Rohan Wijeyaratna, in Island, 8 February 2019, where the title is “Don’t Rock the Boat”
Manuka Oval as a Test venue was blessed with a fairy tale beginning. Sri Lanka down by the head (in maritime parlance) before the Test, went into the match on a hiding to nothing. All three pace bowlers who bowled their hearts out at the Gabba were reported ‘crook’ at various stages to the lead up, while the best of them all, couldn’t even get up from his bed, let alone play. Forced into a corner with their backs to the wall, Sri Lanka began the Test match with a relative rookie pace attack of three men sharing five Tests between them for experience. After 8.4 overs of unbelievable cricket where the ball swung and darted about, bats were beaten and edges were taken. Australia – now in a spot of bother, were left ruminating at 28 for three. If at this stage the most rabid of Sri Lankan followers were cocking a snoot at the soothsayers, by the end of the day the boot was firmly on the other foot. Watchful for a start, the Aussies eventually launched and gorged themselves on a run feast to end on 380 for four — a considerable advance from where they once were. The bowling by then had subsided to its rightful place as second rate; catches were duly dropped when offered, and a very ordinary Australian side were made to look like champions – a title they readily accepted. In other words, normalcy had returned!
Australia went on to amass 534/5 and Sri Lanka by the end of the third day were set 516 to win, having conceded a massive 319 deficit in the first innings. In their second essay, the Lankans managed only 149, leaving Australia winners by 366 runs. In between, Dimuth Karunaratne was hit a sickening blow on the back of the neck and stretchered off the field, while a careless Kusal Perera was also delivered a powerful blow on the head, at a time when the Aussie pace attack was going at full tilt on what was a pretty benign pitch, by Australian standards. It was almost the cricketing equivalent of the ‘massacre of the innocents’.
Coach as selector
The lead-up to this match was not only injury filled, but also incident filled. Clipping others’ wings or sacking them altogether being now in high fashion in the power centres of Colombo, the Cricket Board probably took its cue, and thought it fit to announce during the crucial lead-up to the second Test that coach Hathurusingha has been relieved of his responsibilities as selector on tour, with immediate effect. Even the most marginally informed of cricket’s followers would have figured this was a massive shift in the team’s status quo, and a definite snub very likely to hurt Hathurusingha’s authority, if not ego. It could also possibly have humiliated the one man who makes it his business to inspire and condition the mental state of all others in the team.
Previously, we have questioned the sagacity of appointing Hathurusingha as selector, while doubling up as Coach (‘The Mathews affair revisited’ – The Island, 3rd October 2018). If after such a long time his role as selector was now to be reversed, the timing and its style was of essence. In this instance, the change was seen more as a reprimand, and less as an adjustment of the Coach’s responsibilities. In fact, it appeared more a mule’s kick in the solar plexus of the Coach, delivered publicly. Given the debility of an already injury hit team, its image could have done without attracting any further negative attention on itself. But that was not to be. Sri Lanka were a team in turmoil and now it showed.
Ham fisted over-reaction
On this tour alone four leading pacemen were injured and debilitated when most needed. In a country where very little emphasis is laid on fast bowling, Sri Lanka didn’t have too many ready reserves on call. The spinners quickly proved to be ‘home wicket champions’, with Dilruwan Perera showing little ability to strike a consistent length, let alone achieve deceptive flight or turn. Debility therefore was the buzzword around the camp, and the last thing one wished to hear was a public censure of the man who held the team together – its Coach. In what is now rapidly becoming an uncouth style of management in top places, this latest action of relieving the Coach of part of his contractual responsibilities just before a crucial Test match was hardly going to inspire Hathurusingha to reach any great heights of enthusiasm or achievement. If clipping the wings of the Coach was the answer to the debacle suffered in the 1st Test, then this was a hamfisted over-reaction. The same result could have been achieved using greater finesse and timing, had the Board conveyed the change prior to the South African tour, just one match away. As it panned out, Sri Lanka already injured, nearly shot itself in the foot as part of the remedy.
Rearrange its priorities
A Coach doubling up as national selector is an unhealthy precedent. It can lead to a conflict of interests and lend towards subjective selections. It can also create disharmony in a team and damage the trust between coach and player which is essential and sacrosanct. Good coaches are hard to come by, and Sri Lanka have let slip through their grasp, a few they might have done well to retain. No amount of sacking or hiring of coaches would do, unless Sri Lanka gears itself domestically to condition its players to beat the opposition outside its shores. The quality of the pitches at home is a starting point, while an honest evaluation of the standard of its club cricket is another. Born, bred and molly-coddled on doctored slow turners at home, the limitations of both the batsmen and the bowlers are quickly unclothed when on tour. The lack of Test match temperament and skill could not have been more stark, since the annihilation came from a team that had received a comprehensive thrashing at the hands of the touring Indians just a couple of weeks before. The results were a pointer to how relatively poor the Sri Lankans were, than any great advancement the Aussies might have made. Despite reams of praise heaped upon them, the Aussies remain extremely weak in their batting and guaranteed to buckle when tested against good bowling. If they toured South Africa right now, they’d be blown to smithereens.
Low survival rate
Sri Lanka has had many Coaches whose survival rate in the job has been low. There has been no real appreciation or public acknowledgement of their contribution, if any. At the time of their parting, it was always a case of the coaches never being good enough. Coach evaluation has possibly been based purely on match results and this can ignore the challenges the Coaches may have faced or the work that went into making raw, inexperienced talent into more acceptable players with time. If this marginalizing of Coaches continues, Sri Lanka will soon not have any, willing to take on an assignment with the national team – however lucrative. This is why we feel any censure of Hathurusingha in public – however indirect, cannot be to the team’s advantage. Losing the Coach can seriously destabilize a team already keeling over, with the loss of many, including its skipper.
Near matchless combination
Sri Lanka enjoyed its most successful spell of coaching when Dav Whatmore teamed up with Alex Contouris [sic] for several years from the mid-1990s. They oversaw all on-field aspects of Sri Lankan cricket through a monumental effort, which typically went understated and unacknowledged. Their contributions were so immense, the World Cup winning Sri Lankan team got by, with just these two as support staff. Compared to the near half a bus load that now accompanies the team in that capacity, one could imagine the magnitude of the Whatmore -Contouris contribution. Had Contouris[ [Kontouris] remained as the team Physio, it is unlikely that the Sri Lankan fast bowlers or the likes of Mathews would have broken down in the manner they did, at such crucial times on tour.
Some fine men, lost
Whatmore left after the 2003 World cup due to intense pressure and unpleasantness created on his role by another within the Board, who had ambitious plans for himself. Contouris left shortly before and was duly snapped up by the Australians who welcomed him with open arms. A string of others followed. Dyson, Steuart Law, Geoff Marsh, Graham Ford, Trevor Bayliss, Paul Farbrace and Graham Ford a second time. The turnaround of Coaches in the time space considered has been too high to be considered normal. The departure of the highly likeable Marsh and Bayliss both, were unfair and ugly; but both profited through their leaving. Marsh through a massive legal settlement which he sought and received for his abrupt ending and Bayliss ascending shortly thereafter, as the Coach of England. They were both victims of their respective captains being at odds with them. The highly rated Graham Ford who was gearing up to render some valued service, fell foul with the administration – possibly for not permitting interference.
Given the many upheavals and reversals the team has endured and given the poor language skills displayed by a majority of the players, it makes sense to continue with a Coach familiar with the vernacular. Retention of Hathurusingha therefore makes sense in the immediate future, while his work and results obtained are monitored and analysed along with him. Once the Board is convinced of the man’s worth, it should leave him a decent space of time to deliver.
Vastly improve communication skills!
Of the many glaring deficiencies noted on tour, one aspect stood out like a sore thumb. That is the near total inability of the Sri Lankan players to carry on a meaningful conversation in English. The missed opportunities in information exchange alone between players of the two sides would have been sufficient to convince any far thinking Controlling Body, to set in motion several meaningful steps to fast track the Lankans into not just good cricketers but also good communicators. Cricket is an international game played internationally all over the world and stepping into the circuit without appropriate language skills can only be to Sri Lanka’s detriment. That holds good for our cricketers as well as our legislators, from top to bottom.