Politicians brace themselves for Ranatunga's entry into politics

Sri Lanka's politicians are a quarrelsome bunch, but even they will be looking on with some trepidation, as former cricket captain, Arjuna Ranatunga, whose career was littered with bellicose disputes with officials and opponents, is seeking to become a member of parliament in the December 5 general elections.

Ranatunga retired 16 months ago©CricInfo

Ranatunga has followed his father Reggie, a top-level minister, into politics following an invitation from President Chandrika Kumaratunga to join the ruling People's Alliance (PA). It was a career move that had not been entirely unexpected, despite frequent denials ever since he bid a tearful goodbye to international cricket 16 months ago.

On the field Ranatunga was a fearsome adversary, unafraid of confrontation, who irked many an opponent with an arrogant air. Clashes with officials, selectors and administrators were not uncommon either, most famously when he admonished umpire Ross Emerson like a naughty schoolboy during a One-Day International at Melbourne during the Muralitharan chucking controversy in 1998/9.

But whilst he made enemies he also won the adoration of the nation for leading Sri Lanka to world cup glory in 1996 and the respect of many for the manner in which he had stood up for Muralitharan in Australia. It's this grass roots popularity that he wants to tap into now.

Speaking at home, before another busy day on the hustings, Ranatunga explained why he has decided to enter politics: "I was invited by the President. She had a long chat with me and said she was concerned about sports in the country and the problems of the youth. She was very keen for me to have a plan for that. It took me 8-10 days to make up my mind, but I finally decided that I should get involved in politics to show my appreciation for the country."

Opposition MPs will be relieved, if somewhat disbelieving, when they hear that Ranatunga is not planning a finger-jabbing entrance onto the political stage. "I don't throw mud at anyone in my speeches," he said. "I want to do my politics in the proper manner. I didn't get into politics to fight and behave like some of the politicians nowadays."

Even so, he promises not to duck any challenges: "In my cricket career I was a nice guy, but when I realised that people were coming after us, I stood my ground. It will be the same thing when it comes to politics."

But, for those politicians keen to avoid his Napleonic wrath, it's not entirely obvious which issues and policies to steer clear of. Ranatunga's admits to being faced with a steep learning curve, saying: "It's not my style to stick my finger into anything I don't know. I know I have a lot of area to cover." Although he is joining a quasi-socialist party, he claims no ideological leanings. So his focus is youth issues in general and sports in particular and his campaign centers in on his proven success as a cricket leader, with the state-sponsored television station repeatedly showing emotional clippings the 1996 world cup and the Muralitharan affair.

With the political pendulum apparently swinging towards the United National Front (UNF), the support of Ranatunga would appear to be a real coup for the People's Alliance, as they desperately try to shore up their support in the rural areas. Kumaratunga was demanded that Ranatunga follow her around the country to all her major election rallies, but he is not concerned that his reputation may be being used for selfish purposes.

"They respect me for who I am. I didn't get into politics to just be a PA man," he said "What I wanted to do was to give something back to this country, whether you are SLPF, UNP or JVP. I am not concerned about blue, green or red; I have come to do a job. I told the President that if I could not do that job properly then I would not stay in politics."

He talks seriously about the importance of sport in modern day Sri Lanka, brushing aside suggestions that cricket is merely a hobby in a country tarnished by terrorism and gripped by economic problems. On the contrary, he argues, cricket is a unifying force and a source of self-belief for Sri Lankans.

"Sri Lanka used to be known as a place where tea comes from, then people talked about the war and now they are busy talking about the Sri Lankan cricket team. Through cricket a lot of goodwill has been created with other countries.

"There is no doubt that cricket has a role to play in unifying the country," he said. "If you ask the kids what they want to do, 95 per cent will say that they want to play for the Sri Lankan cricket team. After the 1996 World Cup cricket took off and became like a religion and the cricketers should now do more than just play cricket."

But Ranatunga maintains that Sri Lanka's sporting success should not be confined just to cricket and high up on his agenda, should he secure a seat and PA win power, is reform of the administrative bodies that run sports.

"Apart from cricket, and a couple of athletes, our sporting standards have gone down badly. It is the officials that have created these problems. I was a victim at one time and I know what I went through with officials in the 18 years I played for Sri Lanka. I had a tough time. They wanted me to come in front of them and say yes to everything but was prepared to fight for the rights of the players from out-stations."

He is also unsurprised by the recent allegations of corruption with the Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka (BBCSL), arguing that the institution has been hijacked by businessman seeking cash and kudos.

"The cricket board is one of the richest institutions in the country," he said. "If you are board president then everyone will know who you are. They get a lot of publicity and prominence. There has been corruption in the board. Board officials have now come forward and given some documents."

He believes the best people are not running the board: "Take the present constitution, if a top cricketer wants to become board president, then he will need a lot of money because there are times when votes are bought. I can remember in 1982 how hard Gamini Dissanayake found it to find a vice-president. But now everyone comes rushing in. For what, to do something for cricket? I have my doubts."

Indeed, cricket has become such a serious business in Sri Lanka that former cricket board president, Thilanga Sumathipala, stands accused by a PA minister, Mangala Samaraweera, of triggering the present political by helping to fund the crossover of nine PA politicians to the opposition.

Sumathipala, it was inferred, was so desperate to be reinstated as President of the cricket board that he brought a national government to its knees. It' s a fanciful plan that is strenuously denied, but not beyond the bounds of possibility in a country so obsessed with cricket.

Ranatunga, a past ally, fell out of favour with Sumathipala during his last period in office, when his brother Dammika was sacked as the chief executive. He didn't rule out the hand of Sumathipala in the crossovers. "I cannot be sure," he said. "One thing that I know is that some of the people that crossed over the floor were involved in cricket."

His family dispute with Sumathipala has even prompted suggestions that Ranatunga's entry into a politics represents nothing less than an attempt to regain his families grip on the cricket board and settle old scores. A fearsome power struggle with the Sumathipala clan is predicted.

Whatever the reasons for Ranatunga's entry into politics, few doubt he will secure a seat and even fewer expect it to be a dull affair, especially his future colleagues in parliament who will now be bracing themselves for confrontation.