All Nipuna Vijayasena, a staff sergeant of the Sri Lankan Army, remembers is the heavy sound of a hundred crackers bursting at the same time. He and his battalion were ambushing an LTTE camp in Kilinochchi, the war-bed of the Tamil rebellion in 2009, months before the LTTE chief Velupiillai Prabhakaran was killed and the civil war ended. He felt a crushing pain on his left-leg, before he fainted. When he regained his consciousness and opened his eyes, he was in a crowded ward of the military hospital, his left-leg amputated from the knees. He had accidentally stepped on to a mine, which blew his leg off.
Growing up in Moratuwa, he was a cricket buff. He aspired to be like his idol, Sanath Jayasuriya. Like him, he says, he was a southpaw. In his neighbourhood, he claims he was called Sanath because of attacking batting style. But when the question of sustaining the family dawned, he enlisted in the military in his late teens. A steady income and prestigious job, he didn’t think twice. He says he loved his job and, “made new friends, who were all from similar background and age”. He was initially posted in more peaceful climes of Southern Sri Lanka, but when the civil war gathered impetus, he was summoned to the warfront. He had no fears. The only regret was he couldn’t be able to watch cricket.
These days, he says, he doesn’t watch much of cricket. The scars of war have left him numb. There is a television at the military rehabilitation centre at Kamburupitiya, 20-odd kilometres north of Matara, which houses a few hundreds of low-ranked soldiers handicapped during the war. But he, or his friends, hardly bother to watch cricket, or any other game for that matter.
But to lighten their mood, the officers of the rehab take them to cricket matches, like the ongoing Test between Indian and Sri Lanka in Galle, the closest international venue to the centre. “They have all lost some part of the body, can’t do any work and are still carrying the wounds of the wars. So we take them for such outings, like an occasional movie or a cricket match where they can at least momentarily forget everything, breathe some fresh air and meet new people,” says Ruwan Kumara, an officer in charge of them
Clad in lungis and orange shirts with black stripes, which make the 50-odd gathering stand out among the crowd, they don’t get easily excited by the action in the middle or show too many emotions.
They watch it almost dispassionately and are reclusive to strangers. Clearly, they have faced harsher realities in life that a game of cricket might feel trivial. But 28-year-old Thamara Ratnayake, who lost his right hand when his bunker was blasted, says he is unexcited not because he was part of the war, but he doesn’t like “slow cricket”.
“I prefer T20s and ODIs. I like Dilshan and Gayle. I watched cricket in Colombo. You know when I was young I used to play the shots like him,” he says, leaning backwards and demonstrating with one hand the “Dilliscoop.”
In his military camp in Mulatheevu, he used to play cricket in spare time. “There was no ground or open space in the jungle. The land was muddy because of heavy rain. The shift was also tiring, sometimes we had to do double shifts, but we used to arrange some sticks and somebody who went to the town used to buy us some balls. It was fun,” he recollects.
But the fun didn’t last too long, as he and his several friends in the troop were gravely wounded, some of them even fatally. “I’m happy that I could make some sacrifice for the country and I’m alive. So many of my friends lost their lives tragically. We are trying to be normal,” he says.
As the rains subside and the players stride onto the field, they begin whistling and yelling. There is a sudden but fleeting wave of excitement when they sport Angelo Mathews, who reciprocates with a wave of his hands. They are content. For a few seconds, they could feel normal again.