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Sri Lankan Cricket: Structure, Culture, History … and Whither the Future

December 14, 2012

Gideon Haigh, in The Australian, 14 February 2012, with title: “Compromised and Elitist Culture hamstrings Visitor’s Tour Hopes

mahela and QAngelo -manoj ridimahalyadda Angelo & Mahela–Pic by Manoj Ridimahaliyadda

IN Shehan Karunatilaka’s encyclopedic novel of Sri Lankan cricket, Chinaman, the narrator refers approvingly to a banner he sees in a crowd: “Sri Lanka will win faster than you can say ‘Warnakulasuriya Patabendige Ushantha Joseph Chaminda Vaas’.”  Coming into Sri Lanka’s first cricket visit in five years, this mingling of optimism and irony, of the waggish and the wavering, is a timely sentiment. Success will come with patience, it suggests. And right now, for Sri Lanka’s cricket public, patience is a necessity rather than merely a virtue.

Since Muttiah Muralidaran played his epic valedictory match at Galle in July 2010, Sri Lanka has won four and lost eight of two dozen Tests. It is sixth on the ICC Test rankings, just ahead of seventh, and in its last fixture was routed by eighth. The Sri Lankans have been finalists in the past two ICC limited-overs events – the World Cup and the World T20 – but have won nothing since that inaugural famous victory in the 1996 cup. The team is decorated with fine cricketers, notably captain pro tem Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara, Tillakaratne Dilshan, Thilan Samaraweera and Rangana Herath.

But Sri Lanka has not introduced a Test player identifiably of the top class in more than  a decade. Herath turns 35 in March. The other four, plus keeper Prasanna Jayawardene, are already there, while Nuwan Kulasekara, Chanaka Welegedera and Thalanga Paranavitana are 30-somethings as well.

The next generation is not nearly so impressive. Jayawardene’s likely successor, the enigmatic Angelo Mathews, has a solitary century to show for 28 caps. And, while Dinesh Chandimal and Dimuth Karunaratne have given glimmers of promise, Sri Lanka’s problem is in general the opposite of Australia’s. Australia is a team in transition, even if it sometimes seems unsure of to where; Sri Lanka is a team stuck in time.

Turnover is rather more rapid in support ranks. When he accepted the job in January, South African Graham Ford became the team’s fourth coach in 12 months. That was part of a restructure that introduced a fourth selection panel in two years. All of which reflects a capricious and over-mighty administration, still joined at the hip, and lately at the hip pocket, to the Rajapaksa regime. This has been the way of it for the past 40 years, Cricket Sri Lanka’s antecedent body having come under the direct oversight of the sports minister in 1973.

Some would like that to change, notably the International Cricket Council, eager to limit political interference in cricket’s global organisation. Greater autonomy from government has also recently been recommended by an external consultant, former ICC chief executive Haroon Lorgat, as part of a raft of suggested reforms; indeed, his report lists so many things wrong with Cricket Sri Lanka that it might have been more economical to list what it did right.

Such reports, with their emphases on factors such as corporate governance and financial controls, are inclined to seem esoteric, a bit beside the main point, which after all is about winning games on the park. But one of the reasons Test cricket counts more than most forms of international sporting competition is that the teams taking the field are genuine reflections not only of their individual talents but of their whole national cricket structures and heritages. The members of teams in world football come together from clubs all over the planet to play beneath national banners. Cricket is different. While great players can paper over cracks, the strength in depth of a nation’s whole game is revealed in the performances of its first-choice XI sooner or later.

Sri Lankan cricket has several unique characteristics. Its most fertile seedbeds of talent have been its prestigious private colleges: initially the Anglophile axis of Royal (Goonesena, Whatmore, de Mel) and St Thomas (Tissera, Mendis, Tennekoon), with their historic Battle of the Blues; more recently, the powerful Buddhist axis of Ananda (the Ranatungas, the Wettimunys, Attapattu, Samaraweera) and Nalanda (Warnapura, Mahanama, Gurusinha, Jayawardene) in Colombo, along with Anglican Trinity (Madugalle, Ravi Ratnayeke and Sangakkara) in Kandy.

It is a rich heritage, and it endures: Chandimal is an Ananda alumnus. But it is a narrow base for a pyramid of national talent.

First-class cricket in Sri Lanka, furthermore, manages to be both too thinly spread with talent, with 20 teams, and too geographically concentrated, with most of the sides in Colombo, despite the game’s wide national popularity. Indications are of a set-up better at throwing talent up than bedding it down.

For example, Sri Lanka was the runner-up in the 2000 under-19 World Cup at home, playing sparkling cricket, while Australia finished well off the pace. Yet the seven Sri Lankans in that under-19 team who went on to international cricket played 18 Tests between them; from Australia’s campaign emerged Michael Clarke, Shane Watson, Ed Cowan, Mitchell Johnson, Shaun Marsh, Nathan Hauritz, Andrew McDonald and Shaun Marsh, who have played more than 200.

Part of the problem is simply financial. To replenish cupboards that the World Cup left looking like Old Mother Hubbard’s, CSL has been busy deferring loss-making Test matches scheduled in the ICC’s Future Tours Program for next year in favour of profitable one-day internationals. But, with the end of its civil war, Sri Lanka’s economy is healthier than for some time. The chief obstacles to cricket progress remain those posed by simple incompetence and venality, Sri Lankan administration having been less about the cricket bag than the carpet bag.

Not surprisingly, Lorgat’s report has aggrieved those whose influence it might circumscribe, including the country’s two most conspicuous cricketers turned politicians, Arjuna Ranatunga, who refused to participate in its preparation, and Sanath Jayasuriya, who dismissed it out of hand. “We need to do something else for our cricket,” said Jayasuriya. But what? Jayawardene’s announcement yesterday brings a little closer the cliff towards which Sri Lankan cricket has spent a decade sleepwalking. If his batsmen bring their A-game, Jayawardene’s team should be able to make this a competitive series. But its bowling depends heavily on its experienced left-arm spinner, and the danger is that its cricket fortunes when finally they do fall will collapse quicker than you can say Herath Mudiyanselage Rangana Keerthi Bandara Herath.

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