Russel Arnold Q and A on Lanka’s Chances in Champion Trophy

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Saj Sadiq in conversation with Russel Arnold in The Island, 5 June 2013

Sadiq: During the ICC Champions Trophy warm-up game between Sri  Lanka and India, we’ve seen both the possible strengths and weaknesses of the  Sri Lankan team. What are your thoughts on the Sri Lankan squad and how do you  think the team will perform at the Champions Trophy, in England and Wales?

Russel Arnold (RA): I think it’s a well-balanced squad and  the selectors have covered all their bases. If you look at the mix of experience  and youth and levels of skill, they’ve got things covered. They’ve got the best  team out there when you look at the squad on paper. Looking at the warm-up match (Sri Lanka vs India at Edgbaston,  on June 1), it’s been a perfect warm-up, I would say. That means all the batsmen  getting a hit – it’s all about feeling good about themselves, getting the  game-plan in order and trying to define roles for players. They haven’t played  together since the Australian tour in January. Since then, they’ve played  Bangladesh, and no disrespect to them, but it’s not the same as playing one of  the top teams.

Jayawardene, Sangakkara, Dilshan and Kusal Perera haven’t  played together in the top order, so getting their roles in order was also  important. Jayawardene likes to open, but we have Dilshan and Kusal Perera as  openers, so sorting out those factors was important. I think it answered a lot  of questions in that regard. Everyone got a hit in good conditions, although I don’t think  it will reflect the conditions in England for the rest of the tournament.  However, at the end of the day, feeling bat on ball and spending time out in the  middle was important and in that sense, the pitch at Edgbaston turned out to be  ideal for that.

333 was a good score and you’d expect Sri Lanka to defend  that. They started off well in the field, but then Mathews went with the option  of giving a bowl to all his bowlers, which is probably the right thing. At a  crucial time I think he missed the trick of putting pressure on the Indian  batsmen, which is understandable, considering this was a warm-up match. That’s  where India got on top and they made Sri Lanka pay. But come the tournament, I  don’t think there’s going to be too many worries in that aspect. Tactically,  both teams were off the pace due to their desire to give opportunities to  everyone and to blow away any cobwebs.

All in all it was a great workout. One more (warm-up) match  to go (against the West Indies yesterday), and that will be used to get tactics  in place. With the form Kusal Perera and Dinesh Chandimal showed, the senior  players will be able to relax. They’ll come into their own, playing their own  roles and I think Sri Lanka will be a threat.

ARNOLD-- You make an interesting point regarding  flexibility and versatility within the Sri Lankan squad, with respect to both  the batting order and bowling options. It seems to be a very well-balanced and  versatile squad they’ve brought to England?

RA: Yes, it’s important that you cover your bases for any  situation and that bowlers and batsmen complement each other, so it’s all about  identifying those players and situations and trying to utilise them in that  manner. Were you surprised that Ajantha Mendis wasn’t  included in the squad?

RA: When you look at it from the outside, you would think  it’s surprising, because New Zealand, England and Australia are in the group  stages and Mendis is such a mystery spinner, but that’s where credit should go  to Rangana Herath and Sachithra Senanayake. They’ve created a situation for the  selectors where they couldn’t be left out, so that’s a massive plus and that’s  what players should look to be doing – create situations where they have to be  picked.

Sachithra Senanayake’s performances of late have been good,  maybe not on the international stage, but in Twenty20 cricket he’s made a point  and showed that he can bowl against big-hitting batsman in power-play  situations, which would give the Sri Lankan’s more of an option.

It’s the same with Rangana Herath, who was safeguarded to  play only Test cricket after Murali’s retirement, but his ability to adjust and  not lose his guile and flight, which is required for Test cricket, ensured his  selection. Herath comes on and tries to contain batsmen and his style of bowling  is slightly different in the limited overs format, but he’s equally effective.  Both of them deserve their opportunity in the Champions Trophy. Thisara Perera is an interesting option as well.  Hard hitting batsman who can be moved up the order and a decent medium pacer.  He’s another versatile option for Sri Lanka, isn’t he?

RA: Teams from the subcontinent – Pakistan, India and Sri  Lanka – their all-rounders are generally spinning all-rounders, so when a  seaming all-rounder pops up, he adds great value, because it allows them to  balance their team much better. Thisara Perera is very good in situations that  suit him and he can do a lot of damage in the last few overs with the bat. His  bowling is very unpredictable, and he has the ability to now and again sneak out  a wicket and surprise batsmen. In more instances than not, he ends up being a  match-winner and that’s good to have in your set-up. You spoke about Angelo Mathews, the 25-year-old  captain. It can at times be a little difficult being a young captain in India,  Pakistan and Sri Lanka, due to the importance given to seniority. How do you  think Mathews will handle the captaincy in the one-day format?

RA: There’s a lot of trust in him and I wouldn’t agree with  the fact that he’s young anymore, because in two or three years time, he’ll be  close to touching 30 and the word would be “it’s time to look for someone else!”  I think he’s mature and he’s got a good head on his shoulders and reads the game  well, but what’s important for him is to make sure that his game is in order.  Whilst batting, he’s got to make sure that his contributions are spot on, so he  can lead from the front and having senior players can also work against you with  too many opinions (to consult). At the end of the day, as a captain, you have to  rely on your gut feeling. It’s good to take in the views and be helped, but  trust in yourself is what’s going to take you forward. During the previous ICC tournament that was held  in England in 2009, Sri Lanka were very powerful, but were beaten finalists  against Pakistan in the World T20. They played really well throughout the  tournament, but just fell short at the final hurdle. Do you think this Sri  Lankan team can go one step further and lift the Champions Trophy?

RA: The fact that you’ve mentioned that they were losing  finalists isn’t something we want to talk about. It’s forgotten and best to  leave it to history. They’ve got a good team out there – but it’s not going to  be about individuals; the contributions have got to come from around the squad.

They have the capability and with a little bit of luck with  the weather, Sri Lanka will be a major threat. The initial goal is to make the  semi-finals. From then on, it’s a knockout competition, and they may be able to  lift themselves and think about the final. It’s all about taking things game by  game, one step at a time – go through the processes and let the results take  care of themselves. Who would you see as the main threats to Sri  Lanka in this tournament?

RA: One mistake in this tournament can put you out and  that can happen to the best team, so I think all eight teams have a chance of  going through. If you sit back and take a look, until the first one day  international against New Zealand, England looked favourites, but after losing  to New Zealand, that feel changes quite a bit, but England will have two quality  bowlers coming back to the team in Stuart Broad and Steven Finn. For me, England  and South Africa are the favourites, and you underestimate Sri Lanka at your own  peril. How is it that Sri Lankan cricket, despite the  off-field issues that are part and parcel of cricket in Asia, keeps producing  world-class cricketers with a natural flair?

RA: We produce great cricketers because of a lack of  coaching. What I mean by that is that a lack of coaching allows you to find  bowlers who are also freaks. If you let the coaches work with those freakish  bowlers, we have in Sri Lanka at an early age, they’d be trying to coach them  according to the textbook and that doesn’t work. A lot of these players cannot  be coached. The ability to identify that and let them go their own way and still  help and guide them is the key. So in your opinion, sometimes coaching can backfire  and take the best out of a cricketer?

RA: Coaching and over-coaching can sometimes be detrimental.  Over-coaching in my opinion is simply defined as trying to change players for  the sake of change. If there were coaches working on Lasith Malinga as a  youngster, he would have never ended up with that action by the time he played  international cricket. That unorthodox action would have been coached out of  Malinga, and he would not have been effective.

Also, Ajantha Mendis would have never ended up with the  variety he has at his disposal. He would have been a much more orthodox bowler.  Muralitharan wouldn’t have made it to international cricket. The same would have  applied to Sanath Jayasuriya. You’ve got to identify strengths, weaknesses and  try and work around them, without eradicating that natural flair and unorthodox  ability that some cricketers have at their disposal. What’s the scouting and talent spotting network like  in Sri Lanka?

RA: The general system is that you play for your school. Once  you leave school, you’ve got to end up in Colombo, because of work opportunities  and you end up playing club cricket in Colombo. That’s the basic and simple  system that exists in Sri Lanka.

To be spotted as a cricketer in Sri Lanka is more about luck  and about being at the right place at the right time. As for the scouting  system, there is no such system. So-called talent can be spotted when you’re  walking around the street – there have been several such instances where  influential figures in Sri Lankan cricket have spotted a talented player when  they were simply going for a walk or a drive.

For example, Lahiru Thirimanne, who is one of the backbones  of the Sri Lankan batting in all formats, was not picked for the Under-19s a few  years ago. Aravinda de Silva was passing by and he watched Thirimanne practicing  and having a hit in the nets and asked, “why hasn’t this boy been picked for the  upcoming Under-19 tour?” De Silva pushed for Thirimanne’s selection and that’s  how he ended up in the system and he ended up going on that Under-19 tour, where  he excelled with the likes of Dinesh Chandimal.

In addition, there’s the story of 19-year-old Akila Dananjaya,  who has played six limited overs internationals for Sri Lanka. Well, Lahiru  Thirimanne drove him up to Sri Lanka practice to be used as a net bowler and  that’s where Mahela Jayawardene saw him, and Dananjaya’s life changed after  Mahela faced his bowling. These are just a few examples within Sri Lankan  cricket of how some of our players found their way into international cricket. Despite the hurdles to overcome and the off field  issues, do you see a day when Sri Lankan cricket can be the dominant force in  the international game?

RA: I’d like to see that day. We’re always competitive,  so it’s just about building on our consistency. A little more self-belief is  needed, and I believe they’ll be on their way.

Maintaining intensity over long periods of time is Sri  Lanka’s issue at the moment. If that can be addressed, I think they’ll be a  force to be reckoned with. Even in Test cricket, (they have) intensity in short  bursts and that’s why they tend to struggle. When you win a Test match, you win  big, because you hit the opposition hard, but there are not too many of those  tight games going down to the fifth day that Sri Lanka has managed to win. I am  not sure how the mechanics of flair and consistency could work together, but  that’s a shortfall I would say.


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