Kumar Sangakkara is regarded in cricket circles as an intelligent man unafraid to say it as he sees it, an original thinker whose thoughts extend beyond the game. At the MCC Spirit of Cricket lecture, which the former Sri Lankan captain delivered on July 4 at Lord's, he trapped lightning in a bottle: never were his ideas more forceful; never was his articulation as lucid and felicitous. In an hour-long speech that earned a standing ovation, he told the evocative story of cricket's transformative power in his strife-torn land. While his discourse was centred on Sri Lankan cricket, its evolution and its uniqueness, it wasn't confined to it. One of the speech's many virtues was that — through the example of Sri Lankan cricket — it addressed the larger problems the world game faces. In confronting the issues of cricket in his country, Sangakkara spoke truth to power. He challenged those in charge to hold themselves to higher standards, indeed to “adopt the values enshrined by the [Sri Lankan] team over the years: integrity, transparency, commitment and discipline.” The universality of the message and the courage of its expression will have shaken administrators around the world.
This wonderfully gifted cricketer traced the problems in administration to 1996, when his country won the World Cup. While the underdog saga inspired several young Sri Lankans to dedicate their best efforts to playing the game, the attendant financial success resulted in “the transformation of our cricket administration from a volunteer-led organisation run by well-meaning men of integrity into a multi-million dollar organisation that has been in turmoil ever since.” Sangakkara detailed the detrimental effect the power games had on the cricket team: corruption, lobbying, and manipulation for political gains created ill-feeling and distrust in the side, and the world champion crashed out of the 1999 World Cup after the first phase. The debacle acted as a catalyst for change. The cricketers got together to insulate themselves from the machinations of the board and commit themselves to winning. But there was no change in the system — with the problems of greed and narrow-mindedness persisting. Unsurprisingly, the administration has responded with the sort of truculence common to those who have interests to protect. The Sri Lankan Sports Minster's assertion that Sangakkara had to “get permission” to talk about cricket administration isn't merely high-handed; it's also against the principles of free speech. Instead of reacting defensively, those in power in Sri Lanka must introspect and reform themselves. Other governing bodies must act likewise, for, as recent incidents across the world have shown, this is a turbulent time for cricket.