Michael Roberts, 3 April 2010
When Sanath Jayasuriya burst unto the international cricketing scene in 1996 as an explosive opening batsman , he presented major problems for opposing opening bowlers. More recently he has been presenting problems to the Sri Lankan cricket selectors and Lankan cricket buffs. Jayasuriya is now everyone’s dilemma. To coin a pun out of the drama in Hamlet, “to Jayasuriya ….. or not Jayasuriya” is one of the plays of the day.
This dilemma has been around for a while. Jayasuriya, after all, was born on 30 June 2 1969 and his indifferent form in the Test arena led to his omission and subsequent re-inclusion in the touring squad to England in the summer of 2006. That issue was resolved more recently when Jayasuriya decided to concentrate on limited-overs cricket.
However, his batting form in both versions of the limited-overs game has been erratic of late. To cap it all he has recently entered the arena of parliamentary politics by joining the ruling coalition UPFA’s ticket for his home district of Matara. Jayasuriya has had amicable links with the Rajapakse clan for some time. They are men of Ruhuna, an affiliation that carries weight in the politics of Sri Lanka.
But such links and Jayasuriya’s decision to become a professional politician has its downside. It alienates him from those hostile to the Rajapakses. It has also generated disapproval from those who believe that the politicians should have no say in cricket business and certainly not in selections. Among those who have joined this chorus is Arjuna Ranatunga – quite oblivious to the irony of a pot calling a kettle black.
This quandary and a potential hornet’s nest surrounded the recent selection of fifteen players for the prestigious Twenty20 World Cup scheduled for the West Indies in April. The dilemmas facing the Selectors were neatly highlighted by both S. R. Pathiravithana and Sa’adi Thawfeeq in their Sunday news articles on the 28th March. A complicated conference call involving the selectors in Colombo, Sangakkara somewhere in India and Bayliss on holiday back in Sydney was required before the final composition was settled upon. That Jayasuriya was one knot in the wrangle becomes clear from the headline reporting the final choice: “Selectors keep Sanath for T/20 World Cup” ran Chris Dhambarage’s column in the Daily News.
In summary, then, one can mark three reasons why good men and true, as well as others suspect, have voiced opposition to the inclusion of Jayasuriya in the preliminary pool of 31 players placed on the list of potentials in early March.
A] Jayasuriya’s batting form in limited-overs cricket in general and in T20 in particular has been erratic and his recent failures in the IPL have seen him omitted from the Mumbai XI in their latest matches.
B] He is now over 40 and he should make way for younger players who can add to their experience and serve the country in the years ahead – when he cannot do so.
C] It is disastrous for working politicians to be directly involved in cricket administration and in selection decisions. It is potentially disruptive for one to be a player because one’s political clout, or political badge, may skew the selection process.
Comments: Qualifying Argument C
I do not accept the totality of argument three, C above, in its sweeping form. My definition of “politics” extends beyond formal arenas of government to all areas of human relations from husband-wife exchanges to the running of any business. In any event, political oversight of Sri Lanka Cricket is institutionalised by its placement under the Ministry of Sports. More vitally, the powerful unseen hand of the President of the land played a role in the re-assertion of SLC control over Rangiri Stadium – a critical operation which removed it from the pocket-borough of a political kingpin. Likewise, the President’s hand has ensured vital continuity in the Selection Panel with Asantha de Mel, who has business interests in the President’s electorate in Hambantota, serving as its Chairman for some time. The musical chairs in the composition of Selection Committees was the bane of Sri Lankan cricket in the era 1996-2004, as I have argued earlier. In contrast Australia’s boards have sustained continuity in a considered manner through the figure of Andrew Hilditch amidst periodic re-compositions. I add here that de Mel not only has international cricketing experience, but also has represented Sri Lanka in bridge and possesses entrepreneurial experience in business. So he has the qualities required for a difficult and burdensome job. This does not mean to say that errors have not occurred.
Nor must it be forgotten that the Sri Lankan board under Gamini Dissanayake in the 1980s was essentially a politicized outfit. Likewise, in the era of so-called “democratic elections” from 1996 to circa 2005 the oligarchic campaigns involved figures who were businessmen-politicoes by anybody’s reckoning.
The Cricketing Reasons
It is the overlapping cricketing grounds of complaint for the selection of Jayasuriya that I take more seriously and address here. Calls for the shunting aside of aging cricketers arise continuously in the cricketing arena. It did not prevent the English Selectors from re-introducing Cyril Washbrook (b. 1914) into the English team for the Third Test in the Ashes series of 1956 at the ripe old age of forty-one, or the Lankan selectors from bringing Aravinda de Silva (b. 17 Oct. 1965) back into the fold for the World Cup in ODI in 2003.
Aravinda’s selection, as far as I recall, did not arouse disapproval — even though he was, at the age of 37, painfully slow in moving across the turf with all the implications for runs leaked when fielding and runs lost between the wickets. In comparison Jayasuriya is still cricket quick and would surpass such players as, say, Dilruwan Perera, as inner ring fielders even though his hands are not quite as safe as they were in his earlier years.
My counterpoint is simple: when is “old” really useless old? There is no set of universal criteria and thus no conventional line. Decisions have to be made on a case by case basis. Where a player is still reasonably competent as boundary rider, inner-ring fielder and quick between the wickets, he need not be put out to graze as long as he is fulfilling his principal job or jobs.
One must of course sustain balance. It is not advisable to have a touring squad made up of fifteen players aged 32-39. That issue does not arise, however, in the present instance: the pool of players available [and selected] for the Twenty20 Cup include many youngsters.
For this reason I did not let the age-factor dominate my consideration of Jayasuriya for the XV after the pool of 31 was named by the selectors. Indeed, Jayasuriya was inserted within my XV because of his allround capacities and the balance he brought into the side. But my choice was tentative and had question-marks around it. Let me elaborate.
It is my conviction that a good T20 Eleven – repeat XI and not the 15-member squad — must have at least SIX regular bowlers and 2 occasional bowlers; or better still, SEVEN regular bowlers. By “regular bowler” I refer to someone who can be relied on to bowl 3-4 overs under most conditions. It does not mean that he would not be taken to the cleaners occasionally, but that he is consistent enough to be used more often than not. In these terms I consider Jayasuriya to be a regular bowler, whereas, say, Dilshan falls into my category of “occasional bowler” [for T20 but not 50-over where he could be deemed “regular”].
Standing then in 2010, one can assert quite positively that Jayasuriya’s recent performances as opening batsman do not warrant his place in the side even though he may produce an explosive innings every now and then. Most cricket-followers know that Dilshan now provides Sri Lanka with a punishing opening batsman in both forms of the limited-overs game, while Upul Tharanga is no mean slouch in the 50-over version.
Moreover, Mahela Jayawardene has also opened batting in ODIs with striking success on some occasions. His six innings for Wayamba during the local Inter-Provincial Tournament produced figures of 293 runs at a s/r of 168.39 for an average of 48.83. Then there is the new shining prospect as batsman, Dinesh Chandimal, who accumulated 320 runs in 7 innings at a s/r of 158.41 and an average of 53.33.
And yet more: there is the rejuvenated Jeevantha Kulatunga (born 2 Nov 1973). Lean, mean and fit, he played several outstanding hands at the local tournament as opening batsman gathering 277 runs in six innings at a s/r of 159.19 for a remarkable average of 69.25.
In sum, we have at least four batsmen who could provide punishing starts for Sri Lanka. It follows that any one of them could be slotted in at Nos 3, 4 or 5 in the mix with Sangakkara. But therein lies the problem. Assume they are all in the squad and form a starting five with Sangakkara in a final XI. Then we end up with an XI that has only six bowlers if Angelo Mathews is slotted in as No. 6.
Kulatunga is a medium pace bowler, but hardly bowls much now even when he captains Colts. Dilshan is only useful occasionally. This is why Jayasuriya comes into consideration as a spinning allrounder who provides SL with the services of a third spinner in addition to Murali and Randiv/Mendis in dusty or turning conditions or a second spinner if the tour selectors opted for an extra paceman (including allrounder pacemen such as Chintaka Jayasinghe) to displace Randiv/Mendis.
When I inserted Jayasuriya in the squad of XV that I would select – see the Dilmah Forum, entry dated late March — I was constrained by the pool of 31 already selected. If I had been all-powerful, however, I would have had other figures in the pool who would have challenged Jayasuriya for the role of spinning allrounder: namely, M. Pushpakumara (26-4-1981) Satchithra Serasinghe (13-4-1987) and Janaka Gunaratne (4-3-1981), all right-arm offpsinners.
Pushpakumara has been in the selectors’ spotlight in recent years, but was unfortunately bedevilled by injuries and had few outings on the tours. Injury seems to have constrained his outings in the Inter-Provincial tourney as well. So his omission is understandable. Serasinghe’s career records are in fact better than Puspakumara’s: his overall “First Class” batting average of 42.65 and an ODI strike-rate of 72.87 with average of 31.14 are not figures to be laughed at. He seems to be recent bloomer though and one could argue that he needs more A Team outings before being pitch-forked into the highest level.
Jeevan Mendis (in the pool) and Janaka Gunaratne are two others who fall into the category of spinning allrounders. But Mendis, a right-arm leg-spinner, was playing for Kanduarata and had few opportunities to bowl in the T20 competition because Murali and Suraj Randiv were also in the XI. Thus, his spinning capacities and experience are untested at the higher levesl. Likewise Gunaratne is not experienced in the cauldron of international competitions; though one must attend to his excellent performance in the recent Provincial tourney: bowling right arm offspin for Basnahira South he was top of the list for strike rate at 9.5, with an excellent economy rate at 6.84 to support this edge. In batting he scored only 85 runs [with two not outs] for an average of 28.33, but this was at the acceptable strike rate of 132.81.
Note that, in comparison Jayasuriya had a bowling s/r of 21.1 with economy at 8.92 in the same tournament, thus falling below 19 others in strike-rate if one takes 10 overs as one’s cut-off point. On the batting side, however, he was up there with the best, securing a strike rate of 141.48 in six innings that yielded 133 runs for an average of 22.6. Of the players who scored over 100 runs in sum during that tournament he was only below Mahela Jayawardene, Chandimal and Kulatunga.
On the downside, however, in three matches recently for Mumbai Jaysuriya’s bowling figures are 1-19-0; then 4-17-2 and 2-16-0 …. patchy, but with one significant contribution as a bowler; while his returns as batsman have been 23, 07 and 02 runs in three innings (with the 23 scored at a super rate of 164.28). In the result he has been dropped and replaced by no less than Ryan Who (aka Maclaren).
In summary overview, then, a case can be made for Jayasuriya’s inclusion on cricketing grounds, but it is a borderline case not a conclusive one. There are other options as spinner-allrounders, but all have limited international experience so they too stand as borderline arguments.
The hot news on 2 April was that a “Cloud hangs over Jayasuriya’s selection” This item indicated that the Selection Committee had been overruled by ministerial fiat that resulted in Jayasuriya and Chintaka Jayasinghe displacing the original selections of Jeevan Mendis and Upul Tharanga. If this is true, it is wholly unwelcome. Political czars cannot and should not interfere in choice of players whatever other interventions they may effect.
Aravinda and Sanath in earnest conversation at practice, Courtesy of Daily news
My review has taken a discursive, meandering path because the cricketing issues are complex. The evaluation indicates that there are cricketing reasons that can sustain the argument for Jayasuriya’s inclusion. But these grounds do not amount to an open and shut case because there are other contenders – among them Jeevan Mendis, Sachithra Serasinghe and Janaka Gunaratne.
In another article that I have in my head I will be reflecting on the whole XV and will place question marks around the selection of Kapugedera, Tissara Perera, Welagedera and Ajantha Mendis. I am not saying that their selections are bad choices. On the contrary there are reasonable grounds for their selection, but they are still marginal choices in the sense that other options can be presented in order to mount the best balance in the fifteen member squad.
In these terms these other player-options are like Jayasuriya: a case could be made for or against each of their names; But Sanath Jaysuriya is unlike others in the aura he carries and in the political clout he wields. If these factors have led to direct political intervention in the Selection Committee’s decisions, one is faced with an outrageous incursion. It is bad for cricket and taints Jayasuriya’s record of service to Sri Lankan cricket. Whether Sanath was party to the act or not matters not one iota. It is the precedent set and the ramifying implications that damn the act.
 M. Roberts, “Pallekele, Asgiriya and Rangiri,” www.cricket.dilmahtea.com, January 2007.
 See Roberts, “Musical chairs in cricket selections,” in Essaying Cricket, Colombo, VijithaYapa Publications, 2006.
 Born 6 Dec. 1914 Washbrook was aged 41 and a Selector when he was asked to leave the meeting by the others and then re-injected into the English XI for the Third Test in 1956. He promptly scored 96 runs in that Test at Headingly and helped England win (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyril_Washbrook).