TMK Samat in The Sunday Leader, 25 August 2013
It is popularly acknowledged that Angelo Mathews, Dinesh Chandimal and Lahiru Thirimanne represent the future of Sri Lanka cricket. The young trio, since debuting in international cricket three to five years ago, has enjoyed permanent status in the national side across all formats of the game and hence, have become the face of our future. As well, the permanency of Mathews and Chandimal is endowed with gilt-edged guarantee: Mathews is Test and ODI captain; Chandimal is his deputy as well as outright T-20 leader. Whilst the duo’s respective positions confer on them immunity from dismissal in the foreseeable future, Thirimanne’s permanency however is earned, showing consistency far more durable than his titled colleagues.
This is not to infer that the trio are undeserving of permanent status. All three have, after all, a Test century each to their credit (Mathews against Australia; Chandimal and Thirimanne v. Bangladesh). In the ODIs, Chandimal has two 100s, Thirimanne, one whilst Mathews’ highest is 80. The young trio collectively count an 11-year presence in the international arena; the Test and ODI captain’s five years being the longest; the other two share six years. In that time, the trio has played a total of 50 Test (contributing 2,871 runs) of which 26-year old Mathews has figured in 33 (scoring 1,762); Thirimannein ten Tests (583) and Chandimal, three fewer (526); both are aged 23 years. The trio’s collective ODI experience counts 223 matches: Mathews’ 105 appearances yielding 2,048 runs; Chandimal’s 66 games, 1,525 and Thirimanne’s 52 ODIs, 990 runs.
The above statistics of the young trio is, naturally, miniscule juxtaposed with the sort of numbers accumulated by the senior trio of Jayewardene, Dilshan and Sangakkara: collectively 342 Test (26,784 runs) and 1,025 ODIs (29,766) over a total of 43 years. The weighing of the contributions of the older and younger trios, it has to be mentioned, is not for the purpose of evaluation which of them is worthier; drawing comparisons between the two, for obvious reasons, is an absurd exercise.
The purpose of drawing comparison here is to find out what the future might hold for the country’s cricket. It is fair to say that the elders’ careers aren’t too far away from closure, their swan-song likely to be the 2015World Cup, in Australia and New Zealand. They are into the second half of the 30s so that their retirements would likely be tendered,if not simultaneously, thennot far apart of each other– which means the young trio will be expected to take on frontline duties some 18 months hence.The departure of elders will no doubt leave an enormous chasm, prospects of the filling of which are not brightened by a sense that the transition looks no nearer to fruition than it was, say, two years ago. Life after Jayewardene, Sangakkara and Dilshan, so, doesn’t look too cheery, to say the least.
No one quite knows better what it is like to face such cheerless prospects than Sidath Wettimuny, who, as chief selector, was confronted with similar gloomy scenario. The 1999 World Cup campaign, including a bulk of the 1996 Cup-winning team, had ended catastrophically, unable to finish among the top six in the group stage of the 12-team competition – and so eliminated, together with the likes of Kenya, Scotland and Bangladesh, from the Super Six round. Zimbabwe succeeded.
“It was a pretty depressing time. Some bold decisions had to be taken and we knew some of them weren’t going to please all. We decided that one decision was going to be non-negotiable – i.e. the commitment to rebuild a team with the next (2003) World Cup in view,’’ said Wettimuny.
And that meant affecting a major shakeup: out went the 1996 World Cup-winning leader, Ranatunga, and his deputy, Aravinda de Silva,from the ODI squad, but retained for Tests. As well, ’96 batting stalwarts, Hashan Tillekeratne and Roshan Mahanama were dumped, and with Asanka Gurusinha’s retiring before the 1999 campaign, it meant that all but Jayasuriya was the only remnant of the formidable 1996 batting line up.
Sanath Jayasuriya was appointed the new leader and the then 22-year-old Mahela Jayawardene, his deputy, above the heads of seniors such as Atapattu, Muralidaran and Vaas. As well, then-youngsters of the likes of Thuwan Dilshan, as he was then named, Sangakkara, Russel Arnold and Thilan Samaraweera were recruited and absorbed into the permanent ranks. Of course, the selectors went back on some of the dramatic 1999 decisions; Aravinda de Silva was recalled to the national ODI squad prior to the 2003 World Cup and Jayewardene was relieved of the vice captaincy and the job handed to Atapattu. Hashan Tillekeratnewas latterly appointed Test captain. Those changes to the 1999 selections were, however, made by selectors succeeding Wettimuny’s committee, but there was little doubt the 1999-transition had been successfully negotiated.
The proof of that was provided by quite some extraordinary achievements in the aftermath of the 1999 changes: we registered our first ever Test win over Australia, climbed to second position in the Test rankings and was in the final four of the 2003 World Cup, losing to eventual winners Australia in the semi final.
So why does not the present transition even remotely resemble the one of 1999? Sidath Wettimuny: “I believe we were more fortunate than the present selectors: we had a better set of technically-sound batsmen to choose from. The present-day batsmen, I am afraid, aren’t of the same quality, technically. Their technique especially in defence can hardly be described as perfect, and that makes them vulnerable. So, if you have to put a finger on why this transition is not moving forward as swiftly as it should, the finger has to rest on the faults in our young batsmen’s defensive techniques.
“Asanka Gurusinha was in town recently and watched the ODI series against South Africa. He was appalled, and told me, ‘our young chaps just don’t look secure in defence’. That is a revealing observation because defence is the foundation of batting – the root from which all other facets of batting grow. Sanga and Mahela improvise so brilliantly only because their foundations are solid – young batsmen in trying to duplicate the improvisations of those seniors’ dice with death.‘’
Lest he be mistaken for a prophet of doom, Wettimuny, Sri Lanka’s first ever Test centurion, says that he has no doubts about the talentour young batsmen are blessed with. “Mathews, Chandimal and Thirimanne have all scored a Test century each which is proof of their talents,’’ says Wettimuny. “But if they have not scored as many hundreds as the seniors, it is not solely because their careers are yet new; it’s has more to do with their technique not being as sound as the elders. The records I am sure will show the seniors in their early years contributed more than the present youngsters at this point of their careers. ’’
Wettimuny, however, thinks the present-day youngsters’ technical lacks is not due to inability but rather are “unfortunate victims of circumstance.’’ “Back then the young cricketers was able to hone their skills playing Test cricket. I remember the team playing as many as ten Test matches in the space of some six-seven months. You don’t have to be a pundit to know that only Test cricket provides the time and space to master technique, which is why batsmen like Sanga, Mahela and Samaraweera, and Marvan before them, are such good technicians. And with instinct batters like Sanath and Dilshan in the team, the batting was always formidable,’’ says Wettimuny. “It’s rather sad that these days Tests are being sacrificed for ODIs and T-20s. The shorter versions are economic necessities and provide for attractive watching, which is good. But as for learning good and proper batting, ODIs and T-20s aren’t quite the right classrooms.There’s no crash-course to learning the techniques of batting.’’
Sri Lanka’s last Test engagement was in March, a two-match series against Bangladesh. A three Test home series against South Africa scheduled for last July was deferred to accommodate five ODIs and three T-20s. The next Test series so doesn’t become due till October, a two-match away series against Zimbabwe, followed by three Tests against Pakistan in December-January in Dubai. That means we would’ve played five Tests in a period of ten months, which looks more like a tourist’s itinerary in comparison to the post-1999 schedule of ten Tests in six- seven months.
No small wonder then that the present transition looks to be riding a slow train to fruition. Whether it will arrive at the desired destination before the senior trio takes leave of the game is what might decide Sri Lanka cricket future.