How petty politics and selection policies ignore Atapattu’s warning

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By Trevor Chesterfield | April 15, 2010

It is not a new argument. Anything involving the deviousness of political machinations never is, especially in the aftermath such as this one.

What we now have in Sri Lanka is a type of Mexican stand-off with Sri Lankans instead of Mexicans; most are glaring at each other, as usual pointing fingers which are better than Berettas and verbal abuse being hurled and not small-arms fire that can do a more serious injury. So far, the ubiquitous and de rigueur white van and the Gestapo type goons are not involved.

Sure all this paints a seriously sinister picture. But in the aftermath of the recent general election, in which Sports Minister Gamini Lokuge, like the Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollama, were among those rejected by the electorate mainly because of certain nepotism charges and missing funds, the sports and foreign picture could become an interesting one. The joke doing the rounds in Colombo is whether a certain former opening batsman and left arm spinner is now selecting the Sri Lanka team from his current base in Mumbai.

Sanath Jayasuriya Picture
Sanath Jayasuriya at a political rally.

Stranger things have happened. While Sanath Jayasuriya is a well-liked personality, he may yet find himself heading a ministry department in which he has to approve teams of which he may feel he should still be a playing member, and telling the selectors not to rule him out of the selection process until after next year’s World Cup when he decides it is time to retire and become more serious about politics. Even then, as Sports Minister, he may get involved in influencing selection policy and act in similar nepotistic fashion to the charges against Lokuge.

Or even decide to select teams without the selectors. Dangerous? Well, precedents as this have happened before, in other countries where such mea culpa incidents, for the sake of political expediency are all too often ignored or overlooked. But an examination of the current Sri Lanka team scenario for the ICC World Twenty20 with Jayasuriya as part of the team in the Caribbean with him, for example, named as the new Minister of Sport, could be a tricky one.

Yet, what is being circulated in some Indian Premier League circles is how, along with the exclusion of Pakistan players for security reasons when the auctions were held in January, the verbal fracas in 2008 between Cap’n Cool  and the interim Committee chairman, Arjuna Ranatunga and Indian Premier League commissioner, Lalit Mod, has resulted in the pool of Sri Lanka players being rejected by the IPL franchises at the same time.

This is apart from franchise agents reporting back after the Champions Trophy in South Africa and the Champions League how the Sri Lankans largely showed poor fitness and their fielding expertise was a joke. An enquiry elicited an email leaked from a franchise management team which said that Sri Lankan fieldsmen lacked the general basics and had no idea of gameplan strategy.

Names on the list are among current contracted Sri Lanka Cricket squad members as well as those seen by the Ashantha de Mel selection coterie of pals as leading players. They include Ajantha Mendis, Thilina Kandamby, Chamara Kapugedara, Chamara Silva, Thilan Samaraweera, Kaushalya Weeraratne, Isuru Udana, Chinthaka Jayasinghe, Gihan Rupasinghe and Suranga Lakmal. While Mendis is fortunate to be with Kolkata Knight Riders, the others were rejected as “being of a poor standard for such a competitive level of the game” and “these players have fielding skills and practice habits that are five to six years behind those of top Test countries. It is laughable”.

Part of the damning report goes on to say, “As an example, Mendis, one of their leading bowlers, is possibly the worst example of a top player on the international circuit and this largely reflects on the domestic system in which he is involved. His catching record is such that during an evaluation of games he played in the Champions Trophy, Champions League and Sri Lanka tour of India, he missed 95 percent of those and his bowling these days is such that he cracks under pressure”.

Back in January, the following was written in my weekly column, The Chesterfield Files, and based on observations from the Indian tour and domestic leagues.

“Mendis buckled at Green Park and his fielding exposed his level of coaching standards in the leagues he played before his international career. Watching him field became an embarrassment, one as fraught as that by the rotund Thilina Kandamby who struggles around the boundary at the bigger venues.

“It will be interesting to see how he shapes in Bangladesh in a new look squad which has some promising fresh talent to this level which is creating a lot of interest. It will also be interesting to see how the Sri Lanka team shapes in the field. From the India tour exercise, Kumar Sangakkara and Muttiah Muralitharan suggest the team needs to step up their fielding skills, but when you view the names of the management and coaching staff on tour, who do we find going on another ‘paid holiday’, why it is Manoj Abeywickrama. It would be interesting to know what level certificate he has in coaching; whether it is a local acquired through the “buddy, buddy” system, or one from Australian or from England.

“How different to when Trevor Penney was in charge of the fielding side of the game and one where the captain at the time, Marvan Atapattu said he understood the value of such a coach in the side and it is why the side were always sharp in their fielding skills. What Sri Lanka have now is a fumbling joke and it is not going to improve until they get someone who understands the value of fielding.”

It is why Atapattu in November 2007 shrewdly labelled the national selectors as “Muppets headed by a Joker”.

Marvan Atapattue Pciture
Marvan Atapattu signs an autograph. Photo by Bankim

Apart from a couple of names on the panel, nothing it seems. Reasons for the stinging criticism initially launched so long ago by the quietly spoken, yet streetwise former national captain and Test opening batsman still reflect what is happening. Well, almost.

At the time Atapattu launched his forceful verbal broadside, it related to the team’s bench strength on the then Australian tour and suggested De Mel’s coterie of ‘Muppets’ didn’t get their mix right, which is why he was asked to join that particular touring party’s ranks in a belated rescue mission after being overlooked.

Why should he not speak his mind? He knows the drill all too well, and the flawed selection policy that has seen teams travel twice to India last decade and be taught a lesson in how to play the game on the subcontinent. And still no one is listening out there.

Sure the issues are a little different. It seems though the selectors are scared of the politicians running the game in the background to make effective changes, or that Jayasuriya has it seems been given carte blanche selection for the limited overs international games.

Just as much as Jeevantha Kulatunga will be wondering about the fairness of it all and wishing Sri Lanka had selectors such as the late Sir Alec Bedser, or Australia’s current chief honcho, Andrew Hilditch, who explain why a player hasn’t been selected, there are other concerns as well. Sri Lanka’s selectors seem to have also placed on hold building for the World Cup, now less than a year away.

The current squad has that tired familiarity about it. No matter how well they do – or don’t do in the big bash in the Caribbean during the ICC World T20 – it is time for a major overhaul of the systems, not only with the team but also the selectors and even in some cases administration.

For a start, the senior provincial and club structure needs a drastically restructuring from top to bottom, as there seems to be no constructive programme to develop the top tiers of the first-class system. Having a provincial first-class programme with your major players missing is, for a start, cockeyed thinking.

©: Copyright – Trevor Chesterfield.
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