Have Sri Lanka failed to improve under Hathurusingha?


Criticisms have been rife against the Sri Lankan head coach for the lack of improvement in the fortune of the nation’s cricket team. Experts and fans alike have started to call for his head, and with the recent ministerial interventions, it is becoming clear by the day that an axe is indeed hanging over him.

It has only been 13 months since he took over, but the nation has already run out of patience. It is claimed that there has been no improvement in the team’s performance, and it has only gotten worse.

Has he been given enough time already that we need to start exploring other options? Hasn’t there been any improvement since he took over? And have we become worse than before?

It should be remembered that Hathurusingha took charge of a team that had lost an ODI series to Zimbabwe at home, failed to win a Test series at home against Bangladesh, and been whitewashed in ODIs by Pakistan in the UAE, and by India at home. There was hardly anyone in the shorter-format team with a spot to call his own. There is no way you can measure the improvement of such a team by its win-loss record. You ought to look at where the team was when he took over and where it is now.

Even going strictly by the win-loss record paints a positive picture. Between the beginning of 2016 and until Hathurusingha took over, Sri Lanka had played 99 matches, lost 63 of them, and won only 28, amounting to a win-loss ratio of 0.44. Since Hathurusingha took over, Sri Lanka have played 46 games, won 14, and lost 28, accounting for a win-loss ratio of 0.5.

Before Hathurusingha (Since 2016)
After Hathurusingha

Yes, I admit, this minute increase in the win-loss ratio is insignificant given where the team is right now, but if you are adamant that he be judged by wins and defeats, then, remember, there has only been an improvement.

To make a better appraisal of Hathurusingha’s stint, we have to look at the changes he has brought to the side. To begin with, the best thing to have happened under his tenure is the transformation of Thisara Perera.

The all-rounder had a modest average of 17.28 with the bat and 32.41 with the ball before Hathurusingha arrived. Since his arrival, Perera averages 42.6 with the bat and 25 with the ball. The progress has been nothing but dramatic. It is not without a reason that he thanked both Hathurusingha and Samaraweera after playing that incredible innings against New Zealand in January. “For the last eight years I’m batting No. 8 or No. 9 and if I’m batting No. 7 I can get more time at the crease so I thank the coaching staff for trusting me,” he said after that match.

The word that needs to be emphasized the most from what Perera said was trust. One of Hathurusingha’s biggest achievements has been creating a safe environment for the players. He has placed immense faith in the players he has chosen and has backed them to the core, and that is paying dividends. “I had failed about 15 one-dayers, and still the coach (Chandika Hathurusingha) and Thilan aiya refused to drop me. They let me play Tests again. I was only able to get here because they stood by me,” Kusal Mendis told ESPNcricinfo. He is another beneficiary of the irresolute confidence Hathurusingha places on his players. Last year, he scored 1023 runs in Tests and ended up only behind the inimical Virat Kohli, and averaged 46.20.

thisara perera
Thisara Perera has turned a corner under Hathurusingha’s watch

Another aspect of Hathurusingha’s coaching that makes him stand out from the past coaches is his emphasis on big-hitting. For a long time, Sri Lanka had convinced itself that its old-school way of playing limited-overs cricket would continue to work, this despite scores in excess of 350 being breached more than they have ever been. This seems to be changing now with the likes of Dasun Shanaka and Dhanushka Gunathilaka getting a consistent run in the national team. The right-hander, who made his ODI debut in 2016, has now played 10 of his 19 matches under Hathurusingha.

Niroshan Dickwella, who has copped a lot of criticisms for his bohemian attitude, has also been persisted with and he has fast become a mainstay in the Sri Lankan XI. In him and Gunathilaka, we can see a long-term opening partnership taking shape. In Thisara Perera and Dasun Shanaka, we can see a powerful lower-order evolving. In Kusal Mendis, Kusal Perera, and Dhananjaya de Silva, we can see a dynamic middle-order taking roots. Sri Lanka can now boast of a core of players which we never could since the last World Cup. The batting lineup that played the last ODI versus New Zealand is the closest we have ever got to a decent ODI batting lineup in the recent past. And it took Hathurusingha barely a year.

Hathurusingha also stands tall by his modern coaching methods. A lot has been said about the physical fitness of the Sri Lankan players. But something that had always evaded public consciousness was the team’s lack of mental fitness. “The root of it was they were scared to drop catches. When I spoke to them individually, they preferred the catch going to the next man, rather than to them,” Jerome Jayaratne who was Sri Lanka’s acting-coach after Atapattu’s departure in 2015 said about Sri Lanka’s fielding woes. Yet, it wasn’t addressed. It wasn’t even considered a worthwhile topic of discussion. However, one of the first things Hathurusingha did after assuming duties was to hire a sports psychologist albeit on a temporary basis.

This is not to mean that Hathurusingha has been impeccable. He has made his fair share of mistakes like picking Tharanga for a middle-order role in T20Is during the Nidahas Trophy, doing absolutely nothing to rectify Sri Lanka’s spin-bowling woes in Test cricket, selecting the likes of Dilruwan Perera and Jeevan Mendis for shorter-formats, going out of the way to back Chandimal to come good in shorter formats after years of incompetence, and not giving Isuru Udana a consistent run in white-ball cricket despite his stellar performances in overseas leagues.

Mistakes they may be, nonetheless, it didn’t take too long for Hathurusinghe to rectify most of them. It should be understood that a new coach needs time to study his team and the resources available, and during the course of that period mistakes are bound to be made.

Even though Hathurusingha kept throwing his weight behind Chandimal, whose skills are ill-suited to the shorter formats, it should be taken into account that he did so being fully aware of Chandimal’s fallibility. “I still remember he reached three figures by hitting a six. That instinct, I saw in him is lacking. I am now asking where it has gone? We have to find answers for that,” Hathurusingha told Cricbuzz in an interview. “When I came back to Sri Lanka, I asked him the same question. I asked him why he went in that direction,” he told ESPNcricinfo in another interview. “You will see him coming back to his true potential in the coming months,” he added further.

Hathurusingha thought that he could take Chandimal back to his glory days. You can’t blame him for thinking that way for it was a similar belief in a player’s potential that brought the best out of Thisara Perera and Kusal Mendis. And Chandimal, too, showed signs of improvement as he scored more than run-a-ball batting at number three to help Sri Lanka post a mammoth total against England during the last match of the home series.

In comparison to the previous coaches Sri Lanka have had in the recent past, Hathurusinghe has fared better and has shown a better understanding of modern-day cricket. Take Atapattu for example. Recently in an interview, he said, “How to play a cover drive is important and not how to slog five sixes… No point in someone able to hit five sixes but if he can’t bat for five overs… We have to look at players who can adapt and modify their techniques to make progress.” Such old-school coaching methods, which sacrifice natural ball-striking ability on the altar of conventional batting techniques, is one big reason why Sri Lankan batsmen continue to struggle in the shorter-formats where power-hitting has become integral to success. Batting techniques have now become more modern and diverse insofar as to include power-striking. Failure to adapt and incorrigible adamance in abiding by archaic coaching books is what has ruined the careers of once enterprising batsmen like Chandimal.

marvan atapattu
Hathurusingha has shown a better understanding of modern-day cricket than the likes of Marvan Atapattu.

But could only Hathurusinghe have effected the right changes? The answer is an obvious no. Any decent coach would have done that. Graham Ford certainly would have. But when was he offered the freedom to make such far-reaching changes? Here is where another attribute of Hathurusinghe came in handy—his machismo. His my-way-or-the-highway attitude, his headmasterly control over his team, his fetish for taking the bull by its horn, and his alpha-male arrogance of not settling for anything less than what he demands ensured that he could get what he wanted. Other coaches, despite having the right ideas, were not strong enough to stand up to the puerile bullies in Sri Lanka cricket but Hathurusinghe has been.

Thus, it can be seen that in spite of having been in charge of the team only for a year, the current head coach has started to steer the team in the right direction. Building a team takes time. One needs to invest and patiently wait for returns. Rummaging through hasty changes hoping for prompt changes in fortune is only going to set back Sri Lanka cricket by several years, which would only make the task of reviving the team even more difficult for the succeeding coach. Hathurusingha’s team is taking roots and will bear fruits only in the longer run.