Winning the World Cup in 1996 brought with it some unwelcome changes: the start of detrimental board politics and the transformation of our cricket administration from a volunteer-led outfit run by well-meaning men of integrity into a multimillion dollar organisation in perpetual turmoil.
In Sri Lanka, cricket and politics have been synonymous. The efforts of the Hon. Gamini Dissanayake [a former leader of the opposition] were instrumental in getting Sri Lanka Test status. He was also instrumental in building the Asgiriya international cricket stadium in Kandy. In the infancy of our cricket, it was impossible to sustain the game without state patronage and funding. When Australia and West Indies refused to come to Sri Lanka for the 1996 World Cup, it was through government channels that the combined India- Pakistan XI played in Colombo, showing the world that it was safe to play cricket there.
The importance of cricket to our society meant that at all times it enjoys benevolent state patronage. No Sri Lankan national team can be fielded without the final approval of the sports minister. It is indeed a unique system in which the board-appointed selectors can at any time be overruled and asked to reselect a side. The minister can also exercise his unique powers to dissolve the cricket board if investigations reveal corruption or financial irregularity.
With the victory in 1996 came money and power for the board and players. Those from within the team became involved in power games within the board. Officials elected to power in this way in turn manipulated player loyalty to achieve their own ends. At times board politics would spill over into the team, causing rift, ill feeling and distrust. Accountability and transparency in administration, and credibility of conduct, were lost in a mad power struggle that would leave Sri Lankan cricket with no consistent or clear administration. Presidents and elected executive committees would come and go; government-picked interim committees would be appointed and dissolved.
After 1996, the board has been controlled and administered by a handful of well-meaning individuals, either personally or by proxy, rotated in and out depending on appointment or election. Unfortunately, to consolidate and perpetuate their power they opened the door of the administration to partisan cronies that would lead to corruption and wanton waste of board finances and resources. It was - and still is - confusing. Accusations of vote-buying and rigging, interference from all sides, and even violence at the AGMs (including the brandishing of weapons and ugly fist fights) have characterised board elections for as long as I can remember.
The team lost the buffer between them and the cricket administration. Players had become used to approaching members in power, directly trading favours for mutual benefits, and by 1999 all these changes in administration and player attitudes had transformed what was a close-knit unit in 1996 into a collection of individuals with no shared vision or sense of team. The World Cup in England in 1999 was a debacle: a first-round exit.
Fortunately, though, the disastrous performance proved to be a catalyst for further change within the dynamics of the Sri Lankan team. A new mix of players, and a nice blend of youth and experience, provided the context in which the old hierarchical structures within the team were dismantled over the next decade under the more consensual and inclusive leadership of Sanath Jayasuriya, Marvan Atapattu and Mahela Jayawardene.
In the new culture forged since 1999, individuals are accepted. The only things that matter are commitment and discipline to the team. Individuality and internal debate are welcome. Respect is not demanded, but earned. There was a new commitment towards keeping the players away from board turmoil. It has been difficult to fully exclude it from our team dynamics because there are constant efforts to drag us back, and in times of weakness and doubt players have crossed the line. Still, we have managed to protect and motivate our collective efforts towards one goal: winning on the field.
We have to aspire to better administration. It needs to adopt the values enshrined by the team over the years: integrity, transparency, commitment and discipline. Unless the administration is capable of becoming more professional, forward-thinking and transparent, we risk alienating the common man. Indeed, this is already happening. Loyal fans are becoming increasingly disillusioned. This is very dangerous because it is not the administrators or players that sustain the game - it is the cricket-loving public. It is their passion that powers cricket, and if they turn their backs on cricket the whole system will come crashing down.
The solution may be the ICC taking a stand to suspend member boards with direct detrimental political interference or allegations of corruption and mismanagement. This will negate the ability to field representative teams or receive funding and other accompanying benefits from the ICC. But, as a Sri Lankan, I hope we have the strength to find the answers ourselves.
This is an edited extract from the 2011 MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture. Kumar Sangakkara, a Wisden Cricketer of the Year for 2012, has captained Sri Lanka in 15 Tests, 45 one-day internationals and 21 Twenty20 internationals. A full version of the lecture is available at lords.org2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010