Arjuna Ranatunga, recently appointed the chairman of Sri Lanka Cricket, talks about his plans - both for the long run and short - and the changes Sri Lankan cricket needs
If you were to prioritise one aspect of Sri Lanka's cricket that needs urgent attention and needs to be a key focus of your tenure in charge of Sri Lanka Cricket, what would that be?
Junior cricket. Our school cricket has been neglected for too long. I am not pointing fingers, I just think that that has been too much focus on the top, the national team, which has had a detrimental impact on junior cricket. There was a time, in the 1980s and even early 1990s, when a handful of cricketers, perhaps five or six, could be accommodated into the national squad straight from the school system - a school system that was the envy of the world. Sadly, this is no longer the case.
What has gone wrong with school's cricket?
I think the change to limited-overs cricket at the younger age groups - Under-13 and Under-15 - was a mistake. Even when we were 12, 13 and 14 we used to play full-day matches from 9.30am to 6pm. We'd play aggressive and positive cricket. But these days the kids play just overs cricket and learn less. In addition, coaching has become a business and winning has become too important. When I was growing up Sri Lanka had some fantastic coaches - the likes of Lionel Mendis, Bertie Wijesinghe and Nelson Mendis to name just a few - who were committed to cricket and had a huge passion. Nowadays, with a combination of pressure from school principals, Old Boy Associations and parents, all that matters is winning. Spinners are finding it tougher and players are not learning how to be creative and think on their feet. Go to a school match these days and the coach will probably be standing on the boundary edge setting the field. That approach is not conducive to developing quality cricketers.
So what are you going to do about this?
Well, DS de Silva has been appointed by president Mahinda Rajapakse as a cricket advisor and we have asked him to spend four to six weeks researching the current situation. We hope he'll be able to come up with a good solid proposal that will be discussed with a strong Cricket Committee, which is to be headed by Aravinda de Silva. We hope to have a plan for the future very soon.
You have just completed the inaugural one-day Provincial Tournament, soon to be followed by the Provincial T20 and later this year a four-day competition - is this now going to become the bedrock of the domestic professional game?
Yes. We have to raise the standard of first-class cricket to bridge a growing divide between our first-class cricket and the international arena. We have the talent, no doubt about that, but our players are not developing as fast as they should be. For example, under the club system, a top batsman may be exposed to one high-class bowler in each game, but at the other end he'll be able to pick off runs more easily. The obvious and only solution is concentrating the talent so the best players play against each other. The provincial system will achieve this. We've already seen this in the one-day series that finished recently. Batsmen were made to work really hard. The matches were competitive and the cricket of a much higher standard than normal club cricket. So we are looking at provincial cricket being the main competition, and the main arena for national selection. Below that we are considering the option of a district-level tier that feeds into the provinces - there are about 22 districts which could be feeding into their respective provinces. And then below this will sit the club system which will also remain a very important component of the national system.
How do you anticipate the clubs taking this? It will be a radical departure from the current system and could be unpopular.
I am here to go the right job. When the president asked me to be chairman he gave me one instruction: "Get cricket right." That is what I have to do. I will have to make tough decisions and I am ready to do that. That might make me unpopular in some quarters. But being popular is not as important as giving our cricket the right structure so that we can be a consistent global force. We need to be challenging Australia for the No. 1 position in the world.
Interim and Executive Committees come and go promising to change the system and make Sri Lanka the best team in the world. Invariably, though, the status quo remains. How can you force through proper change and also safeguard those developments under future administrations?
It is too early to go into specifics, but the plan is for us to spend the next few weeks reviewing the current system. There will be lots of consultation and discussion. Crucially, our leading cricketers, from the past and present, will be at the forefront of this. Our job will be to come up with a proper plan which we will take to the sports minister. This can then become the basis of a national policy of cricket and a new constitution for Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) that will protect us from the problems that have plagued us in the past. Now is the time to get things right.
So a feature of your administration is going to be the greater participation of the cricketers?
Absolutely. This is the key. It is the cricketers that have generated the television and sponsorship revenues that are now financing SLC and it is the duty of the administration to make sure this money is spent responsibly. Cricketers need to be in charge of the cricket board with support from high caliber administrators, including financial and marketing expertise. The cricketers are in the best position to get our cricket structures right. They have been through the system and they understand the needs of professional sportsmen. The Cricket Committee, headed by Aravinda, will have increased power to implement their policies and plans. I have ideas of my own, but it is this Cricket Committee that will shape the future of our game.
Does this also mean a closer relationship being forged between the cricket board and the SL Players' Association?
Yes, absolutely, we want the input of cricketers and we want to have a closer relationship with the SLCA. We are even looking at the possibility of them having an office within the board.
Just prior to your appointment it was alleged in the media that the previous administration, headed by Jayantha Dharmadasa, extended the Ten Sports television agreement from the end of the current contract, due to expire at the end of 2008, to 2012 without a proper bidding process. What is the status of this?
The sports minister has put a stop to the deal for the time being. We now need to sit and discuss with the lawyers to find out what has happened and whether everything has been handled in a legal manner. All the documents are with the lawyers and we are awaiting their advice. It is too early to make any further comment, but it is an issue that we are addressing as a matter of importance.
There was also talk of a corruption probe - is that taking place?
We want to do an independent financial and management audit and we are already speaking to leading audit firms about this. There has been 10 years of financial wastage in this cricket board and this needs to stop. We don't have the money to waste - we have to spend our cash wisely. Thus, we feel professional expertise is required to get our financial and administration procedures right. We hope the audit can take place within a time frame of four to six weeks and that the recommendations will form part of the report or plan we forward to the sports minister.
There have been several selection problems and controversies in recent times. How are you going to address this?
We do need to sort out the unpleasantness that has happened over the past year or so regarding selection. But to be honest I think a lot of this has resulted from miscommunication. With better communication we can have a much better system. We've already had a really constructive dialogue with the selectors. We don't want to get directly involved in selecting teams. That is the job of the selection panel and not the cricket board, but I do feel that we need to better define their role within a national cricket policy. They need directives so we are all pushing in the same direction. For example, we need to be clear as to criteria for selection - should this be provincial or club cricket? We need to discuss and come up with a clear and open plan understood by everyone.
What are your initial thoughts on long-term development projects - is Pallakelle Stadium in Kandy going ahead and are any more big projects in the pipeline?
Yes, Pallakelle is going ahead although we have to raise the funds first. However, I also think we have enough international stadiums now. We also don't have the money to keep spending millions on big projects. If outside investors come in, that's fine. We can look at that, but we have to be sensible with our finances. Instead, my opinion is that our development focus should be on developing high-performance centres in each province and also a good ground and training facility in each district. These projects will be less costly and will ensure a greater number of cricketers island-wide will have access to quality facilities. It will spread opportunity and help us tap the huge talent in our outstations.
In the past you have been quite outspoken about foreign coaches and critical of Sri Lanka's failure to develop homegrown coaches. Will you be looking to develop more local coaches, physiotherapists and physical trainers?
We have top coaches and most of these are employed overseas. So this shows we have talented coaches in Sri Lanka. What I'd like to see is this talent being developed. And, in addition, we have to encourage more first-class cricketers into coaching and umpiring positions especially. We need to be able to fast-track them to make it an attractive career opportunity.
In general, what are your ambitions in terms of the national team?
I want us to raise our standards to be able to compete with Australia. This is a very achievable objective if we can close the gap between domestic and international cricket. As I have said before, we have the talent here in Sri Lanka. We should be looking at the 2011 World Cup as a major priority. We have a great chance of winning that if we get things right now. That will also entail protecting some of our older players, like Murali, who I think should be playing in only major ODI tournaments in future. He is a huge asset for Sri Lanka and needs to be protected very carefully.
How will your appointment change Sri Lanka's position in terms of other nations? Will you, for example, aim to develop a close relationship with India?
We have to have a strong and close relationship with India, but we also have to have healthy relationships with the other Test nations. I think we have done pretty well in recent years in terms of attracting top teams to Sri Lanka, but I would like to see more proper tours. Two Test matches in a series is too little and we should aim for a minimum of three per series. In addition, we need to look at the A team and make sure they are playing at least one series outside Asia, one in Asia and one in Sri Lanka each year. We need them to be feeding players into the national team and that means they have to be playing more series in the likes of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa to gather more experience of different conditions.