What Sri Lankan cricket needs right now: nurture, patience and a rear-view mirror

What Sri Lankan cricket needs right now: nurture, patience and a rear-view mirror

By Kanishkaa Balachandran/The Hindu

They lost the Test series to India 3-0, they conceded the subsequent one-day series 5-0; they lost the only Twenty20, thereby losing all matches played through the series; their designated captain for the one-dayers was suspended for two matches due to a slow over-rate and his replacement had to be replaced after just one game, making it three captains in the space of four games; their permanent captain relinquished his job in all three formats after an embarrassing loss to Zimbabwe at home; the resignation letters at the Sri Lanka Cricket office then started piling up when the selection committee — led by Sanath Jayasuriya — put in its papers before the India ODIs could finish; angry fans blocked the team bus in Dambulla and if that wasn’t enough, they flung bottles in Pallekele to disrupt the third ODI when the result was a foregone conclusion, bringing back memories of the Eden Gardens horror of 1996, only this time the tables having turned. You have to ask, can things get any worse for Sri Lanka?

If you heard Lasith Malinga’s lament after the fourth one-dayer, you would believe it is the lowest they have plunged as a team. As the stand-in captain, he found himself in charge of a young side still in transition but he raised a pertinent point about Sri Lanka’s selection policy over the years that he feels has contributed to the presence of more fresh faces than the team can afford, at the expense of more experienced players who over the years have been dropped or forgotten for various reasons, ranging from form to politics.

“What I personally think is that our problems are because we lost a generation of players,” Malinga said. “If that generation was here, we wouldn’t have an inexperienced team like this at international level. We had players like Chamara Silva, Thilina Kandamby, Jehan Mubarak, Malinga Bandara, Kaushal Lokuarachchi, Kaushalya Weeraratne, Tharanga Paranavitana and Malinda Warnapura.

“Those players played about 10 years of domestic cricket by the time they were 29 or 30, and played internationals for two or three years, and then they were out of the international scene. We lost that 10-13 years of experience from them. It’s really hard to get that experience from a fresh-out-of-school cricketer or a club cricketer.”

Malinga’s brutally frank observations speak of a cricketing system in turmoil. It’s not like Sri Lanka have never been in this situation before. At times like this, it pays to look back at those times and learn lessons from the past in order to move forward. They could do worse than to go back 23 years, when Sri Lanka were previously walloped by India to such an extent. In 1993-94, the catharsis was no different.

Sri Lanka, led by Arjuna Ranatunga, arrived in India in early 1994 for three Tests and three one-dayers, filling in for Pakistan who had to pull out due to security reasons. In one of the most one-sided Test series in the modern era, India won all three Tests by an innings — the first time any team had done so in 65 years — meaning that they had to bat just thrice. The best score Sri Lanka could ever manage was 231. There were complaints about the umpiring from Ranatunga and the management and while reports say that some decisions appeared dodgy, Sri Lanka let their defeatist mentality get the better of them. Besides Roshan Mahanama, who showed some fight with two fifties, the senior-most members Ranatunga and Aravinda de Silva looked out of depth.

This was no team in transition, unlike the current one. There were players who made their debuts as far back as 1982 (Ranatunga) and 1984 (Aravinda); Mahanama, Jayasuriya had been around for a few years, Muttiah Muralitharan had been around for a couple and Chaminda Vaas played his first match for Sri Lanka on that tour. India may well have swept the one-dayers 3-0 as well, but reports suggest they took their foot off the pedal in the rain-affected third game at Jallandar, getting out to reckless shots, paving the way for a win — still a close one — for Sri Lanka.

India exploited a jaded Sri Lankan side coming off a packed calendar. In 2017, the Indian side steamrolled a Sri Lankan side with their confidence at rock bottom after being beaten in a one-day series, for the first time, by Zimbabwe. In the India series, the only pockets of resistance came in the second Test when Dimuth Karunaratne and Kusal Mendis scored centuries, and in the second one-dayer when Akila Dananjaya had India on the mat in a tense chase.

Kris Srikkanth, in his column for the Sportstar in March 1994, described Ranatunga’s attitude as “negative”. He wrote: “The Lankan batsmen kept getting out to bad shots, they bowled to deny runs rather than get wickets in Test matches. They played the Test matches like one-day internationals and vice-versa. I think it is time Ranatunga listened to some lectures on leadership, team spirit and motivation.”

Whether Ranatunga was spurred on by those words, we don’t know, because when Sri Lanka returned to India’s shores two years later, they flattened every opposition to lift the World Cup (staged by India-Pakistan-Sri Lanka). The strategy of attacking in the first 15 overs was not exactly a novelty in 1996 — it was exploited four years earlier by New Zealand — but Sri Lanka took the gamble to invest their three most attacking players in the top three. Their batting and fielding was good enough to cover the slack in case their bowling — the weakest of the three links — didn’t come good.

The current side faces the possibility of having to qualify for the 2019 World Cup. It’s a trough no former world champion would want to be in, but there is time to rebuild and to do so, it would pay to look back at the fortunes of their ‘90s predecessors. In their journey to World Cup glory, one phase that has slightly slipped under the radar, or hasn’t been spoken of much in relatively great detail, is the 18 months prior to that tournament, more particularly, the year 1995. A glance at their record shows that maybe, their World Cup triumph wasn’t as much of a “fluke” or “surprise” as many had termed it.

Upset victory or not, it’s still one of sport’s classic underdog tales. Sri Lanka’s steady upswing began in September 1994 when they reached the final of a four-nation tournament in Colombo, losing to India; they drew a three-Test series in Zimbabwe (not quite the worst side in the world at the time) and won the subsequent one-day series; they won their first ever Test away from home, against New Zealand (Vaas properly announced his arrival with ten wickets) and went on to win the Test series; then came one of their finest series wins, beating Pakistan in Pakistan, in both Tests and one-dayers. What made Sri Lanka’s feat all the more extraordinary was that they won the Test series after losing the first game, at the time only the fifth such instance in a series involving three Tests. A cavalcade was waiting for them on arrival in Colombo.

Moreover, it was the series in which Aravinda really evolved into the batsman he was known for, coming off a county stint with Kent that turned him into a more grounded player. The wave of self-belief spread to Sharjah where Sri Lanka beat West Indies in the final of a tri-series (in an earlier game, Sri Lanka nearly chased West Indies’ 333). Their fortunes quickly came a full circle in Australia where they lost all three Tests, the same series in which the frosty relationship between the two teams had its genesis with Muralitharan being called for chucking by Darrell Hair.

A peeved Ranatunga this time turned the umpiring controversy into something more empowering. With the attitude of looking to put a bully in his place, Sri Lanka refused to take this incident lying down. Kumar Sangakkara, a schoolboy then, would call the incident an “insult that would not be allowed to pass unavenged”. They channelled their aggression towards results, edging West Indies out for a place in the tri-series final that followed. Sri Lanka may have lost the tournament, but were far from disgraced.

In that 18-month period before the World Cup, Sri Lanka played 59 international matches (47 of those away from home), winning 23 and losing 30. In a similar 18-month period ending with the 1994 India tour, Sri Lanka had played 42 games, winning 13 and losing 20 — not a big difference in terms of the win/loss ratio, but they had played more home games (24) in this period.

Reasons Behind the Rise

At least two reasons for Sri Lanka’s upsurge in 1995 are consistency in selection and dynamic leadership. Let’s go back to Malinga.

“A lot of our players are inexperienced at the international level, but they get their places because they perform at domestic level,” he continued. “I think if we gave some chances to the young players here, we will get players who can play for a long time. If we can give experience to the team that goes to the 2019 World Cup, then you will have players who have played 30-50 ODIs.

“If we keep criticising everyone one by one, we will keep getting these new teams. We have to protect the players we have. The current thinking is always: ‘The player who is in the team is bad, but the one outside deserves a place.’”

Ranatunga was never removed from the captaincy during Sri Lanka’s slump. That ensured consistency in leadership. After the India debacle, the selectors didn’t revamp the side for the heck of it. There were to be only five new Test caps and 10 new ODI caps in the more-or-less two-year period leading up to the 1996 World Cup. The core of the side was retained for the big tourney, which included Ranatunga, Aravinda, Asanka Gurusinha (he missed the India tour), Mahanama, Jayasuriya, Hashan Tillakaratne, Vaas and Muralitharan. Expectations were low, so that allowed the side to flourish steadily, without having to worry about flying bottles and missiles from the stands.

Fast-forward to the present. Since the end of the 2015 World Cup (the last time Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene played together in an international match), 21 new players have played for Sri Lanka in one-dayers. Since Sangakkara’s final Test in 2015, 11 Test players have made their debuts. It’s getting harder to put a name to the face.

It’s well established that political interference is the bane of Sri Lankan cricket administration. Selection of players has to be ratified by the Sports Minister, meaning that he has the power to overrule decisions made by the men in charge of picking the team, a point raised by Sangakkara in his MCC Spirit of Cricket in 2011. In the present day, the selection committee itself has thrown in the towel.

Malinga may not have a great deal much left to offer as a bowler, now in the twilight of his career. But it wouldn’t hurt to take his comments more seriously. Srikkanth had written in the 1994 Sportstar article: “Perhaps it might be good for us [India] if we don’t play against Sri Lanka for another four or five years.”

We later came to know the peril of writing them off. The past can teach this bunch — and, more importantly, their bosses — a lot.

(The featured picture at the top shows  Lasith Malinga being consoled)