Legspinner Vijayakanth Viyaskanth played for Jaffna Stallions on Friday, and in an unbroken spell of four overs, returned creditable figures of 1 for 29. These are the cricketing facts of Viyaskanth’s Lanka Premier League debut. But they are not the most important ones.
Viyaskanth is the first born-and-bred cricketer from his city to appear in an internationally televised game from Sri Lanka. Jaffna – which Stallions ostensibly represent – is the intellectual and commercial hub of the Tamil north, and has through the course of its history been home to some of the island’s most erudite figures. More recently, the north and the east of the island have also produced a separatist ethnic struggle. From the 80s until 2009, Tamil separatists were locked in a brutal war against the mostly-Sinhalese Sri Lankan state. That the state did not adequately represent them was among the north’s many grievances. As there has never been a born-and-bred northern national cricketer (at least since Sri Lanka achieved Test status), the cricket team has been seen by many as merely a microcosm of a deeply flawed nation.
Viyaskanth is likely aware of this fraught history. Almost certainly he knows how Jaffna was strung up in the Civil War for much of his childhood and the decades that preceded his birth. Without a doubt, he knows that despite the multitude of violence and indignity the war wrought, Jaffna’s love for cricket remained undimmed through the conflict.
Teenaged cricketers of the 90s such as M Kandeepan of Jaffna’s St. John’s college turned the city’s air electric with his savage hitting and his swinging left-arm seam, drawing thousands to major schoolboy games. There are incredible anecdotes from this period – of Kandeepan hooking a six that landed so far out of the ground, the ball was found in a roundabout. Of school cricketers having hundreds of rupees pressed into their palms whenever they played a good innings or delivered an outstanding spell. Perhaps some of this is embellishment. But does that matter? These stories exist. Kandeepan wanted to play for Sri Lanka, but because he was a northern Tamil in wartime, he never had the chance to try. Many in Jaffna still think he would have been one of the island’s greatest.
Two decades after Kandeepan, Viyaskanth debuted for Sri Lanka’s Under-19 team, in July 2018, at the Sooriyawewa ground in which the LPL is being played. On Friday, he became the first Jaffna cricketer to play in the LPL side bearing his city’s name. Through the course of his spell, he conceded only three boundaries, and delivered eight dot balls. He bowled four deliveries to Andre Russell and gave away only a single.
That he is also the youngest cricketer to play in this tournament – one day shy of his 19th birthday – is almost incidental. But he received his cap from Thisara Perera, the player of the tournament so far. Right through his spell, he was constantly encouraged by Wanindu Hasaranga, the senior legspinner in the team, and a player who hails from Galle, the southernmost major city on the island. Hasaranga had unusually fielded at short cover for Viyaskanth’s overs, specifically for the purpose of supporting the team’s junior bowler. Later, after the match ended, Angelo Mathews would congratulate Viyaskanth on his debut on Twitter. Mathews was Viyaskanth’s first wicket in senior cricket.
Such things speak to the profound power of sport, if not to unite, then at least to produce some of the emotional conditions for unity. Viyaskanth bowled a tight spell and muted one of the most devastating hitters on the planet, but there are limits to what he could achieve – he could not heal deep ethnic wounds, right decades of structural injustice, or even bring victory to his team. And yet in the fact of his playing, and perhaps in the manner of it, there was so much more meaning than in a win.
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