Page last updated at 12:46 GMT, Thursday, 6 August 2009 13:46 UK

New innings for Sri Lanka's children

Children play cricket on the streets of Colombo

By Andy Hosken
Today programme, Colombo

The British brought cricket to Sri Lanka and established its first club, the Colombo Cricket Club, in 1863. Astonishingly, membership was not opened to so-called 'natives' until 1961, around 13 years after the country gained its independence.

Now the game is regarded as much more than a mere sport and is considered almost a fourth religion by the island's Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims.

Players like the Tamil off-spinner, Muttiah Muralitheran, currently the greatest Test wicket-taker of all time, are revered by all people regardless of religion and ethnicity.

Mahinda Wijesinghe, the country's foremost cricket historian, told us that "interest in the game is so high that all barriers of race and religion just go by the board when a cricket match is on."

"People take leave from their offices saying their wife is sick and their grandfather or grandmother died - they may have been dead many times  - but they keep taking leave and coming to watch matches."

Cricketing past

Sri Lanka was granted test status by the International Cricket Council in July 1981 and got off to a blistering start.

Four-and-a-half years after it was awarded Test status, Sri Lanka won both its first match - and series - with a 1-0 victory over India.

But by this time, Sri Lanka was descending into ethnic conflict and violence, largely due to the emergence of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE.)

The conflict had devastating consequences for the country as a whole and obviously for cricket. A large part of northern and eastern Sri Lanka fell under the sway of the Tamil Tigers and it became increasingly difficult for sides from north and south to play each other.

A local game at the Moors cricket club in Colombo
Cricketing passion runs deep in Sri Lankan society

Over the years, children in the war-torn north of the country learned to deal with poorer cricket facilities. Many had to play on wickets made from coconut matting rather than grass.

Although - to many people's surprise - Sri Lanka won the 1996 World Cup under its captain Arjuna Ranatunga, the national side also suffered.

Selectors were not granted access to all the players they wanted to see and develop.

There is an old adage in Sri Lanka that fast bowlers come from the north and batsmen from the south. Although this may not be a cast iron law, there is no question that, as a result of the conflict, selectors had a much more restricted pool of talent from which to choose.

"Because we couldn't garner the talent that was in the north and the east, naturally we couldn't have a proper selection situation," says Wijesinghe.

"We've got only twenty million people in this country so we were probably selecting a team from about ten or eleven million so it will take some time."

Future sportsmen

The Sri Lankan Cricket Board is now investing money, time and equipment in schools and clubs in northern and eastern towns including Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Vavuniya and Jaffna.

Recently at a presentation before the second one-day international in Dambulla between Pakistan and Sri Lanka, youngsters from the north were presented with bags full of cricket equipment.

Harivadhanan, a 17-year-old cricketter from Jaffna
Young Sri Lankan cricketers are helping bring the country together

Harivadhanan, a 17-year-old from Jaffna, spoke of the difficulties for young players like him adjusting to playing on turf after years on coconut matting.

"We all want to play on turf so that we can play elsewhere in the country. At the moment it's difficult to play on different surfaces so it will take time to adjust," he says.

Nishantha Ranatunga, Secretary of the Sri Lankan Cricket Board, says cricket possesses possible nation-building qualities.

"As we all know, when it comes to team games, people get together and work on a strategy," he says.

"So in life, you can always use a sport to develop an individual to be a person who can work in a society. I think it's a great opportunity for the youngsters in the north and east to develop their skills and to work to develop the country."

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