Andrew Fidel Fernando, in ESPNcricinfo, where the bylines are ‘We should decentralise Sri Lanka’s cricket’
Former Sri Lanka Test batsman Sidath Wettimuny, who, on March 31, was appointed head of the interim committee running Sri Lanka Cricket until elections are held, on what he plans to get round to doing during his caretaker stint.
You came in with a mandate to clean cricket up. What are the pressing needs in Sri Lankan cricket at the moment?
I’m not sure my job is to look at the past. Instead it’s to look at how we can put processes in place to improve things, particularly on the cricket side of things. We’ve already started the process of putting indoor nets at Khettarama Stadium (R Premadasa Stadium), and we’re working on increasing domestic player salaries. Those are things I think are desperately needed. We’re also looking at our domestic structure carefully, and have a few proposals to make some changes.
Can you talk us through some of the changes you’ve begun putting in place?
We heard a presentation from Mahela Jayawardene about domestic cricket, and in it he said that we have a lot of quantity, but we’re sacrificing on quality. We feel that at each level of the game there must be a substantial jump. You must have a situation where a Sara Trophy (second division) player, aspires to play Premier League, and a Premier player aspires to play provincial cricket, and a provincial player, aspires to play Test cricket. We need to show the difference in quality of cricket, and also via remuneration. Earlier we had LKR 2500 per day (approx. USD 19) paid for players in Sara Trophy and Premier players. We’ve made a proposal to raise the Premier player’s payment to Rs 7500 (approx $56) a day. I would said Rs 10,000 but we have to be cautious because of the finances. If you play for the provincial tournament, we will award a central contract to those players who don’t have one.
If a player is playing in the Premier and the provincial tournament, he could make about Rs 1-1.2 million a year, until you aspire to play Test cricket. That’s a decent amount. But the thing we’re saying is that it’s performance and participation-based as well.
That’s a big increase in player payments. How will you bear the cost of the new salary levels?
Very easily. There are 108 central contracts at the moment. We’re going to reduce that to 40. When we look at how that’s done, we’re spending more or less the same amount at the end of the day – but we’ve re-engineered it to reward playing and performing. We’ve also cut budgets by asking all the managers to look at areas where we can save. I asked for a 25% budget cut. They’ve come back with a smaller budget cut, but it’s around Rs 44 million. We’re also hoping to cut tournament costs.
There is no provincial tournament currently – setting this up seems like a priority for the board…
I’m of the same opinion as Mahela is, and Aravinda de Silva is, that we should decentralise Sri Lanka’s cricket. Almost everyone who has played at a high level feels that we should have a system where there are clusters of cricket around the country. We are trying to go to the stakeholders and the clubs and say: “This is how it needs to be done. If we don’t do this, one day we are going to collapse.” Other boards have a simplified system, where we have a system where everything is run from Maitland Crescent (the Sri Lanka Cricket headquarters). You can’t do that. The truth is I have no idea what’s happening in Nuwara Eliya, I don’t know what’s happening in Badulla. We are kidding ourselves if we think we are being of service to cricketers in those regions, or getting the best available talent from those areas. This is something we have to understand, because otherwise we are going to lose out. It’s a shame that we’re already losing out. That is the biggest challenge – to convince our stakeholders that they must really rethink the way we’re going to take our cricket forward.
The domestic system relies on many of the clubs around Colombo. How will you get them on board to begin a provincial tournament, where they would not feature?
I think that club cricket is the backbone of our cricket. Without club cricket, nothing works. I’m not saying we must devalue the clubs at all. I’m saying we must promote and foster the clubs – especially the clubs that have grounds. Once these World Cup funds come, I’m going to propose that we provide some funds to these clubs, depending on what they need to do to develop their facilities. We must pump money in there. I don’t see anything wrong in giving Premier clubs who have grounds Rs 10 million to develop cricket. I think that’s essential.
How will you accommodate a long club season and a provincial season in the schedule?
We’ve done a calendar now, and what we’ve said is that everything finishes by April 10. The last thing to be played will be the T20 provincial tournament. The four-day tournament will be concurrently played with the 50-over tournament. So, for example, a team would go to Pallekele, play the four-dayer, then play the one-dayer and finish. By doing that you save money. Before the provincial matches start, you play the Premier and the Sara and the club tournaments. We’re not going to change anything up to that January period, but then the provincial games will finish the season’s cricket.
Where would these provincial teams be based?
We would base the teams in Dambulla, Pallekele, Galle, Hambantota and Colombo – where we have grounds and facilities already.
There won’t be any changes to the club tournaments?
Not this year. There is a view that the Premier tournament should be cut down from 14 teams to 12 or 10. I don’t want to even think that far. I won’t be there that long to make that decision. The guys who come in will have to study what happens in the next tournament and figure it out. What I think, the Premier teams should have is a second XI. That would allow the players not getting a match at the Premier level to play cricket and get back into form without having to look for another club.
One of the objections to setting up provincial bases around the country is that those bases are susceptible to local political influences, and Maitland Crescent loses control of cricket there…
I think that’s a myth. We actually have no close connection with all those districts and provinces at all now. It’s only by name. The only connection we have is when the time comes to bid for their vote, you then try and woo them. There is no proper micro-management at that level.
The lack of quality pitches in first-class cricket has also been an issue. How can you improve that?
I’m trying to see if we can give an incentive to the curators to create better wickets. Whoever prepares good, fast, even wickets would be eligible for a reward. In India, they’re saying they’re leaving a bit of grass, so we need to look into our own methods. Here, after the first over, sometimes there are spinners bowling. How can you blood fast bowlers when you’re doing that? Part of the reason we have so many breakdowns is that our fast bowlers are barely getting through ten overs in a day. A top quick should be able to bowl 20. I was speaking to Stephen Mount, the Sri Lanka team physio, and he was saying that our players are not doing enough bowling and batting at the Premier league.
What will you do to improve cricket in the north and east, where there is a lot of passion for cricket but meagre infrastructure after the war?
Two years ago, when I was in a cricket committee, I suggested we play a combined north and east team in the Sara Trophy. It never happened. So we’re trying to begin that again. Maybe for the first four years we say: “Points don’t matter to you – you just play. You don’t get knocked up or down a division. You just play.”
The national team is heading into a period of transition. What can be done at a policy level to ensure results don’t dip?
The gap between our first-class level and international level is pretty large. We don’t have the batsmen and bowlers who are used to the long haul. To compensate for this, we need to give A team players time to settle in. If at all I can find fault with the last set of selectors, they were trying too many things, with the best of intentions. If you’re selected to play in a three-match series programme with the A team, you feel you have to score runs in the first match, otherwise you’re going to get dropped in the second and be history by the third. Then nothing’s going to work. You’ve got to be told: “You are there, so settle in.” We’ve already seen results. Kusal Perera was talked to a lot and told we were going to play him through the series. The man is on fire. You’ve got to give them enough exposure for long enough.
The previous board repeatedly clashed with national players on the issue of payment. Are the top cricketers being paid too much? Are they not being paid enough?
When you talk about too much or too little, it’s always a comparison with the same professionals in other countries. If you look at it from that point of view, you could say maybe we are not paying them anywhere near the best. But if you look at how much they are paid compared to other employment in the country, you would say they’re paid huge amounts. The key is to get a balance. As long as they are happy with their pay and they know that’s what the board can afford, then I think both sides are happy. I think the current system is okay.
Test match attendance in Sri Lanka is very poor. Why is that, and what can be done to change this?
It’s a combination of a lot of things. I don’t think I have a ready-made answer for that. One is the marketing side, which must also come from developing these provincial bases and giving people ownership of those bases and getting them interested. I don’t think the interest in the game has waned by any means – I think everybody watches it on television. Our climate is so warm, maybe you’re more comfortable under a fan at home rather than at the ground.
One thing we could do is, maybe each provincial school cricket team can be given a ticket to watch the match in that stadium. That will then stimulate the interest. [The kid] might bring his friends or his parents, and then you get affiliation to a province. After a good day’s cricket, maybe one spectator is born. We need to do things like that at the base level. We’re seeking some consultation on the marketing side as well.
What’s the latest with the interim committee’s relationship with the ICC?
The latest is that we had a very cordial meeting with the ICC. Their concerns stem from some stakeholders writing in and saying there was chaos and so on. The ICC had legitimate concerns. The minister explained why he had to appoint an interim committee. He said it was for a short time, and now he has said that our committee will be dissolved by January, after which he will go in for elections. The ICC have agreed to release the funds on a certain basis, which is fine.
There is absolutely no doubt about our Full Member status. That’s not in question. The only thing is, as an interim committee, because their [the ICC] constitution has changed, they think that we’ll need to come in as just an observer. We told them that that is not in their constitution to do that. There is a dialogue going on. There is nothing drastically out of order. They said they do not want to jeopardise Sri Lanka Cricket in any way. They just wanted to find out what was going on. They wanted to find out what our financial requirements are.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo’s Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando