Atapattu’s Awkward Ascent

Nirgunan Tiruchelvam, from The Island

MARVANChairman Mao said that Chinese intellectuals prefer foreign muck to local perfume. The same could be said of some Sri Lankan cricket fans. Paul Farbrace has been praised as the mastermind of the Twenty20 triumph. Dav Whatmore deserved credit for improving the fitness of the 1996 World Cup squad. But, one should not forget the contribution of our own officials. In the 1980s, coaches and managers such as WAN Silva, Ranjit Fernando, Abu Fuard and Neil Chanmugam toiled with little reward. Abu Fuard was a merciless disciplinarian, without whom the wins of the amateur era would not have happened.

We must applaud the return of a local coach – Marvan Atapattu. The delay in his appointment was shocking. The former captain has served a long apprenticeship as batting coach. He was unjustly ignored after Graham Ford left us in the lurch.


Time dims the memory of our retired heroes. In his 90 Tests, Atapattu was an awesome accumulator. His technique was faithful to the texbook. The opener’s stamina was boundless as he scored six double hundreds.

As a captain, he was refreshingly attacking. Before him, Sri Lanka’s Test captains were defensive. Ranatunga was so negative that he put his opponents in to bat in 13 Tests (losing six of them). Hashan Tillakaratne, Atapattu’s predecessor, could not dismiss England after four sessions on a turning track in Kandy in 2004. Five fielders grazed the boundary for most of the fourth innings.

Atapattu was a breath of fresh air. On the 2005-06 tour to India, he innovated with field positions such as short mid-wicket. He encouraged wicketkeeper Kumar Sangakkara to stand up to Chaminda Vaas’ swing bowling. bThis kept the nimble footed Indians in their crease. The captain unleashed the freakish Lasith Malinga, whose slinging pace transformed the attack.

The results followed. Sri Lanka won the Asia Cup in 2004, the Pepsi Cup in 2005 and defeated South Africa in a Test series for the first time in 2004.

His career ended bitterly. The 2007 World Cup saw the then 36 year-old carry the drinks around the Caribbean. Control of the team had passed to Mahela Jayawardene and Sangakkara. The new rulers were determined to exclude Atapattu in favour of Upul Tharanga, who has still not found his off-stump.

As a coach, Atapattu has preached patience and innovation. Despite his orthodox style, he has encouraged experimentation. Thirimanne’s widening range of shots is a feather in Atapattu’s cap. Kaushal Silva was like a wall in the Pakistan series, much like his batting coach.

The awkward delay in his elevation may unnerve Atapattu. He was always a shaky starter at the crease. But, he has risen from adversity. After scoring a single run in his first four innings, he built a glittering record. His appointment as captain was also a tortured affair. Initially, he was only annointed ODI captain. Hashan Tillakaratne, who was not even a regular player, warmed the seat as Test captain. Tillakaratne was past his prime. Atapattu became a nervous wreck as he waited his turn. His form deserted him. But, when he was finally crowned captain, he delivered.

The other obstacle for the new coach is confusion. The Sri Lanka introduced a new concept during the World T20 triumph – the tag team captaincy. During the final, the fielders were not sure about the captain’s identity. At times, Mahela shouted instructions. Sanga also gestured commands. The official captain Malinga was silent, while the Test captain Angelo Mathews whispered advice.

There is no light at the end of the captaincy tunnel. The latest turn is the appointment of Thirimanne as the Test and ODI vice-captain. Thirimanne has hardly captained in club cricket. If Matthews is injured, we could have a 24 year-old with 10 Tests experience tossing the coin at Lords.


To put this into perspective, Duleep Mendis had played more Tests than Thirimanne when he led the country at Lord’s in 1984. That was when Sri Lanka was a minnow.


Prasanna Jayawardene is the natural choice for Test vice-captain. He has had a long tenure, having first toured England on the 1998 tour. The 34 year-old keeper’s place is as safe as a bank. Thirimanne’s place itself is uncertain.


But, nothing is certain in the chaos of Sri Lankan cricket. The new coach knows that better than anyone else. That knowledge may strengthen his resolve on this vital tour.


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