S. R. Pathiravithana, Sunday Times, 6 August 2017, where the title reads “No Plan”
As I was saying before; keeping my ear to the ground, I presume it is a part of my job. It gives you vibes without prejudice or even second thoughts; it just surfaces from the ground within – where it began. The other day I was chatting to my grocery man Seneviratne, an ardent cricket fan. You must see how his face lights up when Sri Lanka wins. It’s so pleasing to see a face so bright. The vibes that emanate from his even make our daily drudges look good. Yet, just before the second Test against the Indians, Seneviratne was down, way below his usual self. When I asked him why, he just mumbled “Oka Hariyanne nehe, Mama cricket balana eka athheriya. (Things will not come right for us, so I quit watching cricket)”.
Then, when I did a count, I realised as to how many people have just stopped watching our cricket, when it is there, just free-to-air. This is where the centre of the problem lies. Sport is a relaxation and a recreation, and people could well afford to change their angle of attention at a blink of the eye. Yet, for the sport concerned, it gives a different message. If there are no takers, the whole exercise dilutes and becomes a flop. Yet, in this day and age of high commercialism in sport, such tragedies we could ill afford. Because, if the cookie crumbles, it is not easy to remake it and the repercussions of a situation of that nature may become catastrophic.
It is now 15 months or so since the Sumathipala administration took control of Lankan cricket. There has been a steady slide in our cricket. Initially, the blame was on the Sanga, Mahela, Dilshan departures, but now after fifteen months, the cause is the same with no redemption in sight. Now we are in an exercise to ascertain if the previous administrations did not heed these ominous signs and let things slip, and the succeeding administration got saddled with a lame horse that could not run the race at the desired speed.
The doubt compounded on the first day of the second Test when the Indian TV anchor Harsha Bogle very tactfully made Sunil Gavaskar agree that the present Lankan cricket quality was below par.
Just to quench our curiosity of the present parlous state of affairs, we met up with the then Interim Committee Chairman – Sidath Wettimuny. We explained our concerns. “At the moment, Sri Lanka cricket is in crisis. Some say it is because we could not find good enough replacements for Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardena and T.M. Dilshan, but it is a good 15 months after their departure. My contention was that all these changes started happening when you were the head of cricket at that time. Didn’t you see it coming?” we asked?
Wettimuny promptly said he had the answers in the bag. He said, “When we took over, the changes in the Lankan team had just happened. We had lost three of our greatest players and it was time to pick the team. I think, the then chairman of the selection committee Kapila Wijegunawardena did a good job. The proof of it is that all the good players we picked during that period are the guys who are performing now. Players such as Kusal Mendis and Dhananjaya de Silva. There were a lot of players who made their presence felt at that time.
“You see, the key in building a good team is to have the confidence to say that this is the future and staying with it. I am told that,during the past year, there had been 44 changes in the playing Xl, during various stages of the game. What does that mean? It means that the selectors do not know or, the selectors are not sure of what they are doing. They are just trying out players like playing cards. The mark of a good team is a team that plays for awhile together and builds up a strong unit. In 1996, when we went for the World Cup, the same team had been playing as a unit for a good one-and-half to two years, and that was the success of that team.
“When we started two years ago, we should have had a good, united cohesive lot – playing together and succeeding. But, we have juggled around far too much. There are many things that go to make a success of a team. The morale needs to be high. The vibrations from the Cricket Board have to be right and they need to be motivated. Then, as players, we need to be confident you are playing in a unit that is going to stay as a unit. But, if you are in today and gone tomorrow and, if you keep hearing new names every other day, something is radically wrong.”
We pointed out that everyone keeps harping about the departure of Sanga, Mahela and Dilshan, and saying how difficult it is to find replacements to these three greats. However, we believe that most of Lanka’s worries lie with our bowling attack. Since, champions Muttiah Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas retired, we were fortunate to have the services of Rangana Herath and Lasith Malinga. Malinga retired from Test cricket a while ago. Nevertheless, even these two bowlers are not getting younger and at the same time, both players are also from the former generation of players. But, of late, we have not discovered any impressive bowling talent that could be filled in the true international self. Didn’t the previous administration see this anomaly and see what was in store for us?
The former Lankan opening batsman was eager to answer this question. He pointed out, “Yes, we have”.
He said: “We brought in Jeffrey Vandersay. Everybody believed he was a bowler who could be groomed. Where is he today? Any decent side in the subcontinent should have a leg-spinner. That is my contention. In most places such as England, South Africa and Australia, they are grooming leg spinners. What did we do? He was removed and now he has just disappeared. Why was he removed after he started playing and showing signs of being successful. The question is for what reason?
“Then there was off-spinner Tharindu Kaushal who was called for bowling the wrong’un. He was a very useful off-spinner, who bagged 25 wickets in about 7 Test matches. Where has he gone? He was a good prospect. Yes, his doosra was called, but he was an excellent bowler. I can see the same thing happening to Sandakan. He is going in and out. What I say is they must be persevered. It’s like anything else. You take time to settle down in a job. You need time to grow. You need time to mature and especially, in our system. Our domestic system, to my mind, is crap. You need more time to mature in this sort of background, may be another year. This is because our domestic cricket is just not good enough.
“So it’s a double whack. You bring them in and keep moving up and down, which is one problem. When you are moving up and down, guys who do not get a proper exposure in our domestic cricket. So their foundations are shaky and, when they come in, and again they are moved to and fro, the result is utter confusion. It is for the player, the management and everyone,” said Wettimuny.
Then, coming back to the initial pose, the Musings asked: If Kapila Wijegunawardena had still been handling the Lankans team, would things have been different? Wettimuny’s immediate reaction was “Yes, I definitely think so. They had a plan, they were grooming guys to a plan. It may be Kapila or, it may be someone else. But, what you need is to have a six-month plan and a 1-year plan. When I was chairman, we sat and mooted our plan, for the immediate 6 months, leading up to a year and leading up to the World Cup.
“We worked out what we need in the short term. How we are going to manage with the retirements. Then we wanted to know where we would be in one year and what the structure we want, as far as the team is concerned, and with the World Cup in mind, what do we want to do.”
Then we brought to his attention the situation where, not only the changes in the side, but the constant changes in the management team also destabilise the compositon, where nothing is certain. ‘Yes, definitely this is the truth, but there is nothing that we could do about it. But, when we were running the administration we had plans for cricket. We had big plans for the infrastructure. They were half completed, when they were completely stalled. We had the indoor facility and the training centre. These were facilities requested by the players themselves. They were crying for it.
“Then, from the field, we had set up a very good domestic tournament, taking a cue from countries like India and structuring the domestic tournament. We plan to play cities, so that we could get some affiliation. We decided not just play provincial but, bring in the city concept so that there would be passion involved with the game. This is one of the biggest challenges you have when you have provincial or city type tournaments. We thought long and hard. We felt that city type cricket – say Colombo playing Kandy, there would be much more player and people participation like a Colombo team taking on Kandy SC in rugby. But, I must say, even some of the past good players agree that the club cricket system does not work for us anymore.”