Peter Roebuck

Sri Lanka on the brink

They'll lose more of their top players soon, and political interference in the game is rife. What does the future hold?

Peter Roebuck
Peter Roebuck
Kumar Sangakkara in pursuit of Mahela Jayawardene, World Cup, Mumbai, March 15, 2011

Sri Lanka haven't come to terms with the loss of Murali and Vaas, and when Sangakkara and Jayawardene leave, it'll be worse  •  AFP

Geoff Marsh has taken on a tough assignment, one likely to test his skills to the utmost. If he emerges from his stint as Sri Lankan coach with his reputation enhanced, he will have surpassed all reasonable expectations. Coaching Sri Lanka requires a rare mixture of wisdom, patience, vigour, diplomacy and thick skin. Marsh has many fine qualities, including durability, common sense and a certain humility, but nothing in his record indicates that he has the exceptional qualities demanded by the task that now presents itself.
The Marshes count among the most successful of cricketing families, and that in a game often handed down the generations. Clearly cricket is in their bones. As a former Test cricketer too, and with sons in the game, Marsh will start with an advantage denied others. But that will rapidly fade.
Nor is it the most propitious time to take charge of Sri Lankan cricket. Marsh begins his tenure with the last remaining great players near the end of their time and tether. The two best bowlers the country has produced have withdrawn, and the team has not won any of its last nine Tests (though as the new captain correctly points out, it has only been beaten twice in that period). Sri Lanka are not at the top or the bottom, but they do seem to be on the way down. Nor do they have the resources to affect a swift turnaround.
Many challenges await. To add to the difficulties facing the new man, cricket matters enormously in the country. It helps the nation and its peoples hold their heads up in the international arena. It's no small thing for a country of 20 million to rise in any area, rugby or cricket or cultural, and doing so helps instil confidence and pride. Only the fatuous scorn patriotism, only the narrow embrace nationalism.
Over the last 20 years, too, the Lankans have performed superbly, winning one World Cup and featuring in two other finals. Besides, the country has produced several great cricketers, and reached the top three in the Test rankings. Not bad for a small nation enduring a civil war, recently ended, and suffering a consequent lack of investment in infrastructure. Accordingly success is expected and coaches and captains alike are called to account when defeats pile up.
To make matters worse, Sri Lanka cricket appears to be a house divided. At present the team is led by its third-best captain (the two seniors having served the short period they regard as the local shelf life) and lacks the spirit observed in the team's heyday. Off the field, too, the chaos continues, with interim committees, political interference, empty accounts, high legal fees, and widespread accusations of cronyism. Unsurprisingly the team has slipped to fifth in the Test rankings. Unless a sense of service is restored, the decline will continue.
Much could be gleaned from Kumar Sangakkara's speech at Lord's in July. Delivering the annual Cowdrey lecture to an august audience, the prickly but erudite batsman moved many Sri Lankans in the room close to tears as he told the story of cricket in his country, with its glories and frustrations. It is a tale of a cherished game that fell into the wrong hands - of those alerted to its possibilities by the country's triumph in the 1996 World Cup. Suddenly the old guard was pushed aside and replaced by brash opportunists with dubious connections and populist tongues.
Ever since, Sri Lanka cricket has been in turmoil. Repeatedly boards have been elected by a deeply flawed process, only to be sacked by a government concerned about corruption or else in cahoots with thwarted outsiders. Recently a board chairman was installed by powerful forces because he was prepared to countenance and fund the building of a stadium in Hambantota, a remote and deserted location in the constituency of the President's son. Once the stadium was built the co-operative official was replaced by an old-timer prepared to pave the way for the next bunch of opportunists who had close ties with the government.
Cricket remains a political football. Rather than welcoming Sangakkara's contribution to the debate, the sports minister condemned the plea for proper structures and due diligence. A previous minister had threatened to remove Sri Lankan players from the IPL because it clashed with the early matches of an England tour. Indian officials soon scotched that plan. The ICC needs to apply its diktat about political interference.
Political involvement in Sri Lankan cricket reaches the highest levels of government. During the third Test against Australia, the country's most celebrated players were summoned to see the president, for a routine "friendly chat", as officials insisted, though others suggest that division in the team was the issue.
High-level intervention was also responsible for Hashan Tillakaratne's silence in the wake of the match-fixing allegations he raised recently. Tillakaratne claimed that a past player and a former administrator had been heavily involved in match-fixing.
Unfortunately it is not much use waiting for the media to expose malfeasance - most of it is owned, directly or indirectly, by the government. Within these confines, many journalists do their utmost, but some become mouthpieces. Nor can television be relied upon to provide a dispassionate assessment of the state of the game. Through its sports ministry and cricket board, the government chooses the commentators.
Much has been made of the conflict of interest that affects Indian experts paid by and beholden to the BCCI. The same thing happens in Sri Lanka. Sanath Jayasuriya is a government MP representing Matara - as a local hero he was well placed to win the seat. Now he has the president's ear and a place in the commentary box, though his constituents take a dim view of his long absences.
Sri Lanka cricket appears to be a house divided. At present the team is led by its third-best captain. Off the field the chaos continues, with interim committees, political interference, empty accounts, high legal fees, and widespread accusations of cronyism
Jayasuriya has long enjoyed the backing of the governing party. Senior Sri Lankan players were reportedly aghast that his name was even mentioned as a candidate for the World Cup, because his form had long been abysmal. Despite intense lobbying, it did not come to pass because they played well and he did not. Still, the prospect bound the team together. Instead he was granted a farewell ODI in England by political decree.
Now Jayasuriya has become among the most powerful men in Sri Lankan cricket, able to offer places on the board to people considered suitable. By the look of things he is being groomed for high cricketing office. Meanwhile he covers the cricket as well. That is, assuming commentators are critics, not mere presenters.
Nor are the other commentators able to speak freely. Tony Grieg, a long-standing and much-loved member of the TV team, also works for the government. He is paid a modest fee by the tourism board to serve as an ambassador and to present the country as an attractive place to visit. Grieg has long been passionate about Sri Lanka and his sincerity is not in question. Moreover he avoids anything he considers political, has friends in all communities and takes youth teams on tour to the country. Just that the conflict of interest is palpable.
All things considered, Marsh has a fight on his hands. Sri Lanka can be inward-looking, and sensitive about intrusion from other countries, especially India, and including the West, whose condemnation of the cruelty that marked the closing stages of the civil war (and afterwards) is resented. Certainly the West can be hypocritical - 100,000 Iraqi civilians died in an illegitimate war fought on spurious grounds by leaders who remained intact.
Yet the path forwards is clear. As ever, the forces overlap, sporting, economic and political. Peace has given the country a rare chance to make a fresh start. Take it and Sri Lanka and its cricket will rise. Ignore it and the chance will not come again in a generation. In every arena Sri Lanka needs to admit its excesses, acknowledge its mistakes and build lasting institutions founded on democratic principles. If cricket can meet that challenge there will be no need for interim committees or political interference or dismayed players making brave speeches at Lord's.
The current elders will retire soon, and they are an asset not to be wasted. Maybe Sangakkara will end up with the ICC, in charge of referees. If so, it'd be a pity because there is a lot of work to be done at home, on the field and off it, in cricket and the country.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It