Of all the issues that are tarnishing Sri Lanka’s image, which one is most damaging? Is it the downward spiral of the Sri Lankan rupee, the conduct of the top brass of the Sri Lanka Police or the performance of Sri Lanka Cricket? It is a tight contest but perhaps, because of its greater international exposure, the performance of Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) will emerge the winner- and that would be about the only win Sri Lanka Cricket will be able to register in the foreseeable future.
Consider the evidence: the team loses both games in the Asia Cup, first to Bangladesh and then to Afghanistan (Thank God, we are not playing Nepal or Hong Kong!). Then, captain Angelo Matthews is stripped of his captaincy. Peeved, Matthews fires off a missive to SLC where he says he is being made a scapegoat. The saga continues. Matthews is dropped from the team (despite being the highest scorer in the recent series against South Africa) and coach Chandika Hathurusinghe declares this was done so he could focus on his fitness.
In the meantime, investigators from the International Cricket Council (ICC) are in Colombo inquiring into allegations of corruption. They meet the President and the Prime Minister and reportedly frown on the fact that elections to SLC have not been held on schedule, just like those for our Provincial Councils.
Incidentally, Minister Faiszer Musthapha is in charge of both processes. While all this is going on, there is a major Police probe underway to find out who tried to siphon off millions of dollars from a television rights deal into a third-party bank account. Thankfully, the deal didn’t go through because an alert and honest Chief Executive Officer smelled a rat.
That something is rotten in SLC is obvious. It has been so for many years. However, fortunately (or, perhaps, unfortunately), a few cricketers, namely Mahela Jayewardena, Kumar Sangakkara, Sanath Jayasuriya, Tillekeratne Dilshan, Muttiah Muralitharan and Rangana Herath, kept playing out of their skins for several years. As a result, Sri Lanka won their games and everyone was happy.
Stories are rife of how previous selection committees were under the influence of the SLC hierarchy to include certain players because of their political affiliations, regardless of their lack of talent or their indiscipline. We have all heard the story of a cricketer, the offspring of a Minister, who tried to open the door of an aircraft to make a call of nature- the Minister is no longer in office and the cricketer is no longer in the team! The cracks at SLC appeared from time to time. Sangakkara used his ‘Spirit of Cricket’ lecture at Lords to lambast SLC. Both, he and Jayewardene resigned from the captaincy before their retirement because they found it difficult to work with the local lords at Maitland Place. The rot was setting in but Sri Lankans being Sri Lankans, they were satisfied as long as the country was winning their matches.
Now that they are not, the searchlight has focussed not only on the team but also on the hierarchy at SLC. Of course, Matthews and the cricketers are sitting ducks. It is easy to blame it all on the cricketers and behave as if there is nothing wrong with the administration of the SLC. And, if we manage to win a few games again, even on home soil, all will be forgotten. Yes, the cricketers have their flaws.
However, they are also a product of the ‘system’ and when the system is flawed they will be damaged too. When officials at Sri Lanka Cricket behave as if they hold their positions forever (and to be fair, they seem to have done so), then cricketers feel the only way they can secure their place in the side is by being loyal to the hierarchy, no matter what. It is not that there is a lack of people of integrity and love for the sport in the country. There are past cricketers (Arjuna Ranatunga, Aravinda de Silva, Sangakkara, Jayawardena and Sidath Wettimuny who is respected even more) who want to help. They all recognise that SLC needs drastic reform and that such reform can only be achieved by changing its Constitution. And therein lies the problem.
The present Constitution is tailor-made for someone who is a benefactor of constituent clubs, able to ‘buy’ their votes and be SLC President forever. That is why Thilanga Sumathipala, who first became President of SLC 20 years ago (yes, in 1998!) is still President.
Of course, he hasn’t been SLC President for all of those 20 years, but he has been President four times, and his proxies such as, Mohan de Silva have played the role when he couldn’t become President for some reason or another. Consider this: Sri Lanka has amended the country’s Constitution to prevent someone such as Mahinda Rajapaksa running for President again and again and again.
However, it has been unable to amend the Constitution of SLC to prevent Thilanga Sumathipala running for President of SLC again and again and again. So, hat’s off to him, the man maybe ruining Sri Lanka’s Cricket, but he’s smart enough to do it in style! Sumathipala knows which side his political bread is buttered.
He was an acolyte of Mahinda Rajapaksa at the last presidential election campaign. Rajapaksa lost but Sumathipala was quick to switch his allegiance to President Maithripala Sirisena, so much so that when Sumathipala himself lost his seat at the August 2015 General Election, President Sirisena accommodated him in the National List.
Just for the record, Sumathipala has had his dalliances with the United National Party (UNP) too. So, is there light at the end of the tunnel for Sri Lanka’s cricket? There could be, but not under this political dispensation which is fully supportive of ‘Sumathipalaisation’ of Sri Lanka’s cricket.
There will be probes, inquiries, commissions and what not, but at the end of all of that, SLC will be in the same hands, governed by the same people. Sadly, not even the ICC will be able to change that.