"What's going on with Sri Lankan cricket?"
Do you really want to know? If you're not the kind of person who acts with flagrant disregard towards your own mental health, it's perhaps best to stop reading here. The answer to the question above is the kind that starts with mocking guffaws, turns into nervous laughter as truths begin to hit home, morphs slowly into despondent sobbing, and ends with unchecked, hours-long, Oscar-worthy ugly-crying. If you're willing to read this, good luck. Strap in.
So what's going on with Sri Lankan cricket?
Today it's players being sent home from a tour of England after breaching the team's bio-bubble in Durham Market Square on Sunday night. Three players, to be exact, which you suspect is also the number of braincells that had been collectively harnessed when the decision to make a break for it was made.
Cricket boards pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to maintain biosecure bubbles, on top of regular tour costs. Special government approvals are granted so international cricket matches can viably take place. And Sri Lanka's cricketers were preferentially administered the first dose of the Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine, because apparently - although scorecards might protest - they were deemed to be carrying out a service that was important to the well-being of their nation.
And yet Kusal Mendis (whose 14 most-recent international innings feature five scores of zero and zero scores over 40), Danushka Gunathilaka (who has an exceptionally poor behavioural record), and Niroshan Dickwella (who is Niroshan Dickwella) chose to risk all this for an excursion they had explicity been prohibited from undertaking. If videos had not emerged on social media overnight, Sri Lanka's medical staff may not have been aware that the bubble had been breached, and as such, would not have isolated these three players. There is a ultra-trainwreck version of this already trainwreck tour in which these players come back, infect others, and force the cancellation of the remaining matches.
Ah, right, that sucks. Is that all?
No. Right now, there's a contracts standoff between the board and current men's players. For years these had been regular encounters, like The Ashes, or the Bledisloe Cup. But this year, this battle has taken on particularly farcical dimensions. On one side are a playing group whose on-field output is barely fit to be mentioned in the same column as that of former Lankan sides. On the other side, well, is the Sri Lankan cricket board.
Among the cricketers' claims upon seeing the value of the proposed contracts is that they alone are not responsible for the decline in their performance, and that in fact the board's inability to maintain a high-quality domestic structure has led to this fall. Roughly, this may be characterised as the "we only suck because you suck" argument. Classic negotiating.
More importantly, the players want to know exactly how each of them has been graded and consequently placed in to contracts categories, and to this request there is some merit. How is it that Dickwella is set to be in the highest contracts category in the new system, for example? Are there points for sledging? There is a lot of well-intentioned thinking from SLC's technical committee, which largely designed this system, but there are puzzling decisions as well, such as putting Dimuth Karunaratne into the third-highest category, when he is not only Test captain, but also the only Sri Lanka player who frequently makes it into World XIs.
Look, are you done complaining?
Listen to this other stuff. Decades after it had become clear that Sri Lanka Cricket's election system is archaic, the board is still elected by 140-plus members, many of whom hail from clubs and associations that are either defunct or add nothing to the health of cricket on the island. Many of the electors are in the game for personal gain. It is small-scale politicking for which board members are essentially elected.
The country's sports ministers, who oversee SLC according to the nation's sports law, could perhaps help usher in change at the constitutional level. But although the current sports minister hails from the most powerful Lankan political family of the 21st century, Namal Rajapakse has brought about no serious tangible change to cricket's administration. Instead, on Tuesday, he promised to come down hard on the cricketers who broke the bubble in Durham long after it had become clear that the public took a dim view of their behaviour. As far as cricket is concerned, Rajapakse has so far been (looks over shoulder, utters silent prayer) as ineffective as a long string of sports ministers before him.
There is also practically no accountability at the board. Several of SLC's current officials were in the administration who in 2015 rejected a proposal to forge a new provincial domestic cricket system, which might have not only concentrated Sri Lanka's talent in an elite competition, but helped decentralise the sport from its Colombo hub, allowing young players from far beyond the western and southern provinces to pursue cricket professionally.
Six years later, the new director of cricket Tom Moody along with the technical committee have proposed a similar provincial system, which, for now, the board has approved. But it remains to be seen whether this system takes flight, because in previous years, board president Shammi Silva has been on record claiming Sri Lanka does not need to change its domestic system since the age-old club system won it the 1996 World Cup. Along the same line of logic: if loincloths were good enough for our cavepeople ancestors, why do you and I need stitched underwear?
This column promised you a crying section, so here is a list of facts to make you weep.
- SLC has hosted a men's Lanka Premier League tournament during the pandemic, and is set to host one again starting late July, but the women's national team has not played an international game since March last year.
- The current premier domestic tournaments for men feature 24 teams, which means 264 cricketers appear in each round of first-class cricket.
- Domestic pitches are so dry that fingerspinners have frequently comprised 90% of the top 10 wicket-takers every first-class season for the last six years.
- Until 2020's LPL, Sri Lanka's top T20 tournaments were either bloated 23-team affairs, or strange "provincial" tournaments that barely lasted two weeks.
- The men's team has had five head coaches in the last eight years. Roughly the same group of administrators that hired Graham Ford worked to get rid of him 18 months later, and that same crowd essentially begged Chandika Hathurusingha to coach Sri Lanka, before sacking him within two years.
So what's going on with Sri Lankan cricket? If a dumpster fire mated with a sewage avalanche, and the resultant offspring then got with acid rain falling on a close-to-shore oil spill, this whole appalling family would still struggle to match Sri Lankan cricket's dysfunction. Over the course of this week, we may see Gunathilaka, Dickwella and Mendis "disciplined" by a board that is among the most distrusted authorities on the land, while the sports minister attempts to claim political mileage from the scandal.
Could it lead to sustained positive change? Maybe read the whole thing again.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf