How Sri Lanka turned its women's cricket around
I can’t think of a bigger upset in 40 years of Women’s World Cup cricket than Sri Lanka's win over England. The defending champions lost to a side that had never beaten them before, and who didn't win a single game at the last World Cup in 2009. It was a match that defied expectations and Sri Lanka have improved beyond recognition from the side I watched in both the 2005 and 2009 tournaments. There was a strength and sense of fight in this team built on a trust of their instincts and ability.
After the game, Sri Lanka players and friends lingered long on the verandah of the dressing rooms at the Cricket Club of India, while small square tables and wicker chairs began to be set out on the edge of the outfield for club members to enjoy dining in the evening sun. It was a happy melee, with team captain Shashikala Siriwardene grinning from ear to ear as she was congratulated by passers-by doing their nightly exercise on the walking track around the boundary.
A chat with team manager and selector ARM Aroos helped to shed some light on just how Sri Lanka have transformed themselves in the last couple of years. He pointed firstly to Sri Lanka Cricket contracts and match fees, which are now awarded at a rate of US$100 for an ODI and US$50 for a T20. The fees aren’t much, but the contracts provide a monthly income.
They were only introduced in 2011 and the injection of spending by SLC appears only to have started in earnest since then, even though SLC had responsibility for the women’s cricket in the country from as early as 2005, when the International Women’s Cricket Council merged with the ICC. Prior to that, women’s cricket on the island was coordinated by Gwen Herath, a tireless former president of the country’s Women’s Cricket Association. She ensured Sri Lanka became a member of the IWCC following the men’s World Cup win of 1996, and in 1997 Sri Lanka’s women played their first international matches. Victory over England is by far their biggest moment since then.
Besides the contracts, the women’s game has a strong domestic structure, based around schools and provincial tournaments. The country’s military plays a huge part in nurturing the best players, as the Sports Clubs of the Sri Lanka Navy and Air Force run teams that feature most of the players in the side that beat England. Players are contracted for up to five years at a time, not to work in the military but to play cricket, and those contracts could be worth 35,000 rupees per month (US$277 or £175). It is enough to make a difference.
As for the team’s celebrations after beating the reigning World Champions, Mr Aroos, who sees himself as something of a proud father figure to the players, declared “tonight, dinner is hosted by me!”