Is Sri Lanka Cricket The England Of The ‘90s?

In the 90s, England cricket won almost nothing: matches, crowd support, or even the occasional toss. This was a gargantuan slump for a team that had not only been favourites at the ‘87 and ‘92 World Cups, but also invented the game itself. In the early 2000s however, they turned this around and moved from mediocrity to average to world number one.

England cricket data table from 1970 to end 1999. Source: howstat.com.au

Sri Lanka cricket and its fans are at the moment experiencing what rock bottom feels like. The team that once thrilled, entertained, played with passion, innovated the limited overs game, and bested western professionalism, now looks a spent force: like a salaryman that’s yearning for the escape of a weekend. Thanks to selfish decision making, outdated strategies, and a game plan still revolving around individual stars, we are slowly being overtaken by teams that are more in tune with modern requirements and building a more professional culture. It’s time to move on from blaming the IPL for our woes, as England used to do, and look at actually bringing tangible change for the future. So is Sri Lanka the England of the ‘90s or are we worse?

1996: When Sri Lanka rose to glory, English cricket had been dealing with a serious decline for a while. Image courtesy www.icc-cricket.com

Memory lane serves up the best examples. The ‘96 World Cup quarter final: Sanath Jayasuriya annihilating the English attack around the park to comprehensively demoralise and knock them out of the World Cup, and 1998: the Oval, when Murali, Jayasuriya and Aravinda systematically took apart England to register our first test win on their soil, are probably the only memories of England most Lankans would have. These, however are merely two examples from a decade when English cricket went from inadequate to incompetent.

History Tells The Best Tales

It’s not that England didn’t have good players ‒ Alec Stewart, Michael Atherton, Graham Thorpe and Darren Gough were among the world’s best at that time. It’s just that England never did play like a great team. After the retirement of their legends, Sir Ian Botham (their highest test wicket taker), Graham Gooch (highest test run scorer at that time), Alan Lamb, and Mike Gatting, there were a lot of new youngsters making their way to the team. Perhaps too many, too soon. The staunch English cricket lovers and their press expected them to be game-changing, chin-wagging legendary cricketers, like the ones they had replaced.

The retirement of legends like Sir Ian Botham created gaps in the team that proved hard to fill in. Image credit Getty Images

So much was the drive to find the next Sir Ian, that the squads were filled with merry-go-round all rounders who were entering and exiting the team quicker than at a fast food drive-through. Their Cricket Board (the ECB) would simply rotate those players who had a good couple of weeks in the county circuit and see how they went; if they failed, then they’d just go to the next round of performers. The ECB would request Counties to release potential players for national duty; some would have played for their County over the weekend before taking on a tougher test match a couple of days later. They were professional cricketers, but such was the culture: even at the international level, players considered themselves county cricketers first, English cricketers second.

One series the pace attack was spearheaded by Craig White, the next by Dominic Cork, and in between by Darren Gough. This was also the time when Counties opened up for international cricketers. This was a game changer and most teams thrived under the injection of new international talent. However, like protectionism in trade, it wasn’t managed properly, and resulted in hampering the development of local cricketers. So much so that Ronnie Irani and Mark Ealham, two very average cricketers, were considered among the best the country could offer, and we daresay the next Ian Botham. On top of this, team selection wasn’t consistent, and talented players were not given the prolonged run they needed to cement their positions. Mark Ramprakash and Graham Hick, two of their brightest young batsman during this time, faced the brunt of this skittish selection policy. Also, given the nature of the structure, the England team didn’t have adequate resources to help player or team development. Most of the support staff during this period were volunteering part time. Then, there were the leadership issues. There were captains, good ones at that; Alec Stewart was regimental, Michael Atherton quietly shrewd. But none were given the freedom to truly become leaders. Not like the mould of Douglas Jardine or Mike Brearley.

The players were definitely not perfect; at best they were a few good cricketers and a bunch of club cricketers, strung together with twine to make a team. They were not prepared or seasoned for the rigours of international test cricket. But they are really not to blame for their misgivings. For all their limitations, they still went out and tried to do the best job they could. No, the real architect of England’s downfall was not the players. It was their conservative, overly bureaucratic and extremely ‘let’s-fit-in-the-box-shall-we’ administration system, the ECB. Their management methodologies were so traditional and rigid, it makes one wonder how England ever conquered the known world. The administration failings go as far back as the 1930s. Run by Lords and aristocrats who were somewhat out of touch with the world around, there are stories of the cricket board laughing at unorthodox Aussie batsman Sir Donald Bradman, claiming his lack of technical skill was not a threat. Then later they were vehemently against Douglas Jardine’s tactical brilliance of using bodyline to shut down the run scoring machine. They never allowed natural ability to blossom. As Kevin Pietersen famously said, with his bowling action Lasith Malinga would have never played for England.  Young, unorthodox, natural talent was quickly nipped in the bud and shut down in favour of a traditional and technical approach. The ECB never accepted that the game was evolving. They still went on to believe that it should be played the same way it was invented. Cricket is a game of basics and basics should be continually polished, however natural brilliance that can be consistent, should also be nurtured. As the West Indies proved in the final leg of this year’s T20 World Cup, being unorthodox makes it hard to predict or plan against. Over a century, the character of the cricket board or their outdated strategies hadn’t changed ‒ it’s just that England always had a few superstars each decade to carry the team, except when the rest of the world overtook them in the nineties.

Different Lion: Same Problems

“The team has been struggling to fill the gaping holes left by these departures” – one of the biggest challenges for Sri Lankan cricket? Image courtesy espncricinfo.com

Change the outfit colour from sky blue to royal blue, change the three lions to a single, golden one, change a few names and everything we just discussed accurately describes Sri Lankan cricket. During the last few years, several of our legends retired from the game. The team has been struggling to fill the gaping holes left by these departures. The fans as well as the administrators seem to think that the only way forward is to replace these roles like for like instead of looking at it from a team perspective. This has put a lot of pressure on the younger players to perform, and the paralysing fear of failure has been the curse of their careers. This, coupled with the lack of faith shown for these players, meant the team structure was continuously changing. A team that’s chopped and changed often isn’t a good recipe for success. Nor is a team where there are inconsistencies in selection. Despite obvious lack of potential and any value to add to the team, several ‘bits-and-pieces’ cricketers were continually selected. The incompetency of selection is prevalent in the 2016 T20 World Cup as well as the previous Asia Cup squads. Given the injuries to previous captain Lasith Malinga, the selectors didn’t have a designated vice captain to take over if anything would keep him out of playing.

There wasn’t adequate contingency planning, or capable back-up bowlers included in the squad. The game plan wasn’t flexible to change once the main hunter, Malinga, dropped out. The pressure brought by this during the Asia Cup eventually concluded in a hastily executed semi-coup resulting in Malinga stepping down as captain and Angelo Mathews being appointed to lead just a couple of weeks before a World Cup.

Malinga, still considered the best limited overs bowler, may never have played international cricket if he grew up in England. Image courtesy www.abc.net.au

The adverse effects of these were painfully obvious in the way they played in the World Cup. They looked like a jaded group of individuals without direction or motivation, a stark contrast to how Afghanistan performed over the course of a few weeks. Once again, like it was in England, the frailties of the administration easily eclipsed the inadequacies of the players. Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) seems to be a melting stew of oddballs who keep emerging from the bottom to take up leadership on a cyclical basis. SLC has had a history of corruption, mishandling of funds, near-bankruptcy, failure to pay player wages and, most of all, unprofessional conduct. Add to this their seeming ignorance to act or bring forth a distinct plan for the future, and there is no surprise why the team is struggling. SLC was complacent when the legends were winning games, and lazy when they started ailing. For years, they were happy to structure the team so the legends got to play the roles they desired. And instead of forward-planning and building a strong team, they just parked the youngsters around the legends to fill in the gaps. Now everyone is wondering why these youngsters are like akin to a ‘deer caught in headlights’ or have never really reached their full potential.

Is There Hope For Sri Lanka?

What will Sri Lanka have to do to reach the top again? Image courtesy edailysports.com

Well, if England could change their fortunes, then there’s hope for even Bangladesh (who, despite an unsuccessful T20 World Cup, have been exceptional in the last twelve months). So yes, there is hope for Sri Lanka, but it’s not hope that will fuel change.

England’s journey of redemption didn’t happen overnight. It was meticulously planned, strategised, and was accomplished thanks to the buy-in of all parties involved. After they hit rock bottom in 1999 it was eminent that they needed change, and fast. The ECB, understanding how professional the game had gotten and how far behind they were, instigated internal and external change. To begin with, they created a central contract system to recognise players as England cricketers rather than county representatives. This created a clear ‘we are one team’ attitude and a feeling of unity and camaraderie as well as a distinct squad that could train and develop together. The ECB further reinforced this by hiring the right coaching and support staff, which grew even bigger than the playing squad. With their new found drive and a team of like-minded professionals, everyone collectively pushed to create a winning culture. They also created a strong leadership group and gave the captains freedom to mould their own team. They proposed to change the domestic structure to become a breeding ground for young talent. They started picking players not just on skill but also on potential and character, then followed this with continuity of selection. The added security enabled players to relax and fit into their roles.

The ECB even made the tough call of dropping their only genuine super star batsman Kevin Pietersen in favour of dressing room harmony rather than match performances. They had their ups and downs during this second coming, but all this change set the strong foundation on which they built their legacy. And within a decade, England not only reclaimed the Ashes after eighteen years, but eventually ended up becoming the world number one test and ODI team, as well as winning a T20 World Cup.

Everything in life is time dependent and even strategies need to be flexible to adjust as required. When the solid road map to England’s success fell apart at the end of the 2013/2014 Ashes series however, for once, their new Director of cricket, Andrew Strauss, had the foresight to realise even the best laid plans require a bit of tweaking when they don’t bring the desired results. The positive impact of these tweaks are more than evident in the way they have played in the last twelve months. They may have lost the recent T20 World Cup to the big hitting WIndies, however for the first time since 1992 and briefly in 2010, the England limited overs outfit have competed on an even keel in a World Cup, instead of being at the receiving end of thrashings. Now if that’s not progress, we’re not sure what is.

England cricket data table from 2000 to end 2015. Source: ESPN Cricinfo

So if Sri Lanka wants to improve, the path to glory isn’t that blurry. With the right combination of resources, ample planning, and a professional work ethic by all parties, anything can be accomplished. However, the question is ‘Why?’ Why hasn’t this been thought of before? Is the status quo that comfortable that change is unimaginable? Perhaps we are immensely incompetent, that no one is noticing the wheels coming off the bus while plummeting down Kadugannawa? Or, heaven forbid, is it even possible that no one really cares? Whichever it is, there is one certainty: those who don’t embrace change or evolve as required will find extinction knocking at their door.

Cover image: edailysports.com

Related Articles