January 25, 2008

The future is provincial

Why the move away from a club-dominated structure is good for Sri Lankan domestic cricket

The Nondescripts Cricket Club in Colombo, which is among Sri Lanka's foremost clubs, has been home to the likes of Aravinda de Silva and Kumar Sangakkara © Cricinfo Ltd

This week I'd like to look at Sri Lankan domestic cricket. We've had a few changes in the structure of the first-class game in Sri Lanka recently.

At the moment we have 20 clubs playing in two tiers of ten each, with two teams being demoted and two promoted every year. The clubs are quite powerful. They have two votes each to elect the president of the board, and are hence called controlling clubs, which means they have a hand in electing people who formulate policy for Sri Lankan cricket as a whole.

The club system has its faults, though. A lot of clubs, maybe not for any fault of their own, do not have adequate facilities - club houses, practice wickets, gymnasiums, proper centre wickets, proper dressing rooms. Also, some teams have only one or two quality players, with the rest just making up the numbers.

The standard of club cricket is inconsistent: there have been very few closely fought games recently. This is partly because many players tend to join the pedigreed clubs, especially in Colombo, and are reluctant to leave those clubs and go and play in the outskirts. So those strong clubs end up getting stronger.

Playing for clubs is not financially rewarding. It's high time the clubs realised that they need the players. It's got to be give and take for both parties, where they support each other. The players should be able to make a living out of the game at a level below the international game. That way, if they are paid competitive salaries, they will be able to devote time to the game and to improving themselves in terms of skills and mental and physical attributes.

Things are set to change. The launch of the provincial tournament, which I think is going to be classified as our premier first-class tournament, is a big step forward. Moving to the provincial system will concentrate the quality and competition. Five provincial sides - the best 75 players in Sri Lanka picked in five sides - will play quality four-day, Twenty20 and one-day tournaments. The best players from these tournaments can then be drafted into the national side. The clubs then become feeders for the provincial sides, and the age groups for the clubs.

Playing for a club is not the same as playing for a province. There is more pride involved in the latter. In club cricket, players can choose clubs, clubs can choose players, players can walk in and play for any club. But if a player is affiliated to a province from school days there is a certain amount of pride involved, because he was born in that province. There will be a lot of pride in playing for a team that is representative of his home.

Sri Lankan domestic cricket is not fully professional yet, but the quasi-professional set-up has started to set the first foundations for professional first-class cricket.

It is still early days, though - not because of lack of ability or talent of the players, but due to the lack of proper infrastructure that can provide a sustained, continuous quality feed of talent for the national and A sides. You need facilities of such quality that it takes away all excuses from a player, leaving him with no option but to improve. All the provinces need to look at building fully equipped cricket centres, where you have centre wickets, practice wickets, indoor nets, bowling machines, gyms and other amenities.

There should be a logical route of ascendancy to the national team, where players are expected to play the age groups, then clubs, then for the provincial sides, and then if they perform at those levels, get drafted into the A side or the national side. There may be the odd exceptional player who bypasses the system and gets selected for the higher levels straightaway, but you shouldn't get too many players jumping four steps, like has been the case in Sri Lanka far too often in the past.

Sri Lanka now has a ruling that whenever a national player is available, he has to play in club or provincial tournaments. That is what should be expected of national players. They get into the national side because of the system, and they should be expected to give back to the system.

Often, because of scheduling, national players are not available to play in domestic tournaments. Sometimes, even when they are technically available, players excuse themselves due to fatigue or a niggle or other engagements. Sri Lanka now has a ruling that whenever a national player is available, he has to play in club or provincial tournaments unless the national team management thinks he needs time off because of an injury or overwork. That is what should be expected of national players. They get into the national side because of the system, and they should be expected to give back to the system.

The Inter-Provincial limited-overs tournament that we just played may not have been of the highest quality, but in the context of where the game in Sri Lanka needs to go, it was a resounding success. The current national players played alongside the best club players, and that provided an environment where upcoming players got to rub shoulders with the best in the game. That always helps in terms of learning and improvement.

As far as the provincial system goes, the players themselves seem to have realised that it is the way forward. The system was tried in 2003-04 and it was successful. We had some phenomenal matches back then. I played in a game where we won chasing 512 in the fourth innings. For some reason, though, the provincial tournament has been a stop-start affair. Hopefully, it'll be different this time and we'll be able to stick with it and give it a decent run, especially considering the players have come out very strongly in support.

Of course, there will be opposition from long established clubs and new clubs that have struggled their way into the premier league on merit. Their loss of funding from the cricket board plus the loss of their standing as the premier feeders to the national pool will hurt them. The clubs have voting rights, as I mentioned, and it is a conscious decision they have to make: are they going to be selfish or are they going to use those votes for the greater good of cricket in Sri Lanka?