“This will be the start and the end of Sri Lankan cricket”, said Roshan Mahanama after Sri Lanka won the world cup in 1996. The game, then, spread all over Sri Lanka like a wild-fire while politics and corruption engulfed the cricket board that had, until then, lived in oblivion.
That came as a premonition as the Sri Lankan cricket team started stamping their authority in world cricket, while the administrators continuously involved themselves in power games and trysts with corruption to profit from the lucrative game.
When the corrupted regime of Mahinda Rajapakshe was brought to its feet on the 8th of January, his acolytes within Sri Lanka cricket, including the then secretary of the board Nishantha Ranatunga, were shown the door by the then Minister of Sports, Navin Dissanayake.
The government installed an interim committee and promised to hold an election once the investigations into the alleged corruption are completed. However, the International Cricket Council, on complaints received from the stakeholders belonging to the Nishantha Ranatunga racket, warned Sri Lanka of the ramifications that are likely to result from the political involvement in Sri Lanka cricket, while holding back the funds.
Rumours had it that N Srinivasan was throwing his weight behind his long time love interest Nishantha Ranatunga to have the board under his purview. Sidath Wettimuny, the chairman of the interim committee, and the sports minister Navin Dissanayake pulled out all the stops to try and convince the game’s governing body that the ministerial influence was to divest the board of corruption and to set the path to the future straight.
After months of negotiations and rumours of a possible ban on Sri Lanka cricket, which were alleged to have been spewed by Nishantha Ranatunga, ICC finally relented and allowed the committee to last its lifetime.
Resuscitating of Sri Lanka Cricket by the Interim Committee
Sidath Wettimuny, a very reputed former test cricketer, made sure his tenure proved fiscal for Sri Lanka cricket. Unlike the previous years, where Sri Lanka Cricket was always bankrupt and thus being unable to pay their cricketers, this year has been lucrative.
Sri Lanka Cricket, according to the chairman of the Interim Committee, now has 200 million LKR in the bank in addition to the 4.6 million US Dollars in reserve. When this board took charge, they had an overdraft of 207 million LKR and had a debt of 7.8 million US Dollars to ICC and the Bank of Ceylon. Wettimuny also claimed that during their incumbency they have managed to save 30% from an expenditure budget of over 1.4 billion LKR.
In addition to the frugal expenditures and astute money management which has finally salvaged Sri Lanka cricket from the chasm they have been finding themselves in since 2011, the committee also undertook steps to expand the cricket infrastructure within the island.
A project to build indoor nets and swimming pools at the R Premadasa Stadium was incepted and plans are now afoot to do the same in Pallekelle and Dambulla. A soft skills program was also launched for young cricketers to educate themselves on etiquette, speech, grooming, yoga, IT skills, cricket history, and communication skills.
The board also listened to the advice of the former captain Mahela Jayawardene in decentralising cricket in Sri Lanka. Hence, seeds have been sown for an ‘Elite’ Cricket tournament based on five cricketing cities which would replace the now defunct SLPL.
Not only is this a more realistic approach, but this will also ensure that cricket takes roots outside of Colombo. Clubs, most of which are around Colombo have been clustered to play in different teams and each team will have trainers, physios and managers, which will allow the domestic players to have access to facilities which they have never had.
But the most important accomplishment of the interim committee was in increasing the salary of domestic cricketers by 300%, helping youngsters take cricket as a profession in Sri Lanka.
Even though the board truncated the number of central contracts offered to players, the dramatic hike in domestic salary would benefit all domestic players and would atone for the loss of central contracts for the disenfranchised ones.
Selfish stakeholders and the dreary future
As the board is packing its baggage to bid adieu after making a marathon effort to materialise an uphill task, the stakeholders will now be able to lobby the proceedings within Sri Lanka Cricket with the upcoming elections.
The current stakeholders are self-centred and are predisposed to worry about the benefits of their own clubs and ventures than looking at the bigger picture that is Sri Lanka Cricket. This was well-exposed by the fact that, Nishantha Ranatunga on behalf of the stakeholders released a statement refuting the claims of the Wettimuny committee about a profitable year.
The statement claimed that the healthier financial position of the board was due to the actions taken by the previous committees and argued that the interim committee has only managed to fumble the revenues the board was to receive.
Furthermore, the statement questioned the conferment of the broadcasting deals to Rupavahini over CSN – which offered a more money-spinning deal, and told off the reduction in the number of contracts offered.
But what must be noted is, the broadcasting right to CSN was offered unlawfully by the then secretary of the board Nishantha Ranatunga, who was also the CEO of CSN. The Police Financial Fraud Investigation Division summoned Nishantha Ranatunga in April and inquired about the ownership of the television network and the allegations of tax evasion.
During the tenure of the previous board, the financial resources of the board was abused at will, with millions of dollars being spent on purchasing expensive vehicles for the board officials and in buying tickets for the 2015 world cup for the board members.
In contrast, the interim committee by all hook and crook tried to minimise their expenditure. “I asked for a 25% budget cut. They’ve come back with a smaller budget cut, but it’s around Rs 44 million. We’re also hoping to cut tournament costs,” the chairman told ESPNCricinfo.
He even avoided allowances for petrol and telephone and told that his board members do the same too. “We have worked tirelessly to cut costs for the greater good of Sri Lankan cricket. We have no sides or politics. We are straight forward and honest”, Wettimuny told the Island.
The goofed up constitution
Any sane individual will realise the fact that Sidath Wettimuny leaves the board in a healthier state than the previous office bearers did. Nevertheless, the election system of Sri Lanka cricket would once again allow the corrupted politicians to occupy powerful posts within the board.
The suffrage in the elections is vested with the cricket clubs, district councils, and provincial councils. The voters are likely to decide on whom to support based on what benefits a contestant’s term would bring to their clubs, instead of looking at the progress of cricket as a whole in Sri Lanka.
Election in Sri Lanka cricket is the time during which clubs can haggle with contestants for the welfares of their self or the club while in actuality what they really should be doing is to vote for someone who would take Sri Lanka Cricket forward.
Such a backdrop provide ample opportunities to corrupted tycoons like Nishantha Ranatunga to usurp power, and proven skillful managers like Sidath Wettimuny to be alienated.
“I believe that unless we change the constitution, we won’t be able to put these things right. Even ICC has been suggesting that we change. They gave me the South African and Irish constitutions”, Wettimuny told the Island as he refused to contest in the elections.
Eminent cricketers like Aravinda de Silva and Kumar Sangakkara have abdicated requests to participate in administration, claiming that they are willing to contribute from outside for they are well aware of the ugly mess that is inside Sri Lanka Cricket.
All crooks and no nobles among the contestants
The nominations for the election are now over, and it is disheartening to find the same old scoundrels contesting for the board positions.
Thilanga Sumathipala has joined hands with his former rival Jayantha Dharmadasa in contesting for the posts of President and Vice-President while Nishantha Ranatunga will contest for the post of the President while his brother Arjuna Ranatunga, vies for the post of vice-president.
Thilanga Sumathipala is the current deputy speaker of the Parliament and is a self-professed bookmaker. Nishantha Ranatunga’s history of allegations of corruption is no secret and he has been constantly interrogated by the FCID for finance related offences. Arjuna Ranatunga is currently the minister of ports and shipping.
Thilanga Sumathipala was sacked several times during his previous tenures due to corruption and mismanagement and Nishantha Ranatunga and Jayantha Dharmadasa were both parts of the SLC administration which was subjected to a governmental probe for corruption and mismanagement.
ICC was severe on the interim committee as it was appointed directly by the Minister of Sports, but how they could gloss over the barefaced political background of the contestants (the to-be officials) is a question that needs to be answered.
With Shashank Manohar heading ICC, cricket fans feel that cricket is in safe hands, but whether he could do anything to force a constitutional change in Sri Lanka Cricket is uncertain.
Come what may, the fairy tale honeymoon of Sri Lanka Cricket is now over, and now the future of cricket in Sri Lanka is overlooking a steep abyss, which it has always found itself in.
It is apposite to end the article with what Sangakkara wrote seven years ago, and the fact that it is still applicable shows how Sri Lanka has failed to move forward.
“The clubs have voting rights, as I mentioned, and it is a conscious decision they have to make: are they going to be selfish or are they going to use those votes for the greater good of cricket in Sri Lanka?”
This article was initially published in Sportskeeda.