This essay was drafted on 14 Sept. 2008 and appeared within the Dilmah site as well as the Island newspaper.
Sport fans are a diverse lot. But all clubs and all international sides have a body of passionate supporters. These fervent fans have an intense attachment to their side and invest a great deal of emotion in discussing performance and selection issues. Theirs’ is a vicarious investment, producing great adrenaline rushes when matches are won and their team is riding high.
The flip side is the low, the moments of depression when their team is not merely defeated, but mauled. Such moments generate intense criticism of the side’s coach, selectors and players. Virulence is the name of their reaction.
Logically, one would expect such criticism to range from comments that are pertinent to those that are ill-informed as well as ridiculous. In either form most comments are as accusative as assertive, permeated by a conviction that the opinion is valid. My interest is in the considerable body of ill-founded criticism presented in extreme tones. This interest arises in part from my professional trade, one that involves an analysis of political ideology and practice. That is to say, researching nationalist and communalist excesses have been part of my stock-in-trade.
Likewise, the field of o popular culture has been one of the areas pertinent to my teaching and research work. Given an avid, personal engagement with cricket, it was but a step for me to engage in the popular culture within cricket by participating in the discussions within some cyber-sites, especially http://www.cricket. dilmahtea.com from the year 2005 through to 2007. Recently, though, I “retired hurt” in a manner of speaking. For one, pressures of other work suggested a re-ordering of priorities. Secondly, the discussions got to the point of being exhausting and aggravating: for some of the virulence can as nasty as brutish.
My recent trip to Sri Lanka enabled me to engage the opinions of others who are involved in cricket analysis as part of their vocation, namely, the journalists and commentators on TV or radio. This was during the India versus Sri Lanka series involving three Test Matches and five ODI games (of which I witnessed all, except for the three ODI at Premadasa Stadium). Armed with a press pass for the first time I had the best view ever, behind the wickets ad high above the cricket pitch in the company of many knowledgeable individuals, both male and female.
At odd moments our discussions dwelt on the topic of partisanship among the commentators. Sambit Bal and Sai Mohapatra indicated that their role was to be non-partisan, even when India were one of the combatants out there on the field. Thus, they stood by their self-conviction that they themselves had the capacity to take a clinical attitude towards what was unfolding in front of their eyes. I have every reason to believe in this capacity on their part. Likewise I have been often impressed by the degree of non-partisan fairness that such TV commentators as Ian Chappell, Tony Greig and Ian Bishop bring to their reviews – even where their home-country is playing
Speaking for myself though, I am not certain that I can quite achieve such a degree of freedom from bias if I was ever placed in their shoes (unlikely that). Perhaps for this reason I am attracted to another contention: good commentary calls for a measure of passionate partisanship in favour of one side on the field, albeit balanced by a clinical analytical capacity and an awareness of this leaning. Such a position, arguably, can enliven discussion.
Logically, this means that a good TV or radio team should involve a mix of individuals who are non-partisan/clinical (the Sambit Bals of this world) and those slightly partisan. In terms of this logic, as a further step, it seems so sensible to have at least one-third of the team of TV commentators drawn from countries that are not party to the contest. Sri Lankan sides have consistently faced imbalanced bodies of commentators when they toured the West, with five from the home side and at best one Sri Lankan (or, alternatively, Michael Holding or a third party). Never were the ramifying disadvantages of this imbalance more evident than during the tour of South Africa in late 2002. The bias displayed so consistently by Pat Symcox and most of the Saf commentators (Wessels and Haysman excepted) was as thick as their accent. That was why I directed an essay against the “Blatant Discrimination in TV Commentary from South Africa” in the style of a fervent fan (Essaying Cricket, (Colombo, Yapa, pp. 77-78). But this was preceded by another article on “Weighted Cricket Commentary” that fulminated against the bias and ignorance of some of the English commentators during Sri Lanka’s tour in the summer of 2002 (Essaying Cricket, pp. 57-62).
It is the extremism of the fans, however, that interests me most as a research field. It is the extremism turned inward in vitriolic condemnation of their very own that serves as the foundation for the next set of comments. The Dilmah site provides the material. In drawing empirical material from this body of data I will focus mostly on the commentary around the ODI matches and teams because such matches clog the SL cricket calendar and draw the most comment.
I have no way of saying whether the fervent cricket-buffs who pen comments therein are typical of Sri Lankan cricket fans or not. I exclude one weirdo who has recently appeared and whose opinions are in keeping with the pseudonym that he has adopted insofar as they are shot through with nonsense, no-sense and no balls. At the other pole I do attend to a regular voice who I shall call “Mister Insistent” because he has been, so to speak, a “permanent resident” within the Dilmah cricket site, because he presents long missives, because he now has iconic status in the circle, because he is quite dogmatic in his views and because, above all, he embodies the shortcomings that I shall be highlighting. His regular participation has actually improved his prose, which is now readable though still occasionally chaotic. Likewise, his criticisms have developed better balance, though still veering to the extreme and in this sense serves as a touchstone for my illustration of jaundiced commentary.
As one would expect, the comments within the Dilmah site are quite varied. Many fierce debates arise. But even across this virulent debate a form of cyber-net mateship has developed among opposing voices and on occasions a cluster of voices produce a chorus of agreement that the Selectors have erred on such-and-such (quite chummy this).
One topic that has drawn a steady stream of support is criticism of the SL Selectors for consistently favouring Jehan Mubarak over other possibilities in selecting the Sri Lankan squads. This critique has good foundations and, indeed, some of the voices have backed up their claims with statistical data and analytical presentations. This issue has been just one instance of regular charges against the Selection Committee for its prejudices. As frequent has been the castigation of SL’s batsmen for their batting failures and more specifically their weaknesses on seaming pitches.
As with virulence in all fields of passion, this body of opinion – weighed as body and thus excluding exceptional voices of balanced commentary — is blind to its own prejudices. It is this prejudice, and its poor analytical grounding, that I highlight here.
As a broad generalization I note that over the last three-four years the following Sri Lankan cricketers have generally received favoured commentary and tend to be “apples in the Dilmah eye:” Kumar Sangakkara, Chaminda Vaas, Chamara Kapugedera, Malinga Bandara, Lasith Malinga and, now, Ajantha Mendis. Chamara Silva and Michael Van Dort also had a favourable press at some stages in the immediate past, but have now been relegated to the realm of the dubious.
The list of names above suggests that on-field performance has been one yardstick, but the story is more complex. That complexity and the reasons behind it can be developed by comparing the group above with the Lankan cricketers who have been, in my evaluation, regularly subject to prejudiced comment, viz., Russel Arnold, Rangana Herath, Nuwan Kulasekera and TM Dilshan.
To the latter list one can add Mahela Jayewardene who was subject to a series of hostile opinion during the tour of India in 2005 and the subsequent tour of Australia in early 2006. This arose in part from opinions formed about his supposed reaction when he was deposed as Vice-Captain by the choice of Vaas (the latter act involving a conspiracy back in Colombo which was not brought into the reckoning even though it was pertinent to the context). The animus that took root at this point remains still at some depth and Mahela is subject to severe attacks whenever some lapse as batsman and, now, as captain occurs. The hostility against Mahela has been muted of late because of a string of relative successes, but one can be certain that the knives will appear once again when some failures occur. The point about extreme prejudice is that it is usually fixed and incorrigible.
I deem these views “extreme prejudice” of a partisan kind (A) because they are grounded in a crude reading of statistical figures without attention to the nuances of the ODI format and (B) because they involve knee-jerk reactions of a slash and burn kind that does not attend to team building over the long-run and is usually directed by figures arising from the immediate present of one series of matches.
An ODI batting line-up calls for different complementary talents. This should be starkly obvious. Thus one cannot expect No. 6 and 7 in the line-up to end a series or a career with the same averages as those at the top-end of the line, though one would anticipate a better strike rate (allowing for exceptions of the Gilchrist-Sehwag-Jayasuriya type). Thus, in my book for a critic to utilise averages during one series to demand the exclusion of a late middle order batsman (say, Dilshan) is an instance of prejudice. It often means that little cameos at the tail-end of the innings are forgotten in contrast to a 60 or 90 runs scored by a batsman at No. 3.
This tendency is exacerbated by the impatience of cyber-critics (some with limited cricketing experience) who demand the exclusion of a player if he fails in 3 out of 4 innings in a series of five [unless he a favoured son]. This is short-term, knee jerk ad hockery.
The reasons for such reactions are clear. The emotional investment in the team demands outstanding scores. A relative failure inspires hostility to X or Y. Hope for transformation encourages the critic to indulge in wishful thinking: R and S have done well in the domestic circuit or with Sri Lanka’s A Team. Ergo, replace X and Y with R and S. But, then, what?
Let me spell out the complications attached to such policies over the long term by taking the hypothetical case of an ODI team which has seven batsmen and four bowlers; and then focusing on the batting line-up alone. In Series One we have A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. Then, when B and F fail, they are replaced with new hopes H and I. But in Series Two, I and G fail. They are promptly replaced with new hopes J and K in the middle order for Series Three. And so on.
This means that in the relatively short space of time one has had an unstable middle order with new recruits given limited opportunities. It is a recipe for chaos that hinders team building and development of trust in each others’ capacities through regular interaction in match situations. This was precisely what happened with ODI selections in the era 1999-2003 and why Indika de Saram, Chamara Silva and Dilshan were given spasmodic opportunities. The musical chairs in selections were in turn due to musical chairs in the composition of Selection Committees arising from the musical chairs in governing boards.
When Tom Moody was appointed coach with an explicit overview of the whole coaching system (at his insistence), he immediately pinpointed the chaotic character of selections at both top XV and A Squad levels. Some 70-80 names had entered the lists over a short span of time, though not all had been given playing time. He argued for greater continuity and a longer trial for new recruits to any squad. Ashantha de Mel listened. It is a result of such a sensible policy that Van Dort was not ditched after three failures in the first two tests against India and that the ODI XI remained more or less the same for four matches.
Thus in this argument the slash-and-burn hacking out of players who do not perform too well in one series and the insertion of new personnel as every turn is a recipe for disaster and undermines team building.
This danger is compounded when the evaluations of failure are based on unsound criteria involving the assessment of middle order batsmen at Nos. 6 and 7 (and even at no. 5) on the same statistical foundations applied to Nos. 1-4. In his interview with Sambit Bal recently Mahela Jayawardene made this truism explicit:
For me, ten runs from a batsman for the team are much more valuable than a selfish fifty or hundred. I have had a lot of discussions with selectors. In one-day cricket sometimes players go out there and don’t get many opportunities, especially at Nos 5, 6 and 7, but they do all the dirty work for the team. They get those 30s and 40s and take risks and dive and save runs and create wickets and take half-chances. You need that kind of quality in your team
Allowing for remarkable exceptions such as Michael Bevan and Michael Hussey, the differences are marked out at the end of a batsman’s career. Thus, take Hashan Tillekeratne (often no. 6) in comparison with Asanka Gurusinha who was often No. 3. Hashan had 13 fifties in 168 innings at international level, or 7.7% of the time, as opposed to 22 fifties from Gurusinha or 15.3% of the time. So, too, does Paul Collingwood register 20 fifties in 134 innings, that is, 14.9% of the time.
An abiding feature of the cyber world debates has been the tendency to emphasise the raw averages of middle-order batsmen over one series or over the last couple of years and to compound this crudity without a case by case review of the matches in the immediate past and the circumstances bearing on performances. It is no accident, then, that such middle-order batsmen as Arnold and Dilshan have suffered at the hands of these gross evaluations and been among those at the receiving end of prejudice.
My focus, now, will shift to a more general illustration of the prejudices displayed against some players — in contrast with some golden boys — through specific examples from the recent past.
Russel Arnold (who retired from SL cricket in 2007) was hardly an elegant batsman and this may be one reason why he won so little favour in some cyber-net circles. But he was a team player to the core and an effective batsman in the difficult situation of the middle-order. Thus, his career ODI statistics read as follows: 155inns, 43 not outs, 3950 runs, 35.26 average with 28 fifties and a strike rate of 72.55 – statistics that are roughly on par with those of Collingwood for England (av. 35.13; s/r 76.31). Note that Collingowood’s 24 fifties were compiled in 14.9% of his innings as against the 18% registered by Arnold (28 fifties). Further comparative light is provided when we look at the statistics for Hashan Tillekeratne, who batted most of the time at No. 6: 168 inns, 40 not outs, 3789 runs, average of 29.60 and a strike rate of 57.56, with 13 fifties, that is over 50 in 7.7% of his innings.
Pronounced antipathy to Arnold was revealed within the Dilmah site during the triangular series in Australia with South Africa and Australia in early 2006. There were nine league matches played by Sri Lanka and many of the voices hostile to Arnold were in agreement with the selectors (headed then by Lalith Kaluperuma) when he was – absurdly in my view – dropped from the team in favour of Mubarak and Kapugedera for the crucial game at Bellerive against the Safs. These antipathetic voices had been vociferous for a while, but Arnold’s importance was stoutly argued for by myself and two chaps, a Lankan named Crossing Dili and an Australian writing under the pseudonym “Leopard.”
When Sri Lanka won that game at Bellerive and entered the finals (against most Aussie expectations), Arnold was returned to the XI for all three games in place of Mubarak. Batting at No. 5 he made scores of 24, 64 n.o., and 76 — so that his series statistics were boosted and read as follows: 10 inns, 4 not outs, 321 runs, 53.50 average [s/r not indicated in my source]. Compare this set of numbers with those for relevant others during that series:
Kapugedera: 5 inns, zero n/o; 73 runs; 14.60 average
Mubarak (whose position n the order varied): 8 inns, zero n/o; 20.25 average.
Dilshan: 11 inns, 2 n/o; 277 runs, 30.77 average.
Kulasekera came into my radar screen during the tours of New Zealand and Australia in 2005/06. His pitch cluster map was quite impressive on occasions. He is a medium pacer and though he can make the ball skid and has some nip, he does not consistently hit the over 132-135 speed mark. This seems the basis for the manner in which he is treated dismissively by some cyber-net pundits, who favour bowlers with greater speed such Welagedera and Thilina Thushara among the newcomers. Thus, several voices indulging in selections of the ODI Squad for the series against India excluded Kulasekera from the list despite previous ODI performances of a useful character in the Caribbean and Australia (though not in the Asia Cup in Pakistan).
Earlier, when the ODI Squad for Australia was announced in January 2008 Mister Insistent laughed sarcastically and remarked that Kulasekera would enjoy a holiday as he was of little use and would be little used.
I thought otherwise because there are certain pitch conditions where a steady seam bowler of the Bedser-Shackleton-Alderman mould is more dangerous than a speedster Freddie Trueman or Brett Lee. Events proved me correct: within the limited opportunities provided, selected only in three matches, Kulasekera had statistics of 26 overs-3 mdns-129 runs and 5 wkts, giving him an average of 17.35 and s/r of 21.00, both way superior to all the other Lankan pacemen; while his economy rate was on par with the others. Overall, of course, his figures are not earth-shattering, but the best from among the mediocre cluster of achievements.
Add to this two other points: Kulasekera can bat better than all the other pacemen except for the bowling allrounder Maharoof (and, now, Dhammika Prasad who has just appeared over the horizon). He is also quick around the paddock, as quick as Malinga and Prasad. Overall he is probably the most athletic and reliable of our pacemen in the fielding department. I witnessed his catching of Gambhir during the recent Test Match at the SSC and reckon that none of our pacemen, other than possibly Malinga or Prasad, would have reached the ball and taken it so neatly — on the run stooping. Such capacities are important.
Tillekaratne Dilshan, the Tuan Mohamed Dilshan of yesteryear, has an unenviable history. He has been subject to rank prejudice from both Chairman Ashantha de Mel and a body of Dilmah site voices. On one occasion de Mel decided that new blood must be injected into the leading Xv and dropped Dilshan so as to accommodate Mubarak – much to the chagrin of Captain Atapattu and others (it cost Lanka Test match loss in my reckoning).