January 2, 2002

CricInfo looks back on a roller coaster year for Sri Lankan cricket

Sri Lankan cricket enjoyed a roller coaster ride in 2001. It was joyful, depressing, tense, dramatic, bizarre, frequently controversial, but ultimately successful. The team started the year disastrously, but ended triumphantly, whilst cricket administrations, personalities and television companies came and went with alacrity.

England's Celebrate
English supporters
rejoice after Nasser Hussain's
side complete unlikely
victory

The year started in South Africa, where the team was battered and bruised into submission, to leave everyone in no doubt as to the huge task ahead if Sri Lanka were to prosper in the 2003 world cup.

But a short one-day sojourn on New Zealand's lush green-tops boosted the sides flagging morale, as they romped to a series win in a five game contest.

England had already arrived for the first ever Test series between the two sides. The threat of a television blackout dominated the build-up. Cricket board President, Thilanga Sumathipala, claimed that WSG Nimbus, who had only just signed a US 27 million dollar broadcasting and marketing rights deal with the board, were delaying payments without due reason. With typical bravado he marched them into the Sri Lankan courts. A settlement was thrashed out, but the relationship between WSG Nimbus and the board had been fatally soured.

England crashed to defeat in the first Test on a Galle dustbowl, in a match marred by poor umpiring and an inconsistent match referee, that precipitated growing animousity between the two sides. No one gave England a chance of coming back - even Nasser Hussain, who privately contemplated his resignation - and a series whitewash loomed.

But, in Kandy, England completed a remarkable tension strewn win, thanks to another pitiful umpiring display - this time by B.C. Cooray, who had to be escorted from the field by a police force justifiably scared for his safety - and some flimsy batting from Sri Lanka. The momentum had turned towards England and, cheered on by a noisy 5000 strong army of supporters, Nasser Hussain's team completed a series win in Colombo after another pathetic second innings batting display from the hosts.

Sri Lanka strolled to victory in the one-day games that followed, in a series dominated by the inauguration of an international stadium in the culture-rich dry lands of Dambulla. The state of the art stadium was hastily constructed from scrub in only 165 days and was full to capacity for its virgin ODI. It appeared a triumph for president Thilanga Sumathipala, who had championed the ambitious project from its inception, but subsequent disputes with contractors and problems with the lease meant that the stadium was put under lock and key to become an embarrassing white elephant.

Next, as England flew home, the cricket board was dramatically dissolved on a constitutional technicality by the sports minister Laksmann Kiriella, amidst allegations - still unproven - of financial mismanagement. An interim committee, headed by Vijaya Malalsekera, was appointed to run the affairs of the board, along with a probe committee to look into the activities of the outgoing board. They soon released a damning preliminary report, but then lost credibility when Sumathipala's team secured an injunction against them for a less than evenhanded approach. No more was heard.

Dambulla Stadium
Rangiri Dambulla
International Stadium
is built in record time
only to become a
cricketing white
elephant

The team's good one-day form continued with a second consecutive tri-series win in Sharjah, but poor Test match form - no series win since March 2000 - dominated the minds of the selectors, who lost faith with Aravinda de Silva and recalled 34-year-old Hashan Tillakaratne after a prolific domestic season with Nondescripts Cricket Club, whom he led to the Premier League championship.

Meanwhile, minister Kiriella ordered the development of fast practice pitches at Premadasa International Stadium, ironically the international venue with the reputation for producing the slowest wickets in Sri Lanka. Seven months on the practice center remains unfinished.

New Zealand and India, sans Sachin Tendulkar, visited Sri Lanka for a nine-match tri-series in July that was interrupted by a devastating terrorist attack on the international airport. Despite safety fears, the tournament proceeded, with Sri Lanka emerging well-deserved winners.

A three-match Test series with an injury ravaged Indian side followed, in what proved to be a watershed moment for the side and Sanath Jayasuriya's captaincy. Once again, a thumping home win in Galle, on an unusually well grassed pitch, was proceeded by defeat in Kandy, increasingly considered a bogey venue for Sri Lanka. But, in Colombo, Muralitharan put India in a spin with a devastating eight-wicket haul on the first day before Hashan Tillakaratne and debutante Thilan Samaraweera went on a run spree. Sri Lanka won heavily to register their first home win for two years.

The pressure lifted from the shoulders of skipper Sanath Jayasuriya and coach Dav Whatmore, as the team started to grow more confidant by the day. Bangladesh were brushed aside with alarming ease, despite a sparkling record breaking century from teenage debutante Mohammad Ashraful.

As the team started preparations for end of the year series against West Indies and Zimbabwe, the interim committee enlisted the services of South Africa legend Barry Richards as a specialist batting. The appointment did not meet with universal approval, critics questioning both the high cost and the wisdom of allowing a coach so close to a key opponent into the inner sanctum of the team. But, with some exceptions, the players claimed to have benefited from the weeklong training camp.

Muralithatan
Muralitharan undoubtedly
the hero of the year
with 80 Test match
wickets

There were other less high profile coaching appointments, though they may prove more significant. Roshan Mahanama, who had earlier released his headline grabbing autobiography 'Retired Hurt,' became A team coach, Ruwan Kalpage became the fielding coach and Pramodya Wickramasinghe an assistant bowling coach, as Champika Ramanayake took over primary responsibility for a successful fast bowling academy following the departure overseas of Rumesh Ratnayake.

Meanwhile, further legal battles were brewing with the broadcasters. The interim committee reacted decisively to the delayed payment by WSG Nimbus of the minimum guarantee due before the West Indies tour. An injunction was won in the Sri Lankan High Court and successfully defended, as WSG Nimbus publicly and vehemently refuted allegations that the contract had been breached. A new rights process was hastily initiated and a memorandum of understanding with newly formed Dubai-based Taj Televison was signed.

Singer Sri Lanka's six-year team sponsorship deal with the team came to an end amicably and a new lucrative deal - dubbed the marriage of Sri Lanka's finest exports: cricket and tea - was signed with Dilmah Tea for three years.

Sri Lanka's on-field fortunes dipped, as they were defeated in Sharjah by a resurgent Pakistan side, but they quickly bounced back in the Test series that followed against the West Indies, whose touring plans had been threatened by the September 11 attacks in America and fresh elections in Sri Lanka - sparked, according to ruling party minister Mangala Samaraweera, by Thilanga Sumathipala, who was publicly accused by the minister of helping to fund the crossover of politicians into the opposition party.

West Indies were whitewashed three nil after match winning bowling efforts from Muttiah Muralitharan, who took 21 wickets in the first two Tests, and Chaminda Vaas, who showed off a newly found confidence and ability to swerve the old ball dangerously, taking 14 wickets in the final Test in Colombo. The batsmen also prospered, with Kumar Sangakkara impressive and Mahela Jayawardene serene. But the prolific performances of Tillakaratne and Samaraweera stole the limelight, as they firmed up the previously shaky middle order. Brian Lara resisted spectacularly (688 runs in the series) but his efforts were in vain.

Sri Lanka's confidence was snowballing. The proceeding tri-series was won with ease and Zimbabwe were brushed aside dismissively in the twilight of the year.

A new government brought a new sports minister and further confusion in the cricket board. The interim committee were asked to resign, which they duly did, and fresh elections were expected to be called. But ten days later, on the final day of the year, the minister reappointed the committee, with slight modifications, for an unspecified period of time.

Individually, it was a spectacularly successful year for the players. Muralitharan was the highest wicket in the world (80 wickets) for the second successive year, whilst Chaminda Vaas (58 wickets) also bagged a place in the top five. Mahela Jayawardene scored 1000 runs in Test and one-day cricket, the only player in the world to do so, and Kumar Sangakkara was the seventh highest run scorer in Test cricket. Tillakaratne (136.40) and Samaraweera (140.66) topped the world Test averages.

Tillakaratne
Hashan Tillakartne
comes back into the side
after two years in the
wilderness

The team won 22 of the 34 one-games contested and eight out of the 13 Test matches, including an unbroken run of six consecutive wins - a record for a side in the sub-continent - a two series victories.

True, the opposition was weak and the majority of matches were played at home. There is no doubt also that the real barometer of the team's current world stature will be their performance in England early next summer and in South Africa later in the year.

But Sri Lanka have moved on - the players are stronger in mind, body and spirit, whilst the side has been strengthened by exciting new fast bowling talent, the emergence of Jayawardene and Sangakkara as truly world-class players, the successful recall of Tillakaratne and introduction of Samaraweera. With a captain more at ease with the rigours of leadership and a shrewd coach working quietly but diligently in the background, the future looks bright.

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