Reflections on Marvan’s appointment as Coach

Samat in The Sunday Leader, 5 October 2014

THE only thing questionable about Marvan Atapattu’s appointment as Head Coach last week was why it took so long in coming. As far back as end-June he had emerged a strong candidate, shepherding Sri Lanka to a historic Test series triumph in England, as well as a 3/2 victory in the ODI series, not to mention of the success in the solitary Twenty-20 – an astonishing sweep for one who was hustled into the job scarcely a month before the English tour, a consequent of the sudden resignation of his predecessor..

ATAPATTU MARVANThe home series against South Africa in July was lost, but both the Test and ODI series against Pakistan was won comprehensively, 2/0 and 2/1 respectively – and with the World Cup looming, commonsense called for the confirmation of Atapattu’s role as Head Coach in the first flush of the victorious Pakistan series in end-August.

With two series wins out of three; his association with the national team since 2011 (first as batting coach and then assistant head coach);  knowledge of the local cricketing environment that no overseas coach can hope to match, not to speak of his illustrious 17-year international career as player, gave Atapattu’s credentials a flawlessness unequalled by rivals.

Whether the delay in officially sanctioning an appointment that might’ve been considered favourably at the end of June (after the triumphant English tour) and had become seemingly inevitable end-August (after success in the Pakistan series) would impact negatively on the country’s World Cup chances time will tell

For the time being, though, Atapattu’s confirmation can only evoke a sigh of relief. Thankfully, he can now knuckle down to the task considered the most crucial in the career of any cricket coach: to prepare his team for the four-yearly World Cup. We don’t live in the sort of ideal times that allow a country to retain one coach to serve the entire four years before a World Cup – the demands in-between World Cups are far too much for one coach to satisfy. (If a few losses don’t get him, then the critics will).

If, however, a country must change its Head Coach betwixt World Cups, the new coach is usually contracted about two years before the world competition, time enough to put a gamut of human components, of skills and emotions, together that’ll make the team look potential Cup winners. Installing a new coach as late as a year before the World Cup speaks of a confused administration, distracted by extraneous reasons, such as our Board is by political frictions. But the appointment of a Head Coach six months before the World Cup is… well, hara-kiri.

So, it’s not incorrect to say that the job before Atapattu is an unenviable one – all the more reason why he should expect, and be given, all the help he needs from the Board, selectors, players, whoever. It’s a wish, however, that rides on the wings of a prayer. Evidence that Atapattu is unlikely to be blessed with such unstinted support surfaced even before the ink on his contract had dried. The resignation of chief selector Sanath Jayasuriya from a panel of officials appointed to select the Head Coach is harbinger of troubled times ahead.

Jayasuriya’s resignation on the very day the executive committee was due to approve Atapattu’s appointment, as per the coach-selecting committee’s recommendation, is clear inference that he wishes to disassociate himself with the appointment. In a word, Jayasuriya doesn’t want Atapattu as Head Coach.

In the absence of stated reasons for his objections to Atapattu as Head Coach, many cans of worms have been opened, with theories ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, not excluding the rumour that bookies might be given a field day – but hush, I’d better stop at that, lest rumour trespass on libel. There are more plausible reasons anyway to mull over why Jayasuriya might want to be no part of Atapattu’s appointment.

As Atapattu successfully pressed his claims for the job, peculiarly, moves to secure a foreigner was intensified.  No clues are needed to identify as to who led the campaign for an overseas coach – Jayasuriya it was who shopped the world over for one, and rightly so as he has the connections.

After all it wasn’t many moons ago when he was the face of Sri Lanka Cricket and consequently had built a network of influential friends in the cricketing world. And as deputy minister currently, coaches in the international marketplace must surely have taken him seriously as regards the available job – an offer which earlier was viewed with more than smidge of scepticism, given the country’s high turnover of foreign coaches, not to speak of the breach-of-contract litigation brought against SLC by Coach Geoff Marsh. Briefly, the impression of the world outside of Sri Lanka: great talent but not so a great place to work in.

Jayasuriya, apparently, changed that perception, which is why at one point he had a list 15 aspirants for the job. So, when Atapattu was given the job, the chief selector probably had some face-saving to do with his circle of overseas friends– so to vouch for his honesty in recruiting a foreigner, he resigns to make clear that he’s not responsible for the appointment of a local.

This is not to infer that Jayasuriya’s preference is an expression of a partiality to foreigners. It should not be forgotten that Atapattu was, after all, never going to be a unanimous choice. For one, a few of the current seniors were once his team mates and whether he could exercise his authority over the likes of Sangakkara, Jayewardene, Dilshan and co was unsure, especially in a high-intensity competition as the World Cup.

His win-loss record might be impressive, but some critics, Jayasuriya one of them, think that handing him the Head Coach job after a trial period of some six months is premature; some opine that an initial contract of one year rather than the two signed would’ve been more desirable. His critics will also argue that the team is virtually freewheeling on the work done by South African Graham Ford, head coach before four-month-Fabrace, and that it takes more than a few months for an authentic product of the new coach to emerge.

As well, the team, with Atapattu in charge, hasn’t moved away from its dependence on a handful of seniors. But more than six month is required for a team to detach itself from what has really been a long and overbearing dependence on the elders – an argument that serves to highlight the accusation that the team is freewheeling on Ford’s two-year teachings.

It is, however, unfair to be overcritical about Atapattu’s appointment. Some six months isn’t a long time, and there’s not a lot even a seasoned Head Coach, let alone one new to the job, can achieve in that time. With the final ambition of SLC being localization of the coaching staff, a questioning of Atapattu’s experience, or the lack of it, is to be expected. But to hold that inevitable handicap against him, or any other local, means localization will never leave the ground. But that a start has now been made is a good thing as Atapattu’s achievements will provide tangible evidence if the chosen path is feasible or not.

It is fair to say that the more searching examinations of Atapattu’s coaching skills are ahead. The sternest of them all is, of course, the 2015 the World Cup and it comes at a time when Atapattu would be a month shy of being one year in his role as Head Coach. The first year of many coaches, if not all, haven’t been quite as weighty as Atapattu’s – and the least he’ll want is to be spared of conflicts with the Chairman of Selectors. Of that, though, you can never be sure – not from a Cricket Board whose President and Secretary think nothing of engaging in a slanging match, publicly.

Not only will Atapattu have to do his job well, might have to say his prayers well, too.

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