Ana Punchihewa’s role in the World Cup success, 1996

Rex Clementine, from the Island, 31 January 2011

The optimism that Kumar Sangakkara’s side will repeat the World Cup winning performance of Arjuna Ranatunga’s 1996 heroes is quite high among cricket fans, but one thing that’s standing in the current squad’s way is the country’s inefficient and corrupt cricket administration. Ranatunga and the crowd were presented with a smooth platform to perform 15 years ago, as cricket administration was in the safe hands those days with Ana Punchihewa as the head of Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka.

  Ana and Arjuna pose with World Cup —Pic by Prasanna Hennayake

Punchihewa took to cricket administration in the year 1994 as a Vice-President to the late Gamini Dissanayake. Following Dissanayake’s assassination, he headed the board and launched his forceful plan, ‘To be the best cricketing nation by 2000’. His plan was not only to make Sri Lanka the best cricket playing nation in five years time, but to improve infrastructure, umpiring, coaching, domestic cricket, take the game to grass root levels and a whole lot more. When he took over the cricket administration, Punchihewa was head of Coke in Sri Lanka and he brought in his corporate skills to the Board of Control. One of his first moves was to appoint Duleep Mendis to the dual role of Chairman of Selectors and Manager of the national team. He was extremely conscious to set up a vibrant team management and was searching for a qualified coach as well.

Although individuals such as Ian Botham, Bob Woolmer and Alan Border had shown interest, the board opted for Dav Whatmore. “Well, it was Hobson’s Choice really,” Punchihewa told ‘The Island’. “Both Botham and Border were asking for fantastic sums. Botham I think wanted a million dollars. So we were left with no choice but to opt for Dav.” Nevertheless, a proven coach than a high profile name proved to be the right choice as Whatmore’s scientific coaching methods were extremely successful.

Still Dav was going to cost Sri Lankan cricket 100,000 US$ a year, but the board only had a bank balance of Rs. 300,000 at that time. Although the modern Sri Lankan generation bears a grudge against Australian cricket, it was the Australian Cricket Board (ACB) that came forward to help Sri Lanka at that juncture. “We had Dr. Quintus de Zilva as our representative in Australia and I told him to do something. He said it would be tough to collect that much of money in a short period. But the word got around and the Australian board asked us whether they could be of any help. We said we were struggling for finances. The Sri Lanka team was supposed to play a series in Australia later that year and we were to get 100,000 US$ as guarantee fee and they were good enough to make it 200,000 US$ and they paid the money in advance,” Punchihewa recalled.

“We got the money a week before Dav arrived and I was extremely pleased. Had the ACB not intervened, we would have been in real trouble,” he added.

Soon after Dav arrived, he felt that a physiotherapist would be able to help Sri Lanka improve further. But that was going to cost the board another 80,000 US$. “I asked Dr. Quintus again and this time he was able to collect a substantial amount to pay Alex Kontouri, who soon joined the team as physiotherapist,” Punchihewa said.

With a few weeks left for the World Cup, the Central Bank bombing disrupted Sri Lanka’s preparations and Australia and West Indies were going to pull out from their games in Colombo. “We had an ICC meeting in Calcutta and it was said that we had to concede points for the pull out of other teams. I brought this point that it’s not fair at all to penalize us for others not turning up and the board reversed the decision and the points were going to be shared.”

In a bid to make sure that the two teams played their games in Colombo, the government promised top level security and there was an option given to the teams to airlift them from one of the southern Indian cities on the day of the match and for them to be sent back to India on the same day. Sri Lanka even promised to play the game in empty stadia, if the two teams were so concerned about their safety.

“The late Lakshman Kadirgamar was the Foreign Minister and he tried to do lot of convincing, but to no avail. Sir Clyde Walcott was the ICC Chairman at that time and he tried to get the teams’ consent to play in Colombo, but they were just hell bent on not coming,” Punchihewa said.

“There was going to be another ICC meeting the next day and I informed the Chairman that I wanted the matter taken up for discussion again, the following day. Then I went canvassing that night and the following morning there was a lot of support for us and the ICC made a complete ‘u’ turn and we were given the points,” he recalled.

At this time, when he was leading Sri Lankan cricket vibrantly, Punchihewa realized that his leadership was going to be challenged at the next board AGM. The signs of revolts first appeared during the tournament, but he continued regardless and when Sri Lanka won the World Cup in Lahore, on the 17th of March 1996, he was confident that he would get a mandate for another year to continue the good work. But a few days after the World Cup win, he was ousted after a bitter AGM.

Punchihewa went onto lose a close election, but by no means was the election fair and to put it in cricketing parlance, ‘it simply wasn’t cricket’. The sport so far had been governed by gentlemen, but the World Cup win was too big to resist and mudalalis were throwing their hats to run the show. As Punchihewa lost by three votes, one individual voted against the wish of a leading Colombo club, who had decided to vote for the incumbent President, but this individual did the complete opposite. He was later suspended by the club, but the mudalalis paid him back for the favour. They made the suspended man a national selector.

“Well, I just went on a high. That was the peak and what more do you want?” Punchihewa said philosophically.

The rot that was set by the mudalalis continued as cricket administration hit new lows. Underworld criminals were sent overseas on cricket board finances and massive television scandals followed. Today, it has reached a stage where the highest paid employee at the cricket board premises is the Chairman’s nephew. Currently the issues faced by the country’s cricket administration is as big as a Dilhara Fernando no ball and the administration has proved to be a hindrance rather than a help, for the progress of the game over here.

Web-Editor’s NOTE: There was  another small step that Ana Punchihewa took that is not widely known to the world. After Muralitharan was no-balled for throwing at the MCG and then at the Gabba in early January he immediatelly took up Daryl Foster’s quiet suggestion to the team in Australia (probably to Aravinda whom he had coached in Kent) that Murali should be tested by the Dept of HumanMovement at UWA to which Daryl was affiliated. Murali was immediately despatched to Perth and the UWA Department posted its report to Duleep Mendis (Manager) on the 19th January. That report, and another by Dr Ravi Goonetilleke, at a university in Hong Kong, cleared Murali in the eyes of the ICC. So, he was available to bowl at the World Cup.

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