Will Sri Lanka swallow the Red Pill?


I don’t know how you felt about Sri Lanka’s inability to win any of the series against Bangladesh at home this season. But, I, a diehard Sri Lanka cricket fan all my life, was really happy. For a very long time, the team management and the cricket board have been hiding behind the victories of the cricket team. The many corruption scandals, financial mismanagements, petty politics, questionable selections and the lack of any actual effort to revamp the domestic system were all swept under the carpet as the team’s accomplishments, often lead from the front by Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene in the past, hogged the limelight.

The team, it should be said, over achieved. Even without the amenities and the support systems that were at the disposal of other teams, the Sri Lankan team did reasonably well. Perhaps, with more facilities, the team could have achieved much more.

In a country where people in power set their own limitations as the standard and mediocrity routinely becomes the norm, the cricket administration in the country loves to wallow in gimmicks that produce a semblance of the cricketing state of affairs being in the cloud-cuckoo land.

The administrators and the management refuse to acknowledge the flaws in the system while they try to pretend that everything is okay in Sri Lanka cricket.

Living in denial

If there is one thing that the board desperately pursues, then that is pretending that everything is hunky-dory in cricket in Sri Lanka. The administrative body has no big dreams nor does it want to enrich cricket in Sri Lanka.

Following the series of defeats at the hands of New Zealand and England in 2015 and 2016, clarion calls were made to revamp the domestic system. Clearly understanding the fact that the clamour for a change was much stronger, the administration feigned an interest in putting into effect a provincial first-class system. After Sri Lanka managed to whitewash Australia in a Test series in 2016, the board was back to claiming that the current system was perfect and nothing needed to be done about it, for the national team had vanquished a beleaguered Australia, and that was a sign of a healthier first-class system.

However, it should be noted that such denial of truth is not a new thing. In fact, this is an age-old ailment that has been plaguing Sri Lanka cricket for a very long time. Following an embarrassing series whitewash at the hands of India and a downtrodden performance in New Zealand in 2014, references were made to Sri Lanka’s consistent performances in ICC tournaments as a hope for a better show in the 2015 World Cup, as if ICC being the organizer could magically cure all the institutionalized, systemic problems in Sri Lanka cricket overnight. Similar statements were made in the prelude to the 2016 WT20 after Sri Lanka managed to win only one match, that, too, versus the UAE, in the Asia Cup.

What these offhanded remarks by the officials in power show are that the administrators do not really aspire to make Sri Lanka great. All that they want is to keep the fans and the media quiet. As long as the fans are hopeful and optimistic, and as long as media scrutiny is avoided, the officials are happy since that means there would be no pressure on them. The motivation here is not making the team scale greater heights, but to avoid accountability and responsibility so that those who are in power can continue to enjoy the perks of being involved with the richest sporting body in the country.

During the recent tour of South Africa, the cricket team was whitewashed in both Tests and ODIs, but thanks to a T20I series win against a second-string South African team, the officials in-charge cleverly glossed over a disastrous tour.

Sanath Jayasuriya, the chairman of selectors, also went on to lament about the ODI pitches claiming that the favour would be returned when South Africa tours Sri Lanka the next time. What Sanath completely forgot was that the pitches for the ODIs were mostly docile and Sri Lanka lost ten wickets to Imran Tahir. He should also be reminded of the fact that South Africa won both the Test and the ODI series when they toured Sri Lanka last time. In fact, since the 2015 World Cup, Sri Lanka has lost Test series to Pakistan and India completely contrary to the illusion of home strength some of our officials try to create. The only Test series wins have come against the lower-ranked West Indies and a depleted Australian side that was defeated more by the spinning pitches than by the team.

Following that tour, the team was greeted by another second-string International XI in Australia, and a couple of last ball wins made many involved in the game claim that the team was back on track in T20Is only to be shown its place by Bangladesh at home. The four closely fought wins against two depleted teams overshadowed Sri Lanka’s reprehensible performances against England, and Australia at home in T20Is.

Despite Sri Lanka having won two T20I series recently, the performance against Bangladesh, a comparatively stronger side, and an objective comparison to other high profile teams lay bare the fact that there is a lot left to be desired about the current Sri Lankan T20 team.  It takes a special kind of mental impairment to think that our T20I team can challenge the majority of the T20I teams in the world today.

Even though the challenges cricket in Sri Lanka faces are plenty, the officials continue to live in denial as they constantly promise of a brighter future ahead.

Short term goals and a lack of trust on youngsters

Dhananjaya de Silva, after having made a great debut, has been left in limbo.

Since the longevity of the selection committee depends solely on averting criticisms and alleviating pressure on them, the committee seems to be only interested in short term goals. Their selections are made on a series by series basis, and no heed is paid to the long-term future.

With every series, the team combination undergoes a plethora of changes so much so that the strengths and weaknesses of the team constantly undergo a metamorphosis, resulting in the team not being able to adopt a consistent strategy to win matches.

The selectors also seem to have a distrust on the youngsters as they have often brought in players exclusively by virtue of their experience during crisis situations. Following an embarrassing series defeat at the hands of Australia in both ODIs and T20Is, Sanath Jayasuriya unabashedly claimed that the selectors ‘panicked’. As a result of their panic, Lakshan Sandakan, who had impressed in the Tests against Australia, was dropped after just playing one match as Sri Lanka resorted to the experience of Dilruwan Perera, albeit to no avail.

Even though some of the former cricketers have criticised the exclusion of experienced players, to be fair to the selectors, the experienced players have hardly done any justice to their place. Right from Lahiru Thirimanne to Dinesh Chandimal, the experienced players in the team failed to pay dividends, and Thirimanne’s failure in the WT20 following his last-minute inclusion in the team owing to his experience is a case in point.

Sri Lanka’s comparatively better performance at the exclusion of Dinesh Chandimal in T20Is and Niroshan Dickwella’s fine performance in South Africa and Australia are classic examples of what moving on from the obsession over experience can do to Sri Lanka.

Even though the selectors are accused of paving the way for too many new faces into the national team at the expense of experience players, it should be remembered that many of these youngsters are not given a long rope by the selectors.

Throughout its existence, the current selection committee has lacked the gall to trust some of the finest talents, and during times of difficulties, they have gone back to their experienced players, even though they have seldom reversed Sri Lanka’s fortunes.

Despite Sandakan doing well in Tests against Australia, Dilruwan Perera played ahead of him in Zimbabwe, a team against which most teams test their bench strength. Jayasuriya expressed his desire to have Herath play for another two years, which clearly shows his lack of interest in grooming another spinner and his resolute dependence and trust on experienced players.

Back at home, after losing the first ODI to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka dropped Sandakan, and Lahiru Kumara fell back on the experience of Kulasekara and Dilruwan Perera. During the last home season, the experienced Dilruwan failed to make an impact against Australia in the ODI series even though all the matches were played on dustbowls. Kulasekara, on the other hand, was a cannon fodder in South Africa, but thanks to his experience he was back in the squad.

Even though Sri Lanka managed to win the last match of the ODI series to square the series, both Dilruwan’s and Kulasekara’s inconsistency should not be shrugged off. It is clear from the vast changes made to the ODI squad for the second ODI that the selectors were trying to save face and avoid the barrage of cynical torpedoes the media could have shot at them if they had lost the series to Bangladesh. Even though the temporary solution provided what it was supposed to, it should not be forgotten that these temporary solutions are the very reason that has placed Sri Lanka in the current predicament.

Such temporary solutions are not a new thing, though. Sri Lanka has been clinging onto it since Sanga’s and Mahela’s time as they failed to let the youngsters bat in their preferred positions since they were only concerned about winning the matches at hand and not about the future, which eventually lead to the current crisis.

Furthermore, Dhananjaya de Silva, as he was settling into his role as an opener, was pushed to the middle order in the ODI series in South Africa and was later dropped from the team permanently. Though de Silva successfully countered Mitchell Starc, who had been giving a torrid time to the Sri Lankan openers, and later succeeded that performance with good innings in Zimbabwe as an opener, the right-handed batsman was victimised to accommodate another experienced player at the top of the order.

Even though it has become a common consensus that Upul Tharanga needs to remain in the team for eternity, it should be noted that despite being an experienced batsman, Tharanga failed four times in South Africa, struggled in the T20Is in Australia and hardly made a contribution in the T20Is vs. Bangladesh at home.

Though his century in the fourth ODI sprung fresh hopes on him, much of the ado surrounding his innings was due to it having been the only glimmer of hope in a series that was rather demoralising for the visiting side. It wasn’t as if he had never done that in the past. Tharanga, as we all know, is one of the sweetest timers of the cricket ball, but consistency has been his anathema. His failure to sustain his good innings with more such innings and his inability to use his much-vaunted experience to lead from the front with the bat shows that his old foibles may be still intact.

Should Sri Lanka have gone back to a player whose inconsistency has been incorrigible throughout his career at the expense of a young opener who had hammered Mitchell Starc, arguably the best fast bowler currently in action, with aplomb is a question that needs to be answered. If Tharanga is going to fail to consistently perform well and thus, if the selectors are going to be forced to look for other options in another few months time, then they will have wasted the precious few nascent months of a promising youngster.

On the other hand, Kusal Janith Perera, who was dropped from the squad for the ODI series in South Africa due to poor form, was brought back into the squad against Bangladesh in the face of the squad already having several openers. What role the selectors were expecting Kusal to play in the team is uncertain. To top everything off, a blog run by the Sri Lanka Cricket website went on to cite Kusal Perera’s absence due to an injury as the reason for the defeat in the first ODI.

Sri Lanka Cricket has become a PR firm

Although the problems within Sri Lanka cricket are plenty, the board has launched a desperate campaign to ingratiate itself with the fans and the sponsors, at times holding lavish ceremonies to distract everyone from the main issues.

The board held an extravagant send-off ceremony before the 2016 WT20 which cost millions of rupees while the already chosen squad for the tournament underwent several changes in the eleventh hour. The board would go on to host another extortionate ceremony to launch the Premier Limited Overs Tournament, which quite ironically never took off.

SLC’s PR stunts continued as the Sri Lankan team was given a heroes’ welcome after barely defeating a second-string Australian and South African team in T20Is. In addition, SLC’s CEO, Ashley de Silva, has made it a habit to barge into commentary boxes to gasconade about the many ‘developmental’ activities his board is carrying out to ‘earnestly improve’ cricket in Sri Lanka.

Following years of poor performances, the board and the team management have also picked up the habit of hyperbolizing individual performances. With every century scored and every good bowling performance, Sri Lanka Cricket proclaims that the next big thing has been found and the road to the future now looks bright. The very fact that the people involved in the management and administration have repeatedly been prophesying about a bright future shows that the team is not on the right track.

Following a whitewash in Tests, Sri Lanka Cricket’s official Facebook page tried to gloss over the defeat by overemphasising on Lahiru Kumara’s promising performances. Seekkuge Prasanna’s chance innings that won the third T20I in South Africa turned him into a celebrated T20 player while his abysmal record with both the bat and the ball was forgiven. After Tharanga’s bellicose century in the 4th ODI in South Africa, the selectors rallied behind Tharanga and touted him as the anointed one who would take Sri Lanka forward. Sanath Jayasuriya even went on to claim that Tharanga had unfortunately lost two valuable years of his career, as if it was someone else’s mistake, even though it was he who jettisoned Tharanga during his first stint as the chairman of selectors.

Quickly Tharanga has emerged as the selector’s pet player, and some of the comments of the selectors in the media on Tharanga’s captaincy suggest a thinly veiled attempt by them to inculpate Mathews’s captaincy for the team’s misfortunes in spite of the status quo remaining the same under Tharanga’s captaincy as well. Asela Gunaratne’s century in the last ODI in South Africa and his match winning innings in Australia has made him the latest rampart behind which the selectors look to hide.

To further their agenda, SLC has also adopted the strategy of bringing in the members of the 1996 team to involve in the running of the sport. The wily Arjuna Ranatunga, while denying an invitation to join the bandwagon, lashed out at the sinister ploy. “There is interference into the affairs of the national team. The administrators’ friends’ sons are given opportunities to play for Sri Lanka. It happened recently too. The reputation of the sport has suffered as a result. By making use of former players, these administrators are trying to hide their sordid acts,” thundered the World Cup winning captain.

The open wounds

Though the administrators are pulling out all the stops to make it seem as if Sri Lanka is on course of recovery, the gaping flaws in the team are still extant. To make everything worse, it doesn’t seem that the management has at least even figured out these flaws.

The majority of the Sri Lankan batsmen seem to lack the ability to play the big shots, and they are yet to acquire the ability to sustain aggression over a long period of time- an ability that is important to become a major force in limited overs cricket. Of late, the team has also become a haven for opening batsmen with as many as six opening batsmen occupying the squad for the ODI series against Bangladesh.

Clubbed with the preponderance of opening batsmen is the constant movement of batsmen along the batting order insofar as the majority of the batsmen having to play different roles every successive game. The selectors seem to have got Upul Tharanga’s back as an opener while Niroshan Dickwella made a pompous re-entry into cricket as an opening batsman.  Dhanushka Gunathilaka opened with Tharanga in Dickwella’s absence owing to an injury, and Kusal Perera opened the batting in the T20Is.

With Dhananjaya de Silva, Dhanushka Gunthailaka, Niroshan Dickwella, Upul Tharanga and Kusal Perera seeming to have captured the imagination of the selectors, it is not yet sure what role each of these batsmen would be playing in the ODI team. Kusal Perera opening the innings even in warm-up matches show that the selectors might still be reluctant to play him in a role other than that of an opener.

To add salt to the wound, the selectors seem not to be concerned about the roles batsmen are expected to play in the team. Sandun Weerakody, another opener, was brought in as an injury replacement into the ODI squad against South Africa and opened the innings in the first ODI at de Silva’s expense. The manager claimed that Sandun opened the batting since he had never batted low. If that is the case, why he was picked in the squad that already had Niroshan Dickwella, Upul Tharanga and Dhananjaya de Silva is a mystery. In contrast to the manager’s statement, Weerakody batted at number four in the fourth ODI bringing the inconsistent decision making to broad daylight.

Moreover, the selections have been random and illogical. The stochastic selections that are bereft of any scientific reasoning seem not to have been held accountable by the media. The selectors have got away with picking without any credible evidence players like Chaminda Bandara, Lahiru Madushanka, Thikshila de Silva and Vikum Sanjaya. Such is the lack of accountability from the selectors that Sanath once claimed that he panicked and got away with almost no criticism.

Will Sri Lanka swallow the Red Pill?

“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.”

The above quote from The Matrix sums up Sri Lanka’s choices perfectly well. They can either believe whatever they want to believe and merrily slide down the catastrophic wormhole that would have atavistic consequences, or acknowledge the reality and take the necessary steps, however difficult they could be, to progress further, or at least to avoid retrogression.

If the administration and the management are actually hungry to make the team great, then there is no way by which they could be happy with wins against second-string teams. From the looks of it, it seems like they would be happy with Sri Lanka being a middling team, which it always has been in the past, in world cricket.

Trying to build a great cricket team needs a lot of passion, dedication, greater accountability and responsibility, and a lot of altruism. Perhaps, it is unfair to be overly critical of the current selectors and the administrators since the current quandary is the consequence of a long-term impasse, but it should be acknowledged that the damage has already been done and it will take some time to get the team back on track. Trying to find temporary solutions and alluding to wins against weaker teams to escape the harsher reality will do little good to the future of cricket in Sri Lanka.

A generation of batsmen has failed Sri Lanka. The seniors haven’t lived up to expectations. The only plausible way is to trust the next generation of players, invest in them and hope that they would be able to get us back on course. The domestic system, needless to say, needs an upgrade. Selections should involve the use of data science and data analysis. To this end, Sri Lanka may have to forbear at least a year of poor results. Sri Lanka has already wasted time and trying to produce prompt results has proven to be futile and will only result in more time being wasted.

The truth is bitter. The red pill is tough to swallow. The circumstances demand bold decisions and tough actions. However, Sri Lanka still seems to prefer the Blue Pill. The country wants to believe whatever it wants and seems blasé about wallowing in their blissful ignorance. Will Sri Lanka swallow the Red Pill?