January 18, 2008

Winds of change

Arjuna Ranataunga always had strong views on how cricket was run in Sri Lanka. Now that he has become the chairman, it's his chance to "get cricket right", and he has started out with a host of changes



Ranatunga wants Sri Lankan cricket to be run by cricketrs and not businessmen © AFP
 

It was always a case of when and not if Arjuna Ranatunga would head Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC). His stature within Sri Lankan cricket after having taken them to the World Cup crown in 1996 meant that he'd always play an influential role in the administration if he wanted to - which he did. However, it was a surprise that he had to wait nearly eight years since his teary-eyed farewell from international cricket in mid-2000. Finally, though, as the political landscape shifted in the aftermath of a crucial budget vote in December, he is the boss.

From the sidelines he has been an outspoken critic of the various chairmen and presidents, mostly businessmen, who have run SLC. While others mumbled quietly about "mismanagement", he thundered on about "corruption and waste" much to their annoyance. He has always said he could run the board better, now he has a chance to prove it.

There was a time in the mid-1990s when the dominance of the Ranatunga family within cricket - Arjuna was captain, Dammika was chief executive - was viewed with suspicion. However, after a decade of incompetent, self-interested, and at times dishonest leadership, cricket-lovers are looking to Ranatunga to try and sort things out.

Rantunga's mandate from Sri Lanka's president Mahinda Rajapakse, according to Rantunga, was simple: "Get cricket right." Cricket is a source of great enjoyment and huge national pride in Sri Lanka, but the controversy-plagued cricket board has too often been a source of international ridicule and embarrassment. Rajapakse, helped by presidential advisor DS de Silva, wants SLC to stand out as a beacon of all that is good about Sri Lanka.

It's been just more than two weeks since his appointment and Ranatunga's future direction is now becoming a little clearer. The first point is that he is going to be "hands on". He says he has been spending 14 hours a day on cricket, and as a former deputy minister jokes, "I think it must be easier running a government ministry than the cricket board." During a one-hour chat about his plans face to face, he keeps looking at cramped cricket schedules with chief executive Duleep Mendis, fielding various telephone call, and there is a queue of people outside the door with various proposals. There is a sense of action inside the board as well as excitement outside.

This is the first time an international cricketer has chaired the cricket board, and this predictably gives us a clue to the first obvious departure from previous heads: Ranatunga wants cricket to be run by cricketers. He accepts the need for professional expertise in fields of administration, finance and marketing, but he stresses again and again that we need "cricketers to be in charge".

Ranatunga has moved fast to co-opt the services of Aravinda de Silva as the new chairman of what he insists will be an empowered Cricket Committee. This committee, filled with past captains and respected ex-cricketers, has functioned for years, but usually only to give the main committee - either government-appointed or elected - a veneer of respectability. Too often, the Cricket Committee's recommendations have been overlooked. Now, though, Ranatunga insists this committee will be a powerful decision-making body.

The immediate plan is for a period of evaluation, consultation and discussion. During the next two months Ranatunga wants to formulate and then present a blueprint of reforms for cricket in Sri Lanka to the sports minister. This blueprint should form the basis of what he calls a "National Policy for Cricket", which he hopes will be ratified and protected by the parliament. This means, in essence, a new constitution for the cricket board designed to stop it from being a honey pot for self-interested individuals seeking financial gain or enhanced status.

Sri Lanka cricket enthusiasts, who have grown cynical after years of mismanagement, might guffaw at such lofty ambition. Few will actually believe that a new and better constitution is anything more than a fanciful pipedream. However, this remains Ranatunga's greatest challenge. He can make all the positive developmental and coaching changes he wants, but unless SLC changes its structure it will always be vulnerable to mismanagement and any developments under Ranatunga will soon evaporate. Ranatunga cannot afford to waste time either, because Sri Lanka's political landscape is always fluid.



His stature within Sri Lankan cricket after having taken them to the World Cup crown in 1996 meant that he'd always play an influential role in the administration if he wanted to © Getty Images
 

A central theme of Ranatunga's blueprint will be a major overhaul of junior and domestic cricket. He has long lamented the declining quality of school cricket, which he believes is failing today's children. He believes limited-overs cricket at too early an age is damaging, and he worries about the increasing focus on winning at all costs - a culture that he argues is not conducive to the development of intelligent, innovative and positive cricketers. DS de Silva has been given the responsibility for undertaking a full review.

Ranatunga's arrival will also, in all probability, mark the beginning of the end to the old club first-class structure. He is convinced that a small, more competitive provincial system should be the premier first-class competition. This will mean a concentrated pool of professional cricketers and a higher grade of cricket. In this regard, notwithstanding a handful of teething issues, he appears to have the backing of current cricketers who believe that is the best way of bridging an increasingly large divide between domestic and international cricket.

Ranatunga is even talking about district-level cricket being the feeder into the provinces, a suggestion that will appall the clubs. If he were planning for re-election at some stage, this would be political suicide under the current voting system. But Ranatunga is unconcerned. "I am not interested in winning an election," he said. "I am here to get cricket right and if that means taking tough decisions that make me unpopular then so be it."

Ranatunga has already met with the selectors and he believes the problems of the last year stemmed largely from miscommunication. He wants more dialogue between the selectors and the Cricket Committee, not over individual selections but to ensure clarity of purpose. He also wants a closer relationship with the SL Cricketers' Association, indicating that he is even considering housing them with the board headquarters.

We can expect a shift in development strategy too. Ranatunga has long argued that too much money was spent on mega infrastructure projects. "We have enough international stadiums and a limited amount of money - our cash needs to be spent wisely," he says. The new focus is likely to be on small training facilities and venues in each district and then a high-performance training centre in each province. The training centres will be designed to stop the migration of cricketers to Colombo and make proper facilities more accessible to those in the outstations.

All the talk is music to the ears of many ex-cricketers and current players. Many have shared such views in the past, but the Sri Lankan cricket system made it impossible to implement. Big projects mean big kickbacks, and the huge amounts of money are then frittered away on club handouts. The key is whether Ranatunga can deliver. Can he end a decade of poor administration and start building a system that will allow Sri Lanka to consistently challenge the likes of Australia? The task is a huge one, but Ranatunga might just be the man.

Charlie Austin is Sri Lanka editor of Cricinfo