Sri Lanka news December 26, 2011

Wettimuny proposes revamp of Sri Lankan cricket

Vithushan Ehantharajah

Sidath Wettimuny, the former Sri Lanka batsman, has suggested a radical restructuring of the country's domestic cricket structure, which involves promoting provinces over clubs. The financial uncertainty surrounding Sri Lankan cricket and the upcoming board elections could, however, overshadow Wettimuny's proposal.

As a member of Sri Lanka Cricket's now-dissolved interim committee - appointed in July to tide over the board's financial crisis - Wettimuny presided over a paper outlining the value of pushing provincial cricket over club cricket, an idea he has always supported since being appointed president of the Sri Lankan Cricketers' Association in 2006.

The proposals outlined in the paper suggest clustering the clubs of a region together to form one of seven provincial sides. The teams would be made up of the best players from each club within the region, and compete with other provinces on a more regular basis. Wettimuny believes this is vital if Sri Lanka are to compete successfully at the highest level.

When the paper was being put together, the interim committee had been assured that they would be allowed to continue till just beyond the ICC World Twenty20 in September 2012, giving them at least 15 months to implement a new first-class structure in Sri Lanka. On November 15 this year, however, sports minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage dissolved the committee and ultimately scheduled the board elections for January 3.

Wettimuny is not sure why the committee was dissolved as he believed 15 months would have been a "sensible" time frame to set up a remodelled domestic structure. "I can only assume that [they went ahead] as per the ICC requirement," Wettimuny said. "They [the ICC] said that by 2012 they would like to see all boards independently contested."

The biggest worry is that a newly-elected board could put the proposal for a new provincial structure on the backburner which, Wettimuny said, needed to be pushed through and "set in stone." It is meant to be the feeder line which could lead to more consistent success of the international team.

"We need to make the provincial structure a lot more permanent, tangible and something that is set in stone. We've always moved our provincial tournaments up and down, not giving them pride of place. This time we managed to get a fixture where we stated that it should always be playing during the best part of the year - which is February to March."

Wettimuny says that the argument that Sri Lanka's club cricket structure has produced quality international cricketers may have been valid in the past. In a modern world, he said, "Nothing stays still - you need to keep moving with the times. There was a time, yes, when club cricket managed to produce very good cricketers who were adept at playing at the highest level. But that doesn't mean that currently, and going forward, we can cope - the bar has been raised everywhere across the world.

"It is only when we play our provincial cricket that we have strong teams competing with each other in four-day cricket. We need to push that if our aim is to push the team forward."

The new scheme also outlines a system of inclusion, where club administrators would be involved in the management of the province. Part of their remit would be to look into developing more provincial and district coaches. As an added incentive, they will also receive more money from television rights. Under the new programme, the board will seek to improve facilities in each region, and open training centres in the respective areas.

A by-product of such a move would also give remote regions more power and more say in the country's cricket. More than 80% of Sri Lanka's cricketers are from rural areas, even though, as Wettimuny says, "At the moment, everything is run from the centre in Colombo … and I don't think we can have a good grasp of what's going on in the far reaches of the country from there."

Despite promises of redistribution of wealth and power, it is possible that clubs could be less than enthusiastic about the prospect of playing second fiddle to a provincial tournament, particularly one as regular as the new proposals recommend.

Wettimuny admits there will be "a political battle between clubs and the administration," with clubs fearing that they would lose their prominence if a provincial tournament became a regular fixture. "I don't agree with that. Club cricket is our backbone - we need it because it is a feeder to our provincial cricket - but that [provincial] level of cricket must be there if we are to effectively support our Test team.

"They [the clubs] are not wholeheartedly supporting that system - if they look at the overall benefit of the country's cricket, then they will see that it is something we need to promote."

One of the doubts raised about the success of the restructuring rests in the lack of any fan loyalty for the provinces. Currently, there is no or identity or affiliation to a particular provincial side; the number of supporters for provincial matches depends largely on where the game is played and the number of representatives from that particular area.

The plan to restructure domestic cricket may now rest in the hands of board presidential front-runner Upali Dharmadasa. While Dharmadasa has alluded to domestic restructuring as a key part of his 12-point plan to revive Sri Lankan cricket, his main focus is on the maximisation of revenue from television rights, and to use the 2012 World Twenty20 as a starting point to develop sports tourism in the country.

Despite his standing in Sri Lankan cricket, Wettimuny decided against standing in the upcoming elections, but did agree to lend his support to those willing to address the issues in the domestic game. He also warned that these elections should mark the beginning of more stable times for the country's cricket administration.

"I hope whichever board comes in will follow it through. Since 1996, we have had so many boards coming and going - every year we've had changes - and what that does is it breaks the continuity of thought and the implementation of plans."

Wettimuny believes that the future of Sri Lanka's domestic setup and, consequently, international well-being, will rest in the hands of whoever comes out on top in SLC's first elections since 2004.