Chief selector Ashantha De Mel has many theories on how to fix Sri Lanka’s cricket woes. But his actions continue to defy all logic. In his most recent interview, De Mel rightfully emphasizes the need to give players the freedom and confidence to play without mental pressure and the importance of team unity. However, most of his actions since returning as chief selector seem to have the exact opposite impact on the team, players, captains and coaching staff.
In one of his very first interviews since taking over the job as chief selector, De Mel publicly criticized Dinesh Chandimal, his own selection as captain to New Zealand. Not only did he do this publicly, but in the middle of a tour. De Mel stated that Chandimal is incapable of making decisions as a captain and implied that Dimuth Karunarathne had been appointed vice-captain not just to provide support to the captain, but to possibly take over from him. Imagine the impact this would have had on Chandimal’s confidence, mental status and the tension it would have created between Chandimal and Karunarathne. In addition to criticizing the captain, De Mel also threw a few punches at the head coach. A professional who holds SLC’s interest at heart would have addressed these differences through direct conversations with the captain and the coach, not publicly. If the chief selector publicly criticizing the captain was not bad enough for the Test team’s morale, De Mel announced that Chandimal has been stripped of his ODI captaincy, even before the first Test had begun, and more than 15 days ahead of the ODI series. This was the last thing that the team, players and management needed when they have already had enough divisions and disunity to overcome.
For someone who emphasizes the importance of team unity, De Mel’s choice of captain for the ODI team was shocking to say the least. It is an understatement to say that Lasith Malinga has been the most controversial Sri Lankan player in the last decade. He has had many run-ins with the media, team members, captains, coaches, SLC officials, selectors and even with the sports minister. It is a well-known secret that Malinga deliberately slowed his over-rate to get captain Chandimal banned during the 2014 World T20 event. Many administrations, selection committees and former greats like Arjuna Ranatunga have questioned his commitment to Sri Lanka cricket. Malinga only resumed playing domestic 50-overs cricket after he was discarded by the IPL as a player past his prime. If there was one thing even Geoff Boycott’s grandmother would have known about Malinga, it is to NEVER MAKE HIM CAPTAIN! Yet De Mel made him captain, with the World Cup only months away! “Malinga is a fighter. We need someone like him to take the team forward, to lead from the front. As selectors we thought he is the best to take the team to the World Cup. On the other hand, he has repeatedly said he would retire after the World Cup. This will give him the added motivation to do better. He would like to finish off with a bang and given his experience and cricketing intelligence, we are confident he would do the best to the team as skipper”, said De Mel at the time. Now after Malinga had failed to win a single ODI out of the eight he captained, not even a dead rubber, not even after the coach’s selection rights were stripped and influence on the captain almost non-existent, and with the world cup squad announcement just weeks away, De Mel has made a U-turn on Malinga “The other important thing is the unity in the team. If this means changing the captaincy to bring the players together, we will do it. Because this is very important”. He also goes on to say that “Malinga does not seem to be able to get the team together”. Why De Mel did not consider Malinga’s past and the importance of team unity before appointing him as captain defies all logic and brings to question De Mel’s suitability for the post of chief selector. This type of irrational and illogical actions are not what an already struggling team needed just months before a World Cup.
De Mel’s assessment of Angelo Mathews, both as an ODI player and captain, also provides an interesting insight into how his mind works. De Mel has stated that Mathews is one of his choices for World Cup captain. It is interesting to note that right after taking over his role, De Mel said of Mathews’s fitness “Well we know that he has passed his fitness tests. I have no concerns whatsoever. As far as his running between the wickets is concerned, you have to remember that there are two people running and both have to be alert and you cannot blame one guy alone. I am not prepared to buy that kind of story”. De Mel said this after the former selectors pointed out that while he could pass a fitness test, Mathews is prone to injury when performing in the high-intensity ODI format and his lack of fitness was impacting his running between the wickets. However, once Mathews got injured again in New Zealand, De Mel had this to say “I couldn’t imagine that you can pull a muscle running at that speed. He was basically just trotting. Just to trot and to pull a second degree hamstring there must be something literally wrong. They should send him to Australia or somewhere and get his injury sorted out. He has to be fit. We can’t be molly-coddling players. If he can’t run and field it will be difficult for him to play one-day cricket. Test cricket you can hide but in ODI cricket you can’t run singles slowly. He will have to really get himself fit if he wants to play one-day cricket otherwise it is impossible for him to play. How can you pick a player who cannot field in the outfield and who can’t run between the wickets fast”. But now, within just weeks of asking how one could play ODI cricket if they can’t run fast between wickets, De Mel deems that same player fit for World Cup captaincy! This is from a selector who himself rightfully said there is no room for half-fit players on his team. Again a case of De Mel’s theories and actions not adding up. This also brings to question De Mel’s ability to review player history, medical and fitness records and feedback from his predecessors to make good judgement.
De Mel suggests that the head coach was removed as a selector due to “his type of thinking” being flawed. But for a selector who does acknowledge the need for giving players confidence and freedom to play their natural game, De Mel’s actions have been far from conducive to creating that level of player confidence and mental freedom. It was De Mel who infamously tried to drop Suranga Lakmal and Kusal Mendis from the second Test in South Africa when the team was playing for a historic series win. It is widely believed to have been an attempt to take revenge from two players who have been supportive of the coach. Before the leaked video showed Lakmal expressing support for the coach, this was De Mel’s opinion on Lakmal as a World Cup option “We are of the opinion that he is also good for the World Cup because at the top he can get wickets. The coach Hathurusingha is not keen to play him in ODIs because he thinks he doesn’t bowl well in the death overs. What we feel is that if he bowls the first overs well and can get some early wickets then you can put pressure on the opposition”. And this is De Mel’s view on Lakmal’s ODI credentials since the leaked video “Whether Suranga Lamkal can bowl that five overs upfront…but we are not sure whether he is the best finisher. From what we have gathered, he has given a lot of runs towards the end”. Again a case of De Mel logic flip flopping and in this instance, there seems to be more than cricket reasons influencing his decision making as chief selector.
In this most recent interview, De Mel also states that if not for him “Kusal Janith would have never played Test cricket”, implying that the coach did not want him to play Tests in Australia. For someone who claims to use a lot of data in the selection process, De Mel seems to have forgotten that it was this coach who brought Kusal Perera back into the test side during the 2018 West Indies tour, after not having played test cricket since 2016. Unfortunately Kusal Perera was injured after the West Indies series and missed out on South Africa and England Tests. He was then forced to fight back for his place as Roshen Silva and Dhananjaya De Silva were given opportunities in his absence.
Prior to De Mel, Labrooy’s selection committee tried 26 players across 17 ODI’s in 2018. In eight ODI’s, De Mel has tried 23 players! De Mel keeps reiterating the importance of experience at the World Cup. Yet, for South Africa ODI’s he picked several inexperienced batsman who stood little or no chance of making it into the world cup squad. He also brought back Upul Tharanga, who was given an extended run during 2018 by Labrooy, before he was dropped after failing to impress. In the process, De Mel denied several genuine World Cup contenders like Sadeera Samarawickrama, Dasun Shanaka, Asela Gunerathne, Dinesh Chandimal and even Dimuth Karunarathne, the opportunity to gain form and confidence ahead of the World Cup.
Due to De Mel’s illogical and irrational decisions, Sri Lanka has gone from trying to sort out five to six vacant World Cup spots to having to rely on a harshly arranged domestic event to find their 15 players, including a captain. In his recent interview, De Mel states “The Head Coach thinks we are against him, but we are not”. If only De Mel can try to make sense of his own decisions, perhaps he wouldn’t have to try so hard to understand the head coach’s concerns.
Disclaimer: The original version of this article appeared on Island.lk. This revised version is intended for the purpose of providing readers the links and quotes of the original content sent by the writer to the Island editor.