In the last few decades, as Sri Lanka was reeling under the dark clouds of a civil war, there was one unifying factor that brought the nation together: cricket. The country reached dizzy heights in the sport, even winning the World Cup in 1996.
Last week was arguably its darkest hour in cricket – it was defeated by Bangladesh, the country with the shortest history of test playing status. Until last week, Sri Lanka had not lost to the two countries that attained test status after it- Zimbabwe and Bangladesh.
Cricketing pundits will analyse the reasons for the defeat and perform their post-mortems but there is a greater malady that affects the sport: its politicisation, with the game’s administering body in the country, Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) being run like a fiefdom of politicians. That is at the core of what happened at the P. Saravanamuttu Stadium last weekend.
In retrospect, perhaps winning the World Cup in 1996 did have its adverse consequences. Prior to that, cricketers were semi-professionals, often juggling a day job with considerate employers who would allow them time off for their cricketing engagements. Indeed, at the time Sri Lanka attained test status in the early ‘80s, most cricketers were otherwise employed because back then, cricket simply did not pay enough.
The World Cup win changed all that. Sponsors rushed in to be identified with Sri Lankan cricket. Cricketers’ wages sky-rocketed. Practically everyone in the national game – and not just the players at the top – became professional cricketers. Suddenly, it was possible to earn a living as a cricketer, if you made the grade to the national level.
That is as it should be and there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, that should increase the standards of the game because it would popularise the sport and encourage greater participation in it. But the rot set in when the game’s administrators also tried to cash in.
The game’s administering body, SLC, which was a middle level organisation, suddenly found funds flowing in, in millions of dollars through television broadcasting rights because, as the new world champions, Sri Lankan cricket was now a brand that could be readily marketed to the world.
There was a time when lovers of the game who were in high places held positions in the game’s administering body which was then known as the Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka (BCCSL). They included J. R. Jayewardene, Dr. N. M. Perera, T. B. Werapitiya, Lakshman Jayakody and of course Gamini Dissanayake, the man who was instrumental in obtaining test status for the country.
Instead, SLC attracted politicians and businessmen who were lured by filthy lucre and the prestige of heading the body administering the country’s only game where it consistently performed at international level. SLC was no longer merely a haven for genuine sports enthusiasts, it was a cash cow that generated millions of dollars in sponsorship revenue – and everyone wanted a slice of that.
So, it was no co-incidence that, a few weeks after the World Cup win, Ana Punchihewa, the man who headed SLC at the time of the World Cup win was dumped in favour of a businessman. SLC has not looked back since then – there has been a succession of SLC Presidents and Interim Committees that have promised to clean up the administering body, but to no avail.
The country’s people may have succeeded in booting out a powerful government it was dissatisfied with, but they haven’t been successful in getting rid of the power brokers who behave as if SLC is their personal property.
The cancer spread even further when some high profile players – including so-called ‘gentlemen’ of the game – began to curry favour with politicians. Some of them were instrumental in having scheduled tours re-scheduled, so they could play in the cash-rich Indian Premier League (IPL).
By this time, some players had become superstars in their own right. They were dollar millionaires and were able to call the shots. Some of them had differences with SLC but the guiding force for them as well as the game administrators was one factor: money.
Sure, these mega stars had done their bit for the game in Sri Lanka. They were household names and had contributed with sterling performances which won Sri Lanka many games and put them on par with the rest of the world. Sri Lanka was no longer a pushover or a minnow- they were standing on equal terms with the big boys.
Yet, some of these superstars were also behaving as if they were bigger than the game itself. There were reports of factions within the team. Some would pick and choose the games they played for Sri Lanka. Others would feign injury to play for the national team but appeared healthy enough to play in the IPL and other T20 tournaments across the globe.
This is where the game is at today. Most of these superstars have left the national game now, leaving a hiatus. That is partly because, in their heyday they played and played and played, not leaving room for successors to get in to the team.
It has been lamented that the game’s domestic structure encourages poor standards. This structure is apparently necessary because it allows a large number of clubs to participate. These are the same clubs that vote to elect the President of SLC. So, why would a President of SLC reduce the number of clubs and make it harder for himself to get re-elected, even it would augur well for Sri Lanka’s cricket to do so?
The game’s administration meanwhile, sees the same old faces. It is the same cabal that runs the sport in Sri Lanka, no matter what. World Cup winning captain Arjuna Ranatunga and no less a person than then President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s uncle, Clifford Ratwatte tried to oust them but they couldn’t.
So, last week’s lost to Bangladesh is not the disease that will kill Sri Lanka’s cricket. Instead, it is a symptom of a greater malady that afflicts the gentlemen’s game in this country. And, unless and until something is done to manage and administer the game professionally, we will hear of such losses even more frequently.