Electoral Musical Chairs spell doom for Sri Lanka Cricket

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By Michael Roberts | December 5, 2011

Duleep Mendis
Current chairman of selectors Duleep Mendis. © AFP

Let me write against the grain and challenge all sports editors and writers in Sri Lanka’s cricket world, especially those who have clamoured for “elections” as if the word spells” democracy” and thus amounts to a GOOD, when it is anything but that.

Sometime back, I penned an essay with a sub-title Wunderkidz in Blunderland.”**

The two metaphors underlined contrasts: the “wonderful kids” were our cricketers in the decade 1995 to 2005: while “blunderland” highlighted the tale of Sri Lankan cricket administration over much of that period (allowing for exceptional moments). As written then, my contention was as follows:

The overall outcome has been a game of musical chairs in governance, sometimes aggravated by ministerial whim or changes in the country’s government after elections. Changes in cricketing board, of course, mean changes in Selection Committee and its policies. It is therefore a marvel that the cricket team has been competitive in the field during the years 1996–2005, especially when playing at home and since 2006, even abroad.

This assertion was underlined by some of the outstanding achievements carved out by our players in the decade before, namely circa 1995-2005:

“Sri Lankan teams have produced the highest Test total, the two biggest Test partnerships, the Bradman among Test match bowlers … because of Muttiah Muralitharan’s achievement of taking five wickets 57 times), and the manner in which Arjuna Ranatunga’s team swept to victory at the 1996 World Cup.”

Let me, therefore, provide readers with potential analogies with cricket selections in 2011by taking them back to that point in 2004-2006, when I cast this argument by providing a wholesale reproduction of an article I etched out then in late 2004 and re-inserted in my anthology, Essaying Cricket. Sri Lanka and Beyond (Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2006, pp. 126-30).

The title was Musical Chairs in Cricket Selections,

This is not a criticism of the recent selection of the de Mel or Kaluperuma Selection Committees in Sri Lanka. Rather, it is a critique of sports writers, media personalities and authorities for their failure to reform a fundamental flaw in the system of cricket governance in Sri Lanka – one that leads to musical chairs in the composition of Selection Committees. This, in turn, has the potential to create disastrous turbulence in team selections.

This flaw goes back to the constitution established in June 1948, when the Ceylon Cricket Association was replaced by the Board of Control for Ceylon Cricket. This constitution established the ridiculous principle of having annual elections for the governing board. The disastrous consequences of this principle have not been felt till the decade beginning in 1996.

In the initial stages, the potential for musical chairs was prevented by the political circumstances of the day, the elitist character of cricket and the minimal commercialisation of the local cricket scene. Thus, at the annual AGMs held from 1948 to the 1990s club representatives went into a huddle and chose a President by haggle and consensus.

Few crises arose because powerful and/or wealthy personalities had already put their hands up for an onerous job with few perquisites. The Royal-Thomian network of influence, moreover, appears to have called the shots. By and large it ensured that the Presidentship for many decades rested in the hands of a few notables from United National Party (UNP) families: J R Jayewardene (1952- 55), Robert Senanayake (1957-75), T B Werapitiya (1980/81), Gamini Dissanayake (1981-89) and Tyronne Fernando (1991-94).

Once the Presidentship became a coveted prize yielding status and power of a ramifying sort, ever since 1996, the Presidentship and the control of the cricketing arena has tended to change hands frequently. With every change of governing control, the Selection Committee has also changed. The volatile character of the Board and its Selection Committees has also been effected by contingent crises arising from personality clashes or the intervention of governments. For instance, when SB Dassanayake as Sports Minister fell out with Rienzie Wijetilleke (who did an excellent job as President, BCCSL) or when the second Kehelgamuwa Committee fell out with the team.

This has been a major problem bedevilling SL cricket for years, but it has rarely been aired in public with any consistency or force. Indeed, sports media personnel have tended to maintain a discreet silence on this point, while the political authorities have never addressed it because their influence would be reduced once a scheme of governance that secures a three or four year term for the Cricket Board is secured and made independent of who rules the country.

The question, then, is this: why has there been such a momentous silence among our media personnel on this point?

I cannot answer the question. I raise it in order to induce self-reflexivity and to inform keen cricket buffs of the type that spice up the internet waves through online forums.

Silence: Let me underline this facet of the channels of discussion through anecdotal evidence. During the last series against Australia in Sri Lanka, Bruce Yardley parachuted back to Lanka as a TV commentator. As someone pro-Lankan and yet typically outspoken in his specifically Yardley-way (speak before you think), Yardley raised the issue of specific selections in the SL squads.

Having lost touch with the SL scene (why – when internet facilities are available?), he was bold enough to select a SL side and even inserted a leg-spinner, Nimesh Perera, who was hardly bowling at first class level.

This was Yardley the loose cannon. But Ranjit Fernando beside him in the box did not bring him up to date on specifics. Nor did Ranjit address the broader issue that Yardley had raised about consistency in selection policy. The broader issue, of course, must attend to (a) the different needs of ODI and Test sides and (b) that critical requisite – tailoring sides for the countries/pitches which Sri Lanka is facing, that is, making alterations informed by the principle “horses for courses.”

Illustratively, let me highlight the issue by narrowing my focus to that of ODI teams over the years 1999-2004 and asking readers to consider the way in which the following cricketers have been treated: T. Dilshan, Chamara Silva, Indika de Saram, Gayan Wijekoon (alias Ramyakumara) and Jeevan Kulatunga.

The first three were in and out of the ODI sides – they were not provided with consistent opportunities (bar Dilshan more recently). True, they did not always produce the goods, but going in at 6 or 7 in an ODI match is far different to batting up the order. A guy who goes in late and hits a Tuffey for four silken fours in one over at the death (Dilshan against NZ at Dambulla) and thus paves the way for victory is worth his weight in gold. Good, consistent selection reviews MUST assess performances with some leeway on this point, while also laying emphasis on the fielding capacities of such players (and Silva, Dilshan and Saram are far better fielders than, say, Avishka Gunawardena in terms of speed of foot and athletic ability).

Further sidelights may be provided with the manner in which Romesh Kaluwitharana and Russel Arnold have been treated in selections for both types of teams or touring squads over the years. Kaluwitharana happens to be an amiable fellow and a crowd favourite carrying the élan associated with Tony Greig’s approbation, “little Kalu.”

It is widely and mistakenly believed that he was a great success during the World Cup of 1996, when in fact his statistics are poor and his fame rides on the back of Jayasuriya. But he also has the support of the Moratuwa interest group in Sri Lankan cricket and has been performing well with the bat in SL conditions in recent years.

That he has been kept within the frame of selection choices is not wrong. Indeed, I think the de Mel Committee had some ground to choose him over Jayantha for the tour of Australia in July because he was back-up keeper and had some experience of Australian conditions. It was his selection for the last English tour (2002) by the de Alwis Committee that appalled me: for the reason that his technique was too poor for seaming early summer conditions — as indeed revealed if one isolates his statistics for England visits.

Arnold was subject to Cinderella-treatment by the “Ranatunga force” when he was chosen for tours of the West Indies (mid-1997) and South Africa (1998). But his fighting performances, especially during a tour of Zimbabwe in late 1999, eventually enabled him to gain due recognition and a regular place in the team.

He performed reasonably well during the tour of England in 2002 and indeed stood alongside Atapattu as the most consistent batsman in terms of ODI averages (roughly39.0 on memory) when SL entered the World Cup of 2003. But his performances in the ODI games in Australia in early 2003 had been poor and, unfortunately, this bad run continued during the World Cup. He was unceremoniously dumped thereafter.

Not so Mahela Jayawardene, though he had also had a terrible run over the same period (partly due to family bereavement and a focus on the Hope Cancer Hospital perhaps?). So why the difference? I do not have a complete answer. That would require inside information on the politics of cricket.

Jayawardene’s style of batting, of course, oozes class and gives him an edge over Arnold. This would be one good reason; but I suspect that other factors came into play as well.

Arnold’s recent selection for the Test series in Australia was probably due to a change in the composition of the Selection Committee after the new UPFA government came to power in Sri Lanka following the general elections – a political compromise producing a composite body with a mixture of “Sumathipala-men” and “Others” under a new head (Ashantha de Mel).

Arnold’s statistical record in Tests is not encouraging and this choice was a debatable one. The question remains whether it would have been better to have chosen Saman Jayantha, Ian Daniel or Bhatiya Perera (in that order). Clearly, the Selectors felt that it would be problematic to thrust a newcomer into Australian conditions, a reasoning that has some merit.

For Arnold, it turned out to be a poisoned chalice. The first game at Darwin was on a seaming and cutting pitch where all the batsmen from both sides, with the exception of Lehmann to some extent, struggled. Indeed, Kalu was probably glad he received his chance in far better batting conditions at Cairns. WhatI am saying therefore is that Kalu’s failure on this occasion was a greater one than Arnold’s.

There is a lesson here for observers and overenthusiastic patriots. Do not assess batsmen on the basis of performances on spiteful pitches (just look at the results during India’s last tourof New Zealand in early summer– only Dravid did reasonably well). That some patriots on the Dilmah Forum could call for Jayasuriya’s head on the basis of those two Tests in Australia is simply crass. Those are the type of selectors we do not want. Likewise, Mubarak and Hasantha Fernando were unfortunate to make their Test debuts on difficult pitches at New Wanderer’s Stadium (especially) and Centurion Park during the last tour of South Africa in late 2002.

My point is simple: selectors must take special circumstances into account when evaluating player performances. When a batsman does well on a spiteful pitch one knows that one has gold — as when Sidath Wettimuny batted through the innings on a seaming horror at Wellington as Lance Cairns ran through the side in the

1980s. Indeed, Sunil Gavaskar will tell you that one of his best innings was a cameo on a turning pitch at Manchester. The flip side is that selectors must generally take less note of two poor scores on a bad pitch – unless ….

There is an unless. How one batted during the short stay at the wicket must be taken into account (Hasantha Fernando seemed to be a compulsive hooker). So, technique and temperament must be brought into the picture, both during ‘that bad game’ and through other observations at home and abroad. Temperament? A difficult one this: only demeanour and performance in the middle over a number of matches will yield a reasonable conclusion. Where players are not given a reasonable run of opportunities, they will not be found out. We all know how Marvan Atapattu’s temperament let him down in challenging contexts at the start of his career. But a range of selectors in the 1990s gave him another chance because of his technical skills. What a tragedy it would have been if they had not.

Likewise Dilshan is a striking example. His impetuosity boils over at times and he gives his wicket away – still. When first inserted into the Test side, the English worked on his psychology and undermined him. But the talent is there.

The de Alwis Committee – the worst Selection Committee in the last decade by a long chalk – treated him (and Chandana and Herath) quite shoddily. He should have been ahead of Gunawardena and a couple of others in the line for the squad for England in 2002. The SL management corpus on the tour certainly would have preferred to have him in the squad. But he was not even in the frame then – being impeded by his social background and absence of links with the SSC and other powerful networks.

In my view we would have won the game against the Australians in Kandy after Jayasuriya set the stage if Dilshan had not been (accidentally) hit on the testicles and partially incapacitated when he was getting on top of the bowling. Yes, Dilshan is going to be a volatile force in the near-future, but we have to put up with some outstanding failures in return for match-winning moments. Besides, his fielding ability in any position gives him an edge over others. A brilliant catch and/or a run-out can lift a fielding side and turn a match – remember how Chandana (as sub) ran out Alex Stewart at the Oval (August 1998) and undermined England’s back-to-the wall defence, thereby paving the way for victory in the Test match.

This has been a ‘wandering’ article. It touches, sometimes all too briefly (e.g. the background manoeuvres and factional influences on selections are hardly analysed) on the many factors that direct the choice of players for SL squads. But one thing is clear: we require a stable Selection Committee as a matter of principle.

For that to be settled, we need to change the constitution of Sri Lanka Cricket and have a governing body with a 3 or 4 year tenure so that they can institute a long term programme in all spheres. Otherwise, we will be replicating the chaotic ad ‘hockery’ that has been going on for so long – not least in the wider realm of Sri Lankan politics.

I am NOT saying that politics should stay out of cricket. Any large business has its internal and external politics. That is an integral part of scene. But we require good politics, not kneejerk reactions and musical chairs.

** “Wunderkidz in a Blunderland: Tensions & Tales from Sri Lankan Cricket,” in Dominic Malcolm, Jon Gemmell and Nalin Mehta (eds.) Sport and Society, vol. 12, nos. 4/5, special issue on Cricket; International and Interdisciplinary Approaches, 2009, pp. 566-78.

© Michael Roberts/Island Cricket

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