‘Special connection’: Sri Lanka’s love affair with Pakistan’s cricket team

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

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

He also fondly remembers how the packed Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore was unapologetically biased in favor of Sri Lanka.

Former cricketer Aravinda De Silva’s every boundary was greeted with loud cheers as thousands of Pakistanis waved Sri Lanka flags.

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

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

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

Decades old tires

Their ties date back to Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948, when Pakistan quickly recognized the country.

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

Decades later, Pakistan helped the Sri Lankan military as it fought 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 people. Pakistani military equipment and officials were sent to Colombo to assist the Sri Lankan army.

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

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

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

As the crowd in Sri Lanka grew angry, their government and cricketers pledged support to Pakistan. The Pakistani bus driver who took 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 a month later.

When Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war ended in May 2009, Pakistan sent its cricket team on tour to help bring international cricket back to the island.

Sri Lanka returned the favor a decade later by touring Pakistan as the violence-hit country looked to resume its international cricket hosting duties.

‘Special connection’

In addition to the historic relationship at the government level, 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 favorites in Sri Lanka, where even Indian cricket fans are not shy about showing their support for Pakistan.

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

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

“I can’t show it anymore because it might 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 after a deadly church attack that killed more than 250 people and the anti-Muslim riots that followed, Muslims on the South Asian island still live in fear.

Muslims form 9.2 percent of the population, while Buddhism is the majority religion at 70 percent. Mohammed chose not to share his last name and withheld his thoughts on the aftermath of the Easter attacks due to security 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 played a role in his loyalty.

“We have always felt a special bond with Pakistanis,” he said with a warm smile as he drove along bumpy roads and narrow side streets on a windy 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 neighborhood called Khettarama.

Rows of narrow multi-storey houses sharing boundary walls wind around the stadium’s boundary wall. Several brightly colored mosques of different sizes are scattered throughout the streets.

And when the Pakistani cricket team is in town, the neighborhood buzzes with excitement.

Locals set up stalls selling Sri Lankan-made replicas of Pakistani cricket items. Special prayers for the team’s success are held at the area’s main mosque.

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

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

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

Cricket fan Nyla Naveez comes from a unique South Asian family. Her mother is of Pakistani descent and her father of Indian descent, but they have lived in Sri Lanka for over twenty 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 Pakistan cricket team has always been exciting to watch but the current talented group of players, especially Azam, has made them more attractive to the fans.

“Pakistan is an emotion for me. It is the way they play, especially the fast bowlers, that makes me a loyal Pakistan fan despite having roots in three countries.”

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

Mohammed, the Uber driver, said he wouldn’t mind if either team qualified but would be “happier if it’s Pakistan.”

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

The mail ‘Special bond’: Sri Lanka’s love affair with the Pakistani cricket team appeared first on Al Jazeera.

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