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Afghanistan are more than kite flyers but at home others struggle…
Where Tier ‘A’ failed the provincial system

One thing you will not find on the list of recipients at the annual International Cricket Council’s backslapping event and awards night is one for team of the year.

There is of course, Yahaluweni, one for the ‘Spirit of Cricket,’ the recipients of which last time around was New Zealand, and a tribute to the cool and calm leadership skills of their current captain, Daniel Vettori and not Vettorie (sic) as appeared in a cheap local Sunday rag. Other past winners have been Sri Lanka, under Mahela Jayawardene’s leadership and even England.

But amidst all the individual awards, there is nothing for Team of the Year. It is not difficult either to discover why ‘Team of the Year’ is not included in the menu and maybe awarded between the after dinner mints and coffee as the main guest is waffling his way through any number of themes troubling the game. As it is, the awards have that inlaid sycophantic touch of snobbery about them, where only the privileged get inside the inner sanctum on the night.

While it may seem to be a glittering event, it is largely like most of its kind, an evening of unbridled obsequious pomposity. In this case, it is used by various ICC sponsors and their corporate images, to showcase their logo and could be for this reason that the ‘Team of the Year’ award might go to a nation outside the 10 full members, although Ireland’s application is now being considered by a committee, which if they look closely enough, has a better infrastructure, despite that island’s lousy weather, than Zimbabwe, now trying to revive their Test status.

If the ICC did suddenly find space on their cluttered night to dish out a bravery award, Afghanistan deserves to be the first recipient. After all, a nation with barely a cricket infrastructure to speak of and a legacy of how refugees learnt the game while in the many displaced persons camps in Pakistan, is a tribute to a very brave and in many ways, how humble people who have a belief in themselves and their ability to achieve something worthwhile for their war ravaged nation.

Last week, as bombs were going off in Kabul and the nation that has been the victim of a variety of horrendous acts of warfare, several hundreds of people, naturally including politicians and supporters and what family there are, many waving the national flag and singing patriotic songs, gathered at Kabul’s airport to greet the returning heroes from the UAE.

The national team is living a fairytale, having qualified for the ICC World Twenty20 finals after a meritorious victory over Ireland in the final game of the qualifying tournament in Dubai. Even before that game against the Irish, the Afghans had beaten the United Arab Emirates to secure a place in the mini-slogs event being held in the Caribbean from April 30 to May 16. The victory over Ireland merely confirmed what a side without any formal cricket history as such can achieve. It has set a happy precedent.

Not only is it a relatively new sport to the landlocked nation, which has been mired in conflict for the past thirty-years, but it is one that has had to often run the gauntlet of the fundamentalists among the Taliban. Most learned the sport while living in neighbouring Pakistan, where millions of Afghans fled as refugees to escape the violence of the war against the Soviets, which was followed by civil war between a multitude of factions and what has followed since 2001.

In 1996, when the Islamist Taliban took over the country and banned such simple pleasures as kite flying, they also debated whether to allow any form of cricket to be played at all and as the laws of the game have strong egalitarian and secular principles, it is a battle for the game to survive in such a diverse nation, where the political diktat is one of ultra conservative rule.

As is the case with Pakistan these days, and a country that does have a strong cricket culture, the Afghans now also have a UAE port of call as a ‘home venue’ - Sharjah. It is a magnanimous gesture as the neighbours, Pakistan, such is the pity, have enough troubles of their own to care about than be bothered about the plight of the Afghans.

Anyway, only last week, a team without a first-class or club structure to speak of, managed to put together a second innings total of 494 for four wickets with an 18-year-old, Mohammad Shahzad, the wicketkeeper scoring an undefeated 214 as the they beat Canada by six wickets in Sharjah in an ICC event known as the Intercontinental Cup. What this explains is how teams and countries can overcome problems without a home base. The question is, for how long.

This brings me to the matter of Sri Lanka Cricket and the selectors along with the provincial first-class tournament that is looming later this month. Last week, the question was posed who are they allegedly answerable to when it comes to policy and team selection, in this case the provincial scene? And why is it that each franchise on the island, as is the case in other countries, does not have their own panel of selectors but have to rely on a national panel?

It is a case of the old conundrum of putting the cart before the horse and as was mentioned in these files at the start of the inter-provincial slogs event last month, the system has players who belong to other regions being cobbled to play for other teams. Now the selectors are to make use of Tier ‘B’ teams in the club system, which has become a farce anyway because SLC didn’t have the guts to enforce the simple matter of promotion and relegation and have allowed the leagues become a cockeyed mess. They are suffering now.

First, it is why the Tier ‘A’ clubs have failed to produce better results with no genuine new faces or talent emerging. It is also why the proposal made late last year in these files that Aravinda de Silva be appointed as director of cricket operations to oversee the structure and make improvements needs to be looked at in a more serious light.

The post means he will be answerable to the SLC interim committee president, Somachandra de Silva, which is a point that was overlooked by some critics when it was suggested as a way to cut through the various layers of obfuscation, such as selection panels for the provincial franchises and a workable provincial team infrastructure.

Reasons why the national selectors are now groping in the murky depths of Tier ‘B’ teams is that they didn’t do their homework last time around. The question being were those selected who failed, geared for the slogs (shorter game) or first-class? How were they judged?

Aravinda’s own organised skills are well known with the highly successful schools pathway programme, the talent discovered in the outstation regions during the first set of coaching courses is a good indication that all it needs is the right encouragement to promote growth and club structures, especially as the civil war has ended and the long neglected areas get a chance.

As it is, the Colombo clubs have not only been muzzled by a succession of interim committees, the politicos have sidelined what criticism there is and the question is, who among the clubs are bothered by this continual hijacking of their rights? None it seems. There is no annual meeting either. Nor do they seem to be too bothered by this small fact as the changing face of the game in the country moves up a gear.

There have been any number of advocates down the years for a decentralised system. One such voice was Dr. Churchill Hector Gunasekara, who in the 1940s, wrote a paper of how he saw a regional structure as a tier above that of the clubs as a way forward.

Sri Lanka Cricket has long needed decentralisation if it is to become a healthy, viable system that can benefit the game in the country in the 21st century. This also is where the question should be asked of who among the selectors has been responsible for the current problem of players selected from Tier ‘A’ failing and why have the players failed. Were such flaws noted in the first place? If not, why not?

This is where someone such as Aravinda, a former great Sri Lanka batsman with international respect, would help cut through the knots tying up the system.

Order a boot camp for a start as some of the fielding efforts noted the other day were seriously clumsy with boundaries being scored through inept performances. This is why the Indian Premier League franchise owners sniggered when some of the Sri Lankan names were put up for auction.

If the provincial system is to work in Sri Lanka, as it does in the other full member countries, SLC needs to set up separate selection panels as they have in other countries. It is why the Colombo-based club structure has created the problem that has been growing over the years. The failure of some players at provincial level is because of the way the club system has been mollycoddled until the domestic scene is all but a forgotten entity by the international and central contract payers, and is only useful when needed.

(email: lbwbambrose@gmail.com)

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