At long last, rivalry hits home turf

Game on ... Sri Lankan fans will be craving a victory at the SCG.
Game on ... Sri Lankan fans will be craving a victory at the SCG.

IT WAS a humid Tuesday afternoon in January 1985 and Australian cricket was looking for relief. Allan Border's team had been pounded for a year by Clive Lloyd's West Indians. Notwithstanding a consolation win in the New Year's Test – known as Bob "Dutchy" Holland's match – Australia had become the West Indies' whipping boys, and were at a low ebb.

So it was a welcome sight to see the Sri Lankans, in their new blue and gold outfits, come on to the SCG for their first cricket game under lights.

They offered something Australia didn't often get: a win.

Only admitted to Test cricket in 1981, Sri Lanka was still several years from their first Test in Australia. Their captain was Duleep Mendis, who in 1975, lying on a London pitch with tears in his eyes, having been knocked down by a Jeff Thomson thunderbolt, uttered three words: "I go now."

The crowd had chanted "Thomson murderer". Australia had then gone to Sri Lanka for an inaugural Test match in 1983, and won with predictable ease.

But in 1985, complacent Australians were in for the first of many rude shocks. Sri Lanka ran them close, and Australia's blushes were saved, as usual, by Border's batting. Eleven days later, in Melbourne, David felled Goliath; Sri Lanka had their historic first win. Then, in Sydney, Australia squeaked home after being flayed by a young Aravinda de Silva. Sri Lanka were more than a gadfly: a serious rivalry had begun.

Sri Lanka made their first Test cricket tour of Australia in 1989-90. In four tours before this year, the Sri Lankans were a second-tier attraction. This summer, however, due to South Africa's preference for playing at home over the Christmas-New Year period, Sri Lanka has been invited to the biggest stage of the summer, the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne – which it has played once before – and the New Year's Test in Sydney, their first.

"The Sydney Cricket Ground has always been kind to Sri Lankan cricketers," says Siri Kannangara, who migrated to Australia in 1977. He was one of the doctors employed by World Series Cricket, and would be part of the Sri Lankan dressing room on several tours to Australia.

"Obviously I barrack for Australia," he says, "but Sri Lanka [is] a very proud cricket country and [its players] have proven themselves over many years in Australia."

Kannangara says the Sydney-Melbourne rivalry can be "extrapolated" into the Sri Lankan-Australian community. "You can bet that Sydney Sri Lankans will be very proud to have something that Melbourne's had before," he says.

Melbourne is the traditional centre of Australia's Sri Lankan community. Sri Lankan immigration was restricted by the White Australia Policy from 1901 to 1966.

Ceylonese migrants had been treated poorly as cane-field workers. After World War II, as the policy was gradually eased, "Burgher" Sri Lankans with Dutch heritage were admitted, and in the 1970s, as the discriminatory policy vanished, Sri Lankan students came to Australia under the Colombo Plan.

Both Sinhalese and Tamil Sri Lankan migrants gravitated to Melbourne, where they numbered 31,000 in the 2006 census.

A drift towards Sydney has been under way for some years, says the Sri Lankan Consul-General in Sydney, Bandula Jayasekara. "Sydney is the commercial capital of Australia and the best and most exciting city to live," he says. "It's long overdue that Sri Lanka will have a Test match here, and Sri Lankan Australians are really looking forward to it."

But since that match in 1985, Sri Lankan cricketers have been a conspicuous presence on the SCG. In an infamous one-day final in 1996, Sri Lankan and Australian players clashed after the tourists' captain, Arjuna Ranatunga, demanded a runner. Australia's wicketkeeper Ian Healy claimed Ranatunga was unfairly asking for a runner because he was overweight. Australia won the match but two months later, in Lahore, Sri Lanka had the ultimate revenge, beating Australia to win its first World Cup final. (The two nations are the only teams to play each other twice in a World Cup final – Sri Lanka triumphed in 1996; Australia won in Barbados in 2007.)

It was 1999 before Sri Lanka won a match on the SCG, beating England in a spiteful encounter marred by verbal altercations between players. That summer, Ranatunga threatened to take his players off the field when Muttiah Muralitharan was no-balled for throwing – as he had been, also by Australian umpires, in the Test matches in 1995-96.

In 2003, Sri Lanka finally beat Australia in Sydney, when Marvan Atapattu and Sanath Jayasuriya piled on 237 runs and Sri Lanka amassed what was then a ground record one-day score of 343.

The great Jayasuriya was one of the best one-day cricketers to play in Sydney, scoring three centuries in eight matches on the SCG, with an average of 58.5?. With his flat finger-spinners, he also demolished Australia with 4-39 in the Sydney match in 2003.

"The pitch was good for spin bowling and gave Sri Lanka an advantage, and they have always enjoyed playing in Sydney," Kannangara says. That win in 2003 started a rich run in Sydney for the Sri Lankans. They won there to clinch their first series win in Australia in 2010, and last February crushed Australia by eight wickets.

A Test match is a different affair, however. Before this season, Sri Lanka had not won a Test in Australia in 10 attempts. Playing in Sydney is another step towards full recognition as equals, says Jayasekara,

"Cricket diplomacy has been an important part of strengthening the ties between the countries," he says. "We remember that Australia really backed us when we first became a Test-cricket-playing nation.

"The rivalry has been hard but healthy, as it should be, over the years. Sri Lanka remembers Australia's support at important times. The Boxing Day Test is a big thing for Sri Lankan Australians, but having a Sydney Test for the first time is going to be really special."

This story At long last, rivalry hits home turf first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.