The perils of hyping up Dunith Wellalage

Dunith Wellalage
Dunith Wellalage made his international debut in the first ODI between Sri Lanka and Australia. Courtesy: Twitter (@OfficialSLC)

“Wella…Wella…Wella…”, chanted the Sri Lankan crowd that had thronged the stadium when Dunith Wellalage came back to bowl his second spell in the third ODI between Sri Lanka and Australia. In a way, it was heartening to see how a teenage prodigy had captured the imagination of the whole nation just in his third international game. At the same time, it was a bit forbidding.

Cut back to the scenes a few years back in the same stadium, and you could see Kusal Mendis, yet another blue-eyed wunderkind destined for greatness, being yelled and hooted at by the crowd for the only fault of failing to reify their premature wet dream of him being a silver bullet that resurrected Sri Lanka cricket.

Between the chants of the kind of “Wella…Wella…Wella…” and the toxic diatribe hurled at the likes of Kusal Mendis, begins and ends the Sri Lankan fandom’s fascination with a young player.

We know the script really well by now. A player in his youth takes the world by storm. The management that is desperately trying to avoid the media scrutiny and the social media outrage that follows a team’s decline delineates the youngster as the messiah who will take them to the promised future. The media finds the urge to panegyrize a youngster too much to resist for they are driven more by emotion than intellect. The fans who are on the constant lookout for new heroes to be smitten with to drown the depressive realities of their very own existence in a failed nation elevate the youngster to a pedestal.

Early promise leads to expectations. Wild imagination and blind hope turn expectations unrealistic. And when the rough and tumble of international cricket starts taking its toll on the youngster, unrealistic expectations give way to frustration, frustration leads to exasperation, and finally, it all ends up in vile abuse and vitriolic tirades aimed at the youngster both in the media and social media.

And this is why I found the chants of “Wella…Wella…Wella…” ominous. This unhealthy obsession over a school kid in Sri Lanka can go only one way. The writing is on the wall. For the sake of this youngster and the team as a whole, Sri Lanka need to be more practical than wishful when it comes to Wellalage.

Before christening Wellalage as the next big thing in Sri Lanka cricket, we need to be realistic about the limitation and relevance of his skillset. The young southpaw is very much still an old-school player who accumulates runs, and bowls slow and loopy left-arm spin. Such skills might have helped him do well on the slow wickets in the under-19 World Cup and the spinning wickets he has played thus far in the ODI series, but on good batting wickets, he is going to be found inadequate.

Imad Wasim bowls inswingers into right-handed batsmen. Courtesy: AFP

Successful left-arm spinners in the shorter formats like Imad Wasim, Mitchell Santner, Akeal Hosein, and Axar Patel bowl flat, fast, and into right-handed batsmen’s pads. They rely more on variations of pace and angle of attack. On the other hand, traditional finger spinners like Wellalage, who rely on flight and dip, have been pummeled out of existence in the shorter formats by modern-day batsmen. The fact that most of the spinners in limited-overs cricket nowadays tend to be white-ball specialists shows that there is a stark difference between the modern skillsets and the traditional ones. Wellalage’s last over to Travis Head in the third ODI is an excellent example of what would happen if the youngster were to bowl at modern-day batsmen on good pitches. Of course, he can still learn the skills needed to succeed in the shorter formats, but this has to happen at the lower levels, and not at the international level.

At the same time, even if he inculcates himself with such skills fast, still, he can only be bowled at right-handed batsmen. Even against right-handed batsmen, he is not going to be a wicket-taker. At best, he is only going to be a very good defensive bowler. That is the limitation that comes with finger spin. So, there is only so much that can be expected from this youngster with the ball. If he is to become the star that the fans hope he is going to become, then it will have to be via his batting.

However, the way Sri Lanka have used Wellalage’s batting so far makes one question if the team is even interested in developing his batting. The fact that he has only batted in the lower order insinuates that the team values his bowling more than his batting. Nevertheless, Wellalage has already established his potential with the bat and his skillset is better suited to the top order. In fact, his 74 in the NSL final came batting at number 4. By picking him and making him bat lower down the order, it is safe to say that the team has sacrificed the interests of the youngster at the altar of the interests of the team. Would you rather have him hone his batting playing at the lower levels or have him forgo his batting to serve the interests of the national team?

This naturally leads us to the question as to why Wellalage was rushed into the team even before he had developed the needed skills, and without a proper plan in place for his batting. I think the answer can be found in the justifications provided for his inclusion in the lead-up to his debut. Discourses about him emphasized more on his attitude, level-headedness, intelligence, passion, and what not than his actual cricketing skills. These are all subjective, intangible, and unquantifiable qualities of a player. While attitude and intelligence are important, they are no substitute for skill. Given that Wellalage has not played much cricket above the under-19 level, the management must have taken pot luck on Wellalage based on these subjective qualities of his.

However, this is not the first time the management has done this. Avishka Fernando was handed over a debut against Australia at the age of 18 even before he had played any senior cricket. Wanindu Hasaranga and Charith Asalanka were picked into the Test side hoping they could magically transfer their white-ball skills to the red ball. Ashen Bandara was picked for his energy and fielding. And we all know how these decisions based on an irrational belief in some arbitrary subjective qualities eventually ended up.

One could argue that the selection is backed up by Wellalage’s performance at the under-19 World Cup. But it takes a giant leap to bridge the gap between age-group cricket and senior-level cricket. And this is precisely the reason why you have first-class, list-A, and T20 cricket. Of course, a player in Sri Lanka is not going to learn much playing domestic cricket in Sri Lanka, I admit.  However, the LPL, A-team tours, and emerging-squad tournaments could be put to good use to better prepare youngsters for international cricket. Wellalage must have been put through his paces and drilled hard before being exposed to the highest level prematurely.

Instead, we saw Wellalage play just three games in the National Super League (NSL) limited-overs tournament, tour England with Sri Lanka’s emerging squad, and then play a couple of List-A games against Australia A before walking into the Sri Lankan ODI XI. His prelude to the national cap was decent for a teenager but not brilliant enough to merit a place in the national side so soon.

Nimesh Vimuthi had an LPL to remember last season. Courtesy: LPL Official Site

Wellalage has also leapfrogged over players who have proven themselves in the LPL and in the recent NSL tournament. Nimesh Vimukthi, a slow left-arm spinner, picked up 10 wickets at an economy rate of 5.7 in the last LPL, and Tharindu Ratnayake, an ambidextrous bowler, picked up 10 wickets at an economy rate of 4.94 in the recent NSL tournament. What message does the management convey to such players when they are shunned for a player much younger and far less experienced than them because the management finds the greenhorn promising? What is the incentive for performing well at the domestic level?

Consequently, the decision to hand over a debut to Wellalage is inimical both to the youngster as well as to the domestic performers. By circumventing a proper selection process, Sri Lanka are yet again mired in playing roulette with selections. However, such selections are nothing new and the damage done to the selection process pales in comparison to the potential damage to a young cricketer.

Sri Lanka have thrown Wellalage in at the deep end and asked him to learn to swim with sharks. He has been made to bite more than he could chew. It is not easy for a school kid from a system that has not yet produced an under-19 World Cup to seamlessly segue to international cricket. There is a good chance Wellalage could end up being overwhelmed by the rigors of shorter-format cricket. Yes, he may be brave and perseverant but when you are being out-skilled, your soft skills would be of little help.

Those who are hyping Wellalage up probably don’t understand what they are subscribing to. Sri Lankans hate young players as fast as they love them. By expecting a player, who has been rushed into international cricket even before he is ready, to repeat his successes at the under-19 World Cup playing in atypical conditions, they might be ruining Wellalage’s career even before it starts to develop. At least, let’s hope that when the reality strikes hard, they don’t turn against the very player they adore today as they have done with other players before.