When the Sri Lanka squad left to undertake pre-World Cup training in the UK, a little over three weeks ago, a stultifying unease had settled upon their island. Rocked to its core by the seven bomb blasts that wrenched away more than 250 lives on Easter Sunday, the island's parks and beaches had emptied, restaurants sat idle, and much of the vivacity of Sri Lankan life had given way to fear.
In the weeks since, some semblance of normalcy has been restored. Classrooms are full of students again. Offices hum once more, commuter trains are packed, and the negative foreign-travel advisories - which had helped bring Sri Lankan tourism to a virtual standstill - have begun to be relaxed. Yet there are daily reminders that not all is as it once was. Armed guards stand outside churches, mosques, hotels and malls. Children as young as five must have their bags inspected before they enter school grounds. The news is a vortex of rumour, nationalist fervour, haunting admissions, and wild allegations. Analysts attempt to grapple with local manifestations of a global threat, the government attempts to chart a peaceful course forward, and every fresh revelation wages a fresh onslaught on the psyche. Here is a nation in need of a distraction - a purpose cricket has so often served.
The game is uniquely qualified to speak to Sri Lanka in harrowing times, because there is no pursuit that cuts through race, religion, caste and class in the country quite as comprehensively. Resoundingly popular in the north - where cricket survived the deprivations of the decades-long civil war - as it is in the wild south-east, or up in the tea-growing hills, it is at once a sport beloved by the working- and middle classes, as it is controlled by elites. Once a weapon used by British to subjugate and divide (many clubs in Colombo still bear their racial names, though they abide by them no longer), cricket has in modern times become a showcase of a unified Sri Lanka: Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Christians all turn out for the national side.
The man who has led the team most often this decade, for example, is half-Tamil and Catholic - two minority identities heaped one upon the other. And yet Angelo Mathews' background was barely remarked upon when he was appointed Sri Lanka's youngest captain in 2013. Why hail this as some progressive milestone after all, when race and religion have virtually been incidental within Sri Lankan cricket for decades?
Cricket in the country is by no means without vast and debilitating woes. It is corrupt and cripplingly intertwined with politics. The apex administrative body's constitution is a source of profound dysfunction. And yet, for all its sins, Sri Lankan cricket is unblemished by this flaw. Beyond runs scored, wickets taken, and catches held, there are few considerations. Where you went to school? Well, perhaps that still has cachet. Who you pray to? What language you speak? The nation's best ever, Muttiah Muralitharan, is a Hindu from the Hill Country Tamil community, who, having been brutalised by the British and disenfranchised for decades after independence, might fairly lay claim to being the island's most besieged.
It is unsurprising that when ethnic tensions spill over, and hateful forces mobilise, Sri Lanka's cricketers are among the first and most forceful voices to campaign for unity. Kumar Sangakkara frequently takes to his social-media pages to deliver conciliatory sermons, his Sinhala as elegant as his English. Mahela Jayawardene and Sanath Jayasuriya are just as quick to use their platforms to push for calm. The current crop of players do not stand idly by either - Mathews, Kusal Mendis, Upul Tharanga and Jeffrey Vandersay all have spoken out on various occasions.
And theirs are not merely parroted platitudes. When new captain Dimuth Karunaratne - one of the most vocal on Twitter in the past few weeks - stands against racism, he understands, like so many captains before him, the strength in Sri Lanka's diversity. Himself a Sinhala Buddhist who made his name opening the batting for a Catholic school, he has in his dressing room players from all over the Sri Lankan spectrum. There is Nuwan Pradeep, the Sinhala fast bowler who speaks Tamil, having grown up in a multilingual fishing neighbourhood in Negombo. There's Mendis, the rising star in the batting order, and Catholic son of a Moratuwa trishaw driver. There are players with Burgher (Dutch or British) ancestry, and others from the deep south, from villages as Buddhist as they come. Muslims have not had substantial representation in the team in recent years (though Mohamed Shiraz did make the squad for the recent South Africa Tests, even if he didn't play), but that is not believed to be a result of discrimination. Muslims can be counted among the most respected voices in the cricket media, and they form one of the most raucous groups within Sri Lanka's fandom - Mohamed Nilam, a superfan, is often seen in his jester's hat in the stands.
Cricket has its limitations. World Cup wins will do little to ease the suffering of families devastated by the blasts in Katuwapitiya and Kochchikade, or dull the profound grief of Batticaloa parents whose children were killed just as they were returning to the church building after Sunday school. A great innings will not un-burn Muslim-owned shops. Dipping yorkers will not quell divisive rhetoric, or provide political solutions to long-standing grievances. And perhaps victories will be in short supply in this particular World Cup, given the state of this team's ODI form. In having won the Tests in South Africa in February, Sri Lanka may already have exhausted their cricket miracle for the year.
But there is always the hope there will be some respite. Hope that Sri Lanka raise their game for a World Cup, as they often have done in this century, and that by some magic, a few wins can be strung together. And that even if not, and a nation is disappointed, that it will bear that disappointment as it has often done, together.