Nature and history combine to make the Galle International Cricket Ground in Sri Lanka one of the world’s most scenic sports venues. It sits right next to the Indian Ocean that often acquires the colour and translucence of a blue-green mint lozenge. Between the sea and the stadium is the 16th century Galle Fort. Many people would watch cricket from the fort, with the ocean breeze on their necks. They were rewarded with some historic moments. Galle is where Shane Warne became the first cricketer to take 500 Test wickets. It is where Muttiah Muralitharan, a Sri Lankan Tamil, took his record 800th Test scalp.
The blessing of natural beauty, however, turned into a curse on December 26, 2004. A massive earthquake, with a magnitude of 9.1 on the Richter scale, at the bottom of the ocean near Indonesia, about 1700 km away, caused the sea to erupt in the form of a tsunami. Towns and villages were swept away. An estimated 38,000 people died in Sri Lanka. The tsunami also badly hit parts of India, Indonesia, Maldives and Thailand. Nearly two lakh people perished in South Asia alone.
The tsunami destroyed the Galle cricket ground. The Sri Lankan cricket team was touring New Zealand at the time and most players did not have a clue about the fate the ground had suffered. “Every cricketer who had played in a ground like Galle, whether Sri Lankan or international, couldn’t comprehend what happened,” says Kushil Gunasekera, the founder of the Foundation of Goodness (FOG) and Muralitharan’s manager.
Muralitharan had stayed home due to a shoulder injury. On the day the tsunami hit the island nation, he was driving with his mother, brother and fiancée from Colombo to Seenigama, Gunasekera’s village, for a children’s function. Seenigama is not far from Galle. Gunasekera and others had already reached the venue. Murali was about 20 minutes late.
The delay proved to be a blessing in disguise for Murali. “I was driving from Colombo to reach a function, but luckily I was 20 minutes late and someone called me and told me to turn around and head back,” Murali recalled in an interview. “I was lucky—otherwise, I would have been close to Galle—and I survived.”
Cricket resumed after the Galle Stadium was rebuilt in December 2007. But countless other parts of the country needed help. That is where Murali and FOG played an important role in giving victims a ‘doosra’ chance, to reference his famous delivery, at life. In cricket, the ‘doosra’ is a ball bowled by off-spinners like Murali that turns the other way and beats the batsman at the crease. Murali was assisted by his teammates Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene. They started by providing priority items, such as food and clothing, to
the affected people and went on to build homes, thousands of them, and cricket facilities for youngsters. The international community also chipped in. Bryan Adams funded a swimming pool, for instance.
Worried about their families back home, the team had returned to Sri Lanka the day after the tsunami. Sanath Jayasuriya’s mother, for example, was lucky to escape. It was a Sunday and, as was her habit, she had gone to the beach to buy vegetables, when the waves pulled her in the water. But she made it. “It was a sort of a miracle,” Jayasuriya had said at the time. Almost all cricketers or their family members were impacted. The house of Upul Tharanga, then a rising star who would play for Sri Lanka the next year, was washed away.
In his Colin Cowdrey lecture in 2011, Sangakkara recalled the agony of being in New Zealand while their country and families were facing unprecedented horror. “All we wanted to do was to go back home to be with our families and stand together with our people,” Sangakkara said. “I remember landing at the airport on 31 December, a night when the whole of Colombo is normally lit up for the festivities, a time of music and laughter. But the town was empty and dark, the mood depressed and silent with sorrow.”
After the initial days of driving to affected areas, distributing essentials and leading relief operations, Murali played charity matches around the world to raise funds. The Marylebone Cricket Club and Surrey built grounds in Sri Lanka. Ian Botham and Warne made visits to cheer up children. In a barter deal with French cement maker Lafarge, Murali did an ad campaign in exchange for cement worth $100,000, which was urgently needed to build homes.
Murali’s deal with Lafarge brought enough cement to rebuild hundreds of homes in about 25 villages.
Lauding his teammate for his hands-on approach, Sangakkara said, “Amazingly, refusing to delegate the responsibility of distribution to the authorities concerned, he [Murali] took it upon himself to accompany the convoys. My wife and I along with Mahela, Ruchira Perera (former player), our physio C.J. Clark and many other volunteers drove alongside the aid convoys towards an experience that changed me as a person. We based ourselves in Polonnaruwa, just north of Dambulla, driving daily to visit tsunami-ravaged coastal towns like Trincomalee and Batticaloa, as well as southern towns like Galle and Hambantota on later visits.”
In all, the FOG is said to have rehabilitated countless people across hundreds of villages. One among them was Pulina Tharanga. One of the cricketing miracles from the tsunami, Tharanga was just 11 when he lost his parents in the tragedy. His grandmother raised him, while FOG guided him in the sport. In fact, it was his passion for cricket which saved him. That Sunday, he had gone to inform his coach, some distance from his house, about the injury he had suffered, even as the killer waves took away his mother and their ramshackle home near the coast.
Tharanga reached a level in the sport high enough to represent Sri Lanka in the 2012 under-19 World Cup and has been among the probables for the senior team. He has also featured in the Lanka Premier League. He has seen far too much of life to know that while money is important, it is not the only thing. “Making money is not my goal,” he once said. “When I had nothing, a lot of people came forward to help me. So, when I have something, I want to help the ones who are in need.”
Gunasekera, who speaks with the zeal and idealism of a philanthropist, says, “Whether it is the Türkiye earthquake or the tsunami, both impacted lives tragically.” He adds, “But when tragedies like these occur, you cannot give up. However much we may lament or despair at an event, we can’t reverse it. You have to look at the future and rebuild life.”
As much as the records Murali holds, the cricketer will be remembered for his extraordinary efforts in helping his fellow countrymen during the worst crisis they had faced.
(This appeared in the print edition as "A Doosra Life")