The decline of Sri Lanka Cricket: Dearth of talent or mismanagement?

Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardena
The national problem of long goodbyes is affecting cricket too.

A lot of things have transpired in Sri Lanka since the legendary duo- Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardena- retired from cricket. Yet, the team and the management are unable to give up saying that it is difficult to replace Sangakkara and Jayawardena in every other interview.

It is true that the team is yet to find a duo to fill in the shoes of the two legends. However, has India found a replacement for Sachin Tendulkar? Has Australia found its next Shane Warne? Is there a Jacque Kallis in the current South African team?

The answer is no. But has their journey come to a standstill? No. Teams have moved past heroes. Legends come and go but a team should always be on the move. Under no circumstances, a team can get a like-for-like replacement for legends. When great players hang their boots, good teams have always tried to build a new combination with the talent that is at their disposal.

Australia didn’t go after the next match-winning leg spinner. Instead, they tried to build an attack with a reticent spinner. After Kallis, the Proteas didn’t obsess too much about an all-rounder in the top seven. Rather, they tried playing seven batters.

On the other hand, Sri Lanka is still searching for a Sangaesque number three and a Mahelaesque number four. They have the option of choosing a number three among a calm and self-possessed Thirimanne, an aggressive and explosive Kithuruwan Vithanage and a domineering Shehan Jayasuriya. At number four there is the adventurous Chandimal. But tThe team is unable to build a new combo with the talents at their disposal. They are merely trying to find a Sanga-like number three and a Mahela-like number four and hence, there is this dirge about the lack of talented batsmen.

The lack of talents is a myth

I write this article in the wake of Minod Bhanuka, a 20-year-old, becoming the youngest Sri Lankan to score a triple century at first-class level and the 24-year-old Dasun Shanaka scoring two breath-taking quick-fire hundreds in the domestic T20 competition. The Under 19 team has left the island with two promising youths, Shammu Ashan and Charith Asalanka, and a realistic chance of pocketing the first ever U19 World Cup.

Despite possessing the weakest domestic structure, the truth is that, at the risk of sounding sensational, there is talent wherever you trip and stumble. But whither talent, if they cannot be utilized properly?

The lack of a leader

The Sri Lankan team is akin to free moving electrons in a conductor. There is definitely promise. But they need a voltage source to lead them in the right direction so that they can churn out power. Admittedly, the voltage source is missing or, at least, has ceased functioning.

There are no national policies or goals as far as selection is concerned. The previous selection committee once stated that Sachith Pathirana was overlooked since the policy was to avoid anyone with a weak throwing arm. When the now subsisting selection committee took charges, Sachith Pathirana became the lead spinner for some time in the ODI team. Shouldn’t policies remain constant and uniform even if committees change? If policies are going to change with every other committee, how can a team be built?

The policies that keep changing

The case of Sachith Pathirana is not the only aberration. In the home series against England in 2014 Lakshan Sandakan, a chinaman bowler was picked into the squad. However, when most players injured themselves during the 2015 Cricket World Cup, Tharindu Kaushal was flown in as a replacement over the chinaman bowler. If Kaushal was the more preferred spinner, then why Lakshan was given a chance ahead of him in the series against England?

Worst of all, Mathews introduced Tharindu Kaushal as the ‘duplicate Murali’ in his debut match, which happened to be the quarterfinal match against South Africa. The amusing part of that comment was that Kaushal had already made his debut in tests without being compared to Muralitharan. The comment was, presumably, a part of a plan to play mind games with South Africa and to set panic within the dressing room but which team ended up panicking was there to be seen by all and sundry.

The plan to psychologically daunt South Africa who was until that match notorious for their choking in knockouts was acceptable, but why did no one spare a thought about the impact it can have on a youngster’s career? Winning the quarterfinal was, of course, important, but why didn’t anyone think of how the rookie spinner was going to handle such a big burden of being the ‘duplicate Murali’ all throughout his career?

On the other hand, if Kaushal was good enough to make his ODI debut with the moniker of ‘duplicate Murali’ in a high-pressure quarterfinal game, then why wasn’t he good enough to play any subsequent ODI matches?  Was he only a stopgap solution for a team that was cutting corners to win a match?

Dinesh Chandimal was overlooked in the ODI side, so much so Dimuth Karunaratne was occupying his number 5 slot in the World Cup. But Thirimanne, an opener until then, was pushed down to the middle order and Kusal Perera, who flew in as a replacement, was made to open in the quarterfinals, and the reason the selectors adduced was that the injury to Dinesh Chandimal during his breezy 52 against Australia had weakened the middle-order. How could a batsman who had been absent for a very long time and had been present for only a single game render a batting lineup weak to an extent that the batting order needs re-shuffle to compensate for the loss?

The six-year quest for a spinner in shorter formats

Muttiah Muralitharan
Sri Lanka hasn’t had a lead spinner in shorter formats since Murali’s retirement in 2011.

And this hasn’t been just a story of the recent past. Almost 5 years have swished passed since Muralitharan’s ODI retirement, yet the team is still in search of a lead spinner. Suraj Randiv couldn’t find himself a place in the side for the 2011 World Cup, but became the more preferred spinner over Ajantha Mendis, who had an excellent World Cup. Even after picking a fifer against England in England and doing not so badly against the visiting Australian side, Seekuge Prasanna was brought into the team at the expense of the off-spinner. Randiv wouldn’t get a game until 2014.

As the gamble with Prasanna failed to bear fruits, Sachithra Senanayake was enlisted, but he too after remodelling his action, withered away. Jeffrey Vandersay is the new addition to the spin barracks, but how long the selectors will persist with him is a mystery. During this time, Sri Lanka has tried its luck with a multitude of spinners from Sajeewa Weerakoon to Jeevan Mendis.

The anxiousness over youngsters

Dimuth Karunaratne, after establishing himself as the premiere test opener, was pushed down to number three to accommodate Upul Tharanga after Kumar Sangakkara’s retirement. Jehan Mubarak, a 34-year-old, was brought into the test team as Sangakkara’s replacement, despite an in-form Sangakkara calling it day to give a youngster a chance in the test side. Both the experiments with Mubarak and Tharanga failed miserably as the selectors were once again forced to look back at the youngsters.

The lack of confidence on youngsters and the team management’s fretfulness over playing youngsters had already been exposed when both Mathews and Marvan Atapattu, the then coach, requested Dilhara Fernando as an injury cover during the 2015 World Cup. In addition, Thilina Kandamby was seen making a comeback in the ODI series against England in late 2014, all signs of Sri Lanka’s scepticism on its youngsters.

Sri Lanka Cricket, instead of spouting excuses, should learn to make maximum use of the talents at their disposal and must build a side with a fresh combination that would be relevant to the kinds of talent there in the island. The team set-up that subsisted during the Sanga-Mahela era is now obsolete. Sticking to the past is not in any way going to help this team. Brand new ideas and an innovative approach are all what the team needs now. There is no shortage of talents. What is absent is a good head that can make use of these talents. Until Sri Lanka finds such a ‘thinking head’, the future will always be murky.