Cricketing Woes: A Needed Return To Glory From Doldrums

By Upatissa Pethiyagoda –

Dr. Upatissa Pethiyagoda

The period of mourning is over, and it is open season for the hunt. Our cricket team is back. No VIP Lounge, no garlands, no welcoming parties and no open decked bus for a ‘victory ride’ into town, roads lined with cheering, flag waving and delirious crowds. Instead, a grim arrival with no asininely grinning officials from SL Cricket or Ministry of Sports – even perhaps the great man himself.

Little wonder, since Board and Ministry are busy, having instead to face a slew of Court proceedings. A combative Minister and an unruly Parliament, are floundering in unfamiliar territory, in a manner that is all but sportsman-like. Meanwhile, the Speaker, in his flabby, out-sized finery, fumbles helplessly – rather like a football referee who has forgotten to bring his whistle.

Among those blamed for the debacle are The Board of Control for Cricket (BCCL), coaches, advisors, selectors, poor pitch preparation, punishing schedules, excessive travels, fitness, and evening dew. Everything other than lack of preparedness and dedication by the cricketers themselves. Talent alone without commitment is not enough. Poor captaincy, irresponsible batting, wayward bowling, poor ground fielding and dropped catches have all conspired to diminish performance. Catches do win matches.

The tragedy is that some of these criticisms are valid, but some not so. Compounding all this is the “choking atmosphere” at Sri Lanka Cricket Board. Various matters are pending in Courts. This does not bode well for our cricket and tends to quench any efforts to improve matters.

There a three areas of life which are strictly personal and not open to trespass by anyone. These three are Sports, Religion, and Culture (and may also include language). Wherever they have been trespassed, there has been chaos. What Sport one favours, what religion one follows and what culture one displays, (and I would add, what language one chooses to speak), are not matters to be decided by some certifiable punks. Most of us I believe, like to make their own choices (or mistakes).

To my mind, the primary cause for the decline of cricket, along with monetization, is politicization. It is astonishing that we have chosen to entrust sports to persons who are unable to conduct even their own legitimate tasks with competence, grace and dignity.

Is it not an absurdity that some guy, bereft of any knowledge or competence, has the power to decide who should be or not be in a national team? Some persons of dubious ability in anything, have been “Ministers of Sports”. The belief that a Minister or Ministry is necessary for things to improve, is a demonstrable fallacy.

When it comes to cricket, I can only think of one instance where high -level political monkeying helped. This was when Sanath Jayasuriya was hurriedly dispatched to bolster our team (in Australia?), when he virtually rushed from Airport to grounds, to score a memorable hundred. But see what happened, when the same person chose to enter the murky pitch of local politics.

A World class left-hand opening batsman transformed into a mere third level political non entity. It is nearly forgotten that he and “Little Kalu” spectacularly re-wrote the syllabus for the first ten overs of ODI cricket, for others to follow. After his defection, Sanath’s only victim was one injured buffalo on the Southern expressway. In contrast Aravinda, still occupies an enviable place in cricket lore. Murali, Mahela and Sanga are still in equally hallowed positions. Dilshan, perhaps our best ever covers fielder, dropped some hints of a suicidal dive. Fortunately, it seems that his vision for change has now lost its sheen. It is nice to see Arjuna R showing glimpses of his legendary belligerent (cool) obstinacy, whether dealing with port labour or with shady characters in the SL Cricket Board, whose actions have been sadly lacking in integrity. One awaits the findings of the judiciary.

The ongoing duel between President Wickremesinghe and his Sports Minister Roshan Ranasinghe, shows what happens when politics and Sports are mixed, when expediency prevails against principle.

English and Australian Test teams on their journeys, would fit in a one-day fixture against a local team. Although usually mauled, we sometimes displayed respectable talent (for example in Mahes Rodrigo). During Test Matches we usually backed the Aussies. Our keenness was so intense, that we often recalled the entire score board, even in some County matches. Several Sri Lankans figured respectably in English County Cricket. Two names that come to mind are (Laddie?) Outschoorn and Stanley Jayasinghe, while Gamini Gunasena and Vijay Malalasekera excelled in the Oxford/Cambridge Big Matches.

Our current poor showing, has been equated with what Windies cricket has undergone, due to differences, between players and their Governing Body, in financial matters. Although the circumstances are most unfortunate, the mere grouping of us with them, even in distress, is immensely comforting. Most so, when the similarity between them is their bold approaches to the game, without undue regard for the final result, have been admired by many commentators. In particular, the willlngness to take defeat as gracefully as victory, I therefore take the liberty of recalling some of their previous greatness, flattered as we are by the declaration of their similarities.

West Indian Teams excluded coloured players for a long while. After liberation, they blazed a fantastic trail. The front runner in the ‘resurrection’ was Learie. Constantine. After ending his brilliant career in cricket, he was the West Indies High Commissioner to Britain for a few years. He was not only made a knight thereafter, but also served in the House of Lords as “Lord Baron Contantine”. He was a strong force in combatting colour discrimination. In cricket, he was an aggressive batsman and also regarded as the best fielder in Test Cricket in his time. Among the many legends that are associated with L.C, was that he batted with such ferocity that in one instance, it is said that the ball fractured the hand of the hapless quickie bowler who tried to catch it, and then smashed into the front rows of the stands, for one of the lowest sixers ever seen.

The decade of the 1950’s could rightly be called the Age of the Windies. Including perhaps the best all-rounder of all times, Garfield (Gary) Sobers, (who incidentally had a short stint coaching our national team). He was part of the outfit which included the three genius batsmen, Frank Worrell, Clyde Walcott and Everton Weekes (The three W’s), Rohan Kanhai who would steer the ball for a brilliant hook shot, while air-borne, with both feet off the ground. The spin combination of the magical duo, Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine were devils incarnate. The fast bowler Wes Hall, who started his run-up almost from the boundary, was plain deadly.

An important innovation of the time, was the twist of the bat as it struck the ball. This often defined “style”- being maximum effect from minimal effort. Expectedly, this team was heroic to all followers of the game. These were early days for television. I still recall watching a match, where Worrell was on screen continuously for well over ten hours. A historic Fifth Test at Lords, saw all three W’s score ducks. I had the pleasure of meeting Walcott in Rome, when I took mischievous glee in recalling this unique experience. I could not say whether he blushed.

A bit of physics of motion may be in order. A moving body at 60 miles per hour travels 88 feet per second. This means that the 22 yards between bowling and batting crease, is covered in about 0.75 of a second. It is said that the human eye takes about 0.1 second to transmit an impulse from eye to muscle to react. This leaves about 0.65 of a second for a batsman to adjust himself to read the grip on the ball, read the seam position, sense the speed and length, select the proper stroke for the delivery, figure out the fielders’ positions, positioning himself accordingly to play the selected stroke. This is a near impossibility, since faster bowlers today exceed 140 km per hour. It may explain why good batsmen are so rare and that generally, dark-skinned races produce better players than Caucasians. Genetics in operation, physics of motion in error, or some mystical elements at play?

Much has happened to cricket in the last few years. Test cricket, which was the undisputed “King Cricket,” has been displaced by the shorter limited over forms. The 50-over One Day Internationals (ODI) and the 20-over forms (20- overs) have grown in popularity. The almost religious addiction to hallowed (and slower-paced) Tests, is being seriously challenged. The fear that this might lead to a decline in the quality or “style” has not happened. A type of new culture has developed. This has led to Premier League Contests (IPL, PPL and LPL), hosted by India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka respectively. Simultaneously, emphasis has moved towards greater numbers of “professional players”.

There may be some who consider this as likely to diminish the outstanding stature of cricket. The Annual fixture in England, between the “Gentlemen” (amateurs) versus “Players” (professionals), was a symbolic recognition of this distinction. This has led to the “Premier League” matches, where players are selected at an Auction and drawn from all countries with individual offerings. The purists may (justifiably) see a parallel with Cattle Auctions. Cricket, has thus become Big Money, with outstandingly gifted players attracting huge sums, of the order of thousands of dollars (or crores of Indian Rupees), for a single season. Players from all playing nations can offer themselves for bids. While some purists might see this as retrograde, the majority view this as just reward for talent and/or entertainment, as so many actors and artists of excellence do. But this also opens the gate for gamblers, match fixers and other crooked types. In fact, some outstanding players have had to sacrifice promising careers for tainted money. The sums involved are astronomical and so also are corresponding corrupt practices.

“Modernization” has brought with it several changes.

a) Protective gear. The previous gear for batsmen has been added to by Helmets, knee and arm protector and thigh paddings. Close-up fielders too wear helmets and shin-guards.

b) Whites have replaced the red leather balls. This has apparently caused differences in bounce and swing. They also seem to wear and soften differently. A sensible change is for each umpire to carry a ball, so that at the end of each over, a different ball is used.

c) Electronic devices – cameras, ball trackers etc. which are designed to correct possible umpiring errors, and the Duckworth-Lewis Method to combat bad weather, or other reason to curtail the second innings in a limited overs game are useful innovations.

c) Women’s participation. In also a welcome change. There are events parallel to men’s contests in use. This is most logical. The readiness with which women have risen to the occasion and shown that they are no second to men in performance, is astonishing. It will probably not be too long before fixtures between them, or mixed teams become a reality. Sri Lankan ladies are happily in the top slots. They have figured also as commentators, umpires and scorers and shown to be serious.

d) Along with the dominance of the shorter versions, the rigour of Test garb has changed from the formal whites and flannels to vivid colours.

e) There have been some linguistic changes as well to reflect gender equality. No longer are there “batsmen” and “fieldsmen” but “batters” and “fielders”, but still slips and gullies, long, short and fine “legs”.

f) In our case, new “outstation” talent especially from rural areas, have benefitted the game. Gone are the times when Royal, St Thomas and Trinity provided the nucleus. This is no more. Lads from the most remote areas of the South and North-Central areas dominate. This is undoubtedly a positive development.

g) Teams from the Netherlands and Afghanistan have moved smoothly from the ranks of “Minnows” to serious contenders for recognition.