Rohan Wijeyaratna in Island, 15 March 2019,
Of late, Mangala Samaraweera has been in the news. That is not strange given the colourful character he is. In a parliament that is progressively getting stuffed with those who are boringly similar, it is not surprising those who dare to be different from the herd hardly get any noteworthy mention. Mangala does not fear to be different. And he does not make any bones about it.
The chief reason why so many Sri Lankan batsmen suffered blows on their heads was the absence of proper technique when playing short pitched bowling. On each such occasion they transgressed two cardinal rules applicable to the issue. They failed to get inside the line of flight, and they took their eyes off the ball. In short, they appeared sitting ducks to get hit.
In one of the best speeches I have heard him make, President Maithiripala Sirisena spoke of Mangala in glowing terms at the Mangala Samaraweera felicitation recently. It was a fantastic speech, given the kind of boring speeches our President excels at making. For one thing the President spoke in a language everyone – including himself – easily understood. Next, he didn’t fear paying tribute to a man who was clearly not his greatest political admirer. It is to his enormous credit that on the day, President Sirisena rose above partisanship. That was a performance which was truly presidential.
Early this century during Vijaya Malalasekera’s reign, Mangala Samaraweera paid a visit to the Cricket Board. He was, for a short while the Minister of Sports. He addressed the Interim Committee in office at the time and said but a few things. Looking around the galaxy of men who were running cricket then, he said he knew nothing about the game and he asked them to run it the best way they thought fit. However, he made one qualifying statement. He said whatever the Interim Committee did, they would have to take responsibility for their actions. The point was well made. Better still, it was well taken. Lot of people thought Samaraweera was the best Sports Minister we ever had.
That Vijaya Malalasekera Interim Committee was also one of the best we ever had. And Vijaya Malalasekera must be mentioned as someone who was outstandingly good at heading cricket. For a start, he was self-effacing to a fault. He didn’t throw his weight around, nor did he hog the limelight. He was clever in choosing a great team around him. Once the plans were discussed, he allowed them to do what they were good at, without hindrance. Both Samaraweera and Malalsekera were peas in a pod. They were clever managers of men.
Recently, there was some noise made over the funds forked out to the Head Coach in relation to the results so far achieved. It was claimed that the team success rate was only 35% and that figure needed to be upped to at least 65% very soon, in order to have a reasonable return on the investment on the Coach. Whatever the gauge of measurement, the success rate of a cricket team cannot be judged purely on results alone. That would be too simplistic for a complicated game. Those seeking a return on investment may want to understand a myriad of other things first, including the unsatisfactory nature of the game’s domestic structure, before allowing themselves to be swayed by the end result.
The primary task of any Head Coach is to ensure progressive improvement is seen in all aspects of a team’s performance. Gradual, continuous, overall improvement can only be achieved over a decent period of time. Many Sri Lankans have displayed considerable technical naivety when playing extreme pace, bounce or swing. Additionally, their cricketing nous looked wafer thin. It appears the ‘nurseries’ aren’t producing the same quality players as before. A closer look at the school cricket structure and the beliefs and aspirations of those involved may suggest many areas ripe for reform. If the young Minister engages himself in this exercise, he would have done the country’s cricket a great deal of good.
Monitor the nurseries
This overriding desire to win matches at school level can be detrimental to the development of a young player. It can blind coaches, parents and the schools themselves into paying more attention to the end result than raising quality players. Run scoring and wicket grabbing is the mantra on which today’s young kids are raised. Consequently, players will learn more of the wrong things than the right practices at junior level. And they will stick.
In such an environment, Coaches will naturally be induced to veer away from established norms such as the pursuit of technical excellence in their charges and instead be tempted to concentrate more on high risk, high profit shot making. They will be ably supported by all the protective gear, heavy bats and the slow, ‘low’ pitches which encourage players to take such liberties. Consequently, established norms of disciplined batting will be jettisoned in favour of a more carefree and careless attitude. As for bowling, scoring rate slow down through negative means will be considered ‘clever bowling’ while attacking bowling options – be it pace or spin – can earn no praise. In short, owing to the prevailing ‘set-up’, the ‘science’ of the game has taken a hit.
Heavy load on the Coaches
Given this background, all it takes is a stretch overseas to highlight the technical deficiencies which plague Sri Lanka as they struggle to adjust to different pitch conditions and adopt appropriate technique. Making players un-learn some bad practices already ingrained while growing up on the slow dead tracks and relearn them the right way, is one of the challenges which the coaching staff will face, as Sri Lanka battles to remain a more competitive Test side. The Test victories in South Africa were like rain to end a drought, but it would be unwise to be swayed by them.
Breaking Cardinal Rules
Shot selection and shot execution are instinctive. They reveal much of a player’s upbringing. Many a promising innings can be nipped in the bud through poor shot selection rather than through bowling excellence. The quality of a player’s early coaching and discipline largely influences the way he builds an innings. Before the advent of protective gear, every player knew his best chance of avoiding physical harm was to rely on technique. Protective gearing, the new bats and undue physical strengthening have given batsmen a false sense of invincibility. The absence of adequate technique and footwork is seen when players nibble at express deliveries outside their off stump with no attendant body positioning, or, when playing at well directed short pitched deliveries. The chief reason why so many Sri Lankan batsmen suffered blows on their heads was the absence of proper technique when playing short pitched bowling. On each such occasion they transgressed two cardinal rules applicable to the issue. They failed to get inside the line of flight, and they took their eyes off the ball. In short, they appeared sitting ducks to get hit.
Hook shot – the nemesis
Many Sri Lankans seemed unable to resist the hook but were technically ill-equipped to execute it. Some appeared frozen in their tracks, trying to hook from just above their foreheads. Some who evaded the shot altogether, ducked no sooner they saw a short pitched delivery; even turning their backs on them. In one particular instance when the player’s eyes were averted, the sickening blow received was enough for the batsman to be stretchered off the field. Only a handful swayed out of harm’s way unscathed.
Batsmen who are technically deficient subject themselves to life threatening danger when facing raw pace and bounce from bowlers who are taller, stronger and considerably faster. Cricket is an industry offering employment; not just a sport anymore. Given worldwide safety practices in industry it may not be long before the ICC follows the Australian policy of introducing concussion rules where a batsman felled by a bouncer and unable to pass an on-field test, can take no further part in the match. Depending on the state of the game, this can be a costly loss for any side.
Scrap those dust bowls
The recent successes of Sri Lankan fast bowlers overseas should tempt the ‘planners’ to rethink on their current ‘dust bowl’ policy and veer away towards greener, harder, bouncier tracks, for all types of domestic cricket. There is no better way towards respectability than by beating overseas teams overseas. Replicating overseas conditions in Sri Lanka as much as possible, becomes the first consideration.
Short pitched bowling is a legitimate weapon in a fast bowler’s armoury. Young fast bowlers will be encouraged to bend their backs if the pitches of the future are conducive to pace and bounce. Back home, Sri Lankan Fast bowlers have little inducement to bowl fast. They will be lucky if two of them get picked for the same Test match and get a decent bowl each. They will be luckier still, if they meet with any success. There is nothing on offer for them on those Sri Lankan fast bowlers’ graveyards which pass for Test pitches. Curators under coercion prepare wickets tailor-made for an all spin diet. Because spin bowlers can appear champions at home without actually trying, they often look ordinary when compared to their counterparts overseas on ‘un-doctored’ wickets, which call for real spinning effort in order to obtain some purchase off the pitch.
Negative, unethical and underhand
‘Pitch doctoring’ or pitch manipulation is a negative, unethical and underhand tactic which sabotages the concept of fair-play. When pitches are doctored, it allows an unhealthy complicity between curators and selectors. Such manipulative methods may help achieve a ranking far in excess of a team’s real worth, but the truth is found out no sooner a team steps outside its own shores.
In their all-encompassing desire to nullify the threat posed by fast men of all touring sides to Sri Lanka, the planners have sacrificed whatever contribution their own fast men might have made towards the overall team success. Therefore it is ironic that despite such step-motherly treatment at home, the brunt of the bowling on the recent tours overseas was done by its pacemen, recording two Test wins in the process.
Prioritize winning overseas
In truth, the Sri Lankan Test wins in South Africa flatter to deceive. Yet they have their uses. They can temporarily help deflect the theory that Sri Lankans play competitive cricket only at home on ‘fixed’ pitches. The real Test of character of a team is to perform consistently well against tough opposition when playing overseas. A series win away from home has now been achieved and it would be wise to ride the prevalent swell of goodwill and push urgently ahead, beginning with a sea change in pitch policy. Winning at home should no longer be a priority; winning overseas should be. All forward planning must be geared to meet that challenge.
Achieving excellence is a gradual process. It will take time. Those impatiently demanding excellence in double quick time will be well advised to hasten slowly.
Be it Hathurusingha or Steve Rixon, the best of any good Head Coach will come; but it won’t be in a hurry.