Sri Lanka’s Cricket in Decline? World Cup 2023

Sanjeewa Jayaweera, in The Island, 12 November 2023, where th title runs thus: “Is our cricket going the same way as West Indies cricket?

Until 1977, when Kerry Packer set up the World Series Cricket (WSC) tournament, Australia and England took turns to hold the mantle of being the world’s top test-playing team; during this period, the West Indies did, on occasions, challenge the order of supremacy but were never able to be consistently good. The Indians and Pakistanis were competitive when playing at home but could not defeat the Australians in Australia. All that changed in 1979 when the Australian and English Boards and the ICC made peace with Kerry Packer.

The West Indies team that emerged post the WSC were to dominate world cricket for nearly a decade and a half as they possessed a conveyor belt of fast bowlers and some brilliant batsmen. When playing in the WSC tournament, the West Indies team under Sir Clive Lloyd embraced all the traits required to be at the top of their game—attributes such as hard work, supreme fitness and playing as a team were added to their natural talent. They were an irresistible force that decimated opposition teams at home and away.

The Reasons for the Demise of West Indies Cricket

However, from around 1995, West Indies cricket has gone from bad to worse to pathetic and suffered the ultimate ignominy of not qualifying for the 50 overs World Cup in India that is currently being played. Initially, the decline was accepted and explained as a consequence of the retirement of some great players. For sure, all teams go through this cycle when several top performers retire more or less at the same time, and the newcomers need time to gain experience and confidence.

Despite the impatience of the supporters, it is generally accepted that the team will not perform at the same level during this rebuilding period. However, in the case of West Indies, even after nearly three decades of waiting, the team is a shadow of what it used to be; it is unable to compete with most other teams, and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. The team that produced some of the world’s best batsmen and bowlers are now struggling to beat even the minnows.

The purpose of highlighting the decline in West Indies cricket and its inability to regain its former glory days is to understand whether Sri Lanka cricket, too, is afflicted with the same malaise. Whilst our team never dominated the world stage as the West Indies did, it is not incorrect to say that we could hold our own, particularly when playing at home in both test and limited-overs cricket. We were also successful and competitive in limited-overs cricket, even when playing overseas, and our record at the 50-over World Cup tournaments between 1996 and 2011 (except 1999) was excellent. Even in the T20 format, we were champions once and runners-up twice.

During this era, between 1996 and 2015, Sri Lanka produced several outstanding cricketers who could have walked into any other team. What was particularly significant and impressive was that they were excellent in both the test and limited over formats. They were masters of their craft, could consistently compete at the highest level, and were household names even overseas.

In the case of the West Indies, the following have been identified as reasons for the decline in their performance.

  • · Loss of interest and passion among the younger generation, who prefer other sports or entertainment
  • Lack of unity and cohesion among the players from different islands and territories. Undoubtedly, some of the above also contribute to the decline of Sri Lankan cricket.

Murali Blames the Cricketers and Not the Coaches

I recently watched a video interview of Murali, which was actually televised about four years ago. He was absolutely adamant that Sri Lanka cricket would not be as successful as in the previous 20 years and that the fault lay with the players and not the coaching staff. He said that he could not teach a bowler to bowl the “doosra” nor for Sangakkara to teach a player how to bat other than help them with the mental side of the game.

I believe he meant that the players need to constantly work hard by practising to develop their game. Murali and Sanga would have undoubtedly spent countless hours perfecting their game. Despite the type of financial rewards on offer for the current crop of cricketers, there is a question mark whether most of them want to do the hard yards to be consistently excellent in their game.

Fitness and Kohli’s Example

When one considers how often our fast bowlers are injured, there is a valid question to pose on their commitment towards fitness. A team without their best fast bowlers should not expect to perform well, or when a bowler breaks down after bowling a few overs, the team is disadvantaged during the match.

One only needs to watch some of the videos on Virat Kohli to understand the endless hours he works out in the gym, the strict diet he adheres to, and hours of practice he puts in the nets to fine-tune his game. His fitness is a major contributory factor in him being a master of the chase in one-day matches where, for the most part, he eliminates the risky boundary shots as he is more than prepared to run the singles, the two and the threes until the finishing line is close. No wonder he has been a top player for over a decade.

The physique of Charitha Asalanka, a promising batsman, indicates that he needs to lose several kilos. I remember being enthralled by Avishka Fernando’s batting at the 2019 World Cup but also lamenting how overweight he was. Since then, he has not been a permanent national team member because of his excess weight. As to why players as young as Asalanka and Avishka struggle with their weight and fitness is a concern, and does it reflect the lack of desire to set high standards for themselves?

Humiliated by Pakistan at Home and Lessons not learnt

Not many gave much importance when our test team was humiliated by Pakistan in July 2023. We lost the test match by innings and 220 runs. Our bowlers could claim only four wickets whilst conceding over 550 runs, whilst, on the same docile pitch, our batters were bowled out in both innings for scores less than 200. That this demoralizing defeat suffered when playing at home should not have been forgotten. At least to me, the loss reflected the depths to which our cricket had sunk. As previously mentioned, in most teams, the core of the test batting lineup also makes up the core of the limited-overs batting, at least in the 50 overs game.

Atrocious Fielding and Do We Need a Consultant Coach

Our fielding has long been atrocious. We have not seen any improvement and have the worst record in terms of the number of catches dropped by a team in the World Cup. Many of the dropped catches have cost the team plenty of runs and have significantly contributed to some of the losses. Even our ground fielding is embarrassing, with players constantly fumbling and diving over.

Fielding requires good anticipation and athleticism, both of which are lacking among our players. In my view, it is a facet of the game that requires considerable practice where talent is not a prerequisite, and our poor performance can only be attributed to a lack of hard work.

The coaching staff have come in for severe criticism. Even the great Mahela Jayawardena has not been spared. The reason why the team requires a Head Coach and Consultant coach is inexplicable. As Murali stated, there is a limit to what a coach could achieve with international cricketers. In that context, a question needs to be posed on why there are so many support staff, although most teams seem to have embraced the concept of having specialized coaches for batting, bowling and fielding in addition to the Head Coach.

A Stink at the Sri Lanka Cricket Board

Ever since Ana Punchihewa was unceremoniously deposed soon after we won the World Cup in 1996, a group of people have got themselves elected to the Sri Lanka Cricket Board (SLC) through a less-than-desirable election process. It would not be wrong to say that most have not been interested in developing Sri Lanka cricket and have used their positions for financial gain and perks.

We certainly need to clean the stables and ensure that persons of proven integrity are appointed to SLC. It would be necessary to have a combination of former cricketers like Mahanama, Sangakkara, Mahela, Vaas and a few good administrators from the private sector to be part of the Board.

We must ensure that the Minister of Sport (whoever it may be) has no authority over SLC. It is absolutely ludicrous that the Minister’s approval is needed to select players. It is quite amusing that 225 members of parliament have allocated a day to debate the current state of affairs of the SLC and propose remedial action when most of them have overseen the nation’s economic collapse over several decades. Talk about people throwing stones from glass houses.

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