Separating Sport From Politics – the Sri Lankan Cricket Way.

Right, where to begin with this one? Firstly I would like to point out that having come to cricket in the mid to late 90’s, and watching the Sri Lankan team since then, Sanath Jayasuriya remains one of my cricketing heroes, and whatever he does in his political career, will have no bearing on that. It was a privilege to watch Sri Lanka play during his and several other legends of the game. My first ever Sri Lanka match came quite late in my life, during the 2004 Asia Cup which was held in SL. I was at what was essentially the semi-final. India needed to win, but we were already through to the final. India batted first and scored 271 – notable scores from Sehwag, Ganguly and Yuvraj. SL fell 4 short of that, but in truth we should have got nowhere near that target. Jayasuriya was coming off a bad run of form, but showed signs of life in the previous match against Bangladesh (107*). During the India innings he received some good-natured ribbing from the section of the Premadasa I was sat in. However he carried the SL chase, with 130 of the finest counter-attacking runs you will ever see (off 132) before he finally gave India a chance and was caught and bowled by Sehwag. India would go through to the final, where we would then beat them to win the 2004 Asia Cup. It was a special innings by a special player (and can be found here).

It would seem, after such an illustrious career, that a player of his standing being named Chairman of Selectors would be no big deal. After all, legends such as Arjuna, Aravinda, Wettimuny and Asantha De Mel have all held this position. But in 2009, he was elected MP for Matara, representing the United People’s Freedom Alliance, and according to Rex Clemmentine, had long intended to go into politics anyway. Despite this he remained a player and available for slection, despite coming towards the end of his considerable powers – although he was instrumental in the 2009 T20 World Cup run and the first couple of IPL seasons for the Mumbai Indians. It was well known that he and other senior members carried some considerable clout with regards to team selection and had on few occasions fought on behalf of certain players when the selectors at the time had different opinions. It may well be that he used his political connections to prolong his cricketing career until the tour of England in 2011. Towards the end of his tenure, various rumours emerged about members of the team being at odds with his continued inclusion.  Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara being the two leaders in the camp, wished to leave him out of the side, but were constantly given messages ‘from above’ to include him. To be fair, Jayasuriya recently paid tribute to the team’s older players saying,

Seniors like Mahela, Kumar and Dilshan are the players who kept the Sri Lanka team competitive and lifted it up during the difficult period. We absolutely need their hundred per cent support to build and prepare the team for the next phase…We simply require their experience to add strength to the team.

This seems to suggest that he is willing to put whatever came between himself and some of his then-teammates behind him and it will be interesting to hear the thoughts of Mahela and Sanga should they be asked of the appointment, although I don’t think they will be in any mood to stir things up by commenting on the way he got to this position.

So now after more than a year without international cricket, and being a T20 gun-for-hire (as well as being on India’s version of Strictly Come Dancing), he has come back to Sri Lankan Cricket in that all important position of Chairman of Selectors, not long after SLC vowed to cut down on the amount of political interference in the national team, something which previous coaches such as Tom Moody and Trevor Bayliss spoke out against once their tenures were over and they were safely out of wrath and reach in Australia.

Legend, Husband, Father, Politician and dance moves as brutal as his batting…

The new selection committee that Jayasuriya will chair consists of former medium-fast bowlers Pramodya Wickremasinghe and Eric Upashantha, former wicket-keeper Hemantha Wickremaratne (3 ODIs), former batsman Chaminda Mendis (1 ODI). Wickremaratne was already part of the selection committee that was headed by the outgoing Asantha De Mel. Wickremasinghe was on the committee back in 2004 – also under Asantha De Mel and later went on to be involved high up in the Sri Lankan Cricketers Association. I have no idea what Upashantha has been up to all this time. With an average age of 41.8, the new selection panel is a relatively younger panel than some it its predecessors. First up on the agenda for this new committee is the selection of the captaincy for Tests and ODIs/T20 cricket – something which needs to be considered somewhat more than the Sports Minister’s decision to split the captaincy in the first place. This new committee will be different from the others as they have been elected indefinately. Usually it is changed on a 12-month cycle, but in this case I suspect it will very much stay the same unless results dip drastically. On the face of it, it makes some sort of sense. The lack of Test cricket in 2013 will make performances hard to gauge. I can’t really imagine a poor performance in the ICC trophy will go down as badly as the World Cup losses did. So it sort of makes sense to prolong the judgement period. However, there is always the possibility that the panel might change irregardless of what happens on the pitch, in which case it will be a case of who pisses the Sports Minister off less. The team is very much in transition and it has to be kept in mind that there will be poor performances and mistakes along the way.

...and the rest of the panel (R to L: Wickremasinghe, Mendis, Upashantha and Wickramaratne)

…and the rest of the panel (R to L: Wickremasinghe, Mendis, Upashantha and Wickramaratne).

Concerns are already being raised about the ability of Sanath to interact with members of the squad he has played with. I don’t know how true the rumours of tensions in the camp were but certainly a lot of the players were full of praise for him when he finally announced his retirement and perhaps both parties will learn to develop a professional relationship with each other. At the moment it is too easy to say that the lines between politics and sport will be blurred to the point that it becomes a faint greyish smudge on the national psyche. Although I have said that I would prefer Aravinda De Silva in charge of the panel, perhaps SLC needs someone who has not been retired for that long in charge and someone who knows the ins and outs of world cricket as it is today. It is fair to assume that he possesses a decent enough knowledge of the domestic structure too. Commenting on the announcement, President Rajapaksa called Jayasuriya a,

fountain of cricket knowledge

Jayasuriya himself briefly mentioned his ambitions in his new role,

It is an unexpected journey that I will have to go on with the new post as the chairman of the National Selection Committee of Sri Lanka Cricket Board (SLCB). My main objective will be to make a decent test side, as we all know that test cricket is the best form of the game which follows up with One-day cricket, which is superior in its own ways…No conflict between politics and cricket. I know cricket more than politics…politics [is] only for [the people of] Matara.

Having said that, it doesn’t really take a genius to guess that Jayasuriya got the position as a result of his political connections, regardless of what the man himself or those above him will say. In the aftermath of this announcement, Arjuna Ranatunga said that he was thinking of contesting the election of the new panel saying,

At present SLC has too much of political interference. It is difficult to work at SLC with political interferences. I will definitely stand for SLC if nobody pokes their noses into SLC

Ranatunga might be the hardliner that SLC needs, but his opposition to the IPL will definitely rub some of the bigger players the wrong way. Jayasuriya, who has experienced the hedonistic world of the IPL might not be that way inclined, and might not make a stand when the time comes for SL players to choose between the riches in India and playing for their country. In a peverse way, the sheer gall of SLC to on the one hand sign the ICC proposal – which was announced after the annual conference in 2011 – which attempted to cut back on political interference in sport and then have the Sports Minister who is a member of the ruling party allocate a position of great importance to the national cricket team to a member of the same party. The position of Sports Minister itself should not be responsible for making decisions, rather than someone who decides upon them. The current incumbent Mahindanada Aluthgamage’s remit seems to be one that allows him to wield the proverbial axe and dabble in things that he might not be in the best position to act upon in terms of knowledge and experience. On his excellent blog, Gideon Haigh points out that the proposal indicated that a country could be suspended if it was found to be in breach of the protocols. Azzam Ameen even tweeted that Jayasuriya had actually accepted the role of Chief Selector only because he could not secure the position of deputy minister in the President’s new reshuffled cabinet. So it would seem that despite talking the talk about changing its ways, Sri Lankan Cricket is further receding into the murky depths of its own political mire. This comes at a time of an authoritarian government that seen the cost of living shoot up island wide, seen tensions between religious groups reach boiling point and continue to suppress the media. This is of course without mentioning the constant evading of allegations from the UN Human Rights Council regarding the end of the civil war, which I suppose is a discussion for people far more qualified than I am. Even so, what I feel is not being mentioned is that it is alright for the ICC to demand that a board change its ways, but it is far harder to address the central issue which is that it is the government controlling the board that has to change first, and that is an altogether different and more difficult proposition. This is why I kind of feel that people like Haroon Lorgat are fighting a losing battle when it comes to halting political interference in cricket. Jayasuriya, well aware about the controversy surrounding his appointment, was quick to calm the allegations being made. The Daily Mirror (article) carries this quote,

I became a cricketer before I became a politician. I have represented the country at the highest level for two decades…I did not parachute here by chance thanks to some political influence. I have played the game and I have enough reason to believe that I am more than qualified to hold this post. It is obvious to everyone that this is not a political appointment. But if someone is keen to find some issue to discredit me or the government, then only they will see it that way

As the head of the selection panel, Jayasuriya might need to patch up old relationships with some of the team’s key senior members.

In conclusion, I cannot deny that the part of me that witnessed Jayasuriya’s innings on that night at the Premadasa in 2004 wants to believe that this decision will be beneficial to Sri Lankan Cricket, and that despite being very much in league with the government, the right decisions will be made and with the team in mind, irrespective if he will have to reform ties with members of the current team that to date remain very much broken. Perhaps, despite the awful financial mess that the board is in, and the fact that political interference will not stop in the foreseeable, SLC have stumbled upon the right formula. But alas this is just me being illogical and naive. The other part of me, hopes that the ICC will come down the board and try to put on end to this nonsense, even if Sri Lankan Cricket has to suffer in the short term. Ultimately, I cannot see things changing much unless changes are made at the very core of the government, its principles and its policies, which is about as likely as Lasith Malinga finding a new pair of knees in his kitbag that allows him to play Test cricket again. I will leave the last word to S.R. Pathiravithana of the Sunday Times who wrote in 2010:

The need of the hour is the true depoliticisation of Sport and especially cricket. I make special mention about cricket because it is the only game that Sri Lanka indulges in a global scale and is one of the biggest members of the game’s governing body. Because the game is extremely strong in this country it is surviving. But, that is short term. With this present political bungling like politically driven crooked television deals and short term tuck-tick-tuk where a politician is given a piece of meat for a political vote, how long can the game survive?

panel1

Couldn’t resist, sorry

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