Media Madness in Sumathipala

Andrew Fidel Fernando,  in ESPNcricinfo, 19 April 2017, where the title runs Why is SLC in public-relations overdrive?”  … and the by-line urns: “Thilanga Sumathipala’s board has done as much for Sri Lanka’s cricket as any other, but the chairman’s desperation for the limelight does them no favours;”

Five men stand in front of the sponsors’ backdrop at the presentation that follows Sri Lanka’s T20 win over Bangladesh. Four of them are holding cheques; the man who holds nothing is Thilanga Sumathipala, SLC president and unelected deputy speaker of the House. He stands closest to the presenter, and his presence seems gratuitous at first. When proceedings begin, however, it becomes clear that the camera is smitten with Sumathipala and that he is smitten with it. When Kusal Perera comes up to be interviewed about his Player-of-the-Match performance, there Sumathipala is, looking paternally over the player’s shoulder with a benevolent grin. While other awards are being handed out, the camera may stray, but as if bound by fate, it always has a way of finding its way back to Sumathipala. It captures his coy smirks and his firm handshakes. 

It is tempting to wonder if Sumathipala is just presentation eye candy, because he is the fifth man and there are only four awards to be handed out. Is he like the placard-wielding model at a boxing match? Is he the sex scene in an episode of Game of Thrones?

In 16 months in office so far, Sumathipala has pursued publicity with unmitigated desperation – fronting up to every camera in his vicinity, schmoozing every journalist who has made his acquaintance But no, it seems – he does, in fact, have a purpose here. To him goes the honour of bringing the presentation to its climax. When it comes time for Sri Lanka’s captain to receive his winners’ cheque, an unusual announcement is made by the presenter: “You can collect the $2000 cheque from Mr Sumathipala, who will receive it from Mr Arosha Athukorala.”

If Athukorala feels miffed here, he can at least take some satisfaction in having broken new ground: in the fabled history of South Asian cricket presentations, no man, perhaps, has previously stood at a presentation merely to present a winners’ cheque to the eventual presenter of the cheque.

The whole shenanigan was peak Sumathipala. This had been a fortnight in which SLC was endlessly besieged, following the Test loss to Bangladesh, and a tied ODI series. So why not seize on the chance to have your face beamed across the nation immediately after a clinical win? Why not milk this winning performance from Perera – a player Sumathipala had played a substantial role in rescuing from doping allegations last year?

In fact, in 16 months in office so far, Sumathipala has pursued publicity with unmitigated desperation – fronting up to every camera in his vicinity, schmoozing every journalist who has made his acquaintance. A relentless carousel of PR stunts has been his term: if there is a media dinner this month, there will be a pre-series song-and-dance tamasha the next; if there is a high-flying hour-long press conference this week, a charity dinner or a grandiose tournament announcement is perpetually around the corner.

Sumathipala (right) chats with chief selector Sanath Jayasuriya. Some suspect that Sumathipala is using SLC as a tool to further his political goals © AFP

All that effort, and yet, for what? What does Sumathipala think he is achieving? Sri Lanka’s public certainly hasn’t been fooled by his overtures. When Sumathipala took on Mahela Jayawardene over his consulting position with England ahead of last year’s World T20, for example, fans flocked almost unanimously to Jayawardene’s side. “[He knows] the team’s strengths when [he is] inside the team,” Sumathipala had said. “England didn’t hire me to give information on the Sri Lankan team – they have analysts and coaches to do that,” Jayawardene responded. Sumathipala found it difficult to argue with that.

Later that year, mounting a similar campaign against Muttiah Muralitharan, who took a temporary position with the visiting Australia team, Sumathipala deployed the Sinhala word apeykama – literally: “ourness” – in a brazen appeal to Sri Lankan nationalism. He attempted to play to the gallery, and found the gallery was not having it. Fans rallied around Murali, who was ordained into the ICC’s Hall of Fame later that week. “Sri Lanka didn’t want me, and Australia wanted me,” Murali spat. “How could I be a traitor to this country […] my foundation has built 1000 houses.”

At the ICC last month, Sumathipala suffered his greatest humiliation of all. In jockeying for the position of chairman, he galvanised the other ICC directors into convincing sitting chairman Shashank Manohar to reverse his resignation from the post. “What we did not want was to have a whole load of toxic electioneering, which Sumathipala exemplified,” one director had said at the time. “His conduct actually brought the board very fast together.”

What does Sumathipala think he is achieving? Sri Lanka’s public certainly hasn’t been fooled by his overtures It is a shame Sumathipala seeks public validation, because by one measure, he has been as impressive an SLC president as there ever has been. For the special-interest group that is Sri Lanka’s clubs, there have been large financial grants and increased security and status – where last year only 14 first-class clubs existed, this season there were 23. And it is the clubs, of course, that really matter: their votes have put Sumathipala in his current position.

So why bother with this endless pursuit of positive press? If you have the clubs in your pocket and next year’s election all sewn up, why pretend to care about a provincial first-class tournament that has failed to materialise in your two seasons in charge? Why continue to attempt points-scoring decisions that almost never end up scoring any actual points?

The public seems to understand a Sumathipala presidency is the product of SLC’s broken constitution, which grants board votes to an array of clubs and vestigial cricketing institutions. Many, perhaps, have guessed he is attempting to use SLC as a political tool, with which he might regain the favour of the public, who voted him out of parliament in the most recent election (though he was later appointed to parliament through the national list).

Eventually, if the lackeys he has surrounded himself with ever stop flattering him, Sumathipala may realise his PR blitzes have backfired spectacularly. He has sold and sold and sold himself as SLC president. Not many seem to be buying.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo’s Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando…..© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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