A few days ago I tweeted that Sri Lanka have not only stared into the abyss but brought a backpack full of essentials to camp out and explore their new surroundings for the foreseeable future.
That wasn’t entirely true.
In reality, Sri Lanka have been hanging out next to a few piles of their own excrement and wondering why a bunch of flies have been following them around for a while.
Sri Lankan cricket has been on the ropes for some time now. But with high roller names like Sangakkara, Dilshan, Jayawardene, Malinga and Herath, they remained a relevant team in the eyes of the world and fans. And the cricket board.
About three or four years ago Sri Lanka came to the realization that these same players were going to retire. They didn’t panic. They didn’t knee-jerk react. They didn’t do much of anything. It was an out of sight out of mind problem for them. One that was easier to ignore than to address.
If you observed the national team in that time, on the surface, it was easy to come to the conclusion that nothing was wrong. At least nothing that would cause great alarm. And certainly nothing that would suggest everything was on a time bomb to an implosion.
This. This attitude of barely looking up until things are in complete disarray, this head in the sand approach, has been the overarching theme that’s become the rotting root of Sri Lanka’s problem.
So when did it begin to go wrong? When were the problems starting to get ignored? To accurately paint a picture of that we can’t turn the clock back just a few years. Or ten.
We need to go all the way back to 1996.
That glorious year. When Sri Lanka fell their Goliath in true David fashion in Lahore. You can not be too old or too young to not know what happened on that night in March.
But, what did happen on that day? Here was a side, that would be the equivalent of the current Afghanistan team, rising to the top of the pile of the select few. It would be romantic to suggest it was all planned and inevitable. In reality, Sri Lanka was a lower tier team struggling to survive in International cricket. They won the WC through clever tactical gameplay and stringing together enough greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts stuff, peppered with some individual brilliance.
That team was a product of what Sri Lanka was as cricketing nation back them. Semi-professional club cricketers with day jobs who were finding their feet at the highest level. They didn’t make a lot of money. And they mostly played off the sweat on their brow and for pride. A fact that Arjuna Ranatunga likes to point out in pretty much every conversation he has in the public eye. Of course, all this changed in an instant in Lahore. Money poured into the sport. Cricketers quit their day jobs and become professionals. The board got serious.
It also brewed up false positives that Sri Lanka have been paying for since.
Before 96, there was this point of reference that Ranatunga was the boy ‘who walked into the national team from his School team’. Speak to anyone in the cricketing landscape and you are more than likely to here “Sri Lanka’s school cricket is the best in the world” uttered with pride. Big match culture is a thing. School cricket matters and it is unSri Lankan to think otherwise. Sri Lanka to this day assesses how good a player is going to be by the barometer that is their high School first XI teams. Think about that for a minute.
If you are reading this and rigorously shaking your head in disagreement because you feel that’s an unfair assessment of what School cricket is then you are missing the point. School cricket is by far the best asset the country has. It is brilliant at unearthing raw talent at a young age. It is the superficial importance placed on it that’s disingenuous. Believing that these players will be ready for international cricket when their school life ends is like expecting Danny Morrison to score a 10 ODI runs in a single match.
After 96, the cricket board became a prestigious organisation within the political landscape of Sri Lanka. Everyone wanted a piece of the pie. There was money to be made. It became a honey pot for the good and the bad. Cricket became a political pawn. And people got to feel important in high positions. The team matured from a cricketing perspective too. They started winning more, they did well overseas, they competed, and cricket became a national obsession.
But no one thought about how to sustain this rise. Sri Lanka were getting big. And getting big fast. The board was happy to keep letting the elite clubs in Colombo be the supply chain to the team. It was working. After all, the goose seemed to keep laying golden eggs. No one thought about quality over quantity in the long run. No one thought about the next phase of the sport. But they announced that Sri Lanka were going to be the number 1 test team by the year 2000. An audacious claim even for the Sri Lankan board.
It didn’t happen. It couldn’t have happened.
The 1996 team was one of those rare occurrences in a sporting team. It was a generation of players who had played with each other at School and club level. And they all thrived around the same time. When some of them retired Sri Lanka got lucky with a few others filtering through the school system in Mahela, Sanga, Murali and Mathews. These were world class players that would have risen to the top despite the domestic set up they played in. The rest ended up in club cricket and struggled whenever they got an opportunity in the national team. Sri Lanka were doing a West Indies. And doing it well. While the team had individuals and enjoyed success, no one bothered with the next 10 – 20 years. The status quo was the currency of the day.
In the meantime, Cricket evolved. 2020 cricket changed the entire equation. Cricket entered the true professional era and began to compete with other sports for popularity and riches. Teams like India, England and Australia became outrageously professional to match these demands . They reorganized their domestic systems and processes to produce quality in this new world of cricket. Their support teams were bigger than the playing squad. They had their own chefs. They were getting their setups reviewed internally and externally.
Sri Lanka lulled into their false positive, continued to believe they could compete with these teams relying on the Club and School system that hadn’t changed since pre-1996. To be fair, though, Sri Lanka did try to remodel themselves at certain stages. But these were superficial and had no tangible impact. The same clubs were split up into 2 tiers with promotion and relegation. Provincial cricket was introduced, then scrapped, later introduced as Zones, and scrapped again, the SLPL appeared, and died and was brushed under the carpet. You can always polish a turd to appear you are being progressive. Things changed but nothing changed.
The question is whether this domestic system can produce the quality of player needed to compete at the international level anymore. If you play the numbers game, it is not impossible that some star talent could emerge from the ranks, just like they did in the past, but it is impossible for the team and the standard of the domestic system to improve as long as the current system exists. It’s telling that players like Malinga, Pradeep, Akila Dhananjaya and a number of others weren’t even the result of the system but rather these random discoveries. Sri Lanka discovers a lot of players like this. And the reality is that they will then form their team around them, depending on this talent and accepting that fate. As soon as these players are unavailable, it’s back to picking from the scraps the system throws out. As they are doing right now.
Recently all the talk has been about the overhaul of the domestic structure.
Wettamuny tried to do it a few months ago, Tissera and Wettamuny tried to do it years ago, and now Sumathipala is having a go. It’s the buzz word at SLC headquarters. The renewed interest was driven by Wettamuny and Mahela. Now neither are really in the picture following Sumathipala’s appointment. This kind of structural overhaul to a system requires stability in leadership and absolute commitment by everyone involved. In all likely hood, this move towards provincial cricket, or the talk towards the move towards provincial cricket, is the classic smoke and mirrors routine by the SLC. When the Nishantha Ranatunga run board was being taken apart by the media and the ICC, they appointed Haroon Lorgat to review the board. His report was DOA. When things got testy again, they appointed Mahela and Sanga to some positions for PR. Now that the team is reaching new lows they are talking about restructuring.
The boards great lie to themselves in thinking their system was foolproof has not gone unnoticed by the Clubs themselves either. With them rising in prominence, came a power shift that is the undercurrent as to what is allowed to change and what isn’t in Sri Lankan cricket. They now control who enters the SLC and dictate who gets to stay. While Thilanga will publicly talk about structural overhauls, he will first work towards ensuring his constituents are happy. And what keeps them happy is keeping the current club system in operation and staying in control. So much of cricket is different, yet so much is also the same.
There is a reason why these restructures and overhauls haven’t worked in the past. And those reasons haven’t changed since 1996.
Sri Lanka have lied to themselves for so long that they believed it all to be true. And they’ve attached superficial importance to everything without any tangible evidence to back it up. They think their School system is brilliant, yet Sri Lanka has never gotten a sniff at an U 19 world cup. They believe their club system is sufficient, yet it never produces quality players who are the finished product capable of handling the demands of international cricket.
The national teams become a safety net for players when getting into it and stay in it should be the biggest challenges in their professional careers. It seems that once you’ve cracked the fringes of the national team, you are safe amongst the numbers. Players don’t seem to be held accountable. The selectors are too lazy to look beyond you. Failure is rewarded with a mild tap on the wrist, if at all, and a pat on the back to say try harder next time. Different formats of the game seem to be misunderstood at a fundamental level. Explain Thirimanne, Chandimal and Sangakkara in the same T20 side? There appears to be an acute lack of deliberation about what the best combinations are for each format.
There are a lot of people that suggest we just need to have more faith and patience. But faith in what exactly though ? Faith in a system that continually fails to deliver on what it is there for ? Faith in Administration that lacks vision and commitment to take Sri Lanka to the next level? Faith in players who have failed over and over but are regurgitated without being held accountable? Faith in the media that is obsessed with the gossip vine without nailing the board for their shortcomings?
The entire organism of Sri Lankan cricket is currently falling apart at the seams. It’s like watching someone being stabbed, multiple times, in slow motion. Every puncture spills out more rot. And at the moment, no one seems to have any idea about how to stop this tailspin. The fact of the matter is that these are not trivial topics. Restructuring domestic cricket is a huge undertaking. It probably falls into the too hard basket for anyone who looks at it. Which is why it’s easier to talk about than actually do something about. The quality in the team is not good enough. Leadership in the team has given into the routine and by the numbers approach. These are ugly truths to face up to.
If all Sri Lanka wants to be is a middle tier team, then they have everything in place right now to achieve that. They have the resources to put together a team that can make up the numbers without ever really competing. And a cricket board that can keep moving the status quo along. But if the goal really is to try to win the test championship, to win tests overseas, to win a world cup outside of Asia, then the first step for Sri Lanka is, as a cricketing nation, to wake up and look at themselves critically and face up to reality.
Change is not impossible. But it requires effort and the right people with the right attitude, vision and bloody-mindedness to see it through. People like Wettamuny and Mahela have the right ideas. But they need to be backed up by strong leaders within the SLC, who are not afraid to change the system that has them beholden to it. Otherwise, we all need to pack our bags and get ready to sit around the campfire, sniffing our own farts while preparing to grapple with the monsters that lay ahead of us. It is entirely up to Sri Lanka as a whole, to dig themselves out of this hole. But they need to wake up and decide.