This was supposed to be Sri Lanka’s second-string side. As many as ten ‘top-flight’ cricketers had withdrawn from the tour of Pakistan owing to security concerns. A wholesale drubbing was in the offing, many thought. After all, how could you expect the juniors to succeed where the seniors had failed?
Nevertheless, the outcome wasn’t exactly a surprise, much less an upset. Anyone who had followed cricket during the last five years would have known that this side that took flight to Pakistan stood a better chance of doing well in shorter formats than any other Sri Lankan side. Of course, you can accuse me of hindsight bias. But consider this: Only Minod Bhanuka, Oshada Fernando, and Bhanuka Rajapaksa could be said to have missed out on places in the T20I squad that faced New Zealand at home. Notwithstanding that, the squads that played against New Zealand and Pakistan were almost the same.
Why couldn’t the selectors pick this team before?
Thus, it’s not as if it needed a historic whitewashing of the number-one ranked T20I side in the world to realize the true potential of this squad. Malinga had envisaged it even before it became obvious in Pakistan, and if he could, it begs the question why no one else could.
In a way, it is telling that Malinga, who is arguably the wisest and the most perspicacious of the decision-makers in Sri Lanka right now, had to hold his T20I career hostage to demand this squad. And it is equally telling that most thought that this was merely a squad rundown by player withdrawals.
In fact, it is quite revealing that none of Shehan Jayasuriya, who scored a plucky 96 in the second ODI, Dasun Shanaka, who bore out his ability to amp up the scoring rate throughout the tour, Dhanushka Gunathilaka, who scored a century in the third ODI and a fifty in the first T20I, Oshadha Fernando, who scored a fifty on debut in the third T20I, and Wanindu Hasaranga, who was impressive all through the tour was a part of Sri Lanka’s World Cup squad, and featured in the first two ODIs against Bangladesh that followed the World Cup.
Even if we are to assume that this T20I squad was concocted merely by chance and not by a solid plan, still it needs to be asked why it took fortune to help Sri Lanka cricket get a decision as seminal as selecting the national squad right. Fortuity or Lasith Malinga—it doesn’t matter. Why could not the national selectors get it right by their faculty of volition?
Selectors have no idea about the talent pool
To find an answer to this question, first, we need to look at the kind of men who have been appointed as selectors during the last few years. For starters, it is customary in Sri Lanka to dumpster dive the pool of erstwhile cricketers to salvage a few convenient individuals to act as the national selectors. Their acquaintance with the talent pool available or their involvement in the system hardly becomes a matter of consideration. Thus, it is no wonder Sri Lanka cricket have managed to find chief selectors in individuals as diverse as a sitting deputy minister and an international match referee.
Often, the powers that be appoint individuals who they can have on a string, and the fact that they once played cricket for Sri Lanka is only an eyewash to conjure an illusion of eligibility. Consequently, we end up with selectors who have absolutely no idea about the kind of talents at the disposal of the system or what it takes to do well in cricket.
Take the current chief-selector Ashantha de Mel for instance. Soon after returning from Pakistan he ingenuously claimed that he had not seen Minod Bhaunka bat before and was not privy to his six-hitting ability. Prior to the World Cup, he was unabashed enough to claim that he hadn’t watched Akila Dananjaya pick up a five-wicket haul in the provincial tournament and admitted to dropping him based only on games that he had watched him play. If that’s the kind of knowledge the selectors have about the abilities of our players, how could we expect them to pick the right squad?
Inability to identify talent
If not keeping tabs on the talent pool available is one reason for poor selections, then not being able to identify and scout for talents is another reason. In the post-World-Cup press briefing, de Mel with a conspicuous look of resignation on his face, stated that the players he had selected were picked based on their performances in the provincial tournament, almost stopping short of saying he, or anyone for that matter, could not have done anything better. He would then go on to bemoan that selectors didn’t have the luxury of hindsight when selecting teams, effectively connoting that the selections were beyond his control.
If performances are all that a selector is going to base his selection on, then why do you need a selector at all? To crunch numbers and pick players based on performances, you don’t need selectors, much less on the payroll. Any average joe can do that job. If performances pick players, you don’t need selectors.
However, a selector is expected to be visionary. A selector should be able to identify the potential in a player even before it becomes obvious, presage outcomes and think a few steps ahead. In Sri Lanka, the selectors are not only playing catch-up but, worse, they also find the hindsight wisdom elusive. Spotting talent is a highly specialized skill. Sadly, none of the selectors seem to possess it.
Not keeping abreast of changes in cricket
Their lack of skills is ably complemented by their lack of knowledge and understanding about modern-day shorter-format cricket. After all, how could you field Dimuth Karunaratne, Angelo Mathews, Lahiru Thirimanne, and Dhananjaya de Silva in the same team, with the latter two batting at six and seven respectively? In fact, Sri Lanka’s ODI team is barely different from the Test team and the T20I team would not have been any different had it not been for Malinga’s inexorable demands virtually putting his career on the line.
The selectors, for a very long time, have emphasized on occupying the crease, batting sensibly, and playing long innings—skills that are hardly relevant in modern times—insofar as sacrificing match-winners on the altar of the certitude the calm assurance of run grafters brings. They are either not wise to the fact that times have changed, or they are fulminating against these changes, religiously clinging on to the old-school way of playing cricket with the blind conviction that it would bring them success. They are either blind or are refusing to see things. In other words, our selectors are the cricket’s version of the right-wing. They resist progress.
Poor selection is the main culprit
Sri Lanka have been looking for causes for their defeats in issues as trivial as fitness and fielding though not getting the right individuals on the field has been the biggest issue. In fact, speaking to the Island, de Mel opined that Bhanuka Rajapaksa, Avishka Fernando, Oshadha Fernando, and Shehan Jayasuriya—all of whom have already proven their impact—need to improve their fitness, vouching for how misplaced criticisms about fitness have been.
By hook or crook, Sri Lanka have finally found the right combination. But if history has taught us anything, it is this hindsight wisdom won’t last too long. Until such as time Sri Lanka find selectors who are actually professionally qualified to do the job, then brilliance such as we witnessed in Pakistan would merely only be a flash in the pan.