Religion & Cricket: From the sublime to the ridiculous

by Gamini Weerakoon

(January 16, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Predictions made in this column last week that 2011 was going to be a ‘Fruitier and Nuttier’ year than those years that preceded it appear to be pointing in the right direction because just two days later, the front page of a daily newspaper had two Buddhist monks wrapping a cricket ball with pirith nool (sacred thread), the paper said.

There was another religious dignitary presumably a Hindu with a pottu seated alongside. The caption said: “Religious leaders are wrapping a cricket ball with pirith nool (sacred thread) in commemoration of the upcoming ICC World Cup. As a sign of unity a campaign has been organised to wrap a cricket ball with blessed strings by members of the public, before being put on display at the Sooriyawewa Stadium on February 19. The campaign will start in Jaffna and end in Colombo and is being organised by several leading private companies”.

This country has had Buddhism and Buddhist monks for over two and a half millennia and cricket for well over a century but not witnessed Buddhist monks wrapping cricket balls or any other ball with this ‘sacred thread’. Some may consider this a mere nutty development that the game of cricket brings along in its wake while others may consider this an insult to Buddhist practices. The naïve excuse of bringing about national unity with this gimmick wouldn’t convince even Hambantota buffaloes.

Sacred thread around Oxen hide

This pirith nool is considered sacred to Sri Lankan Buddhists. The thread is passed around devotees who hold it in their hands as sacred Buddhist stanzas are chanted in homes or temples, at times throughout the night and even for days. It is said to be endowed with curative and other powers such as warding off evil spirits and are tied on the wrists of devotees by monks. In the pre-free market days when thread was scarce and expensive only a round of white thread was tied around a wrist but in these times thick bands of multi-coloured thread are sported by flashy young men.

Nevertheless, the threads are considered sacred by most Buddhists and how these people would consider monks — guardians of the teachings of the Enlightened One, wrapping it around a cricket ball which is made of the hide of oxen is to be seen.

Divine assistance

Cricketers like sportsmen in other sports resort to divine assistance for their success. Often we see Christians crossing themselves in moments of tension or success. Muslims at times go down on their knees and make obeisance to Allah while Hindus too with coloured threads or gold chains round their necks are seen touching them in tense moments. Sachin Tendulkar, the Great, is seen looking to the heavens whenever he scores a century or breaks a world record. If divine assistance is a measure of success to go by, Indians should be way ahead because they have a myriad of gods to pray to unlike the monotheist followers.

But the counter argument will be that monotheists have an all powerful god above all others. Some contend that Buddhists have no gods but Buddhist sportsmen are seen on playing fields seeking supernatural assistance. Others wear ‘black magic’ devices like amulets on their bodies and are seen touching them for assistance. Sri Lankan Buddhists from the deep south like Sanath Jayasuriya are very prominent with their amulets while Christians and Muslims go through the motions described above.

We will only confine ourselves to making these few brief observations as journalists and not go into deeper theological or metaphysical discourses. However, these cricketers and other sportsmen are only going through their personal beliefs and practices and not being ordered to do so by their governing bodies or governments. Objections can be raised only if these religious or superstitious practices are insisted on by the ‘authorities’ whoever they may be. At times when all members of teams collectively go through motions of religious devotions eventhough they may hold different beliefs, it does suggest a certain degree of compulsion by the powers that be.

The Red Sphere of Influence

Historically, the cricket ball has been one of the most successful weapons of British colonialism and now some allege diplomacy. The ‘red cherry’ is considered a very successful British sphere of influence and very many former colonies who took to the game have adopted the Westminster rules of governance in one form or the other and remained basically democratic within the Commonwealth. It is said that Russia would never have produced a dictator like Josef Stalin if they took to cricket.

The latest to fall to this British sphere of influence is Afghanistan and now China too, appears to have fallen prey to this red cherry — although now it is also white in the shorter form of the game. We are certainly not arguing against cricket with its billions of followers or religious observances or practices. But the mixing of the two with institutional blessings will certainly not be beneficial to either party. It will certainly make cricket look like mumbo-jumbo and make sublime religions look ridiculous.

The caption of the picture referred to said that this wrapping of a cricket ball with pirith nool is being sponsored by “several leading private companies”. Private companies are known to sponsor all causes provided they can promote their products. All products are permissible except of course tobacco and alcohol. Sponsors we know need political patronage for this kind of well intentioned stupidity.

A tale from the old school

We end this commentary with an old school yarn related by a dear departed friend, Premalal Gunasekera, one of the most outstanding cricket captains of S. Thomas’ College who led his team to victory after 20 consecutive draws in the Battle of the Blues. Gunasekera, an excellent raconteur related this story at the Old Thomians’ Swimming Club. The story dates back to a few days before a Royal-Thomian encounter, a few years after Premalal left school.

‘Pappa’ an eccentric school master, an old Thomian himself — alas now no more — had assured the cricket captain of the school: ‘Don’t worry, I will win this Royal-Thomian for you. Only thing is that you must cooperate with me a few minutes before the match commences.’ ‘Pappa’ was far from being a cricketer, despite his profound interest in the game and the captain had not remembered this pledge of his teacher.
A few minutes before the match commenced and tension was running high, Pappa appeared at the Thomian dressing room and called for the captain. With him was an individual who certainly did not look a cricketer, dressed in ‘wawul’ suit ( the term used at that time for the long overflowing national dress). On Pappa’s instructions this individual had pulled out a lime from his deep pocket and muttered a few words over the lime held in his hand. He had then, with a penknife, sliced the lime into two , then put them back together and given it to the captain with the advice: ‘Put this in your pocket and whenever you want Royal in difficulties, simply press the lime inside your pocket. Relief will come your way’ and then departed with Pappa. The captain by then had lost the toss and was fielding and Royal’s openers were at the crease. The Thomian pace attack was on and the captain feeling the lime in his pocket decided to test its potency. As the pace bowler delivered a ball the captain squeezed the lime. And low and behold the Royalist snicked it and was confidently caught in the slips to the joy of the jubilant Thomians. Then came the last ball of the first over and as it was delivered, the captain gave the lime another squeeze and to his amazement he saw the middle stump cart-wheeling!

The Thomian captain was now convinced he had a match winner in his pocket. In the second over he squeezed it again and once again a miracle occurred: The ball was snicked into the safe hands of the wicket keeper. The next batsman took his stance and as he faced his first ball, the captain squeezed the lime but much to his disappointment the batsman took two steps forward and cracked the ball through the covers to the boundary. Undaunted the captain resorted to the squeezed lime tactic but this black magic defying Royalist kept pummeling the ball to all corners of the field and over the ropes.

The Thomian captain kept on squeezing the lime but this new daredevil kept thrashing the ball and before tea time had scored a century! The distraught captain led his team to the pavilion hoping that the huge patch that had appeared on his trousers caused by the lime juice would not be seen! Old school masters as the poet Oliver Goldsmith said, ‘though vanquished could argue still’. The defiant Pappa had told the captain: ‘I did my best. I got you three wickets in two overs. If you fellows couldn’t get the others out what could I do?’

These are examples of the glorious uncertainties of cricket and black magic. But if black magic in cricket or any sport is institutionalised by the authorities, involving great religions as well, it makes a mockery of religion and cricket a mumbo-jumbo. The idea of a cricket ball being wrapped in ‘pirith nool’ and placed in the venue of the World Cup match at Sooriyawewa, named the Mahinda Rajapaksa Stadium, appears to be the product of an infantile political mind with political influence.
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