London: In an extraordinary address at the MCC Spirit of Cricket Lecture at Lord's, Kumar Sangakkara has launched a scathing attack on the "partisan cronies" at Sri Lanka Cricket who blight the sport in his country, and who led him to resign the captaincy after only two years in charge, in the wake of the World Cup final in April. (Also Read: Sangakkara in trouble after wowing MCC)
In an hour-long speech that earned him a standing ovation, Sangakkara charted the unique history of cricket in his country, and called on Sri Lanka Cricket to root out its corrupt practices, and recognise the huge role that the sport now needs to play in promoting reconciliation at the end of a 30-year civil war.
Sangakkara pinpointed the country's most powerful moment of national unity - the World Cup final victory over Australia in 1996 - as the moment that the sport's administration changed "from a volunteer-led organisation run by well-meaning men of integrity into a multimillion-dollar organisation that has been in turmoil ever since."
The current tour of England has been dogged by controversy ever since Sanath Jayasuriya, now an MP with the ruling UPFA party, was recalled at the age of 41 to play in the one-off Twenty20 and the first ODI at The Oval, despite having been out of the side for nearly two years. Without naming names, Sangakkara voiced his concern at the direction the sport in his country is now heading.
"Players from within the team itself became involved in power games within the board," he said. "Officials elected to power in this way in turn manipulated player loyalty to achieve their own ends. At times board politics would spill over into the team causing rift, ill feeling and distrust."
"Accountability and transparency in administration and credibility of conduct were lost in a mad power struggle that would leave Sri Lankan cricket with no consistent and clear administration. Presidents and elected executive committees would come and go; government-picked interim committees would be appointed and dissolved."
Last week, Sri Lanka's sports minister announced that the entire national cricket board committee would be forced to step down, following allegations of financial mismanagement that left the co-hosts of the recent World Cup with a $69 million bill. That announcement followed the ICC meeting in Hong Kong, at which a directive was issued, stating that cricket boards had to be free of political interference by June 2013, or face the prospect of sanctions.
"After 1996 the cricket board has been controlled and administered by a handful of well-meaning individuals either personally or by proxy rotated in and out depending on appointment or election," said Sangakkara. "Unfortunately to consolidate and perpetuate their power they opened the door of the administration to partisan cronies that would lead to corruption and wanton waste of cricket board finances and resources.
"It was and still is confusing. Accusations of vote buying and rigging, player interference due to lobbying from each side and even violence at the AGMs, including the brandishing of weapons and ugly fist fights, have characterised cricket board elections for as long as I can remember.
"We have to aspire to better administration. The administration needs to adopt the same values enshrined by the team over the years: integrity, transparency, commitment and discipline.
"Unless the administration is capable of becoming more professional, forward-thinking and transparent then we risk alienating the common man. Indeed, this is already happening. Loyal fans are becoming increasingly disillusioned. This is very dangerous because it is not the administrators or players that sustain the game - it is the cricket-loving public. It is their passion that powers cricket and if they turn their backs on cricket then the whole system will come crashing down."
Crucially for the future of Sri Lanka, that public consists of supporters from both sides of the bloody civil war that was finally concluded last year. However, as has been seen by the numerous Tamil protestors who have made their presence known during the current Test and ODI series, there is a danger that the current state of the sport will breed disenchantment rather than foster unity.
"Cricket played a crucial role during the dark days of Sri Lanka's civil war, a period of enormous suffering for all communities," said Sangakkara. "But the conduct and performance of the team will have even greater importance as we enter a crucial period of reconciliation and recovery, an exciting period where all Sri Lankans aspire to peace and unity.
"It is also an exciting period for cricket where the reintegration of isolated communities in the north and east opens up new talent pools. The Spirit of Cricket can and should remain a guiding force for good within society, providing entertain and fun, but also a shining example to all of how we all should approach our lives."