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Secret of Sri Lankan cricket's good health

world Updated: Apr 02, 2007 18:53 IST
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There are a variety of reasons for Sri Lankan cricket's excellent health. The players, selectors, administrators, coaches, and above all, the fans, have contributed to it.

But there is an unseen factor which needs recognition, namely, Sri Lankan culture, especially the culture of the majority community, the Sinhalese.

The Sinhalese are, quintessentially, outdoor people. They not only love sports but give it a high status.

Come Sunday or any holiday, rural boys would hold cross-country bicycle races. And unlike their counterparts in India, Sinhalese middle class parents do not deride their children's participation in sports as a waste of time. Job recruiters attach high value to sporting achievements. There is, thus, an incentive to play, and play hard, from an early age.

Sri Lanka may be a new comer to international cricket, but it has been an ardent cricketing nation for over a century. However, till the late 1980s, cricket was an elite game, restricted to the high class English medium schools in Colombo and Kandy – a cultural badge of a social class rather than a serious competitive sport.

Sea change

But Arjuna Ranatunga's ascendancy as captain in 1988 brought about a sea change. "Arjuna" as he is known, provided an innovative and aggressive leadership.

He had a passion for promoting new talent, no matter where they came from. He boosted players' morale by standing up for those who had been treated unjustly, no matter who the tormentor was.

"Arjuna was dictating terms at that time. He did a lot for cricketers from outside Colombo.

He brought in Sanath Jayasuiriya from Matara in the deep south, and gave him accommodation in his house in Colombo so that he could concentrate on the game," recalled Mahendra Ratnaweera, a senior cricket journalist.

Under the new conditions, the Sri Lankan team kept improving and grabbed the World Cup in 1996 – an event which ushered in a new epoch in Sri Lankan cricket.

"The cricket board prospered with sponsors coming in, and ad revenue increasing steeply. The game became popular in the outstations (small towns and rural areas). Money began to be spent on promoting the game in the schools, provinces and remote areas. And players were beginning to emerge from the outlying areas," Ratnaweera said.

In an innovative scheme, established players were made to play for their home districts so that the standard of cricket in the outback improved.

And outstation players helped improve cricket in their own way. "They had a hunger for the game. Playing for the country was something very big for the small town boys.

They worked hard also because they had few other preoccupations, unlike the ones from Colombo's elite schools who were into studies and computers," noted Sidath Wettimuny, who scored Sri Lanka's first Test century in the series against Pakistan in 1981-82.

"In the last ten years, Sri Lankan cricket boards have not been afraid of using new talent, regardless of where they come from. That is why we have the likes of Lasith Malinga and Chamara Silva today," Wettimuny said.

Fostering professionalism

With the board getting richer, it entered into contracts with promising players to enable them to be full time players. This helped the growth of professionalism and commitment to the game.

"Under this system, the players practiced every day from 7.30 am to 12.30 pm, and in the evening they went for workouts," Ratnaweera said.

In contrast to Indian cricket, the Sri Lankan coaching and selection systems have given primary importance to fielding. "If a player is not a good fielder, he will have no place in a Sri Lankan team," said Wettimuny, a selector himself.

Sri Lanka has also had the advantage of having good Australian coaches like Dav Whatmore, John Dyson, Bruce Yardley and now, Tom Moody, who, to a man, have emphasised the importance of fielding.

The Sri Lankan team has the needed variety, and selectors routinely insist on having a "balanced" side. "Marwan Attapattu is a very good player, but he has had to stay out because he is not required in the team now. His inclusion will have upset the balance there," pointed out former ace batsman, Romesh Kaluwitharana.

Role of the board

Sri Lankan cricket boards have much to be proud of in fostering the game, but they have also been a hotbed of politics.

Board presidents have faced allegations of misappropriation. Elections have been challenged and annulled. And too many people (1400), including those from non-playing clubs, are involved in electing the President.

"But till date, board politics and conflicts have not had an adverse effect on the game," Wettimuny said.

"So long as the administrators do not interfere with the players, and players do not interfere with the administrators, it is fine," chipped in Kaluwitharana.

No demigods

Sri Lankan cricketers are well paid, but cricket is not as commercialised as it is in India. "This is probably because the market here is much smaller than it is in India," explained Wettimuny.

But above all, the players in Sri Lanka are not demigods. Perhaps due to Buddhism, which discourages the growth of cults and hero worship, the players, however successful, are not deified.

And the media here act as watchdogs, and not as advertising agencies, which manufacture demigods and raise the stakes beyond human endurance.

"The fans should look at cricket as a game and not as war. India is one of the best sides in the world, but the pressure from the fans had crippled the team. I am glad I am not an Indian cricketer," said Kaluwithrarana with relief.