Sri Lanka Premier League September 5, 2012

SLPL - a piece of a jigsaw puzzle

The SLPL has had mixed reviews - there are the fanboys of Sri Lanka cricket and then there are the ones who didn't get it at all

As the rain swept away any chance of an intriguing finale for the first real crowd the SLPL had attracted, it rung true with the atmosphere that surrounded the whole event - a tournament that offered promise but stumbled across a few hurdles. The SLPL has had mixed reviews and split fan opinion down the middle. There are the fanboys of Sri Lanka cricket starved of their accessibility to domestic cricketers who would argue that it was the best thing since Microwave oven came out. Then there are the ones who didn't get it at all - no crowds, no real international stars - how does the SLPL even exist? Others wouldn't even have watched it.

It's strange to think that the SLPL's future will actually depend on everything that happens between each edition. Now that the first one is out of the way, the SLC and Somerset Entertainment Ventures have immediate business to attend to. There are many allegations of corruption, sex scandals, pay disputes that must be dealt with swiftly and assuredly. The SLC have mastered the art of burying their heads in the sand and ignoring all that is around them but if they genuinely care about the SLPL and its future then that is a policy they need to abandon.

Even more importantly, perhaps, is what happens to the infrastructure at a provincial level. The SLPL cannot masquerade as a provincial tournament if nearly all the players in the series are from Colombo. The board actually seems to understand this, based on a number of grants they have provided to improve the cricketing framework in the various provinces following the SLPL. They have also put in place plans to restructure the junior schools system and to conduct district and provincial tournaments at that level.

Change cannot come from without but from within - at the grassroots level. The hope is that these initiatives will organically grow the relationship to a province in a cricketing context. The provincial format might be an alien concept but it's not impossible to nurture its growth. The cricket that is played must be spread across the island, and while there are practical problems to this, the tournament would find it difficult to sustain itself if this doesn't happen.

It has been suggested that the provincial teams should try to introduce talent from their origins. But in reality, this is difficult, as competitive cricket levels outside of Colombo are simply not of the same standard. That's not meant to be slight, but it's a reality check, as the franchises will also be looking to put out the best possible team and not pick players to fill a quota.

Of course, such a system would be the ideal, but right now Sri Lankan cricket is far from being able to support it. The quality of international players that the SLPL attracts is also a major factor in its sustainability. While it was good to see the local players come to the fore this year, the harsh reality is that big names attract television viewers. And even if every Sri Lankan watches every single SLPL game, the market would just be too small to impress TV rights holders.

The next SLPL is wedged in around July, prior to South Africa's tour of Sri Lanka. At the same time, the Ashes are being played, and there are talks of a US T20 around the same timeframe. This highlights issues of player availability and inevitably losing players to bigger markets like the US T20, which will undoubtedly be offering more than what the SLPL does. Add to this the major issue of the BCCI refusing to send any India players over and you can start to understand why many of these leagues struggle to go the distance.

There are things that the SLC must be wary of as well. It's an easy trap to think of the SLPL as a silver bullet and have their focus solely on its success. The club cricket system is in a mess. The domestic system is no longer producing Test-quality cricketers. Haroon Lorgat, in his advisory capacity, has warned that Sri Lanka might not qualify for the 2019 World Cup.

These are the issues that truly matter for the future of Sri Lankan cricket. It's also the responsibility of the SLC to maintain and voice that the priority for domestic cricketers should be to strive to be part of the Test side. They need to guard against the mentality shift of a young player wanting an SLPL contract as opposed to putting in the long term work needed to be a proper cricketer. While the SLPL is a shiny new toy to play with, it must remain clear to the people in charge that it's only a part of the bigger picture.

Damith Samarakoon is a Sri Lankan cricket fanatic living in Sydney. He blogs regularly at www.theflyslip.net

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