If you were watching on TV, you might wonder what the big deal was. Khettarama, one of cricket’s great party grounds, overflowing as it almost always is for T20 internationals, roaring for Sri Lanka lbw appeals, vibing to papare even through rain breaks, generally being its regular rambunctious self. On the field, a dramatic batting collapse is unfolding. Even this feels like a familiar and comforting companion to Sri Lankan life. Even this only slightly dampens the mood.

But right now this is just a snatch of normalcy in an otherwise relentlessly upsetting time in the history of the island. The kilometres-long fuel queues on the way to the ground are the most obvious signs, but there is much worse. Businesses are shutting down all over, no longer able to afford the imported supplies they depend upon, or failing to hold on to staff who can no longer afford the commute. Hospitals are so desperately short of life-saving medicines, doctors in one of the most vaunted medical systems in the developing world have been forced to beg for basics.

Children have been hit particularly hard. Working- and lower-middle class families have been cutting back on nutrition for many months. With transport costs what they are, and the price of school supplies having soared, survival is a daily struggle, and education has become an afterthought. Don’t even start on the plight of tourism operators. In 2019 there were the Easter Attacks, then two pandemic years, and now an economic crisis and associated political turmoil, which is once again keeping visitors away.

What is cricket up against this much suffering? Some Australia players wondered that themselves, and asked whether it was appropriate to play cricket in a country that is gasping for air the way Sri Lanka is right now. When the tour began, and videos of Khettarama’s heaving stands made its way around the internet, Sri Lankan voices also began to throw shade at the crowd’s merrymaking.

Let’s start with what cricket isn’t. At this moment, it is no longer the primary unifying phenomenon on the island. This is a good thing, since silver linings are at a premium right now. Cricket has long been the one Sri Lankan passion that cuts across ethnicity, religion and class, but it has too often been merely an icebreaker – something that strangers from opposite sides of the various Sri Lankan spectrums can talk about, while being aware that they are not seriously talking. We might agree that a certain burly left-hander played too many ODIs for Sri Lanka, for example. But that gets us no closer to agreeing on matters of real importance.

What is cricket up against this much suffering? Some Australia players wondered that themselves, and asked whether it was appropriate to play cricket in a country that is gasping for air the way Sri Lanka is right now

Right now, thanks to protests across the island, cricket is not having to do the “national unity” heavy lifting it is largely unqualified to do. The minority grievances that have been aired at protest sites have in many ways been unprecedented, because for the first time, majority Sinhalese appear to be receptive to (or at least tolerant of) calls for justice for the devastation the state has inflicted on these communities. The idea that politicians intentionally seek to exploit divisions in order to gain power has become a mainstream conversation. The universal appeal of a Muthiah Muralidaran spell, or an Aravinda de Silva hook shot, are great, but in the most heartbreaking way, they do not stand up to the shared experience of struggling to feed your family.

And as long as Sri Lanka Cricket is in charge of the sport, matches will also struggle to be a site of anti-establishment sentiment, because there are few organised bodies in Sri Lanka that are more subservient to the political establishment than the cricket board. At Khettarama, fresh signs across the stadium banned horns, helmets and cigarette lighters, but also, snuck in near the bottom, was a ban on placards and banners. Don’t bring your anti-government signs here, was the directive, with police (who have water-cannoned and tear-gassed protesters all around the country in recent months) gleefully confiscating any materials that could be used to show dissent.

Empty gas cylinders line the street outside a filling station in Colombo that has been closed for lack of fuelTharaka Basnayaka/NurPhoto/Getty Images

They couldn’t stop spectators shouting, of course, but when chants of “Go home Gota”, aimed at president Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, began, the Khettarama DJ would quickly intervene to drown out their voices with stadium pop. It may be worth noting here that SLC is not merely an extension of the Sri Lankan government, it is a manifestation of its worst inclinations, controlled as it is by elites who have long been deaf to calls for serious reform.

So what can cricket do? Well, not a lot really, but perhaps what little it can do is enough. The tour is clearly bringing some money into the country. Not only are local hotels, caterers and transportation staff getting much needed work, the broadcast earnings from a full Australia tour are also significant. (This is why, despite consternation, the matches are being played at night; earnings from playing the games during India’s prime-time television slots are thought to be worth the diesel that powers the generators running the floodlights.)

But in a nation that wakes up to fresh hurt every day, the normalcy that watching their men’s team play (or as the case may be, suck), is not for nothing. People going through difficulty deserve this too. If in a country that lurches from crisis to crisis to crisis, cricket is a distraction, then let it be one.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo’s Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf

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