Alarm bells ringing for sri lankan game
Tim Wigmore argues action is now needed urgently to prevent the island’s game declining like Zimbabwe’s
Sometimes, the bare facts convey it better than anything else. So it is with Sri Lanka’s gruesome 3-0 home defeat to India in their Test series.
Consider these numbers. Sri Lanka took just 32 Indian wickets across the three Tests, at a cost of 60.90 apiece. India, meanwhile, had little resistance en route to taking all 60 possible Sri Lanka wickets, which cost an average of 24.92 each. India’s margins of victories were 304 runs, an innings and 53 runs and an innings and 171 runs. This was a Test series, but it was emphatically not a Test contest.
In their 35-year history as a Test nation, Sri Lanka have known beatings, and plenty of them but never – not even during some ignominious trips Down Under – a series of thumpings so comprehensive as this.
As ever there are some mitigating circumstances – indeed, how could they be given such a series of thrashings? Most obviously there is the undeniable excellence of this India side who patently have the tools to succeed in England and Australia in the next 18 months – and, if they can do so, establish themselves as the finest Test team India have ever produced.
Then there are Sri Lanka’s generational problems: the departures of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara in 2015 left a chasm so great that Sri Lanka even tried to coax Sangakkara back for one last dance during the Champions Trophy. Rangana Herath, who has been a spinner of extraordinary guile and fortitude, is now in his 40th year.
It is only a year since Sri Lanka magnificently eviscerated Australia 3-0. And yet the sense is growing that there is a deeper malaise in Sri Lankan cricket than the loss of a few players, however magnificent. Without Herath – and some fortunate umpiring decisions – Sri Lanka would have lost their oneoff Test at home to Zimbabwe last month, too; they earlier lost the fivematch ODI series. 2017 has also brought a meek Champions Trophy exit (notwithstanding a magnificent run chase against India at the Oval) and a first ever Test defeat at home to Bangladesh.
What is to blame? In recent weeks current and former players have been united in taking aim at Sri Lanka’s domestic system, which is an unwieldy mess and utterly ill-suited to streamlining talent and hardening players for the international game.
First-class cricket is played over a mixture of three and four days, which is no way to prepare players for five-day Tests. Even worse is the dilution of talent: there are 23 different first-class teams, so talent is nowhere near concentrated enough. The upshot is, as even Sri Lanka Cricket cricket manager Asanka Gurusinha has admitted, that first-class cricket is much weaker than a generation ago.
There are plans to create a new fiveteam, four-day first-class competition next year – but similar plans have been abandoned in the past two years, suggesting a lack of commitment to Test cricket.
In many ways the state of Sri Lanka’s first-class cricket reflects the politicking that has long undermined the game there. Sri Lanka’s administration, famously lambasted by Sangakkara in his 2011 Cowdrey Lecture at Lord’s, remains a drag on the team, unable to rise above petty squabbling – and dark allegations of corruption – to provide the leadership that the players need.
Until that changes, the risk grows that world cricket could be on the brink of losing another competitive Test nation. This century, it has effectively lost the West Indies and Zimbabwe as Test sides (though there are now some belated signs of optimism in both) while gaining only Bangladesh.
If Sri Lanka’s Test team was to collapse in a similar way, Test cricket would be significantly weakened, at a time when the global sporting market is more cut-throat than ever. And if Sri Lanka’s Test side were to continue falling, it is easy to imagine what could happen next: less focus on Tests there, fewer fixtures and more emphasis on T20.
The risk is exacerbated by the lack of an interventionist International Cricket Council, who could take measures – like ensuring a minimum payment for all Test cricketers per Test, to prevent players from smaller economies leaving the format prematurely – to support the have-nots of the Test game.
It has been a year of nadirs for Sri Lankan cricket. In July, Angelo Mathews described the ODI series loss to Zimbabwe as “one of the lowest points” of his own career, and then promptly resigned. His successor, Dinesh Chandimal, called the defeat to India “the toughest series in eight years playing international cricket, no doubt”.
The fear is that even worse is to come: later this year, Sri Lanka will meet India in another Test series, but this time in India. The evisceration that Sri Lanka have just received might look competitive compared to what unfolds in India.
Another reverse: the dejected Sri Lankan team after their exit from the Champions Trophy this season