What does the selection of Pathum Nissanka and Ashen Bandara into the shorter formats say about Sri Lanka cricket?

Pathum Nissanka and Ashen Bandara
© AFP/Getty Images

Pathum Nissanka and Ashen Bandara are the two greenhorns Sri Lanka cricket has reposed its faith on to upend their fortunes in limited-overs cricket. Yet, their selection is baffling. Neither of them has a good record in the shorter formats at the domestic level. Nor were they picked to play in the inaugural Lanka Premiere League. So, how did they make it to the national team and what does it say about Sri Lanka cricket?

Before I begin, let me get one thing out of the way. I don’t think there is any more point in flogging this dead horse. Sri Lanka’s domestic system is bad and the numbers it churns out are hardly an indication of the quality. Nissanka might only be averaging 29.35 in List A cricket and striking at 127 in T20 cricket but that should not mean we should judge him harshly on such numbers. The same holds true for Bandara who is averaging a meager 26.95 in List A matches with a strike rate of 125.58 in T20 cricket. So, I won’t fault the Sri Lankan management for picking them into the national side despite such poor numbers.

If their numbers aren’t impressive, then how did the Sri Lankan management sieve out the duo from the other youngsters in the system? Was it based on their potential? If it is so, how did they both fall through the LPL selections? Did the Sri Lankan management see in the two youngsters something the LPL teams failed to see? Or were the LPL teams more perceptive than the Sri Lankan management? Either way, one of them has committed a cardinal sin and that exposes a serious flaw in the system.

Ashen Bandara was a part of the Dambulla Viikings team in the LPL but played no game for his team whereas Pathum Nissanka was not even picked in the drafts by any team. However, they were not the only youngsters to miss out on the LPL experience as the franchise tournament gave many such local youngsters a raw deal. The likes of Sandun Weerakody, Jehan Daniel, Nipun Ransika, Matheesha Pathirana and Chamika Karunaratne were also given the cold shoulder. But that was not even the worst part.

Some of the deserving youngsters who got picked such as Kevin Koththigoda and Maheesh Theekshana hardly got a game in the LPL. Yet, both of them were picked to play in the T10 league in Abu Dhabi following the LPL with Theekshana winning the man of the match award in the final of the tournament. Quite ironically, the T10 teams showed more faith in these youngsters than the teams from their homeland. Besides, Kamindu Mendis, a promising ambidextrous all-rounder, was replaced by Irfan Pathan of all players midway during the tournament. Irfan Pathan had long given up professional cricket and has recently dipped his toes into acting.

Therefore, we have little evidence to argue that the teams in the LPL overlooked both Nissanka and Bandara because they saw no spark in these youngsters. If the likes of Dilruwan Perera, Manpreet Gony, Munaf Patel, and Irfan Pathan are going to be considered over youngsters who are sought out by teams from outside Sri Lanka, then that only throws into stark relief the LPL’s inability to scout for good talents. So, did the Sri Lankan management succeed where the LPL failed?

Well, one only needs to look at how the Sri Lankan management has handled Wanindu Hasaranga during his brief time with the national team to find an answer to this question. Mickey Arthur, the head coach, was immediately smitten by the leg-spinning all-rounder just as soon as he began his coaching stint. One cannot blame him since Hasaranga embodies two highly sought-out limited-overs skills—wrist spin and power hitting. But Mickey didn’t stop there.

He manifested an almost pathological obsession with the youngster as he picked him into the Test side as well. Now, for anyone who has seen Hasaranga bowl, it should be obvious that the youngster doesn’t have the necessary ingredients to make it in Test cricket. For starters, Hasaranga has an open-chested bowling action and he hardly pivots during his release. Moreover, his knee collapses at the point of delivery and he doesn’t carry his momentum forward. This does not allow him to impart many revs on his leg break. So, he hardly turns his stock ball. In Tests, if you are not going to spin the ball, you are going to struggle. Mickey, being a 53-year-old head coach, should have known better. But the way he has handled him thus far has been more hormonal than rational.

This episode shows the head coach’s inability to comprehend the different skill sets required for different formats. This is a pertinent observation because Pathum Nissanka’s selection into the limited-overs side also stems from this particular inability of the head coach. Nissanka has a stellar first-class record and it was for his exploits in the longest format that he was picked into the national setup. Mickey must have seen him bat in the nets, got excited, and thought he was going to be an all-format superstar.

On the other hand, the selection of Ashen Badara, if the talking points in the media are anything to go by, was propelled by his fielding than any other skill set of his. His batting, his primary skill, or his leg-spin, his secondary skill, was hardly talked about as his fielding dominated the narratives. Mickey’s orgasmic fixation over fielding is no secret and it is no wonder that a gun fielder got himself selected as a specialist fielder into the national team on the head coach’s watch.

Therefore, the rationale behind their selection can be said to be flawed. But hold on. Is it far be it from me to comment on the rationale behind the selection? Was the Sri Lankan management’s thinking far beyond my comprehension that I am unable to come to terms with it? In short, did Sri Lanka make the right decision by picking these two?

Now that we have seen these two rookies perform, I can, in no uncertain terms, say no. Pathum Nissanka showed immense grit and discipline in his debut Test but he failed to look the part in the shorter formats. His limited range of shots and lack of power have been on full display in the limited-over internationals he has played thus far. Ashen Bandara, on the other hand, has struggled to get the ball off the block during the middle overs as his stymying innings have stalled Sri Lanka’s momentum. He over relies on his sweeps, struggles to find the boundaries, and lacks a good base to power the ball.

Consequently, it is safe to assert that the Sri Lankan management has made the wrong call by picking Nissanka and Bandara into the shorter formats. However, this is not a vindication of the LPL as these two were not the only youngsters the league ignored. The duo’s absence in the inaugural season is more due to the LPL’s general disregard for youngsters than its understanding of their limitations as batsmen.

On top of it all, compounding the poor selection is the Sri Lankan management skirting the LPL when selecting players into the shorter formats. It defeats the whole purpose of the LPL if players are going to be short-circuited into the national team bypassing the franchise tournament.

Yes, the LPL failed to blood youngsters but it behooves Sri Lanka cricket to fix it. It is Sri Lanka cricket’s responsibility to turn the LPL into a supply chain of talents to the national team instead of picking youngsters bypassing the LPL.

The failures of Nissanka and Bandara actually show the failure of both the Sri Lankan management and the LPL. The LPL failed by failing to groom youngsters and, as a result, not providing enough material for the management to base their selections on. And the management failed by skirting the LPL in picking players into the limited-overs sides. If you think two wrongs made it a right, then, the management’s inability to understand the skill sets required in shorter formats made sure that it, in fact, didn’t.