Sri Lankan cricket has reached a low point in its history that has unfortunately set it back a few years when compared to other nations and where their cricket currently stands. It is widely accepted that Sri Lanka does not have the resources, both financially and other, to compete with the likes of Australia, England, India and even South Africa. However, Sri Lanka has always relied on its ability to find raw talent and compete with those aforementioned giants of the cricket world – think of the likes of Jayasuriya, Murali, Malinga, etc.
Teams like Sri Lanka, Pakistan & the West Indies more often than not have been embroiled in cricket politics off the field but have been fortunate enough that their players seem to continue to filter all that out and not allow it to infiltrate the team and the players. But of late, the continued mismanagement of Sri Lankan cricket both on and off the field has unfortunately set our cricket back so far, that we are unable to simply rely on raw talent to get us out of this mess fast enough.
So where does Sri Lankan cricket go from here? How do we go about restoring Sri Lankan cricket to the pinnacle it once occupied? Here is my 2 cents worth.
If Sri Lankan cricket is to be successful again on the field in all formats of the game, then the changes must start with the management of the cricket board. Not necessarily changes to "who" manages the cricket board, but more so to "how" it is managed.
Changes have to be looked at as a two-pronged approach – off the field and on-field. Below I highlight just two of the biggest changes that are needed off the field. These changes alone will have a flow-on effect to on-field performances and as a result, prolonged & consistent success.
The first change that needs to be done is the first-class system in Sri Lanka needs to be overhauled. Simply put, it is out of date and does not serve the purpose it was initially built for – to provide high quality cricketers for the national team to choose from. The single biggest issue of the first-class system is, for a country of a population similar to Australia, there are too many teams competing.
Why is this an issue? Because with more teams being allowed to compete at a first-class level, it brings down the level of competitiveness as the high quality players are more sparsely spread out or there will be one or two big teams that have too many high quality players. This results in all the other teams being filled up with players that have talent but are not quite ready to compete against the more established players.
Sri Lanka needs to continue to have a national pool of players. Similar to the current set up. However it is at the next level below where the changes need to happen.
The first-class system needs to be broken up. It needs to be split up, and at the top have a "Premier League" level of only 6 teams, where the best of the best play. Each team plays each other twice, with the top 2 qualifying for the final. This will result in more high quality games, and will end up producing more players that get trained to play in high quality situations against better players. This league could be the perfect breeding ground to select players for the national pool.
All 6 clubs in the Premier League need to be subsidized by the cricket board, with every squad player being provided a full time income. A sufficient, full time income. An income that will make players want to strive to make that level. Each club needs to be provided with a "salary cap" to be spread across the complete squad. This will ensure the competition remains even, and not just one or two big teams continue to dominate.
Following the "Premier League", should be an Under-23 version of the Premier League. Where the same 6 teams, have a 2nd XI/U-23 team that compete in the same way. This allows these 6 teams to bring in young players from Sri Lanka's excellent school cricket system and groom them to take that step up to Premier League cricket. These players need to also be offered an income. A lower income than the main squad to ensure that they are motivated to keep working to try and earn a contract to the main squad, but still an income to keep them in the game.
The cricket board also needs to encourage these 6 clubs to get corporate sponsorships by introducing them to corporate contacts. As the quality of the games go up, interest in the first-class system will naturally increase. Start by televising one game a week and increase it depending on the interest.
These clubs should also be encouraged to go on overseas tours during the off-season. Touring places like India, Australia, England, South Africa & New Zealand will only help these players acclimatize to foreign conditions. Tours don't have to happen every year, they can be every 3 years even. This will only help these players be ready to counter foreign conditions if and when they get selected to play in the national team.
If the tours become too expensive to maintain, then consider sending one or two players to play seasons for foreign clubs in other countries. I work with many domestic cricket clubs in Australia that are always asking me if I know of any first-class players in Sri Lanka that would be open to playing a season in Australia – fully paid! Visa, flights, accommodation, everything. Sometimes they are even paid a wage! So there would be no cost to the local team, and only a benefit of having their player get more experience that they can bring back to their club. This can be done by striking strategic partnerships with other teams in other countries where there could be a player-swap system in place for each of the respective seasons.
Finally, under this Premier League, the cricket board can continue a tournament for all other teams that want to compete. They don't need to have a cap on the number of teams and allow 10-15 teams even. This could be the breeding ground for which the Premier League teams select their squad from.
Lets not forget, the national team players will hardly be available for their respective Premier League teams as they would most likely be on national duty and as such any nationally contracted player should not be counted towards the Premier League team salary cap. To give you an example of how this works, a player like Chandimal, Matthews or Karunaratne would be counted as a nationally contracted player. However, a player of the caliber of Roshen Silva would not be and as such would need to be compensated by a full time contract.
Grounds & Pitches
This is where the next level of work needs to be done. The cricket board needs to commit to bringing the level of pitches that first-class games are played on to a higher level. We can't have first-class players play on substandard pitches and then when they get selected to the national team they will struggle with injuries and wont be as successful on form either. Reducing the first-class system to 6 Premier League teams means, the cricket board has to only commit to keep 6 grounds to an international level.
If we look at the number of international grounds in Sri Lanka at the moment there are already 6 available:
– P Sara Oval
So the board does not need to commit a lot of financial resources to the grounds & pitches project. As the infrastructure is already available. It simply will come down to providing resources to ensure good groundsmen are employed and enough resources are committed to ensure the grounds are well maintained.
Making the above mentioned changes will not change Sri Lankan cricket overnight to be some all conquering, unbeatable team. But it will go a long way to fixing the current pickle that we find ourselves in.
It will provide Sri Lanka with a valuable system to build its success on the cricket field, where we can continue to promote players that have raw talent and also ensure provide them with the support that is needed to make sure they are ready to step up when called upon by the national team.
Simply hiring coaches (whether local or foreign), consultants and specialists will not do the job. That is simply a short term fix to what is a long term problem. That is like putting a band-aid on a cut that needs stitches. It may temporarily stop the bleeding, but the damage requires a more deeper solution.
I understand that Sri Lankan cricket does not have the mighty financial resources of the bigger countries, but what I have written above is completely within the Sri Lankan cricket board's financial reach. On top of that, I can almost guarantee of some Sri Lankan companies that will assist in the form of sponsorships.
Sri Lanka was once a feared competitor in international circles, if we are to go back to that then it needs to be run like a professional ship. It needs to be run like a private company – where results for its stakeholders are paramount. It is high-time that people in charge of Sri Lankan cricket realise this.