Fans enjoy the day out

Rhythm is gonna get you: spectators in the north-western city of Kurunegala bring colour and energy to a tour game, 2001

© PA Photos


Papare rules, ok?

To watch a match in Sri Lanka is to immerse oneself in the island's distinctive soundtrack

Alan Gardner |

The ball is made of leather with a hard seam running around its circumference. The bat is made of willow. The sound of one hitting the other is music.
- Shehan Karunatilaka, Chinaman

It is fairly common to encounter music at the cricket these days. The rise of T20 has brought with it some of the more obvious entertainment gimmicks from other sports, such as cheerleaders and big-screen distractions, and it doesn't take much for the in-house DJ at limited-overs games to subject spectators to a blast of electro-pop.

Whether this makes the experience more melodious is open to debate. The French horn that can be heard tooting away incessantly during breaks in play at ICC events and the IPL is aimed at extracting a Pavlovian cheer from the crowd rather than providing auditory delight. The sound of "Chelsea Dagger" cutting through the evening air after a batsman has been dismissed is a bit like being given an amplified send-off over the PA system.

Cricket is a game of the senses. The feel of the ball in hand, the smell of cut grass. The taste of fingertips that have been working on leather. The sight of a swinging blade. The sound of bat on ball. For players, there is often a need to attenuate those sensations: to block out the ambient noise, withstand the heat of the sun, ignore the fact that the ball becomes invisible at the very moment you hope to strike it.

Around the ground, pockets of papare keep time with the action on the field, a harmonious and joyful counterpoint to the usual hooting and hollering

In the stands, outbursts of emotion are more commonplace, particularly in the modern age where lively crowds are a much-desired feature of television coverage. Around the world, different grounds have their own mood music. Lord's does not welcome the sound of a Barmy Army trumpet but hums with the genteel burbling of bourgeois contentment. In Sydney, "Yabba" still has a seat in the Victor Trumper Stand, a symbol of Australian spectator feedback. The sound of conch shells and steel drums remains evocative of Caribbean cricket, even if the fire has dimmed in Babylon. Port Elizabeth has its own brass section.

The experience of watching a game in Sri Lanka is one of unrivalled vitality, and papare is its official soundtrack. Such is the importance of this musical genre that it can soothe the pain of defeat. "Nava gilunath baan choon," they say. Even if the ship sinks, the party will go on.

Take a stroll around Colombo's Premadasa Stadium on a match day and you can see the magic at close quarters. The concourses are alive with rhythm and blue shirts, people dancing and singing, standing and cheering. Flags wave like the standards of a benevolent army. Noise rolls down off the stands towards the pitch, an insistent drumbeat marking time beneath the swells of emotion, accompanied by the trumpet's clarion call.

Official bands can be hired to play but plenty of people bring their own instruments. The instinct seems bound up with the loose-limbed freedom and inclination towards self-expression with which Sri Lankans play their cricket. It is thought papare music began as an adjunct to religious ceremonies before spreading to any event requiring entertainment, and it is now a feature of cricket at all levels.

Fans celebrate Sri Lanka's 2007 semi-final win the best way they know

Fans celebrate Sri Lanka's 2007 semi-final win the best way they know © AFP

Ahead of his final international appearance in Sri Lanka, Mahela Jayawardene said it was the uniquely special atmosphere that he would miss the most. "The best memories of playing at home for me will be the fans - the music, the rhythm and all that," Jayawardene said. "I grew up playing with that for my school. We've always had it when we played the big matches. To finish it off with that same rhythm - you can't ask for anything else. That's the uniqueness about Sri Lankan cricket. That is the flair that we grew up playing with."


"He bowls to the left, he bowls to the right…"

The psychology of crowds suggests we tend to lose our sense of self among large groups, and sport, the tribal pastime it is, can provoke behaviour that would otherwise be kept in check. Standing on a darkened football terrace with vituperative chants echoing all around is at one end of the spectrum; the silence of watching a rally at Wimbledon, punctuated by eruptions of applause, the other.

Trumpet, trombone, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals. There is no sheet music for this performance, it just flows spontaneously

We make cathedrals of our sporting arenas but the acts of worship take many forms. Sometimes crowd noise is an expression of frustration, of mounting anger, or an attempt to intimidate the opposition; sometimes it is an expression of dominance, gloating at success. Singing as a group can be an act of solidarity with those on the field, as when "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" rings out across Twickenham to spur on England's rugby team.

Football chants have found their way into cricket, as Mitchell Johnson well knows, but while the Barmy Army can be witty and entertaining, few beyond Billy the Trumpeter would describe themselves as musicians. On that score, Sri Lankan crowds seem far better qualified. Whenever you leave the Premadasa's cloistered, air-conditioned press box, your ears immediately pick up the backing track. Around the ground, pockets of papare keep time with the action on the field, a harmonious and joyful counterpoint to the usual hooting and hollering. Losing your inhibitions, it seems, doesn't have to mean losing your rag.

Party on down under: Sri Lankan fans bring music to Boxing Day at the MCG

Party on down under: Sri Lankan fans bring music to Boxing Day at the MCG © Getty Images

The atmosphere is one of ongoing revelry, what Shehan Karunatilaka refers to in Chinaman as a "masala of colour and noise". Crowds can appear hostile but Sri Lankans gathering at the cricket seem to do so purely as an act of celebration; perhaps that is why people simply don't turn up if they are not in the mood. Tickets are cheap and bought in large numbers at the gate, but there has to be the prospect of a good time on offer for a sell-out; although even a half-packed ground seems to possess the potential for making merry.

It is quite possible for an interloper to get lost among it all. In the mixture of young and old, male and female, there are plenty of friendly faces, offering handshakes and fist bumps, asking to pose for photos. And all the while your toe is tapping to the island beat.


For Shankar, a student attending the last one-dayer of the England series in December, this is the heaving heart of the sport in Sri Lanka. The Premadasa is full, many having come to bid farewell to Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, who are playing their final home ODIs, but even though those two ships sink early in the innings, there is no chance of the party stopping. Refill your plastic cup of beer and get back to getting down.

Even if the papare has been paid for, with the band wandering the stadium and distributing free t-shirts, there is no sense of corporate takeover

Like most of the people around them, Shankar and his group of friends are all standing on chairs and cheering wildly as a vigorous fifth-wicket partnership feeds off the energy of the crowd. "It is traditional for us to have music at the cricket," Shankar says. "It is not like in England where people stand up, clap and then sit down again."

Behind him, a group of five musicians hammers out tune after tune. The sweat glistens on their faces, as it does on those dancing in the aisle, seemingly oblivious to the match. The band takes a break when a wicket falls, gulping down air, before resuming at the same frantic tempo. Trumpet, trombone, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals. There is no sheet music for this performance, it just flows spontaneously. People around them sing along to Sinhala, Tamil and Hindi numbers, although the one I am listening to sounds a lot like "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" by the Beatles.

John, who works for a technology company, is here with around 40 co-workers who have hired the band to entertain them during the match. "Papare is a must, without papare there is nothing," he says with feeling. He points to the flags and the dancing fans and says the colour and the music are integral to enjoying the game. Together, cricket and papare "make love and have fun", he adds, smiling sweatily.

The vuvuzela: a noise machine that is a <i>papare</i>-drowning spoilsport

The vuvuzela: a noise machine that is a papare-drowning spoilsport Ishara S Kodikara / © Getty Images

There is something hedonistic about the sound, which is based on the contrasting timbres of drum and horn. The band plays with a roiling intensity, the percussion heavy, brass notes rising to the rafters. Some say papare grew up around church services in Negombo, just north of Colombo. Now it is symbolic of worshipping cricket's capricious gods.

The leader of this troupe is Suraj, who has been playing papare for 25 years. He wears a cap and a loose shirt, an unassuming middle-aged figure when the trumpet is not at his lips. He shrugs when asked how he maintains the energy to play throughout; this is just what they do. You can hire his band for weddings and parties but they seem in their element at the cricket.

Elsewhere, in the cheap seats on the east side of the ground, groups of young men have come equipped to make their own noise. Clustered on the concrete steps, they grin and nod when I ask if creating music is all part of the Sri Lankan cricket experience - and then encourage me to have a go on their bera, a long metal drum with a snare attached to the side. It is surprisingly easy to produce a consistent, halfway-convincing beat, although I'm not sure I could keep this up for long in the sweltering afternoon sun.


The crowd experience at major international sports venues can sometimes be a fairly transparent exercise in officially sanctioned fun. In 2007 and 2011, the ICC caused ructions with its attempts to ban instruments at grounds during the World Cup. In the Caribbean, that and high ticket prices were held to have damaged the tournament irretrievably, but such was the fuss made by Sri Lankans four years later that the edict was swiftly reversed.

Just as Sri Lanka is the nation most likely to pluck a mystery spinner from obscurity and send him out to bewitch the opposition, it also seems to be the place where you are most likely to bump into a virtuoso trumpeter in the stands

Even then, it is a difficult balancing act, as the Sri Lankan board has discovered. The vuvuzela horns that were a prominent (and divisive) feature of the 2010 football World Cup in South Africa have made their way across the Indian Ocean, but rather than complement the papare, they have tended to drown it out. Repeated attempts have been made to outlaw them, too, though with little success.

Of course, Sri Lankan grounds are also equipped with the regulation public-address systems, playing everything from British '90s pop to snatches of baila classics by Gypsies or Lahiru Perera, but depending on where you are standing and the surrounding decibel level, you probably won't be able to hear what is coming through the speakers. Even if the papare has been paid for by a sponsor, with the band wandering the stadium and distributing free t-shirts as they go, there is no sense of corporate takeover. What matters to the locals is that someone is providing the music.

Cricket's another word for celebration

Cricket's another word for celebration © AFP

And the experience is genuinely musical. Just as Sri Lanka is the nation most likely to pluck a mystery spinner from obscurity and send him out to bewitch the opposition, it also seems to be the place where you are most likely to bump into a virtuoso trumpeter in the stands. The spirit of invention links those performing on and off the pitch. While T20 has contributed to applying a bland "cricketainment" wallpaper to the game that is largely the same wherever you go, here is an outpost where artificial additives are not required.

It may not be as iconic as calypso and reggae once were to the Caribbean but papare animates Sri Lankan cricket in a similar way. It is worth updating 10CC: "I don't like cricket, oh no, I love it. I don't like papare, oh no, I love it."

Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick