April 19, 2017

Why is SLC in public-relations overdrive?

Thilanga Sumathipala's board has done as much for Sri Lanka's cricket as any other, but the chairman's desperation for the limelight does them no favours
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Thilanga Sumathipala was elected SLC president in January last year, thanks to the support of Sri Lanka's clubs © AFP

Five men stand in front of the sponsors' backdrop at the presentation that follows Sri Lanka's T20 win over Bangladesh.

Four of them are holding cheques; the man who holds nothing is Thilanga Sumathipala, SLC president and unelected deputy speaker of the House. He stands closest to the presenter. His presence seems gratuitous at first.

When proceedings begin, however, it becomes clear that the camera is smitten with Sumathipala and that he is smitten with it. When Kusal Perera comes up to be interviewed about his Player-of-the-Match performance, there Sumathipala is, looking paternally over the player's shoulder, grinning benevolently. While other awards are being handed out, the camera may stray, but as if bound by fate, always has a way of finding its way back to Sumathipala, to capture his coy smirks and his firm handshakes.

It is tempting to wonder if Sumathipala is just presentation eye candy, because he is the fifth man and there are only four awards to be handed out. Is he like the placard-wielding model at a boxing match? The sex scene in an episode of Game of Thrones?

In 16 months in office so far, Sumathipala has pursued publicity with unmitigated desperation - fronting up to every camera in his vicinity, schmoozing every journalist who has made his acquaintance

But no, it seems - he does, in fact, have a purpose here. To him goes the honour of bringing the presentation to its climax. When it comes time for Sri Lanka's captain to receive his winners' cheque, an unusual announcement is made by the presenter: "You can collect the $2000 cheque from Mr Sumathipala, who will receive it from Mr Arosha Athukorala."

If Athukorala feels miffed here, he can at least take some satisfaction in having broken new ground: in the fabled history of South Asian cricket presentations, no man, perhaps, has previously stood at a presentation merely to present a winners' cheque to the eventual presenter of the cheque.

The whole shenanigan was peak Sumathipala. This had been a fortnight in which SLC was endlessly besieged, following the Test loss to Bangladesh, and a tied ODI series. So why not seize on the chance to have your face beamed across the nation immediately after a clinical win? Why not milk this winning performance from Perera - a player Sumathipala had played a substantial role in rescuing from doping allegations last year?

In fact, in 16 months in office so far, Sumathipala has pursued publicity with unmitigated desperation - bouncing up to every camera in his vicinity, schmoozing every journalist who has made his acquaintance. A relentless carousel of PR stunts has been his term: if there is a media dinner this month, there will be a pre-series song-and-dance tamasha the next; if there is a high-flying hour-long press conference this week, a charity dinner or a grandiose tournament announcement is perpetually around the corner.

Sumathipala (right) chats with chief selector Sanath Jayasuriya. Some suspect that Sumathipala is using SLC as a tool to further his political goals © AFP

All that effort, and yet, for what? What does Sumathipala think he is achieving? Sri Lanka's public certainly hasn't been fooled by his overtures. When Sumathipala took on Mahela Jayawardene over his consulting position with England ahead of last year's World T20, for example, fans flocked almost unanimously to Jayawardene's side. "[He knows] the team's strengths when [he is] inside the team," Sumathipala had said. "England didn't hire me to give information on the Sri Lankan team - they have analysts and coaches to do that," Jayawardene responded. Sumathipala found it difficult to argue with that.

Later that year, mounting a similar campaign against Muttiah Muralitharan, who took a temporary position with the visiting Australia team, Sumathipala deployed the Sinhala word apeykama - literally: "ourness" - in a brazen appeal to Sri Lankan nationalism. In attempting to play to the gallery, however, he found the gallery was not having it. Fans rallied around Murali, who was ordained into the ICC's Hall of Fame later that week. "Sri Lanka didn't want me, and Australia wanted me," Murali spat. "How could I be a traitor to this country […] my foundation has built 1000 houses."

So much of SLC's past year has been spent lurching from one PR gaffe to the other. Ahead of last year's World T20, the board organised a lavish send-off event for the side, was panned in the media for wastefulness, and had the team perform abysmally in the tournament in any case. This year, the board launched its club-based limited-overs tournament with another extravagant production, only for that competition to be halted by a judicial injunction, and a low-brow district tournament to be played in its stead.

At the ICC last month, Sumathipala suffered his greatest humiliation of all. In jockeying for the position of chairman, he galvanised the other ICC directors into convincing sitting chairman Shashank Manohar to reverse his resignation from the post. "What we did not want was to have a whole load of toxic electioneering, which Sumathipala exemplified," one director had said at the time. "His conduct actually brought the board very fast together."

What does Sumathipala think he is achieving? Sri Lanka's public certainly hasn't been fooled by his overtures

It is a shame Sumathipala seeks public validation, because by one measure, he has been as impressive an SLC president as there ever has been. For the special-interest group that is Sri Lanka's clubs, there have been large financial grants and increased security and status - where last year only 14 first-class clubs existed, this season there were 23. And it is the clubs, of course, that really matter: their votes have put Sumathipala in his current position.

So why bother with this endless pursuit of positive press? If you have the clubs in your pocket and next year's election all sewn up, why pretend to care about a provincial first-class tournament that has failed to materialise in your two seasons in charge? Why continue to attempt points-scoring decisions that almost never end up scoring any actual points?

Fans seem to understand a Sumathipala presidency is the product of SLC's broken constitution, which grants board votes to an array of clubs and vestigial cricketing institutions. Many, perhaps, have guessed he is attempting to use SLC as a political tool, with which he might regain the favour of the public, who voted him out of parliament in the most recent election (though he was later appointed to parliament through the national list).

Eventually, if the lackeys he has surrounded himself with ever stop flattering him, Sumathipala may realise his PR blitzes have backfired spectacularly. He has sold and sold and sold himself as SLC president. Not many seem to be buying.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • wimals9183211 on April 22, 2017, 11:30 GMT

    @ cricfan0380057679, agree with your comments, one nation one team has no purpose. The board should not use it giving wrong ideas.

  • praveen on April 22, 2017, 1:05 GMT

    Andrew you legend. Hero of SL cricket. What a great peice. Hopefully admins will wake up now.

  • Chatty on April 22, 2017, 0:27 GMT

    SLC needs to pay attention to what is going on in the IPL. Some commentators are questioning why Malinga is in the Mumbai team. Others are adamant that Mathews should not play for Delhi because his 'age has caught up on him and he is past his best'! He is just 29 years old! He may have prematurely aged. But these are troubling comments. There is NO OTHER SL player in the IPL playing in the first eleven! That is a damning indictment on the state of SL cricket. I am getting more and more convinced that major change is needed in SLC.

  • Ranil on April 21, 2017, 14:54 GMT

    Hi Sumathipala has come for a lot of stick here but at least one good thing I see in him is his desire to go up in the international stage which we all should appreciate well. Usually a person who comes to the SLC Presidency post will be more than happy to enjoy it at home & become just a named figure out of the country but here is someone who values his ability to play an important role among the other top guns internationally. How many candidates vying for the SLC post will have the guts to stake a claim as Sumathipala did? Others rallied against him is a different matter but I would say he should work hard to come over the concerns other Board members had against him & plan his next move well in the ICC.

  • bendes0171825 on April 21, 2017, 14:44 GMT

    Sumathipala is a ruthless and ambitious man from a bookie family who will stoop to any level to reach his goal. His antics will work in Sri Lanka but can get nowhere in the West.

  • Jose on April 21, 2017, 10:06 GMT

    BTW, he put his hat into the ring for the ICC President-ship when Manohar, abruptly resigned (of course, before he was persuaded to be back till the next AGM). But there were no takers within ICC, to back him up. In fact, it speeded up the emissaries' trip to Nagpur to persuade Manoahr, to take back his resignation.

  • noexcu1799402 on April 20, 2017, 15:31 GMT

    Excellent Article and well analysed. What has perturbed me is that SLC's corporate line "one nation , one team" authored by Thilanga is a line straining to find purpose. The country is not divided when it comes to cricket if at all it is cricket that brings all communities together and there is no need to emphasise what is already known. A corporate line must encapsulate the vision of Sri Lanka Cricket and take the team and its fans on that journey. What is clear is Thilanga is using SLC to further his political ambitions in parliament as well on the field. He needs to separate these two if he genuinely is passionate about the game.

  • kirthi2106253 on April 20, 2017, 4:31 GMT

    A very accurate analysis of the functioning (or mishandling) of the SLC. In the recent past, spot on as far as Tilanga S.'s actions, We need independant personalities of the early 1990 to administer SLC.,to get back cricket to it's glory days!

  • Jose on April 20, 2017, 3:07 GMT

    Don't plant a "money-plant", on the wrong spot! Lest it may suck you dry!

    -

    Money plant is one of the in-house plants lovingly kept & tended to, in many a house-hold's decorative 'flower-pots'.

    But, try a re-planting exercise.

    You just plant it near a coconut tree, which is almost like your national tree, You can see the money-plant, growing tall with broader & juicier leaves, clinging on & sucking out all the juice, off the national tree! If it goes unabated, it is just a matter of time, before your proud tree get sucked dry!

  • upuler1604594 on April 19, 2017, 19:08 GMT

    Thank you Andrew. Spot on. He is a politician dooling out to his voters, clubs. He is not focused on a 4 day high level tournament or training facilities which are vital to create a pool of player who can walk into the national side at any time. It is time cointries sports minister intervenes, but he is Sumathipala's colleague in the parliament and hand in glove. So as SL cricket declines no one cares as long as he is re-elected for another term. It is time the SLC constitution is changes limiting the voting units to a single digit as in all other test playing countries and the Office bearers terms are restricted to 2 terms and never again elligible to be in the executive committee.

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