Many Sri Lankans speak of a decades-old bond between the two South Asian nations – in cricket and beyond

Colombo, Sri Lanka – Kalana Weerasinghe’s love affair with Pakistan’s cricket team began 27 years ago, when Sri Lanka beat Australia to win its maiden Cricket World Cup in Pakistan’s eastern metropolis of Lahore.

The image of former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto handing over the glistening gold and silver winner’s trophy to then Sri Lanka captain Arjuna Ranatunga is etched in his mind.

He also fondly remembers how Lahore’s packed Gaddafi Stadium was unabashedly partisan in Sri Lanka’s favour.

Every boundary off the bat of former cricketer Aravinda De Silva was greeted with loud cheers as thousands of Pakistanis waved Sri Lanka flags.

Now whenever the Pakistani cricket team plays in his city, Colombo, Weerasinghe makes it a point to put on his green Pakistan replica shirt and head to the stadium.

“I will never forget how all Pakistanis backed us then, so I have been backing Pakistan ever since,” he told Al Jazeera during Pakistan’s Asia Cup Super 4 match against India at the R Premadasa Stadium on Sunday.

“Our countries have a great history of friendship and support, be it cricket or otherwise,” he said, referring to the decades-old bond between the two South Asian nations.

 

Decades-old ties

Their ties date back to Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948, when Pakistan was quick to recognise the country.

Their defensive cooperation began during Pakistan’s war with India in 1971, when Sri Lanka allowed Pakistani jets to use its air bases for refuelling.

Decades later, Pakistan helped Sri Lanka’s military when it was fighting an armed uprising by the separatist Tamil group Liberation of Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which wanted to create a separate state for Sri Lanka’s Tamil population. Pakistani military equipment and officials were sent to Colombo to help the Sri Lankan army.

And when Pakistan found itself in the middle of attacks by armed groups, Sri Lanka offered to train the Pakistan army in counterterrorism operations.

On the cricket field, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have played dozens of bilateral series and have undertaken tours when other cricket teams have refused to play over security concerns.

In March 2009, six members of the Sri Lankan team were injured following an attack on their bus by gunmen in Lahore.

While it angered the public in Sri Lanka, their government and cricketers pledged support for Pakistan. The Pakistani bus driver who drove the team to safety was hailed as a hero by Sri Lankan cricket stars and was invited on a Sri Lankan-government-sponsored holiday to the island nation a month later.

When Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war came to an end in May 2009, Pakistan sent its cricket team for a tour in order to help bring international cricket back to the island.

Sri Lanka returned the favour 10 years later by touring Pakistan as the violence-hit country looked to resume its international cricket hosting duties.

Nyla Naveez
Nyla Naveez is Sri Lankan but has roots in India and Pakistan and her cricket loyalty remains with Pakistan as she has an emotional bond 

‘Special connection’

In addition to the historic government-level relationship, Pakistani cricketers were revered in Sri Lanka long before their own team became world-beaters in the 1990s.

The current team and its star captain Babar Azam are now firm favourites in Sri Lanka, where even Indian cricket fans do not feel shy about showing their support for Pakistan.

“I like Babar Azam,” Lamerika Rajeswaran, an Indian resident of Colombo, said during the India-Pakistan match.

Mohammed, a Sri Lankan Uber driver, said he has always supported the Pakistan cricket team. But while used to openly proclaim his allegiance to the team in green, now he does it quietly.

“I can’t show it any more as it could get me in trouble with the authorities, but most Sri Lankan Muslims support Pakistan and I am one of them,” he told Al Jazeera in the Sri Lankan capital.

Four years on from a deadly church attack that killed more than 250 people, and the anti-Muslim riots that followed, Muslims in the South Asian island nation still live in fear.

Muslims form 9.2 percent of the population while Buddhism is the majority religion at 70 percent. Mohammed chose to not share his last name and held back thoughts on the aftermath of the Easter attacks due to safety concerns.

However, he spoke animatedly about his love for former and current Pakistani cricketers such as Shoaib Akhtar, Wasim Akram and Shaheen Shah Afridi.

“They have always been very exciting to watch with their pace and unpredictable nature,” he said.

But he also admitted that religion had a role to play in his allegiance.

“We have always felt a special connection with Pakistanis,” he said with a warm smile as he drove through bumpy roads and narrow by-lanes on a breezy evening in the Sri Lankan capital.

Prayers for Pakistan

The R Premadasa Stadium, the venue of the ongoing tournament, is surrounded by a densely populated Muslim neighbourhood called Khettarama.

Rows of narrow, multistorey houses that share boundary walls snake around the stadium’s boundary wall. Several brightly-painted mosques of varying sizes dot the streets.

And when the Pakistan cricket team is in town, the neighbourhood buzzes with excitement.

Locals set up stalls selling Sri Lankan-made replica Pakistan cricket merchandise. Special prayers for the team’s success are held in the area’s main mosque.

S Keerthilal, a former Sri Lankan army soldier who now runs a tourist taxi service, criticised his country’s Muslim population for their “disloyalty”.

“They [Muslims] choose religion over nationality and go for Pakistan,” the 45-year-old Colombo resident said.

For some Sri Lankan Muslims, the reason for supporting Pakistan goes beyond religious bonds.

Cricket fan Nyla Naveez comes from a uniquely South Asian family. Her mother is of Pakistani origin, and her father is of Indian origin, but they have lived in Sri Lanka for more than 20 years.

Her Gordian background leaves it unclear how she might define herself.

“A Sri Lankan who supports Pakistan,” she said with a beaming smile.

Naveez said the Pakistani cricket team has always been exciting to watch, but the current talented group of players, especially Azam, have made them more endearing to fans.

“Pakistan is an emotion for me – it’s the way they play, especially the fast bowlers, that makes me a faithful Pakistan fan despite having roots in three countries.”

Sri Lanka and India will meet at Khettarama’s R Premadasa Stadium in Colombo on Thursday for a Super 4 match that will decide who faces India in Sunday’s Asia Cup final.

Mohammed, the Uber driver, said he does not mind if either team qualifies but “will be happier if it is Pakistan”.

“Pakistan will win, God willing,” he said with a sheepish smile.

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