Rohan Wijeyaratna, Island, 28 November 2018, where the title is “Playing the bigger moments better……”
When attendant scribes finally sit down to write on this English tour outside the cricket in retrospect, not much would be written complimentarily, given what happened to some members of the Barmy Army – the travelling supporters of the England team. The manner in which some were denied their pre-booked hotel rooms – thanks to some panic stricken match organisers – will feature high in what now seems an utterly ill-managed and ill-executed aspect of the tour. The stink it would earn this country will only be eclipsed by the larger stink generated through the uncouth political wrangling and totally unacceptable behaviour, never seen in the annals of any civilized society anywhere, this century. The damage in both instances would take long years to mend, and it will take a lot out of many, to offset the negative publicity the country has attracted. It would also sting an already sensitive tourist industry beyond its threshold of pain. What happened to these Barmy army men was no hiccup. But adding insult to injury, not even a cursory apology was forthcoming. Feelings were ruffled, people seriously inconvenienced, and to complete the misery, the host team was handed a complete ‘whitewash’ for their trouble. Much work will now have to be done to control the damage, but for the repair processes to begin, the country must first return back to normal. At the time of writing, normalcy seems nowhere in sight.
Often rudderless, even clueless, the Cricket Board meanders in search of a solution, to be rid of its present imbroglio. In a country where there is little reliance on systems or processes which would sustain whatever the industry in question, everything seems dependent on who sits at the apex. Accordingly, the head of cricket is considered the fount of all knowledge. It is much the same with Government. The more they hog centre stage, the more they show-case how weak the Institutions beneath them are. What sustains efficient State machinery or a strong society are its systems, processes and the strength of their Institutions; not who heads the State, the Parliament or the Cricket Board.
Talent without temperament …..
Given all of above, it is a small wonder cricket on the paddock remains competitive. The performances may have been patchy, lackluster, and mostly devoid of fight and character, but barring the 1st Test, the home team was never completely outplayed. Had they shown more of the above attributes and also enjoyed greater rub of the green, the final tally might well have been 2-1 in favour of the hosts instead of the 3-0 ‘whitewash’ as the record books will now show. Record books can be cruel when taken at their face value.
That they may have even won the series, speaks much for a team that displayed talent without temperament and strategy without brains. They seemed to have grown up that way, for these are not facets which a Coach could easily instill in a team at this level. Never has the need for an Academy assumed greater importance than now, to better prepare young men for Test duty in the future. Among the skills they will also need to acquire are those such as public speaking and facing interviews. Cricket today is an international undertaking, not an affair limited to one’s own neck of the woods.
Copper into Gold overnight …
If the same formula as was previously applied – to rid the Board of Graham Ford as Coach – still prevails, the current Coach would by now be packing his bags. In a country where everyone finds someone else to lay the blame at the door, Hathurusingha would appear a God-given scapegoat, for a host of deficiencies found elsewhere. Few would acknowledge the actual work he and his fellow coaching staff might have put in, to bring cricket to this level from where it once was. Few would also appreciate that excellence will take time to achieve. By rights Hathurusingha should not be judged until at least two years into his term have passed. Right now, he has to work with whatever talent he has got. You can’t make copper look like gold overnight.
A reversed series result
On paper, England comfortably won the series against India last summer. In actual fact, they were lucky the final results were not reversed. Similarly in Sri Lanka, the luck of the English held. Two of the three Test matches might well have ended with a reversed result, had Sri Lanka played the big moments better and refused to allow their nerves to get the better of them. By carelessly allowing the enemy to torpedo them almost at will in those electrifying moments, Sri Lanka often fluffed their lines while faithfully backing themselves to a dead end, each time.Missed a trick?
Sometime soon the Lankans will take wing to New Zealand and Australia, where the staple diet would be seaming and screaming deliveries on fast, bouncy tracks. Given such near alien conditions to confront, one wonders how useful it might have been had the Lankans used this English tour as an opportunity to gain Test match experience against one of the best swing and seam attacks in the world. This could have been achieved had they prepared good Test wickets which kept even the pacemen interested. One of the secrets to any team’s success is continued punching above its weight for extended periods. The opportunity to do so came through this English tour. Had the Sri Lankan ‘Think Tank’ planned for the tours ahead instead of only the present, and used the England tour as a learning opportunity to prepare for the months ahead, the team would have by now been battle hardened and in far greater shape to take on New Zealand and Australia in their own conditions. With such a policy, Sri Lanka at worst, would still have lost 3-0, but the positives would have far outweighed the negatives. The Lankan fast bowling reserves would have got a great airing, the early batsmen would have been well tested with pace and movement, and the spinners would have been made to work hard to achieve whatever they got. None of the young Sri Lankan fast bowlers benefitted from this English tour, yet they will soon be called upon to play out of their skins and deliver beyond their capabilities, in different surroundings and strange conditions, Down Under.Predictably, Sri Lanka continued with their boringly negative strategy of preparing typical 3rd day wickets for use on Day 1. Despite that, they managed to lose 3-0, allowing themselves to be out-bowled by a team of spinners who would have earned little respect from any worthy batsmen willing to use their feet and keep their heads.
Not all was lost
However, not all was lost. Noticeably cheering sights were evident. Mathews – often assessed with a critical eye in these columns – improved with each outing and came close to looking like the batsman he can be. Additionally, he showed improved agility in the field. In both his batting and fielding there was a noticeable improvement in terms of application and commitment until his final outing. In that crucially important 4th innings of the 3rd Test, he fatally and inexplicably allowed indiscretion to get the better of him. Dhananjaya de Silva, Karunaratne and Roshen Silva at various stages offered hope to an edgy batting order, still in search of discipline. The deliverance of Kusal Mendis in his final outing came as a reminder that one day soon, he will be a pivotal cog in the wheel. Additionally in combination with Dananjaya at slip, Mendis forms a highly competent close cordon to complement the mesmeric spin bowling riches of the side. Sri Lanka might look with interest at Dickwella as Karunaratne’s opening partner, leaving room for Chandimal’s return without letting go of Roshen Silva who is an invaluable stabilizing influence in the middle order.
Flatters them unduly
What then of the English? Without being uncharitable, the final series result flatters them unduly. On the few occasions Sri Lankan batsmen were on top, they reduced the English spinners to near impotence. Both Moeen and Adil Rashid often looked ordinary and below Test class. As a spinner, only Jack Leash looked the part. The English fielding alternated between the ordinary and the extraordinary, with Jennings and Stokes being outstanding, while Root at slip was forgettable. Two breathtaking moments which turned the 2nd and 3rd Test on their head remain in the memory. They were the near magical run outs of Karunaratne in the 2nd Test and of Kusal Mendis in the 3rd. Jennings on his close catching alone might retain his berth a while longer, while Buttler consolidated his growing importance to the middle order as a player for all conditions. Root and Bairstow made their telling contributions with the bat but with Anderson back in the side and Curran knocking on the door, Rashid might have played his last Test match for a while. In fact it would be such a tight fit, Bairstow who will play for England anywhere, might be now compelled to open, given that England unearthed a rare nugget in Foakes as a fine all round cricketer to fit in the middle.
Seized the big moments better
The series ended with a disappointing score-line for Sri Lanka, only because one side seized the big moments better, despite being handicapped in having to make do without their world class pacemen engaging in any frenzied activity. Given their penchant for doctoring of wickets yet failing to achieve the desired results, the Sri Lankan ‘pitch pundits’ denied their own paying spectators some rare sights of witnessing our batsmen being pitted against one of the finest pace attacks in the world. This meant that Sri Lanka denied their own pacemen of promise, the opportunity of competing alongside the likes of Anderson and Broad against a largely untested English opening pair. Through this over-obsession with spinning tracks from Day 1, the matches were again devalued as a spectacle, which may be one reason why the spectator interest at the grounds seemed to vane. It might have been really embarrassing, had not the Barmy Army filled the grounds and cheered both sides whenever good cricket was witnessed.
There are many great lessons to be learnt from the English, apart from English itself!