The selectors and the team management are the biggest culprits behind Sri Lanka’s struggles

Young players like Dickwella have been victims of favouritism.

Towards the end of 2015, Niroshan Dickwella scores a century in a first-class fixture for Sri Lanka A in New Zealand, becomes the fifth highest run scorer in the AIA Premier T20 tournament and the second highest run-getter in the Super T20 Provincial Tournament, and thus, merits a place in Sri Lanka’s 2016 Asia Cup and World T20 squad.

During the 2016 Asia Cup, Sri Lanka Cricket Board officials infiltrate into the Sri Lankan dressing room and discuss team selections with Angelo Mathews, completely snubbing Sri Lanka’s T20I captain Lasith Malinga. Soon after the Asia Cup, the Minister of Sports, Dayasiri Jayasekara, unceremoniously sacks the selection committee overnight and appoints an interim selection committee lead by Aravinda de Silva. The new committee that includes Kumar Sangakkara, appointed just nine days before the beginning of the World T20, 2016 to ensure the selection of one of Sri Lanka cricket’s pet players, ousts Niroshan Dickwella and picks Lahiru Thirimanne instead.

Anyone who saw Dickwella bat in the ODI series against Zimbabwe and the three T20Is versus South Africa would have wondered, not so surprisingly, as to how the selectors managed to keep him out of the side for such a long time, especially considering the fact that the left-handed wicket-keeping batsman has been performing consistently well both at the domestic level and for the Sri Lanka A team.

In the three-match Test series in England, despite having scored a fifty against Essex, Dickwella wasn’t picked while Thirimanne’s unbeaten 40 against Leicestershire saw him play all three Tests against England. Even in the ODI series that ensued, Dickwella was kept out of the side and Sri Lanka persisted with Seekuge Prasanna at number six. Joining the Sri Lanka A side in England following the completion of Sri Lanka’s tour of England, the southpaw returned scores of 67,9,51,44 and 60.

Again, Dickwella was ignored for the ODI series against Australia even as the team struggled with their openers. In one of the five matches, Sri Lanka even handed a debut to the eighteen-year-old Avishka Fernando, yet, the selectors were not convinced of Dickwella’s performances.

In the Test matches versus Zimbabwe, too, Asela Gunaratne, who averaged 34.80 with the bat vs. the West Indies A, was picked ahead of Niroshan Dickwella, who averaged 52.33 against the same side.

Dickwella is not the only victim

To be fair, Sri Lanka Cricket has been impartially discriminatory towards many talented youngsters, thanks to their obsession over certain proven failures who have managed to keep their places in the side both despite their performances and age.

Dhananjaya de Silva, another youngster whose enlistment into the team was delayed due to Sri Lanka’s obsession with certain players, made a promising start to his international career against Pakistan in a T20I and since then, scored consistently well at the domestic level. He was the highest run-getter in the Super T20 Provincial tournament in 2015/6 and was the fourth highest run scorer in the AIA Premier T20 tournament in 2015/6. Be that as it may, de Silva never found a place in Asia Cup Squad or the WT20 squad, and warmed the benches throughout the tour of England despite being a part of both the Test squad and the ODI squad. He, however, played in the 1st ODI against Ireland and scored three unbeaten runs batting at number nine.

Sandakan, on the other hand, completely bamboozled the batsmen of Lahore Lions in the Champions League in 2014 and found a place in the ODI squad against England in 2014, but had to wait for almost another two years to make his international debut. Even that would not have materialised had it not been for injuries to both Jeffrey Vandersay and Suranga Lakmal.

Despite impressing in the white flannels, Sandakan was discarded after playing just one ODI against Australia while the spinners who were preferred over him struggled to contain the Australian batsmen even on the rolled muds that were used as turfs.

Jeffrey Vandersay, after making his debut against Pakistan in T20Is, struggled to break into the national team and proved himself to be a wicket-taker during the middle overs in the ODIs against New Zealand even though the matches were played on flat, fast surfaces that offered little assistance to spinners.

Nevertheless, he was ignored for the T20I series against India in 2016 and failed to get a game in the Asia Cup despite being a part of the squad. The risible, new selection committee that was appointed just nine days before the WT20, 2016, left out Vandersay and brought in Suranga Lakmal. An injury to Malinga would facilitate Vandersay’s come back into the squad and in his very first game against the West Indies, the leg spinner would impress all and sundry and go on to play the remainder of the tournament ahead of the spinners who were already in the squad. A broken finger forced him out of cricket for several months and even after regaining his fitness, Vandersay was left out of Sri Lanka’s T20I squad against South Africa.

Dasun Shanaka, in spite of scoring two centuries in T20s and ending up as the highest run-getter in the AIA Premier T20 tournament in 2016, is yet to get consistent chances to play for the national team. Shanaka played a lot of important cameos for Sri Lanka in the limited opportunities he got in T20Is and won the man of the series award in his very first ODI series. In the face of it, Shanaka was squashed into the lower order as both Seekkuge Prasanna and Upul Tharanga batted at number six and seven in the ODI series in England. His failure in batting in the tail order resulted in him being dropped from the ODI and T20I squads against Australia.

The obsession over certain proven failures

Lahiru Thirimanne replaced Dickwella in the WT20 squad.

A cursory appraisal of these players’ plight lays bare the fact that the primary cause has been the selectors’ as well as the team management’s fixation over certainly proven failures. For instance, Lahiru Thirimanne was sacked from the Test team by the selection panel headed by Kapila Wijegunawardane and was removed from the T20I team by Lasith Malinga as he found Thirimanne’s batting irrelevant to the shortest format. But such was the obsession over Thirimanne, the Minister of Sports at the behest of the cricket board officials changed the selection committee overnight to bring back Thirimanne into the WT20 squad. Not so surprisingly, Thirimanne averaged just 3.5 at the strike rate of 53.84 in the world tournament.

The selectors persisted with Thirimanne in the Test series against England as well, despite Thirimanne averaging 24 in the format, and the left-handed batsman didn’t ‘disappoint’ by averaging 17.40 with the bat across the three Test matches. When the selectors finally decided to move on from Thirimanne, Dhananjaya de Silva was brought into the side against Australia and the youngster immediately impressed by becoming the highest run getter of the series.

Seekkuge Prasanna, meanwhile, has been hogging either a specialist spinner’s place or a batsman’s place in the limited overs side for a very long time despite averaging 13.21 and 12.87 with the bat, and 53.67 and 34.50 with the ball in ODIs and T20Is respectively. He is regarded as an all-rounder in Sri Lanka, but it should be remembered that an all-rounder is someone who can perform well with both the bat and the ball and is not someone who flunks with both. Of course, his staunch fans, if they exist, can adduce his match-winning innings against a second string South African side in the third T20I as a case for his place in the team, but it should not be forgotten that the ‘all-rounder’ averages 12.87 with the bat and has gone past 30 only once in his career while only thrice has he scored in excess of 10 runs in an innings in T20Is.

In the 2015 World Cup, he was picked into the squad as a replacement for the injured Dimuth Karunaratne. So bad was his performance with the ball that Tharindu Kaushal, who came in as a replacement for Herath, was handed over a debut in the quarter-finals ahead of him.

Yet, the Sri Lanka’s love affair with Prasanna continued as he hogged a spinner’s spot in the three-match T20I series in India in 2016, but failed to pick up wickets. Natheless, Jayasuriya picked him for the tour of England and Ireland and Prasanna made sure he played all five matches of the ODI series against England by hitting 95 runs off 46 balls against Ireland in the second ODI.

In the series against England, Prasanna averaged 15.40 with the bat and 234 with the ball. It should be noted that Prasanna, in that series, batted at number six, mostly. However, his failures were awarded with a couple of matches against Australia, during which, despite bowling on rank turners, he failed to impress. To top it off, Seekuge’s place in the team came at the expense of the young Lakshan Sandakan’s place.

His innings of 37 versus South Africa is no more than a chance innings against pedestrian bowlers as good bowlers have always found him a sitting duck. I would be surprised if he manages to repeat this feat against an international bowling unit again, let alone he doing it consistently.

The chimera called experience

The current crop of selectors also has a habit of resorting to experience, irrespective of form and performance, whenever the team fails to perform well. Sanath Jayasuriya openly admitted that he panicked when Sri Lanka failed during the ODI series against Australia. He, somehow, believes that the older the players are, the better the performance of the team would be, that, too, despite being proved wrong on so many occasions.

Dilruwan Perera was played throughout the ODI series vs. Australia and even though all the matches were played on slow, spinning turfs, he struggled to dominate the batsmen. In the fifth ODI, when the stand-in skipper, Dinesh Chandimal, wanted Dilruwan to pick up wickets on a turning surface, the offspinner struggled to cope up with the added responsibility despite being a 34-year-old spinner with loads of experience.

Upul Tharanga was made the captain of the ODI side despite not having had a permanent place in the side for some time.

In Tests, too, Sri Lanka has been obsessing over Perera for close to three years, even while knowing Herath is not going to last for a long time and the team needs to groom a young spinner in the meantime. Tharindu Kaushal, despite having proven his match-winning potentials with the A team, was kept on the sidelines, thanks to Perera’s presence. When Dilruwan was injured and the selectors were forced to play Tharindu finally, the youngster picked up 5 for 42 to derail Pakistan in 2015.

Dilruwan Perera, though he averages 27.85 with the ball in Tests, is a very defensive bowler and offers nothing different to what Herath does. He bowling in tandem with Herath has coincided with Sri Lanka’s mindset in Tests, even at home, of waiting for things to happen instead of trying to pick up wickets all by themselves. With one of Tharindu Kaushal, Jeffrey Vandersay or Lakshan Sandakan, Sri Lanka could have a genuine wicket taker in the team to go with Herath’s assured, consistent left-arm spin. This could help Sri Lanka be more menacing at home and the team could look to run through batting line-ups in contrast to their strategy of waiting for batsmen to make mistakes.

When most sides look to test their youngsters against Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka played both Herath and Perera in the Test series in Zimbabwe. Jayasuriya, recently, expressed his desire to have Herath playing for two more years, but rather bizarrely he is yet to start grooming a young spinner to replace Herath in the Test side. In two years, Dilruwan Perera will be 36 years old and by the time Herath hangs his boots, Sanath can then start to implore Perera to play for two more years.

It seems most players are expected to turn iron into gold to earn a spot in the national team whereas all that certain players are required to do to be in the national team is to merely exist.

Nuwan Kulasekara, on the other hand, was dropped from the limited-overs side due to his diminishing swinging ability and lack of pace following the World Cup in Australia. Even though he made a comeback in New Zealand during the end of 2015, a failure there and an abysmal performance in the WT20 meant that he was dropped again.

In spite of not playing too many matches at the domestic level, the medium pacer was brought back into the ODI side for the tri-nation tournament in Zimbabwe. On what basis he was brought back into the team is a mystery. How did the selectors make sure whether or not Kulasekara had rectified the issues that lead to his sacking in the first place? How did they gauge his form without he having played hardly any list A or T20 matches?

Though Kulasekara performed well against beleaguered teams like Zimbabwe and the West Indies and bowled well at the second string South African side, how he would measure up against the full strength South African side is a question.

Upul Tharanga, meanwhile, was brought back into the Test side in the face of his abominable Test record. He was made the captain of the ODI side in spite of him having not had a permanent spot in the team for some time. The only thing that worked in his favour was that he was ‘experienced’. Though there has always been a cloud of suspicion about his technic at the Test level, against a tinpot Zimbabwean attack, Tharanga scored well, bringing up his second Test century in the meantime. This helped Tharanga get two Test matches in South Africa and he flopped as expected.

However, an injury to Mathews helped him become the captain of the Sri Lankan ODI side over the vice-captain Dinesh Chandimal. The only rationale behind the decision was that Tharanga won an ODI tournament that included a struggling Zimbabwe and a raw West Indies. How can someone be appointed the captain of a team to play against a second-ranked ODI team just because he helped his team win against ninth and eleventh-ranked teams? Even if Tharanga is presumed to be a better captain than Chandimal, then shouldn’t Tharanga have been appointed the vice-captain in the first place? And what role is Tharanga, a batsman who lacks the ability to clear boundaries with ease, expected to play at number five or six in ODIs in an era during which even a score in excess of 300 isn’t safe anymore?

Asela Gunaratne was picked into the Sri Lankan side despite being a sporadic performer for the A team. Though the fandom was in awe of his batting in Tests against Zimbabwe, I find it rather absurd that a batsman is extolled after performing well against Zimbabwe, of all teams. Even though his variations have helped him as a bowler, he is yet to prove himself with the bat at number seven in the shorter formats. Given his inconsistent performances, Gunaratne should at the most play as a bowler in T20Is. Still, how he would fare once batsmen get used to his variations is doubtful.

The unreasonable selections

Another obfuscating part of Jayasuriya’s selections is his predisposition to select players based on a few performances irrespective of the oppositions they come against. During the tour of England, Chaminda Bandara was brought on as a replacement for Dushmantha Chameera even though he was not a part of the preliminary squad. And to further exacerbate the irrational selection, Bandara was selected over fast bowlers like Kasun Rajitha, Vishwa Fernando and Lahiru Gamage, all of whom were/are consistent performers for Sri Lanka A. Bandara played an ODI and T20I during that tour and was later permanently discarded. He didn’t even feature in the Sri Lanka A team that played against the West Indies A in Sri Lanka later in 2016. How he was picked and why he was permanently abandoned are questions only Sanath can answer.

Not having learned his lessons, Sanath added Wikum Sanjaya to the Sri Lankan Test squad against South Africa. Vikum Sanjaya has never been a part of the Sri Lanka A side and didn’t tour South Africa with the Sri Lanka Development Emerging team in 2016. Such selections not only hamper the performance of the national team but may also have detrimental effects on players who perform well for the A team in the hopes of receiving a national call-up at some point.

All that Thikshila de Silva needed to do was score 92 in an innings in a first-class match and soon he found himself playing three T20Is for Sri Lanka in South Africa. Lahiru Madushanka, who is currently in the ODI squad that is facing South Africa, was picked solely on his performance against the Tamil Union in a first-class match in which he scored 164 runs in an innings and picked up 7 wickets in total. Even though he has played for Sri Lanka A against both New Zealand A and Pakistan A, his performance was run of the mill. If the selectors are going to pick players solely by their instincts and intuitions and are going to ignore players like Roshen Silva, Kasun Rajitha and Vishwa Fernando who have been performing consistently well for the A side then, one has to question the sanity of the so called selectors.

One of Sri Lanka’s biggest reasons behind the current woes has been the questionable selections. In the third T20I against South Africa, Sri Lanka played Upul Tharanga, Dinesh Chandimal, Kusal Mendis and Dhananjaya de Silva all on the same side. The line-up was bereft of any power-hitting batsman, and how an international side could field so many run grafters in a T20I that too in an era during which teams are stacking their batting orders with power-hitters even in ODIs is a million-dollar question.

As if the team’s already existing problems aren’t enough, Sri Lanka pushed Dhananjaya de Silva, who was seemingly settling into his role as an opener in the shorter formats, to number six. What was Dhananjaya, who is a sweet timer of the ball, expected to do at number six, a position that is normally occupied by beefy batsmen?

The selectors are not the only ones to blame

Truth be told, it is unfair to be cynical about the current set of selectors only. Even the previous selection bodies have been guilty of the same mistakes. Fixations over certain players and the dogmatic belief that the way Sri Lanka had been used to batting during Sanga’s and Mahela’s time would continue to pay dividends even now have been the chief architects of Sri Lanka’s slow death. These factors have also ensured that Sri Lanka doesn’t exploit its fullest potential and explore its entire talent pool. These have also lead to Sri Lanka limiting itself to certain players, who despite failing consistently have managed to sustain their places in the team, and ideas that do no justice to the real ability of its talent pool.

The coaches and the captain are equally culpable both because they are condoning such pedestrian selections and also because they have failed to come to terms with the paradigm shift batting has undergone in recent times, and hence, have supposedly made no attempts to convince the selectors to pick the players needed to keep up with the modern challenges.

Lasith Malinga managed to coerce the selectors to drop both Chandimal and Thrimanne, a move that received cynical criticisms at that time, but was partially embraced unscrupulously in hindsight later, and pick potential match winners like Shehan Jayasuriya, Dhananjaya de Silva, Jeffrey Vandersay and Dasun Shanaka. The way Malinga was treated both by some of the eminent figures in Sri Lanka and the media show how archaic and retrogressive the thought process in the island is.

Dickwella, Lakshan Sandakan and Dhananjaya de Silva are all proves for what Sri Lanka cricket could be if the team management can somehow liberate itself from its firm conviction that certain players need to be on the team at all cost. It seems most players are expected to turn iron into gold to earn a spot in the national team whereas all that certain players are required to do to be in the national team is to merely exist. If only players can be picked on merit and not on age, reputation, experience and potential, then Sri Lanka cricket would be at a better stage.

Sri Lanka has managed to hide exciting talents like Sandakan and Dickwella behind the Thirimannes, the Tharangas, the Seekkuges and the Senanayakes for a very long time. Imagine, if Sri Lanka can permanently stop obsessing over some of its pets and pick all those who are performing well for the A team? Sri Lanka should stop thinking that certain players are be-all and end-all of the team and must look beyond them if they are to regain their pride in world cricket.