December 13, 2012

The legacy of Lahore 1996

Sri Lanka haven't achieved all they could have since their World Cup win, but whatever they have done is in spite of the system

Does it seem long ago that Arjuna Ranatunga lifted the World Cup or does it seem like yesterday? Was it the making of Sri Lankan cricket, as we all hoped, or was it a moment of progress in an otherwise chronic tale of political expediency? Is Sri Lankan cricket an imperium of its own? Whatever your take, the sight of Arjuna with Benazir Bhutto and Ian Chappell, the MC, jostling for position with myriad hangers-on, was one of cricket's more memorable images.

Ranatunga was a crafty batsman and brilliant captain, but above all else, he was and still is a politician, a man who knows how to get his way.

Since that day in March 1996, Sri Lanka have played in two other World Cup finals and lost both. Once to Australia in Barbados in 2007, then to India in Mumbai last year. As much as the moderns - Muttiah Muralitharan, Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara - have carried the team with the excellence of their play, nothing has quite matched Ranatunga's sheer force of will, force of nature even. Such leadership is gold. It transcends the game, or the event, and it brings together unlikely elements that make the biggest difference. Frank Worrell did as much for West Indies more than 50 years ago, somehow uniting the islands of the Caribbean in the common purpose of cricket.

Jayawardene is the present captain. It is his second crack at it after interim spells from Sangakkara and, briefly, Tillakaratne Dilshan. He does a hell of a job, given that Murali has gone and Lasith Malinga doesn't do the long form. And that the high-brow infighting continues to make life unpleasant for the players. At his superb MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey lecture in 2011, Sangakkara pointed to this. He figured that making a few enemies was worth it. Incensed by the prevarication over payment to the team, Sangakkara had resigned the captaincy and freed himself up to say what he thought. It is vitally important that someone with influence listens. Sri Lankan cricket is too precious to lose its way and there are suggestions that it may do just that when Jayawardene and Sangakkara move on. Recently Haroon Lorgat, the former ICC chief, completed an independent review that reported on 22 points of necessary action. If these are embraced a more encouraging future may lie ahead.

It is worth taking this into account during the next couple of months. The Sri Lankans have achieved despite the system at home, not because of it. When they were in Australia earlier this year for the one-day series, Jayawardene managed to joke about his team's financial insecurity. But it is neither funny nor fair. Cricketers commit, so should their employer. It also suggests that what was achieved by Ranatunga and his men in Lahore back in 1996 has not left the legacy it could have.

Perhaps there is inevitability here. In the way West Indians let things wash over them, Sri Lankans have an internal scrap. Barbados is a tiny island. It has produced some of the finest cricketers to have played the game but right now the production line has frozen up. Does it matter? Yes, but not so much that everyone is at each other's throats. Cool breeze, the Caribbean way.

Sri Lanka is a small island. Like Barbados, cricket is played in streets, fields and on beaches, reflecting its value to the country's well-being. Since the late 1970s many fine players have brought cheer. Ranatunga brought unbridled joy. From that point on, everyone wanted a piece of it and infighting became a common theme as board chairmen and CEOs changed so fast they merged into one unreliable governing body. Sri Lanka was also an island of civil war. This makes for resilient people, and it is the resilience of the players that has kept the game above ground.

There is a whisper that the Australian team has lost its ruthlessness. Nonsense. Give them Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath; Adam Gilchrist and the best of Ricky Ponting, and the opposition will be buried - alive, if at all possible

Whatever we see from the Sri Lankans in Hobart and beyond will be worth applauding. Arguably Sangakkara is the best batsman in the world. He gave up wicketkeeping in Test matches to become so. Jayawardene at his best is sublime, all straight lines and delicate touch. Angelo Mathews has real talent. Actually, most of the Sri Lankans have real talent but find concentration a problem, brought up as they have been on a diet of the short forms of the game. It is one thing to bowl four-over spells when the slog is on, quite another to winkle out a man in a Test match. Unless a more relevant first-class structure is in place, the situation is unlikely to change. Sri Lanka compete with reserves of passion and skill but are bereft of organisation and support. Thus, Test cricket is more challenging for them than it might be.

Australia's issues are very different. By chance, this is not an obviously strong period of cricket for a country soaked in the game. Fascination with the Big Bash League does not help. South Africa exposed the fragility that most Australians already knew of. The front six could go to the crease in pretty much any order; only Michael Clarke has not opened the batting full-time. Clarke should bat at No. 4 but is inexplicably reluctant, so Shane Watson will move again. Phil Hughes is sparkling at first-class level and will surely bring his electric talent to the Test-match scene for good this time.

The three best young fast bowlers are injured - let's not go there - but there is enough in the cupboard of the Sheffield Shield to justify a Test-match standard attack, albeit one without devastation at its fingertip. The wicketkeeper and offspinner have something about them but are learning at Test level rather than through the tried and tested fields of the first-class game. Both rather proved this against South Africa, giving a good account and then falling a tad short in moments when something out of the box was needed.

There is a whisper that the Australian team has lost its ruthlessness. Nonsense. It is about the quality of the cricketer. Give them Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist and the best of Ricky Ponting, and the opposition will be buried - alive, if at all possible.

The challenge for Australian cricket is in the general order of things, what and who is important and why. This has long been a strength, but may have lost a little in translation during the game's recent period of immense change. Commissions and reviews raise as many questions as answers. Sound thinking and common sense is the Australian way. Clarke knows this best of all and will continue to use it as his reference. His own batting is something to behold. The expression in his captaincy is more dependent on those around him. Clarke versus Jayawardene promises much, for both men promote all that is good in the game.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK