Sri Lanka exceeded my expectations at the 2019 World Cup — a winless exit was a strong possibility. Dimuth Karunaratne’s men overcame the challenges set by their own camp to end the tournament with three wins.
There is no criticism of this team for not making the semis. Not losing to Afghanistan is a praiseworthy accomplishment today for a nation that once won the ODI world title and were for many years considered strong contenders to enter the final stages of any ICC tourney.
While the top ODI sides of the modern era all target the 400-run mark, Sri Lanka’s batting is so fragile and unreliable that posting 250 in 50 overs has become remarkable.
What challenges from their own camp were they faced with, you ask? The naming of a new selection panel months before the World Cup, and with it the naming of a new skipper who barely featured in the ODI side for years, is a glaring oddity and haphazard preparation for cricket’s showpiece tournament.
While Karunaratne has brought minute stability to the top order through the stemming of early losses of wickets, his unexpected appointment as captain and ODI opener did not take Sri Lanka beyond the round-robin stages of the World Cup.
Karunaratne’s appointment then arguably did not make a big difference. There are other batsmen who could have batted just as circumspect and with caution as Karunaratne did, had they been tasked with that role.
In the four years since the 2015 World Cup, Sri Lanka experimented with umpteen opening batting combinations in the 50-over format, and Niroshan Dickwella, Upul Tharanga, Danushka Gunathilaka, Sadeera Samarawickrama, Kusal Mendis, Dilshan Munaweera, Kusal Perera, Dhananjaya de Silva and Sandun Weerakkody, were never tasked with surviving the new ball in their roles as ODI openers.
These batsmen were instructed to attack and capitalise on the powerplay, and attacking against the new ball is risky and results in low batting averages but high strike-rates.
Getting Sri Lanka off to quick starts was the job required of the many different openers trialled by Sri Lanka in the four years leading up to this tournament, and one can argue a quickfire 39 from an opener is just as valuable as a half-century, which is why valuing a batsman’s contributions and importance in the side based solely on how many half-centuries or 100s they have scored must obviously be avoided.
Numerous factors impact a batsman’s inability to be consistent in limited-overs cricket, but nothing can be more damaging than the fear of failure, which often is needlessly introduced by a rudderless and inept management who experiment with the playing XI after every game and series in the hopes of magically stumbling on a winning team combination.
The vast number of players Sri Lanka have rifled through since the 2015 World Cup has been widely documented. At the 2019 tournament, Sri Lanka made regular changes and failed to play a settled top order batting line-up.
None of this highlights competency from SLC officials and the executive committee who routinely meddle in team selections.
Sri Lanka’s ‘new’ chief selector Ashantha de Mel, who complained to the ICC about pitches and hotels provided to Sri Lanka at this World Cup, served as chairman of selectors for many years, and from 2004-2013 de Mel was sacked and rehired nearly a half-dozen times and has now re-emerged as chief selector and team manager.
Since his return, the outspoken de Mel has made statements to the media disparaging Sri Lankan cricketers whom he dislikes. Some of de Mel’s criticism came while Sri Lanka were in the midst of an overseas tour, and he was unafraid to suggest the sacking of their then captain Dinesh Chandimal while the team was playing a Test in New Zealand late last year.
What good can come out of an SLC official ridiculing and belittling his own team’s cricketers to the media? And what does it say about you when your criticism is not fact-driven and based on subjective analysis? The chief selector must not disparage any cricketer to justify his selections — that is unacceptable.
During the 2019 World Cup, Kumar Sangakkara again touched on the importance of playing a consistent top order and not changing the batting order as often as Sri Lanka has done. Players must be given permanent positions in the batting lineup and they must be allowed the time to develop their roles, Sangakkara called for while on-air as a TV commentator.
Sangakkara’s pleas continue to fall on deaf ears, and there is no inclination the constant changes to the top order of the ODI side will cease unless a coach and captain with a backbone can stand up against illogical selection policies and interference from executive committee members of SLC.
But the days of strong captains and coaches are a thing of the past. Any power or influence senior cricketers once possessed over curbing SLC officials’ meddling in team selections has been squashed by the cricket board — captains now come and go as rapidly as top international coaches are fired, and they are easily disposed of with no public outcry to end the destructive path taken by the immoral and incapable men who continue to plague the administration at SLC.
The Sri Lankan public cheer on the inconsistent selections, as they love seeing new players and they are just as impatient as those who govern SLC.
When SLC, under Nishantha Ranatunga and Upali Dharmadasa, prevented Sangakkara, who was returning from a two-month injury layoff, from playing a practise match against Bangladesh in 2013, after Sangakkara had travelled to Uyanwatte Stadium in Matara, so they could bully senior players to gain leverage during tense negotiations over player contracts, Sri Lankans remained silent.
Today, contracts are signed without any objections from players who are grateful to just not be axed from the side — the chilling effect of SLC executive members’ interference in team selections is apparent.
There were no protests when players’ wages were slashed but no reduction of benefits to SLC members was part of the SLC’s austerity measures. The Sri Lankan mind appears to be conditioned to show no appreciation for activism or protests, and this is perhaps a result of years of being subjected to authoritarian rule.
SLC’s upper management understands there will be no repercussions or public outrage to corruption and gross mismanagement so expect nothing to change.
When the next World Cup comes around, do not be surprised if Sri Lanka would have squandered the four years it now has to prepare for that tournament.
Since the 2015 World Cup, Lasith Malinga missed many opportunities to represent Sri Lanka. For more than a year, he was discarded and yet he was heavily relied on to spearhead the attack in the 2019 edition.
The former SLC president Thilanga Sumathipala and the then sports minister Dayasiri Jayasekera berated Malinga in the media and insinuated his time was up. The coach and selectors claimed they could not include the immensely valuable Malinga into a squad for almost two years because the legendary fast bowler did not fit into their plans.
What plans? It’s laughable to think this chaotic chapter in Sri Lankan cricket is a result of any method or plan — SLC has no plans. These are incapable men groping for a solution in the dark.
Sri Lanka will do well to stick to simplicity if they are serious about making it to the semis of another World Cup. More appreciation must be shown for their cricketers by SLC officials — our cricketers are valuable assets and SLC officials are easily dispensable. It is never the other way around.
The remodelling of the side after every series and the dramatic changes to the batting line up has been so damaging that it will take time to remedy, which is why Sri Lanka must quell the childish desire to obsessively tinker with the playing XI going forward.
Sri Lanka must seek stability and play the same top order, match after match, for at least a year. This is, after all, one strategy that has not been a part of their many odd experiments since the 2015 World Cup.
© Island Cricket