By Staff Writers | December 3, 2016
In part one of a two-part fan-interview, Sri Lankan cricket legend Kumar Sangakkara talks about team selection, his past interactions with selectors and more
Kumar Sangakkara recently took time out of his busy schedule to respond to questions from cricket fans. © CPL/SPORTSFILE
Suren Karunaratne from Colombo, Sri Lanka asks: Sri Lanka's current Test team looks terrific but the ODI side is not stable yet, mainly due to our batting line up. What do you think should be done about this and how do we rectify it?
Kumar Sangakkara: With the current ODI squad, we realistically have only three or four senior players. We have Angelo Mathews, Dinesh Chandimal, Rangana Herath, Lasith Malinga and Nuwan Kulasekera at times. Everyone else is pretty new to international cricket. We had a great Test win against Australia but I still think that our real test has always been the way we play away from home, and that's going to be very interesting to see in the future.
I think some of the younger players like Kusal Mendis, Dhananjaya de Silva, Niroshan Dickwella, etc., all have such a lot to offer Sri Lanka cricket in the future. The more they play, the better off they will be. Our weak point, in a way, has been our fast bowling, especially away from home, even though we had Dhammika Prasad who fought brilliantly in England to give us a seriously famous win in 2014. We also have Rangana Herath who is just unbelievable. He is fantastic, an absolute legend, but we can't always depend on Rangana. We have to have other ways and means of bowling sides out twice.
In the one-day arena, of course, we had a lot of players coming and going, especially after winning the Test series against Australia. We had the one-day series against Australia and a couple of series afterwards, where we had a lot of changes, with the selectors trying quite a lot of new players, with an eye to try to find out the best combination for the World Cup in England. When you have changes like that, you do have dips in performances, and I think that will stop soon. The selectors will, I think, probably settle into a nice and solid squad. They will speak to the coach and captain and come up with a squad of maybe about 16 to 20 players who will then form the core. Thereafter, you will not have too many players being drafted in and out of the team in the next few months.
Solidity and consistency in line-ups, both for batting and bowling, is very important for improvement, for the security of players, for mental stability, where they don't need to look over their shoulder but they're also not quite comfortable — being comfortable is a dangerous thing. So I think the real need for the time is about consolidation, identifying the right players very, very quickly and ensuring that once we do identify those payers, we give them two years.
We have a great amount of variety at the moment. We have left-handers, right-handers, spinning all-rounders, fast bowling all-rounders. We have a brilliant leg-spinner in Jeffrey Vandersay. We have Sandakan Lakshan as a Chinaman bowler. We have Tharindu Kaushal, who is still to get a look-in after rectifying his action, and then you also have exciting fast bowlers.
I think it's really time to keep our faith in the team, especially to give the players who do perform […] a longer try-out and have a good solid consistent batting and bowling line-up that plays a lot of matches together as a unit so they get to understand each other, they get to understand the game and they also improve together, so come the World Cup in England we have one of the best sides going around.
Chanaka Fonseka from New York, USA asks: When you were captain of Sri Lanka, did you prefer having total control over team selections and the ability to pick the best 11 players you felt could win you a match or did you prefer the selection panel making all the decisions with a bit of input from the skipper?
KS: When I was first appointed as captain in 2009, I remember playing my first Test series against Pakistan. I was pretty sure that I wanted Angelo Mathews to play in that first Test, but it was going to be a tough sell to the selectors because we had Prasanna Jayawardene in the side, and the only way Angelo could play was if I or Dilshan kept wickets. It was a decision that I went to the selectors with and it was not a smooth conversation. The selectors were not too happy that Prasanna was going to be left out, and indeed I wasn’t happy either, but I thought that playing Angelo gave us an extra batsman plus an extra seamer, and probably an advantage when playing a side like Pakistan in home conditions.
I remember one of the selectors saying: ‘If this decision does not work, from now onwards, we will tell you which team to play and you will not be asked to give your input or opinion to selections anymore.’ So, I said: ‘OK, it's only one spot, but I would like to stick to my guns and actually play Angelo.’ I remember we played that Test series and we won 2-0, and after we won the First Test in Galle, the same selector said: ‘Thank you for sticking to that decision, it actually paid off.’
That was one of the instances where there were certain opinions that you had to put forward and hold true to, but the simple fact is that the selectors are there to select a side. They receive input from the captain and the coach but the chairman of selectors and the other selectors have the final say. There are times when they would give one or two options to the captain and the coach. They will have discussions and they will have a chat about strategy on what we want to achieve and then try to pick the best team to go and execute that. It’s always a collaboration.
Selection, in any case, is always a matter of opinion. You make an informed decision with all the information, statistics and visuals at hand on experience, and then you hope that all the players that you selected would execute the strategy. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes a great selection may look a terrible one if the player doesn’t do too well. Sometimes a bad selection can work in your favour, if the player goes out there and does very well. It’s always about the combination that you want to play, depending on the side you’re playing against.
So you try and give as much information as possible to the selectors, but there are also other times that you try and stand firm on a player or two that you believe is absolutely vital to win a game. More often than not it is a good conversation, with a few arguments and differences of opinion, but I think this is all very important if you are to come out with the best decision. I think the best way is to ensure that there is good honest communication and discussion: are you giving the right players an opportunity for a longer period of time? And at the same time, you have to back some players in the hope that they do come good and they do perform according to the talent and potential that has been identified.
Sanjesh Pinnapola from Colombo, Sri Lanka asks: Between 2000 and 2009 you averaged 35 in ODIs, but since 2009 you averaged 52. Was this shift purely down to you receiving the captaincy or did you make any significant technical/psychological adjustments?
KS: Up to 2009, I was not always batting at No.3. I started batting at No. 5 and I batted from No. 1 to No. 5, and even No. 9! There were times when the batting order was quite flexible and there were times when I really went low down in the order, but after a while, I got a permanent place at No. 3 in the ODI side and that stability helped. Also, at that time, the tactics were quite different. It was about me going in at No. 3 and occupying the crease and batting for as long as I possibly could, trying to get to the 40th over with as few wickets down as possible. So my mindset was never about dominance or taking the game to the opposition, it was more about building a solid innings so that other batsmen could bat around me. Even though that was what was needed of me at that time, it was a never a mindset that was going to be conducive for me to be dominant in ODI cricket.
I think, from about 2009, it was a case of changing my mindset and thinking about batting to score runs and also to have shared responsibility, where all the batsmen played their part and there was no special pressure on a player to do more than he could, or ask them to do more than they should, so that they are always under pressure; instead, telling every batsmen your job is to go out and score runs the best way you know how and not to worry about what's happening at the other end, because that you can't control. I think that kind of freed me mentally to go out there and be more expressive, be freer, take more risks, and really take the game to the opposition.
Also, when it came to captaincy, I was never bothered that I was the captain. When I was batting it was more about, ‘I'm a batsman now and I only start captaining when I am fielding.’ So my job was to go there and execute my skills and score as many runs I could for the side. We also had great openers in Dilshan and Tharanga. We had Mahela in the side. We had so many other great players who came in at the time. It was definitely a side where any one batsman, at any one time, can score a match-winning knock. So I think that kind of solidity, that kind of depth in our batting order, that kind of mindset and attitude that we spoke about having as a batting unit, really freed not just me but all of us to do more with our skills, rather than just be the kind of a batsman who went out there and hung around, waiting and helping others to score.
Thiviyanthan Krishnamohan from Colombo, Sri Lanka asks: Since the 2015 World Cup, limited-overs cricket has been dominated by hard-hitting batsmen. It was no surprise then that both England and West Indies, two teams replete with powerful strikers, reached the final of the 2016 WT20. A batsman's ability to counter swing and seam movement, play spin, rotate strike and pick the gaps, are all fast-becoming irrelevant in limited-overs cricket. A team's ability to find the boundary has quickly become a factor that decides between winning and losing. Players like Jos Buttler and AB de Villiers have proven that slogging is also an art that needs to be mastered. In Sri Lanka, we don't find too many batsmen who can be termed as experts in clearing the boundary. Tillakaratne Dilshan, when he retired, cited the absence of a big hitter as a worry. Arjuna Ranatunga recently commented that limited-over matches now favour players from the West, as most of them are of a powerful build. Has Sri Lanka figured out that there is a demand for big hitters in the contemporary world? If so, do you think enough measures have been taken?
KS: I think there is a significant difference in what you term ‘slogging’ and power hitting in cricket. Slogging is something you have seen on and off, when pinch hitters come in and throw the bat at everything, but that is definitely not the art of power hitting. Jos Buttler, AB de Villiers and Virat Kohli and various other batsmen from around world, including Andre Russell and Chris Gayle, don’t often slog. They have a lot of power, they watch the ball very carefully, and they execute with great bat speed and technique.
To be a successful power hitter, you need to start off with a very good technical base. It is important to have a combination of players in one side. You also need players that are adept in negating swing and seam, and also turn, but who can also hit boundaries when the occasion requires you to. Sri Lanka historically have not had a large number of power hitters, although we had Sanath Jayasuriya, who was unbelievable for us, but I think if you take our performances from 2007 to now, we have been one of the most consistent sides in T20 and ODI cricket, especially in World Cups. It is because we had a variety of players with a great combination of power and touch and we also had a very good varied bowling attack.
There are certain sides that are naturally more powerful than we are — England are extremely powerful and Australia too, although they haven’t done well at all in T20 tournaments. Pakistan and India too have a lot of power hitters but power-hitting itself is useless without the right technique and the knowledge to use that power when it is needed, as opposed to going at every delivery and then missing out.
If we can have power hitters like other countries do, it will be of great advantage, but you can’t just have power hitters for the sake of having them; you must have good batsmen who have successfully incorporated power hitting into their game. I don’t think we will find a lot of them in Sri Lanka. We can try and have methods which would encourage batsmen from a young age to explore the art of power hitting so that by the time they come to the first-class cricket level and graduate to A division or international cricket, they would have mastered the art. But until that time, we have to play our brand of cricket and be smart with it. What we found out was that, if you are smart with it and use the variety we have, that brings about victories in crucial games.