Mahela Jayawardene; one of the greatest batsmen in cricket of all time. The highest scoring right-hand batsman in Test cricket in the history of cricket (374 runs against South Africa). Named the Best International Captain of the Year in 2006 by the International Cricket Council and nominated the Best Test Cricket Player of the Year in 2007. He also happens to be the most capped player in One Day Internationals for his country; Sri Lanka. These are but as few accolades as I could fit in to a single paragraph. Given how much the Sri Lankan nation loves cricket it would be fair to say that Mahela Jayawardene is a sporting hero both in Sri Lanka and around the world. Whilst he has retired from playing cricket professionally Mahela is currently the Head Coach of Mumbai Indians cricket team in the Indian Premier League.
Recently Sri Lanka has needed its heroes more than ever. A devastating terrorist attack on Easter Sunday shattered the peace of a nation knelt in prayer. In excess of 250 people died and left hundreds more wounded. In the immediate aftermath 39 countries issued travel warnings adding to the woes of an economy dependent on tourism.
However, less than three months later Sri Lanka is on its way to recovery. With clarity comes the task of caring for those affected and left at the mercy and goodwill of strangers. Several events, organised around the world, have helped raise funds. One such was hosted by Shangri-La Hotel, At The Shard, London. Sri Lankan seafood restaurant Ministry of Crab collaborated with the hotel for a pop-up and proceeds were donated to the cause. The event was attended by Mahela Jayawardene who co-owns Ministry of Crab restaurant. I caught up with Mahela where he expressed his thoughts on the issues that face Sri Lanka as the country moves forward.
GTW: Mahela Jayawardene welcome back to London.
Mahela Jayawardene: Thank you.
GTW: I appreciate you making the space in your schedule for this interview. Do you get to spend much time in Sri Lanka now with your coaching and other commitments?
Mahela Jayawardene: I do make time to do so. I manage my coaching schedule and break it down to quarters so it’s spread out equally and I spend time in between in Sri Lanka. Obviously travelling for events and my businesses does take me away but they’re always short trips so it’s not too bad. This year with the Cricket World Cup it’s been busier than usual after the IPL. But by next year things will settle down. Sri Lanka is always home and I will never keep away for too long.
GTW: The world was shell-shocked when news of the Easter Sunday attack on Sri Lanka broke. Where were you when you heard the news? How did you feel when you saw those images on your screen?
Mahela Jayawardene: I was in India. It was IPL season. I woke up to the news. My family is in Colombo so I called and made sure everyone was safe. I also knew a lot of the staff in the hotels. We’re regulars for Sunday brunch at those restaurants. We were calling around to find out about the staff there. We personally knew some of the staff that died.
I felt sad when I saw the images. Especially when I looked at the pictures a friend sent me of the church in Negombo. When I saw the children that were hurt it made me really sad. But at the same time, a few days later, when it came to light that the whole situation had been mishandled, I was quite angry. I put this out on my social media. It needed to be said. The only way we can ensure that something like this never happens again is if we are prepared to tell the truth.
We took our eye off the ball with our security and didn’t execute any plan with whatever little intelligence we had. I’m not saying that we could have prevented the whole thing but we could have prevented it being on such a big scale. We could have managed it better. We could have done something. We may not have been able to stop it but we could have done something. That was the root of my anger.
We also have to sympathise with all the tourists that were killed and affected in so many ways. We met the Archbishop of Colombo too to find out what needed to be done. Kumar Sangakkara and I met with with him because we now have to think about the long term effects of this and raising money for the things that need to be done.
Some of the children will need long-term care and we are not necessarily equipped to deliver that in Sri Lanka in the way that it’s required. So we may have to fly these children overseas to get them the care they need. That includes their education. We will need to look at what’s best for them and offer them the best possible chance to become a part of society again. We have to make sure they’re not left behind. There’s a lot to be done and it’s going to be a slow, long process. We need to make sure we don’t forget what happened.
GTW: Immediately after the attack there was some fear that ethnic tensions might rise up again. With the exception of a few isolated incidents it seemed that everyone was eager to get back to some form of normality. Did you feel that this time round Sri Lanka was reacting differently to this act of violence?
Mahela Jayawardene: Yes, most certainly. We’ve had almost a decade of peace and we were finally able to enjoy our country for the first time without fear. When we were growing up, during the civil war, our parents were terrified to send us to school because they weren’t sure we’d come back. No one wants that again. That’s where everyone united and looked beyond personal agendas and political affiliations to put our country first and make sure we did the right thing. I think that’s why so many people made sure that their voices were heard on this matter.
I know that social media can be used negatively but in this instance it was a good platform for people to express what they thought. I know that some used it in the wrong way but we always have to expect that. We can’t prevent that. But mostly people were positive and standing up for the right thing.
GTW: So, tonight is a pretty special evening and an amazing collaboration between Shangri-La Hotel, At The Shard, London and Ministry of Crab. The aim is to raise money for the victims of the Easter Sunday attacks. The fact that you’re here suggests that it’s important to you to give the event visibility. Is that the case?
Mahela Jayawardene: Most certainly. Shangri-La, London has always been supportive of Ministry of Crab. This is our third pop-up with the hotel. They’ve been a brilliant partner. We have a restaurant in Shangri-La, Manila too and I think when the attack happened Shangri-La also wanted to do something to help. So it worked out well. This evening is about having a visible Sri Lankan brand support this cause and not about promoting myself. We’re trying to showcase what Sri Lanka has to offer and encourage tourists to come back. Sri Lanka is still Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel for 2019.
GTW: Looking ahead, how assured are you of Sri Lanka’s recovery as a destination?
Mahela Jayawardene: Well, at the moment it’s too soon to say. I think as a country we are standing up quickly. It does also depend on the political trust other countries have in Sri Lanka. We’ve spoken with several Ambassadors and they are confident of the security measures we’ve taken which is the reason the travel ban came down pretty quickly.
Given the renewed trust that has been placed on us, by the rest of the world, Sri Lanka now needs to walk the talk. We need to show stability, that we’re taking action and that we would not let something like this happen again. It’s had a ripple effect on the entire nation. It didn’t just affect hotel bookings and airlines. It effected the entire tourist industry’s structure from small scale entrepreneurs to foreign investors.
Personally I’m hoping that we will recover by next year. However, our high season starts between November and December. As long as we’re all taking positive steps in the same direction it should happen.
GTW: Finally, as one of the highest profile Sri Lankans in the world what is your message to the world?
Mahela Jayawardene: Sri Lanka is a vibrant country. It’s a simple place but it’s beautiful. You can have wildlife, beaches, culture, tea and religious culture all in one place. The message is please come and enjoy that. People who’ve visited once always come back. That’s a very positive thing and it says everything.
This interview was conducted at the Ministry of Crab pop-up hosted at Shangri-La Hotel, At The Shard, London on 5th July 2019. All proceeds from the evening will be used to help victims of the Easter Sunday attacks. In addition, a further £2000 was raised through the auction of a bat and ball signed by Mahela and a five nights’ stay at Shangri-La Hotel, Colombo and Shangri-La Hotel, Hambantota, Sri Lanka.