de Mel denies pressure over Tillakaratne
Ashantha de Mel, Sri Lanka's chairman of selectors, has dismissed claims that his seven-man selection committee has faced pressure from top-level cricket administrators to include Hashan Tillakaratne in the squad for their tour of New Zealand next month. However, other sources close to the selectors have privately claimed that there have been attempts to force Tillakaratne back into international cricket.
It had been assumed that Tillakaratne's high-salaried appointment as an executive director of Cricket-Aid, the cricket board's tsunami-relief programme, signalled an acceptance that his international days were behind him. But Tillakaratne, who was dropped after his resignation as captain in March 2004, still harbours strong ambitions of breaking back into the team, even though he will be 38 later this year.
The selection process in Sri Lanka is frequently politicised, with much behind-the-scenes lobbying. But, in this case, de Mel insists that his panel is not being pressurised. He told the Daily News: "We are an independent committee and we take decisions in the best interest of Sri Lanka cricket. If we are going to be influenced by outside forces we should not be sitting in the committee."
de Mel pointed out that the selectors would consider recalling Tillakaratne only if he scored sufficient runs. His decent but unexceptional performances during the Provincial Tournament, in which he scored 210 runs in three matches with a top score of 85, failed to convince the selectors. "We have not shut the door completely on Hashan," said de Mel. "We know that he still has some cricket left in him. However, his current performances don't make a strong case for inclusion.
"If Hashan wants to get in he will have to get the big numbers on the board," de Mel added. "Getting 40s and 50s will not help his cause. We are not worried about the age of a player. If someone is fit and scores runs heavily we will certainly consider him for selection. We know that Hashan has delivered in the past. He needs to convert his fifties into hundreds."
Tillakaratne was left out of an initial unreleased 18-man training pool selected on Monday, which included several A-team batsmen who have been scoring heavily recently. Avishka Gunawardene, Ian Daniel and Thilina Kandamby appear to be competing for the final batting slot in New Zealand if Sri Lanka go into the two Tests with seven batsmen. Russel Arnold has slipped out of contention after a low-scoring Provincial Tournament.
But it is the bowling that is causing the selectors a headache. Nuwan Zoysa was originally included in the 18-man pool, and the news of his unavailability prompted the selectors to reconsider their options. They are due to meet again on Wednesday and will make a decision on whether to finalise the squad or stage a two-day practice game to have a closer look at some of the contenders.