally at a gallop, they defeated the Australians.
The story of Sri Lankan cricket after 1996 is inevitably better known, that of a team that grew in stature and produced a number of players who touched greatness in any currency. It was, I suppose, inevitable that there would then be a correction and Eleven of an Island ends on this note.
Cricket stories, like those of any other subject, are written to inform and educate and will always contain a lot of simple factual information, and they often contain important statistical sections. The XI of an island doesn’t follow that pattern and, for a man who’s been known to frequently lament the lack of a decent statistics section in a biography or autobiography, I’m glad this time around there aren’t any dashboards, averages or lists in sight.
And the reason that’s a good thing is because Nicholas Brookes’ well-researched book is certainly not a dry story. To help write the book, Brookes moved to Sri Lanka, and his affinity for the country is evident. There are elements of drama in some of the match descriptions, and Brookes isn’t afraid to add his own, always measured, contributions to any debate. Perhaps most important of all the many individuals involved all receive far more than a few biographical details. For example, the account of the life of Sathavisam is a masterpiece. A gifted drummer, Sathavisam, was also a complex character and at one point spent twenty months in custody before, after a trial, being acquitted of the murder of his wife.
The lives of most Sri Lankan cricketers have not been as eventful as Sathavisam’s, but The XI of an island does all justice, and this in-depth, interesting, and well-written story does a great job of filling an important gap in the gaming literature.