It’s Time!

The ‘Think Tanks’ within SriLanka cricket are similar to ostriches. They hide their heads in the sand hoping their problems would go away. There is no clinical assessment or logical thinking applied to their future planning. And they pay the price time after time, with unerring regularity. Disastrous overseas performances are glossed over or forgotten in the wake of flattering performances at home, on wickets doctored for the purpose. Heroes are born and hailed, reams of newsprint written and hosannas sung. Core issues are forgotten, until they surface once again with the next overseas trip. That’s how the ‘Kings at Home’ syndrome works.

In over-limit cricket you cannot diddle pitches. The form book is not necessarily the best guide. The team that plays the better cricket on the day will win. The game demands that 11 fully fit men take the field.  It’s a game primarily for athletes, where survival of the fittest is the key in more than one sense. Whatever skills a player brings with him, if he is a laggard in the field he can not play. This fundamental truism was ignored by SriLanka in Dubai/Abu Dhabi and they paid the price for their callous disregard. After the second straight defeat at the Asia Cup, they were flung out on their ear, suffering international humiliation in the process. There is no dishonour in losing, but when losing disgracefully, it becomes embarrassing and unacceptable.

Lingering unfitness

For long years Angelo Mathews has not been fully fit. He has “managed his injuries” and continued to play through a tacit understanding with the selectors. He often looked unfit and whatever the effort, it was always seen as below full stretch. Yet, no one questioned.

Overall, it seemed fielding was not a priority. Sometime ago a fabulous out-fielder from a southern province school was discovered and when asked whether he would be inducted into the national pool to gain further experience, the then SriLankan cricket big-wig Gurusinha stated that the lad has time to mature and he should not be rushed. This thinking is in stark contrast to the thinking in both Indian and English camps where 2 youths still only 20 years of age, stole the limelight in the series just ended. One of them became ‘Man of the series’ in a mature man’s game.

Come June this year, a much slimmer version of Mathews went to the Caribbean for a 3 Test series. Batting at No 4, he scored 11 and 31 in the first Test and memorably let off a regulation catch at slip which any Under-14 team player would have swallowed in his sleep. He didn’t bowl one single over. On that tour, the team kept losing its players more regularly than Ranil loses elections. I have lost track of the reasons, but there was a ring of dismay and disbelief in them all. The string of incidents were capped by a sulking team refusing to take the field, unwisely disagreeing with an umpires’ decision.

Heroic turnaround

Just after the first Test, Angelo Mathews bailed out himself, citing ‘personal reasons’,with his mission unfinished. Several others were injury stricken or sent back home for whatever the reason. Some absences were through self inflicted own-goals. This included the skipper and the coach. The team was left in the hands of a stop-gap captain, a bunch of young lads and Lady Luck. No one gave them a ghost’s chance of winning the final Test in the Caribbean. A draw was thought a bonus; a loss without humiliation – quite an achievement.

Teams when under the hammer, sometimes exceed expectations. The SriLankan team in Bridgetown was one such. From a position of near chaos before the start of the Test, a team led by a completely new skipper won the Test and leveled the series. It is unfortunate that far too little has been made of the significance of that win. It should have been made to signal the turning of a corner. But it wasn’t, as SriLanka soon riveted back to its familiar status-quo.

Much was made of new coach Hathurusinghe’s entry. Ever since that ill-advised ‘departure’ of Graham Ford, the controlling body was struggling to find a decent replacement. Given its track record to date, the Board would still have been struggling had not Hathurusinghe stepped into the breach. In a team not given to much tactical thinking on its own steam, getting Hathurusinghe was a godsend.

But there are limits to what the best of coaches could do. You cannot turn brass into gold. Much would depend on the talent at hand and the ones unearthed in the future. For the team to attain maturity and show results, the Coach needs space and time. With older men already cast in brass, the transition can be difficult.

Failed to step up his game

To compare players of different eras can be thankless; even unfair. Yet, Mathews if fit, would have compared favourably with Basil D’Oliveira – the cape-coloured England all rounder. D’Oliveira played for England in the 1960’s and early 1970’s and often bowled 20 tidy overs in a day, while batting handsomely and making substantial contributions at No 6 for England. Yet, however good a batsman he was, there was no chance of him being picked solely as a batsman at No 4 for England. Similarly, Mathews should have been a fixation at No. 6 for the Test side. Given his dodgy fielding and inability to bowl, his selection for the one dayers was questionable, let alone being made captain.

Having Mathews batting at No 4 for the country in Tests tells us a story in itself. In a team which contained both Sangakkara and Jayawardene, Mathews would not have got a look-in at No 4. With his elevation up the order, it only emphasized the gaping hole left behind by those two titans. Mathews was expected to step up his game, justify the elevation, and seal his place. This he singularly failed to do.

Shoddy and lackadaisical

Dubai was the first time I have seen Matthews and many other ‘over-weights’, clearly shorn off their excess fat. But their slimness should have been translated into a more energetic fielding display. Instead, the entire approach to the game – be it when batting or fielding -was shoddy; even lackadaisical. Sri Lanka refused to look an international side at play.

They say the fish starts to rot from its head. Given his recent returns, Mathews’ pride in his own performances and his passion and commitment towards propelling Sri Lankan cricket to greater heights needs to be questioned.  Whoever the coach maybe, it is the captain who leads the troops to battle and it is the players who deliver the results.  The question that must be asked is whether Mathews is the inspirational and passionate leader, the country has been searching for?

Many questions raised

Cricket much like government, demands accountability. Mathews raises the question of his ability to inspire and lead. He raises questions of his cricketing acumen and cricketing nous. And he raises questions about the significance of his own personal contribution towards the team’s cause. When on the field of play every cricket team depends on the might of their captain’s strengths, his leadership and his cricketing acumen. The team depends on the captain’s ability to get the best out of them.  In all these aspects Mathews fell comfortably short of expectations.

Sri Lanka must be brave and willing to lose some of its ageing and under-performing stars and turn to fresh ones under its Head Coach. This will result in losing some matches, but Sri Lanka must learn to lose before it begins to win. It is this obsession to win at all costs than to build a resilient side on a well thought out plan that has caused the crisis they now face. This is why, the team packed with so many old stagers far from fleet of foot, was thought good enough for Dubai. The planners forgot how farcical it was to underrate the opposition.

As with its government, Sri Lanka Cricket badly needs some brave and honest men willing to face reality and formulate its forward policy. Men who are willing to grab the bull by its horns and speak the unpalatable truth. Men who are willing to lead by example. There are plenty of fine men around but whether they wish to get embroiled in what has become essentially a stinking quagmire, is quite another matter.

It is time Angelo Mathews was relieved of his captaincy. Similarly, others however good on paper,are best put to pasture if over the hill and any less than spectacular on the field. Dad’s Army cannot play and win at cricket outside the village green. It took two lowly teams in Dubai to teach Sri Lanka, that imperishable lesson in two straight games in front of the whole world. Given the attendant humiliation, the message cannot be missed.

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