Fix the fundamentals first


It is ironic that in all of the five ODIs played in South Africa, Sri Lanka couldn’t bat out its quota of 50 overs even once.

T20 cricket is a great entertainer. It entertains mainly those whose appreciation of the game is either marginal or none at all. It can be a great draw card to pull in the unconverted, but connoisseurs out of step with reality, find watching the peeling paint off their kitchen walls far more exciting. This game can offend their sensibilities.

Winning or losing a T20 tells us zilch about a team’s standing in cricket. This game is not about consistency; it is about a lottery. A kingmaker one day can be a pauper the next. Yet, T20 has come to stay, and as with all less desirable influences, the authorities will have to manage it. In the process if they cause least damage to other forms of cricket in which the same players play, they would have done well. There is little doubt the game of cricket and how it is played is in transition.

T20 however, has its uses. It can lift the fielding skills of a team beyond belief. Fitness and physical strength levels have gone through the roof while running between the wickets have improved out of sight. But when Test cricketers play T20 in front of passionate crowds as against the empty stands in the Test arena, one wonders how much longer they could resist the temptation of a switch, wholesale. Survival of the traditional game depends on the successful retention of the best talent for Test cricket while sharing them with the other forms of the game. Given the attractions, impressionable aspirants to Test cricket cannot be faulted for preferring to remain with T 20 instead. Controlling commercialization is perhaps the key, but finding the right formula and striking a balance is the greatest challenge the authorities face.

A call for cool headed analysis

Basking in the glory of the two Test wins achieved mostly against the run of play, Sri Lanka in the one day games were unceremoniously dumped with a thud by a vengeful South Africa, who suddenly appeared fully woken from a deep slumber. Given Sri Lanka’s pathetic display in the ODIs, the prognosis ahead of the World Cup isn’t actually cheering. The thrashing in the five one dayers is a wake up call for Sri Lanka. It calls for some cool headed and honest analysis to determine what went wrong, where.

A 50 over inning involves a lot of batting. Unlike in the T20s, it isn’t a thrash from start to finish. Teams tend to do well when they have plenty of wickets in hand by the end of the 39th over, with ideally 200 runs on the board. This would leave their bowlers a decent total to defend. That should be the plan, but regrettably, there seemed no such plan in evidence. Mentally, the Sri Lankans seemed out of synch with their task at hand.

A heinous crime

It is ironic that in all of the five ODIs played in South Africa, Sri Lanka couldn’t bat out its quota of 50 overs even once. In the 1st ODI, Sri Lanka batted only 47 overs in making 231. In the 2nd, they batted for only 32.2 overs in making 138. In the 3rd, they made 121 for 5, in 24 overs before Duckworth - Lewis intervened, awarding the match to the other side. In the 4th, Sri Lanka batted for only 39.2 overs scoring 189. And in the 5th, they made 226 in 49.2 overs. That tells the story of a team unable to negotiate their allotted 50 overs with the bat. Never mind losing the match, but not making use of one’s allotted quota is a heinous crime in one day cricket. It is inexcusable.

The yawning gap

Barring those injured, it is to be assumed that the players picked for the recent tours were the pick of the lot from the Sri Lankan 1st class game. If so, it is a clear pointer to the yawning gap which exists between Sri Lanka’s first class game and the prevailing international standard. Such a gap can be bridged only with time, but not without some honest toil and sincerity of purpose. Chief among the remedies is the urgent need to intensify the competition at domestic level between the teams involved in the first class competition. This is only possible through a massive reduction in the number of teams participating in the Premier League. Simply put, due to the proliferation of teams, there are far too many players involved in first class cricket who are unworthy of such recognition.

Cumbersome and complicated

Currently, the Premier League is said to have 23 first class teams in two tiers. Tier A consists of 14 teams; tier B consist of nine. Tier A is divided into 2 groups with each team playing against each other a fixed number of games. Finally, the top four teams from each group qualify to play in a separate tournament conducted over 4 days each. The lowest ranked teams play the plate championship with the bottom ranked facing relegation to tier B.

Tier B has nine teams which play each other to determine who comes on top. The team with the most points receives promotion to tier A while the wooden-spoonists from tier A are then relegated to tier B. Altogether around 450 players are involved in this cumbersome, complicated, and long drawn exercise, which seemingly has done little to improve the quality of the Test aspirants, rising from the domestic tournament.

Essential first step

Any system that reduces the number of competing first class teams while heightening the intensity of competition, will lead to an inevitable rise in the prevailing domestic standard. This will produce a qualitatively better crop of emerging Test players whose skills and abilities would not be far below the current Test players. If the Cricket Committee and the Cricket Board are sincere in their intentions to raise the standard of Test cricket, they need not look far beyond a solution which calls for the raising of the first class standard. A vast reduction of the number of competing teams is obviously the essential first step.

A national malady

One thing which stood out on the recent overseas tours was that Sri Lankans were never shy to play their shots however delicately a game was poised. And the more they played them, the more they displayed a worrying lack of technique against the moving and the rising ball at high speed. A proper defensive technique is the first requirement for any international batsman, be it in Tests or 50-Over cricket. In this respect the Sri Lankan weakness in defense and their vulnerability against the rising ball or anything at pace moving away, were stark. These weaknesses were further accentuated by the absence of footwork. There was little evidence of clear back and across movement when playing short pitched bowling or when attempting the hook shot. Batsmen mostly played their shots from where they stood; a legacy of those slow, dry and flat wickets on which the players were raised. Unless Sri Lankan pitches help seam, pace and bounce and unless the competition among first class teams is intensified, the batsmen and pace bowlers will always remain short of the required experience when touring overseas. Often these deficiencies are camouflaged by inerting the fast bowling resources of every touring overseas team to the island through pitch manipulation, but the players enjoy no such luck when Sri Lanka tours overseas. In the hope that no one notices, Sri Lanka continues to fool itself unceasingly. It is a national malady.

Synthetic practice wickets

What holds the Cricket Board back from doing what needs to be done is anyone’s guess, but Sri Lanka has the potential to generate a great stream of talent which can progressively enhance the quality of the national pool to great heights. It should interest Ashantha De Mel no end, to spearhead the required pitch transformation campaign, as he knows better than most, what hard toil is, for a fast bowler on unresponsive wickets in sweltering conditions. Changing pitch conditions will not only invoke renewed fast bowling interest, it will also produce better equipped batsmen who will first learn to survive, before beginning to prosper. This will produce better Test players with greater all-round technical competence and tighter defense. It will also give rise to more intense contests between bat and ball. As a first step, a set of synthetic practice wickets which will replicate the exact playing conditions that exist elsewhere must be installed without delay. Given all the prevailing drawbacks, the importance of this cannot be overstated.

Three striking remedies

In summary, three striking factors stand out as one examines how Sri Lanka’s cricketing woes could be overcome. Firstly, school cricket – the nurseries - must revert back to the innocence of wholesome inter-collegiate cricket, where the pursuit of cricketing excellence and the fostering of good sportsmanship remain the essentials. Under no circumstances should schools be allowed to participate in sponsored competitions. Next comes the raising of the intensity of competition in the domestic Premier tournament. This can happen only through the reduction of participating teams which will intensify competitiveness. Thirdly, and not necessarily in that order, the revamping of the pitch philosophy, which will gear Sri Lankan players to meet overseas teams on what comes close to equal terms. Each of the above will strengthen the cricketing matrix and the country’s cricket will prosper towards a far greater level of competence and respectability than at present.

No Coach – be it Hathurusingha or Rixon, could adequately fix the team’s woes unless and until the long term issues of Sri Lanka cricket are addressed. The best of these men will come, if they are spared from having to teach basics to Test cricketers and Test aspirants.

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