death of sri lanka cricket

It might soon become a reality. Or has it already?

I can see you scowling at the screen. Probably, you are only a millisecond away from scrolling down to see if it is a prank. “Is it a click bait?”, you wonder. “It could very well be a title concocted by combining two random phrases by a bot to increase the impression of the page”, you might think. What the hell does Nokia have to do with cricket apart from sponsoring a few tournaments?

Hold on, my friend. As you are going to see, these two completely unrelated institutions have a lot in common in the way they architectured their own demise. One resigned in a histrionic fashion, got sold out and has re-emerged in a different incarnation, an incarnation that might prove too inadequate. The other is slowly gliding down the valley of death while being completely oblivious to its status quo.

Nokia’s history dates back to the 19th century. A company that began as a forest and power industry company nosedived into mobile communication in the 80s and then set its foot on mobile phone manufacturing- the business that would bring Nokia immortal and ubiquitous popularity and make it one of the world’s most trusted brands ever.

Nokia pioneered camera phones, smartphones, touchscreen phones and virtually everything that dominated mobile phone market before the advent of Apple’s iPhone. Nokia 3310’s strength is unparalleled in the mobile world and continues to dominate YouTube’s vlog as the gold standard of strength which any destructive tool is tested against. Nokia 1100 sold 250 million units, which is still the top-selling mobile phone in the world. Apple’s iPhone 6, in comparison, has sold only 220 million units.

The Finnish company also succeeded in turning mobile phones into fashion accessories and released several phones that even defied sci-fi level imagination.  For a long time, they were the most innovative brand. Nokia’s N series phones shocked users with queer designs and quixotic features. For instance, the N91 came with a 4GB Hard Disk drive encompassed in it. At a stage, it looked as if there could be no brand that could match Nokia, much less outdistance it. Nokia was the unrivalled, inimitable, nonpareil supreme leader of the mobile world.

So, how did Nokia that was the leading mobile phone manufacturer in the world since 1996 collapse to its death? How did a brand that had captured the imagination of all and sundry suddenly cease to impress the users? How did they die? And what does their story tell us? How is that story relevant to me, you and the substance of our relationship – Sri Lanka Cricket?

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Now, I give you two options. If you think the state of affairs in Sri Lanka cricket is poor and a catastrophe is imminent, go on, read further. Or else, if you think it is merely a transition phase and things are going to be alright, and you are ready to open a bottle of Mendis Special and take your bike and the flag out to celebrate every odd win against Afghanistan and Zimbabwe, close the tab and continue what you were doing.

Since Sangakkara’s debut, Sri Lanka has produced only two good Test batsmen in Thilan Samaraweera and Angelo Mathews. In ODIs, barring Mathews no batsman has had a permanent run in the team since 2000. Sri Lanka’s fast bowling has only produced one great bowler since 2000 in shorter formats, and the longer format is yet to see a truly remarkable fast bowler since Chaminda Vass. Since Herath, who made his debut in 1999, Sri Lanka has not produced a good spinner in both shorter formats and Tests. To cut it short, Sri Lanka has not produced a great player for a very long time with Mathews and Malinga being the only exception.

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A popular reason given for Nokia’s decline is Apple’s iPhone. The iPhone did, in fact, change the way we looked at mobile phones. But the reasons for Nokia’s death are much more complicated and nuanced than what meets the eye.

iphone 1g

Nokia’s Waterloo moment.

When iPhone was first introduced, Nokia was still complacent, revelling in its status as world’s leading mobile manufacturer. The company was keen on making fun of iPhone’s cheap hardware and the run-of-the-mill camera. Though admittedly, the hardware was poor, Apple had incepted a change in the way the world used the mobile phones.

However, Nokia nonchalantly pointed out at its market share while making fun of Steve Job’s reality distortion field, and rejected Apple’s path-breaking user interface as a toy. They believed what worked for them in the past would continue to work for them, and thus, they failed to cognize the change mobile computing was going through. Nokia’s smugness and blitheness were all too obvious.

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Sri Lanka won a World Cup without a proper cricket infrastructure in 1996. Cricket was still an amateur sport in Sri Lanka and cricketers had to do other jobs to get an income. However, since the fateful World Cup in 1996, a lot has changed in Sri Lanka but the domestic cricket system has remained constant.

In 1937, Sri Lanka’s inter-club first-class tournament came into existence, known as the Daily News Trophy. Since then, the name of the tournament has undergone many changes but the structure has remained intact. At present, Sri Lanka is the only country in the world that has an inter-club first class tournament. The first-class matches continue to be three-day matches, whereas Afghanistan’s Ahmad Shah Abdali tournament, which was granted first-class status recently, is a four-day cricket tournament.

Bangladesh, when it made its Test debut in 2000, had no first-class tournaments. The domestic scene was dominated by clubs. A first-class tournament coalesced only after Bangladesh’s Test debut. But now, Bangladesh has two regional first-class tournaments.

Sidath Wettimuny, in an interview with the Sunday Times, narrated how Bangladesh’s infrastructure is far more advanced than that of Sri Lanka’s. A country that came into existence only four years before Sri Lanka’s international debut, has outclassed Sri Lanka’s cricket infrastructure.

“Trevor Bayliss made the comment that when he was a coach, we were teaching newcomers how to play first-class cricket while being in the national side.”

When Sri Lanka won the World Cup, cricket was not so professionalised. Dedicated staffs for each skill, data analysts and data scientists, and team psychologists were all a far cry then as far as cricket was concerned. The fielding standards were not great and the use of technology to optimise player performance was still a decade away.

In addition, Sri Lanka, before the 1996 World Cup, was a middling team. Even though the 1996 team consisted of experienced players, their record before the tournament was poor. The team had low standards and the underdog status the team was carrying with itself meant that mediocre performance from players was forborne. Thus, rookie players could spend a lot of time on the international circuit learning the nitty gritty of international cricket.

Almost two decades have flown past since and cricket has now become a technologically sophisticated and highly competitive sport. Other teams are using data science to formulate strategies. Psychologists are employed to keep players mentally fit. Yet it is believed in Sri Lanka that what worked till 1996 would continue to work, even though there is no more room for amateurism in international cricket and players can no more afford to take a lot of time to adjust to international cricket.

Sangakkara, speaking to The Cricket Monthly alluded to Trevor Bayliss’s assessment about Sri Lanka’s domestic system, which bares Sri Lanka’s inept domestic system: “Trevor Bayliss made the comment that when he was a coach, we were teaching newcomers how to play first-class cricket while being in the national side.”

However, incumbent officials seem to be insouciant. Sanath Jayasuriya, even after a humiliating drubbing at the hands of South Africa, claimed that “Just because we lost a series here I don’t want to criticise our domestic system because it’s the very system that produced all those cricketers in the past.”

Proponents of the club system often cite Sri Lanka’s size as a pretext to forgo a change of structure. Though New Zealand, whose population is less than that of Sri Lanka, and Australia, whose population is comparable to that of Sri Lanka, have a regional domestic structure, still the bureaucracy continues to hide behind Sri Lanka’s size. Even if size is indeed a problem, why such a small country needs 24 first class teams is moot.

Cricket has changed. It has become highly competitive. The standards of other teams have gone sky high. But still, the administrators believe that a system that barely worked once still works. Their complacency and aloofness are as conspicuous as the team’s travails.

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Even when Steve Jobs announced Apple’s ambitious iPhone, Nokia had some of the best hardware engineers in the industry. So, their failure wasn’t definitely an engineering failure. They still had the most skilled labour force.

Yet they failed to grasp the paradigm shift mobile phone manufacturing underwent following the advent of iPhone. From a hardware first philosophy, iPhones orchestrated a shift to a greater emphasis on software in mobile phones. A mobile phone’s primary role, from being a device to make phone calls, transformed to computing.

It is quite ironical since it was Nokia that had always pioneered inculcating computing capabilities in mobile phones. Some of the best-known smartphones in the early aughts were all Nokia phones. Bizarrely, Nokia failed to keep pace with the trend that they once set. In other words, they were washed away by the flood of changes they themselves engendered by opening the floodgates.

Even after iPhone changed the trend, Nokia continued to trust its clunky user interface. As Apple was laying the foundation for a mobile eco-system with a mobile phone, a first-of-its-kind app store and third-party apps, Nokia continued to stick to its poorly designed Java apps. iPhone provided better, easier accessibility whereas using Nokia phones required hours of self-training.

Thus, this failure to discern the paradigm shift resulted in Nokia being outdated by other phone manufacturers. When Nokia finally realised that it needed to change its approach, it was way too late. The company thought its better hardware would continue to thrill customers even though the customers were clearly becoming smitten with the better software and interactability afforded by other phones. It wasn’t Nokia’s inability to produce great phones that failed them so much as their institutional reluctance to change their approach.

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Eoin Morgan once observed that the biggest change during his time has been the English players approaching 50-over cricket as the extension of T20 cricket instead of looking at it as the shortened version of Test cricket. England’s habitual aversion to white ball cricket is well documented and could be clearly seen from the team’s performance in World Cup since 1992.

But post the 2015 World Cup England has undergone a renaissance and they seem to have finally cracked the code of making a successful white ball outfit. From having a lineup full of Test batsmen, England now employs white ball specialists. Their batting order is now replete with beefed-up batsmen who play the scoops and the reverse shots with methodical meticulousness. Unlike in the past, they do take T20 seriously.

On the other hand, Sri Lanka still thinks T20 is a gammy format meant only for entertainment. Their callous dismissive attitude towards the shortest format might suggest an inherent intransigent affection for Test cricket at the core, but the country in the recent past has shelved Test cricket for the lucrative shorter formats for more pecuniary gains. Caught between two extremes is Sri Lanka cricket.

It is paradoxical that it was Sri Lanka that instigated the colossal change cricket is currently undergoing. Sri Lanka’s new approach to batting in the 1996 World Cup initiated a domino effect that climaxed in the birth of T20s. Much like Nokia, Sri Lanka is finding it difficult to follow the trend it once set.

1996

In hindsight, it could be argued that the 1996 World Cup was both the beginning point of Sri Lanka’s ascent and descent.

Earlier this year, Sri Lanka School Cricket Association did away with an inter-school T20 tournament. The secretary of the association claimed that “We have understood that Twenty20 Cricket does not support the game in any way. It may provide excitement and thrills youngsters look forward to. But, in the long run, it’s not the best for up and coming Cricketers, who are the future of Sri Lanka Cricket.”

Such attitude is nothing new in the island. Arjuna Ranatunga has been the chief proponent of the anti-T20 standard in Sri Lanka and has several times accused T20 of subverting cricket. T20 cricket is seen as a gammy slogfest that adds no value to cricket. It is the seductive prostitute that decimates a puritanical society.

Whatever Sri Lanka’s view might be on T20 cricket, it should be countenance that they can do little to change it. A country that can hardly have any control over its own fortune in cricket can never shape the global fortune of it. Hence, there is no point in resisting something, the effects of which have already established themselves well.

Moreover, despite Sri Lanka’s fundamentalist view on T20 cricket, T20, in reality, has in fact added a lot more value to it. Even though the traditional notion of a good technic has expired as the modern game now places a greater significance on hitting boundaries over playing solid defensive strokes, it should not be seen as vile but rather as a part of evolution.

However, Sri Lankan batsmen still struggle to find the boundaries at will. The team is bereft of power-hitters. Most batsmen struggle to pace a shorter-format innings properly. While other batsmen have mastered the art of sustaining aggression over long innings, Sri Lankan batsmen often either slow down to play long innings or play short aggressive innings. Angelo Mathews’s struggle for Delhi in the IPL is a prime example of how obsolete Sri Lankan batsmen’s batting is in the modern times.

It is the power-hungry stakeholders of Sri Lanka Cricket who are crippling Sri Lanka’s progress like pathogenic viruses eating away the host’s body, in the process killing the host and eventually themselves.

The young bowlers still bowl Test match lines and lengths and it is obvious that they don’t practice the skills that are needed for the shorter formats. In short, the Sri Lankan system is yet to incorporate modern training methods into its coaching methodology.

Cricket has undergone a paradigm shift. But Sri Lanka thinks its erstwhile record in T20Is and ODIs is a manifestation of the rightfulness of its approach. Other countries are lapping Sri Lanka, but they continue to live in denial. Sri Lanka still produces great talents, but the institutional reluctance to change the approach is impeding its progress.

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Though Nokia failed to get a head start in the mobile computing market, it could have still embraced Google’s Android OS and dominated the Android phone market. Yet, it obstinately continued to cling on to Symbian OS, which lacked the adroit UI of a modern OS, until 2010.

To be fair to Symbian, it was a very resource-efficient OS in comparison to both iOS and Android, which allowed Nokia to stuff top-notch hardware in their phones, yet the old-fashioned OS failed to strike a chord with the users.

Symbian, too, had its chances to build a modern OS. But since Symbian was an enterprise-focused business, they had to cater to the demands of different phone manufacturers. Sony Ericsson, Motorola and Nokia were all pulling Symbian in different directions disallowing Symbian from having a specific goal and thus abetting them lose focus. When Symbian came up with project Pearl to build a unified UI on top of its OS, Nokia lobbied Symbian to drop the project to promote its own S60.

The self-centered stakeholders undermined the progress of Symbian, which in turn subverted their own survival. Perhaps had Symbian been allowed to devise its own strategy, Nokia might have still been ruling the mobile market and Symbian would have been the apple of the mobile world’s eye in lieu of Android.

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Thwarting any attempts to restructure Sri Lanka cricket are its stakeholders. Since decision making in Sri Lanka Cricket is controlled by club presidents, attempts to instil a regional system that would decimate clubs’ power are averted at any cost. Even though boards often promise of revamping the system, they merely end up as mere tokenism.

The inter-dependency among officials prevent Sri Lanka cricket from making any headway. Incumbent officials often pander to their voter bases to ensure re-election and thus the status quo remains unchanged.

This is also reflected in the coaching system of Sri Lanka. Chaminda Vass was ousted as the bowling coach before the 2015 World Cup following the mediocre performance of the fast bowlers on the dead wickets of India. However, Champaka Ramanayaka, irrespective of the many defeats and the shambolic performances of the fast bowlers, seems to have made the role of the fast bowling coach his own.

Chaminda Vaas, speaking to the Sunday Times, vocalised his consternation at the power struggle within SLC: “Finally I felt that there were forces within, trying to use certain members to get rid of the others and in turn cut them out also from the equation. However, finally, it is our own cricket that has suffered as a result of this undying power struggle.”

It is the power-hungry stakeholders of Sri Lanka Cricket who are crippling Sri Lanka’s progress like pathogenic viruses eating away the host’s body, in the process killing the host and eventually themselves. If cricket ceases to exist in Sri Lanka, the clubs’ existence would be meaningless. So, in actuality, cricket clubs’ crusade is not going to do them any good in the long run.

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Sri Lanka Cricket, today, stands where Nokia was circa 2008. It is now or never. They have their work cut out. Unless they shed their institutional reluctance and self-centered pursuits, Sri Lanka risk going the Nokia way.

International cricket is also facing an uncertain future as T20 leagues are hogging the international calendar. Hence, Sri Lanka’s over dependency on international fixtures for financial gains is also worrying. Unlike other cricket playing countries, Sri Lanka lacks a strong domestic market for cricket, which means Sri Lanka is forced to depend on external markets.

The challenges awaiting Sri Lanka are plenty and some of them are not even within the board’s control. In such a scenario, the last thing any fan would want is in-house turmoil.

To quote Charles Darwin, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
Will Sri Lanka adapt to the change? Or is it going become another Nokia?