There is something special brewing in Chennai this season apart from their obsession with MS Dhoni. Two Sri Lankan cricketers – Matheesha Pathirana and Maheesh Theekshana – have become the fans favourite at the MA Chidambaram Stadium, where not so long ago players from the Island nation couldn’t take the field because political tensions in the aftermath of the Eelam war that ended in 2009.
It feels quite remarkable how the two Sinhalese Sri Lankans have managed to win over the hearts of the people in a city that even Muttiah Muralitharan, a Tamil, couldn’t manage two years back. In 2020, as news filtered in that popular actor Vijay Sethupathi will play Muralidharan’s role in his biopic, and photos of him in Sri Lanka jersey went viral, he received widespread criticism. And in a matter of days, he opted out of the movie. In 2013, with a strong public sentiment to back, even Chennai Super Kings were left with no option but to not include Nuwan Kulasekara and Akila Dhananjaya – a mystery spinner they had high hopes on back then – for their home matches. And in the seasons that followed, they refrained from picking Sri Lankan players at the auction.
“Time heals everything. The Rajapaksas, who were the ones behind the genocide of Tamils, are no longer in power in Sri Lanka. So that has changed the landscape to a larger extent because the fight has been against them,” Dr D Ravikumar, MP Lok Sabha from VCK party, told The Indian Express. Ravikumar, whose VCK party have long protested for the rights of Tamils in Sri Lanka, said politics and sports should not be mixed. “Arts, sports and literature should not be mixed with politics. But at certain times, we have to go by the sentiments of the people as well, which is why back then Sri Lanka cricketers could not play in Chennai. They were seen as the representatives of the Sri Lanka government then which was involved in war crimes against Tamils. While our fight for justice against them continues, they have a new government in power and reconciliation has taken over,” Ravikumar says.
Although the Chepauk crowd is yet to come up with its own chants for the duo, they have voiced their approval when their names are announced after the toss. With Pathirana, the cheers have been only getting louder and louder and each time he starts his run-up, there is anticipation to see him nail yorkers with the capacity crowd collectively going on a long “Ohhhhhhh” that ends only after the ball is released, giving space for a momentary silence before clearing their throat when he picks up a wicket.
Ravikumar also revealed that there is empathy among the public given the economical situation of Sri Lanka. “Back then, the Tamils didn’t receive any support. Now, the Sinhalese and Tamils protested together to throw out the Rajapaksas. They are fighting a common cause for the larger good and it is time for us to support them. If these players get some money out of IPL and help feed the needy back home, then we should support them,” Ravikumar said.
During the 2013 season, the political tensions were so high in Tamil Nadu that after the DMK pulled out of the UPA alliance after India’s stands on UN Resolution against Sri Lanka, then chief minister J Jayalalithaa had written to former PM Manmohan Singh that Chennai won’t host any match involving Sri Lankan players or match officials. But the change of government in Sri Lanka — following a civil unrest owing to economic situation — that has seen the Rajaspaksa family flee the Island, seems to have cooled down the situation.
With the Sri Lankan duo making early impressions last year, even before they joined the camp, there was an air of anticipation for their arrival here.
More so after Theekshana had an exceptional outing for Joburg Super Kings in the SA20 and followed it up with a match winning performance for Sri Lanka in the recent tour to New Zealand. And with 20-year-old Pathirana, Chennai didn’t know what to expect for the Super Kings who have known to throw their weight behind experienced players, but it was Dhoni who spotted him early and brought him into the CSK fold.
“Pathirana is an excellent death bowler. Also, with his action, it is slightly difficult to pick. He has got that slower one also. So you have to watch him very carefully. Which means when you spend those extra seconds watching the ball and he is bowling at a decent pace, it becomes quite difficult to consistently hit him,” Dhoni had said.
If Pathirana has become an instant hit, Theekshana has waited for his time. Having accounted for only one wicket at Chepauk in the league matches, to say the mystery spinner was under pressure before Qualifier I against Gujarat Titans would be a massive understatement. However on Tuesday, he was the one who changed the tide for Chennai by dismissing Hardik Pandya in his first over and from there on the Super Kings were hard to stop. And by the time Theekshana finished his quota of overs by rattling the stumps of Rahul Tewatia and returned to the fine-leg, he was offered a standing ovation.
“He’s very skillful and subtle with his skill. He’s always coming at a player. So, you can’t really get a rhythm as a hitter. His deceptive change of pace just makes hitters kick themselves at times,” CSK coach Stephen Fleming had said earlier in the tournament. Exactly how it played out against Tewatia.
It didn’t matter that Theekshana is part of the Sri Lankan Army now, where he serves as a Sergeant. Now, he is wearing the famous yellow jersey, the one that connects each and every soul in the city of Chennai, and their love transcends boundaries.