A head coach in Sri Lanka is screened and interviewed before being appointed, and rightly so. However, it is not the case with a chief selector or anyone who is appointed to neutralize the powers of the coach and carry out the board’s agenda for that matter. You could be an old dude enjoying your retirement time sprawling in the beach and sipping at king coconut, or a mogul hatching plans to fleece a state-owned corporation—if you had played cricket for Sri Lanka in the 80s or the 90s, you could be commissioned to serve Sri Lanka cricket anytime.
Graham Ford found his overlord in Asanka Gurusinha. Chandika Hathurusingha had to wait until Ashantha de Mel’s arrival. Both of these coaches were men with an unsullied reputation and had credentials fattened up by their experience coaching international sides. Yet, the board thought it was okay to have men who were hardly involved with cricket in the recent past to show these coaches the ropes.
Divisions within the team were born out of de Mel’s decisions
Ashantha de Mel came with an agenda and definitely not a plan. No sooner than he arrived, he sacked Chandimal as the ODI captain and criticized his captaincy while the Test team was on tour under his aegis. His agenda reached a tipping point when Chandimal was eventually ousted from the Test team. The agenda obviously was to orphan Hathurusingha and render him feckless. But the damage done to the team in the process has been far-reaching and perhaps irreparable.
A lot has been said about the divisions within the team. But it is worth remembering such divisions were hardly reported of before de Mel’s arrival. Even when Mathews was sacked and Chandimal was elevated to the helm in the ODI side that also had Malinga in it, these divisions were unheard of. However, cracks started appearing only after Malinga was appointed as the captain. And who coronated him? Ashantha de Mel. Whether it was just an ill-advised move born out of the helter-skelter to avenge Hathurusingha or a more sinister ploy to intentionally cause divisions within the ranks to carry out more insidious agendas is moot.
Should de Mel be credited for the Test series win in South Africa?
Sri Lanka’s win in South Africa is largely attributed to the decisions Ashantha de Mel made. But if this reductive assumption holds water, then shouldn’t Sri Lanka have done well in both New Zealand and South Africa too?
Yes, Oshada Fernando and Lasith Embuldeniya stood out in the South African series. But were they picked because the selector saw potential in them or because of their performance at the domestic level? The selection of Angelo Perera, Chamika Karunaratne, Priyamal Perera, Kaushal Silva, and Milinda Siriwardane shows that it was indeed their domestic performances that won them the ticket to South Africa. Sadeera Samarawickrama, a talented youngster, wasn’t even considered because he was warming the benches with the national team and hence, couldn’t, unfortunately, plunder runs at the domestic circuit like the ones who were picked. Further, de Mel picking Oshada as a potential number six in the Test side and also considering his leg-spin as a viable option show that he had no idea what the right-hander was up to.
The perils of picking players based on their form in the Sri Lankan domestic tournaments are well recorded, and the subsequent failure in the ODI series render testimony to this. Avishka Fernando, Kamindu Mendis, Angelo Perera, Chamika Karunaratne, and Priyamal Perera all failed to impress, and it is worth asking the question whether Ashantha de Mel should be judged based on the successes of Oshada and Embuldeniya alone, conveniently ignoring the many failures. After all, a broken clock is right twice a day.
The other two stars of the South African win—Kusal Perera and Vishwa Fernando—were mere injury replacements. Had it not been for the injuries to Angelo Mathews, Lahiru Kumara, and Dushmantha Chameera, neither of them would have played that series at all. Moreover, it should be noted that the South African batting has been struggling for some time. Against India, during their last summer, it was Ab de Villiers who kept saving the South African team, and Sri Lanka were fortunate that they didn’t have to contend with him.
So, it can be seen that the selections alone cannot be credited for the South African win. Even if you are hell bent on attributing the success to the chief selector, you are going to have a tough time trying to defend his decision to drop both Kusal Mendis and Suranga Lakmal for the second Test, a decision that was nobbled at the last minute by the collective protest of the team management.
A capricious decision maker
Ashantha has also proven himself to be a poor thinker and decision maker. He barely takes a few weeks to contradict his own statements and has many a times failed to back his own decisions. He appointed Malinga as the captain. After just 12 matches, he has sacked him. Dickwella was elevated as the vice-captain. “When he was made vice-captain we found that his performance also improved immediately. He took on more responsibility and played better. He was on the verge of being dropped when we took over as selectors,” said Ashantha de Mel. Now, he is no more in the team.
“We are of the opinion that he is also good for the World Cup because at the top he can get wickets. The coach Hathurusingha is not keen to play him in ODIs because he thinks he doesn’t bowl well in the death overs. What we feel is that if he bowls the first overs well and can get some early wickets then you can put pressure on the opposition,” Daily News quoted him saying of Lakmal. Later on, he turned against his own view saying, “Whether Suranga Lakmal can bowl that five overs upfront…but we are not sure whether he is the best finisher. From what we have gathered, he has given a lot of runs towards the end.” But, now, Lakmal has a spot in the World Cup squad. From vouching for Mathews’ fitness early on to questioning his fitness to play ODIs to once again picking him in the World Cup squad, de Mel has come full circle.
To top everything off, de Mel also told Daily News that they had left 5mm of grass in the pitches used for the provincial tournament to mimic the English conditions despite English pitches being the most batsman-friendly surfaces since the 2015 World Cup. The Royal London Cup currently being played in England is seeing a preponderance of innings in excess of 300 runs regularly, and by making the pitches during the provincial tournament assist the seamers, he rendered the skills of attacking players like Gunathilaka and Dickwella irrelevant while making the skills of batsmen like Karunaratne and Thirimanne against the moving ball seem relevant.
This clearly shows his clear lack of understanding of the modern-day limited overs cricket. This can be further emphasized by his pigheaded assertion during the media briefing that Test batsmen can easily adapt to ODI cricket while ODI cricketers will find it difficult in Test cricket. This comes from him despite England picking Jos Buttler into the Test side based purely on his IPL performance. It is also noteworthy that Pujara despite being an elite Test player has hardly been considered for ODI cricket by India.
The chief selector further doubled down on his inanity by calling Dhananjaya de Silva a better off-spinner than Akila Dananjaya, falsely classifying Akila as an off-spinner. Barely minutes had passed before de Mel lambasted Akila’s ability to bowl off-breaks, leg-breaks, and googlies arguing that it made setting the field difficult for the captain. At this rate, it won’t be surprising if he bans the wrist spinners he has chosen from bowling googlies.
A confused batting strategy
During the media briefing, it was also obvious that the captain and the chief selector were not sure of the batting approach that should be adopted. Dimuth Karunaratne spoke of the need to lay a strong platform and then accelerate during the last 15 overs. He cited examples of how teams in the provincial tournament scored around 135 runs for the loss of two-three wickets in the provincial tournament and scored around 220 during the last 20 overs. Even though this was a viable strategy before the rule changes in 2015, with five fielders outside the circle during the last 10 overs, and bowlers having become better at the death now, accumulating runs to score faster at the death has become an inimical tactic now. One can’t be critical of Dimuth Karunaratne since he last played an ODI in 2015. There is no way he can be wise to the modern day ODI cricket. Ashantha de Mel, in contrast, spoke of the need to score faster initially and cited that as a reason for not considering Dinesh Chandimal. And why he picked Thirimanne and Karunaratne if he planned to attack early on is still a mystery.
Horses for courses is a dead horse
Another point de Mel emphasized was picking horses for courses. This tactic of picking in-form players for impending tournaments is not a new one but in fact, is a dead horse. Sri Lanka cricket has had the habit of turning to old, in-form players since the 2015 World Cup, instead of persisting with a young core group of players, to find a quick escape hatch to exit their transition period. From Jehan Mubarak to Dilhara Fernando several of these seniors have been tried without success. Very recently, Sri Lanka picked Dilruwan Perera to do well in the Asia Cup only to return home winless.
What the selectors should understand is that had these thirty-year-olds been any good, they would have been active members of the current team. These players were not considered during the Sanga-Mahela era because they were not good enough. Now that only the youngsters and these rejects remain in the national system, should Sri Lanka go back to these proven failures? Of course, owing to their experience, these players may perform better than the youngsters at the domestic level for the time being. But backing youngsters through a tough time will eventually result in them starting to paying dividends in the future. Giving lifelines after lifelines to the likes of Jeevan Mendis and Thirimanne, all of whom have failed at the international level repeatedly, is neither going to help us do well in the forthcoming tournaments nor is it going to help us to a better future.
Picking and dropping players on form won’t allow the team to develop a stable core nor will it create a healthy dressing room environment. For someone who kept harping about team unity, you would have expected de Mel to at least ensure that he didn’t end up creating an atmosphere where everyone was looking over their shoulder and playing for their respective places in the side.
Sri Lanka picked players on form for the South African series and expected them to help the team turn the tables. But the expected failures of Avishka Fernando, Kamindu Mendis, Priyamal Perera, and Angelo Perera show that form in domestic cricket hardly means anything at the international level. The chief-selector himself admitted that Dickwella performed well in New Zealand and Australia. Should he have been dropped for failing against high-quality fast bowlers in South Africa in favor of a batsman who bullied domestic bowlers in Sri Lanka?
The gulf between our domestic cricket and international cricket is so big that the learning curve for young batsmen is huge at the international level. Therefore, it is important that they are given the time to find their feet at the international level. This wretched horse-for-courses tactic is so flawed that the chief selector has ended up picking three different teams for the all three limited-overs tournaments he has been tasked with selecting teams for.
Sri Lanka’s evolving core has now been vitiated
Niroshan Dickwella, although inconsistent, has been Sri Lanka’s second highest run-getter in ODIs since 2018, and Dhanushka Gunathilaka has proven to be an excellent partner for him as the pair has the highest average for the opening partnership among all opening partnerships that have scored in excess of 500 runs since the 2015 World Cup, with three hundred-run partnerships to boot. Dasun Shanaka during the South African series and the English series at home proved to be the link Sri Lankan have been missing in the middle order for a very long time.
It’s not as if a team of Akila Dananjaya, Niroshan Dickwella, Dhanushka Gunathilaka, and Dasun Shanaka would help Sri Lanka do better at the World Cup. Probably, they may end up at the bottom of the table too. But given their age and potential, the upcoming World Cup would have been a fruitful learning curve for all of them, the experience gained during which would have definitely helped Sri Lanka cricket in the longer run.
The proven failures who have been picked in their stead are not only going to end up at the bottom of the table in the World Cup, but their experience in the World Cup is also not going to help Sri Lanka in the future given their age.
What more? De Mel has completely destroyed the core that Hathurusingha helped establish. Now, after that World Cup, Sri Lanka will have to start the rebuilding process yet again, that is only if the management and board don’t mess up, once again putting Sri Lanka back by several years.