Chandika Hathurusingha was only a brand. As Thilanga Sumathipala was trying every trick up his sleeves to somehow ingratiate himself with the public through cricket, after having failed to get elected into the Parliament during the last general election, his last-ditch effort to augment his public image was to fall back on the brand that is Hathurusingha.
It is not as if Sumathipala thought that Hathurusingha had the right vision. Nor did Hathurusingha convince Sumathipala that he had the right ideas. Hathurusingha had made a life for himself in Australia and had gone onto have a successful stint with Bangladesh, during which he oversaw the thitherto minnow’s coming of age. The world hyped him. Sri Lankans loved him. Sangakkara was gushing over him. He was believed to be a talisman. So, Sumathipala hired him.
The fans went gaga. They thought Sri Lanka’s barren period was over. They were hoping for a monsoon of wins to arrive for the Messiah was here.
For the vast majority of them, it is about the brand—the individual and the public perception about him. Whatmore is good because he won a World Cup. Tom Moody is great because we reached a World Cup final under him. Trevor Bayliss is excellent because you know it. Thus, it’s about a name and what they associate with that name. Hardly anyone speaks about what ideas Whatmore implemented, what strategies Moody employed or how Bayliss handled his players. It is never about their ideas or strategies. It is always about a brand—a man and how he is perceived.
Therefore, no one speaks about the fact that Whatmore inherited an experienced team and the ploy to open with Sanath and Kaluwitharana wasn’t his, that the team that Moody took to a World Cup final had Sanath, Vaas, Sangakkara, Mahela, Muralitharan and Malinga in it, and that Bayliss was only carrying forward the same core. This also explains why the name of Mike Hesson, who is one of the most astute coaches at present, is not being bandied in discussions about which coach should be hired next. He doesn’t have a strong brand in Sri Lanka.
Thus, a coach is only a black box. It is only about what output the black box produces with the team that is input. You can take over the best team in the world, break no sweat, win and be called the best coach in the world, and take charge of a team in disarray, work yourself into a lather to build a core, make them compete again, and still be sent to the gallows. The ideas and strategies of a coach are irrelevant, no matter how much they improve a team. It is never about the inner workings of the black box.
It is quite an irony that Hathurusingha, the only reason for whose hiring was his strong brand, is facing the axe because the faith in the same brand has been lost. Hardly anyone has posited a well-reasoned, constructive criticism against his coaching. No one has gone into the details about his tactics, strategies or ideas. It is just that he has not produced the desired results, and hence must go. Fans thought that he would weave his magic and turn this team into a champion outfit, but he hasn’t. They were promised a stallion but Hathurusingha has delivered only a foal. Never mind the fact that the mare wasn’t even pregnant when he took charge.
Sri Lankan fans have clearly run out of patience. But why? And how justified is it?
This lack of patience among fans can mostly be attributed to overestimating the ability of the Sri Lankan team. It is a common belief that this team is good enough, and only a pep talk or a motivational session away from starting to become dominant in world cricket, thus, the proclivity to wanting to try different coaches (read brands) hoping that one of them would pull a rabbit out of the hat.
But think about this. Dasun Shanaka is probably the only genuine ball-striker in Sri Lanka along with Thisara Perera. Other teams have a whole lot of them. England are spoilt for choices. There is a reason why they are one of the favorites to win the World Cup. There is not even a single Sri Lankan batsman who can read a googly. Wrist spinners of quality are difficult to find at the national level. At the domestic level, they are almost nonexistent. Apart from the aging Malinga, there is not even a single bowler who can get the yorker right. And the less said about fast bowlers who can hit the 140 mark consistently without breaking down, the better.
The country lacks a premiere league tournament. Even Afghanistan has one now. Yet we think that Sri Lanka not qualifying to the main stage of the World T20 in 2020—even though Afghanistan has—is an ignominy. Afghan cricketers are now well sought out internationally. There is not even a single Sri Lankan player who can boast of the same. Still, when Sunrisers Hyderabad wanted Kusal Perera to replace the banned Warner, he refused. The juntas thought that was a patriotic act. In actuality, it was only a silly decision. Just consider this: Kusal Perera could have faced Rashid Khan in the nets, become privy to the weak areas he was working on, locked horns with the likes of Bumrah during matches, and exposed himself to new team strategies—brought the new-found knowledge home and shared it with his team members. That could have made the team collectively better. At least, Sri Lanka could have had better plans against Rashid Khan in the Asia Cup.
When problems run so deep, it is ridiculous to expect a coach to change the fortunes of a team on short notice. Years of mismanagement and poor decision making cannot be reversed within the space of a year. Even the best coach in the world is not going to do that.
The sacking of Angelo Mathews is another reason why the fans have turned against Hathurusingha. Mathews has almost become a cult of personality now that Sri Lankan fans have deluded themselves into thinking that he is the be all and end all of the team. His average of 59.20 in the last two years in ODIs is often adduced as a testimony to his importance to the team. But what is glossed over is his strike rate of 76.35 which is way below the global average of 80.97 for innings played at number 4 and 5 in the last two years. The average strike-rate jumps up to 89.42 in matches won. His slow scoring in the middle, along with Chandimal’s stymieing innings, has been one of the chief reasons behind Sri Lanka’s downfall in ODIs.
Hathurusinghe correctly identified Sri Lanka’s problem of playing too many dot balls during the middle overs in ODIs. Mathews was one of the main culprits as he often refused to run quick singles and turned down doubles even when they were on offer. His subdued, listless way of batting not only affected his limited-overs batting but also his Test batting.
Mathews showed no signs of improvement and was dropped from the limited-overs team after the Asia Cup debacle, and rightly so. This spurred Mathews on as he visibly started showing more intent with the bat. His average in Tests after being dealt with that blow is 68.71. His average during the two-year period before being axed was only a paltry 30.03.
Mathews celebrated his hundred in New Zealand with ten push-ups to rub it in on Hathurusingha’s face, and it was soon portrayed as an apposite response to the unfair way in which the coach handled the senior-most player. But let’s face it. Mathews was never dropped from the Test side. Therefore, scoring in Tests is not a disproval of Hathurusingha’s decision.
Moreover, an eventual hamstring injury to him in the second Test shed more light on Mathews’ sub-par performances in the recent past. His insipid batting wasn’t a result of poor understanding of modern-day cricket. It was instead done to sustain his body. When he was forced to push his body beyond its limits, he broke down yet again. If he is to continue performing the way he did in New Zealand, then he can’t do that without pushing his body beyond its limits. You can only pity Mathews. His body can’t stand the rigors of cricket anymore. Hathurusingha was right in wanting to look past Mathews. The team is bigger than Mathews, no matter however big his contributions to Sri Lanka cricket may be.
Yes, it was Hathurusingha who cajoled Mathews back to captaining the team. But when Hathurusingha took over the team, Mathews was virtually the only one with an almost permanent spot in the team. Moreover, he couldn’t have been privy to Mathews’ fitness concerns at the beginning. So, it is understandable why the coach urged him to captain the side. And Mathews was given his time to show improvement. “We want him to get fitter,” the coach said in a press briefing. His concerns about Mathews’ fitness has now been reiterated by two successive chief-selectors. The sacking wasn’t completely unfair.
Besides, the majority of the fans are suspicious of the ability of Sri Lankan coaches. Even though it should be admitted, the coaches in the Sri Lankan system are way below par, the fact that someone was born a Sri Lankan should not invalidate their skillset. But the nation loves white dudes and somehow believes that a coach’s ability is validated by the color of his skin. This explains the perennial obsession over foreign coaches.
In addition, Sri Lankans also tend to begrudge players and coaches their stipend. Hathurusinghe is a well-sought-out coach internationally and to hire someone of his ilk, you have to pay a competitive salary, which is what Sri Lanka cricket did. If you are to get better coaches, you ought to pay a higher salary. It will be foolish if fans want the coach to be fired owing to his higher salary. High performance is more important than cost-cutting to a sports team.
There are no quick fixes to Sri Lanka’s struggles in cricket. Hathurusingha is no magician either. This team needs time. The coach needs time. And continuing to play roulette with the coaching staffs is only going to keep protracting Sri Lanka’s episode of misery.