Sikandar Raza rips the new ball, and floats it up above the batsman’s eye-line. It is more dare than delivery. Test yourself against my drift and dip, he says. See if you can step out and hit me.
Before Monday’s match, Zimbabwe captain Graeme Cremer had issued a challenge of his own. “The pressure is more on Sri Lanka because they are expected to beat us,” he said. “We won’t take any pressure into the decider.”
True to his word, Zimbabwe ventured the riskier plays on Monday – opening with a spin bowler against an opposition pair that had made successive double-century stands, for one, and later, having their own opening batsmen play aggressively despite the turn and treacherous bounce in the pitch.
Sri Lanka, meanwhile, were complicit in their own trussing up. Batsmen riding roaring swells of form allowed opposition bowlers to find their lengths, and let the innings get squeezed. Meek defences were offered; unsteady forward prods suddenly became the team’s signature shot. A total of 203 for 8, it would turn out, was at least 30 runs too few. Where Zimbabwe’s bowlers had been brave, Sri Lanka’s spinners were guilty of going too flat and fast during the definitive early overs of the pursuit.
This was not only the first trophy Zimbabwe have won here. They had never even previously defeated Sri Lanka on the island in a single match, in any format. Even during Sri Lanka’s previous low ebbs, the one thing they almost unwaveringly achieved was merciless thrashings of lower-ranked sides.
This was partly because where weaker teams may have competed with the other major nations, they repeatedly failed to cope with the unique challenges Sri Lanka teams posed. There was a rare freedom about their cricket then: freedom to bowl with a bent arm, or a round one. Freedom to maraud at the start of an ODI game. Freedom to dream up new shots that sail over the wicketkeeper’s head, to impart spin with a flick of the fingers, to stack the infield with more men than molecules of air.
There was plenty of skill and talent in the side that played Zimbabwe on Monday. But was there freedom?
Trevor Bayliss, Stuart Law, Rumesh Ratnayake, Geoff Marsh, Graham Ford, Paul Farbrace, Marvan Atapattu, Jerome Jayaratne, Graham Ford again, and now Nic Pothas. Is this a head coach job, or a clown car?
Maybe the only high-profile exit for which Sri Lanka Cricket was not responsible was that of Farbrace, who abandoned his position and took up a role with England months into his tenure. But if that episode proved anything, it is that on the global scale, SLC is effectively a beggar. It lacks the resources to out-compete top boards for high-end talent, and more recently has also seen T20 franchises dangle fatter pay packets than it can afford.
And yet SLC has made itself a particular type of beggar: a choosy one. In 2010, the board under Nishantha Ranatunga drove out Chandika Hathurusingha, whom recent years have proved to be one of the sharpest cricket thinkers on the planet. In 2014, when Hathurusingha expressed a desire to return to Sri Lanka, he was rebuffed again by the Ranatunga-led board, with Sanath Jayasuriya – who had been tasked with selecting the next coach – stating that Hathurusingha was simply “not right” for the position. Elsewhere, Geoff Marsh was dumped two months into his tenure, unceremoniously, and as it turned out, unfairly; Marvan Atapattu was appointed before he was ready, and removed when the team appeared listless on his watch; and most recently, Ford was systematically elbowed out of his job by the very board that hired him only 15 months prior.
Ford, it is worth mentioning, is a coach who has repeatedly and emphatically declared his affection for the island’s cricket, and had said very early in his second stint that returning Sri Lanka to its former position was a “long, slow process”. When subsequently they whitewashed Australia in Tests last August, he even conveyed surprise, announcing: “I hadn’t expected [regeneration] to happen as quickly as this.”
But a board that last year suggested it bought into Ford’s long-term vision (why else would they hire him?) grew increasingly anxious in 2017 about the paucity of results. A torrid tour of South Africa prompted them to appoint a “cricket manager” with a wide array of powers. A Test loss to Bangladesh triggered a strengthening of those powers, whereby the cricket manager intruded evermore on responsibilities ordinarily left to the coach. During the Champions Trophy, Ford found himself made almost superfluous, and upon the team’s return to home met with the board and was told he must tolerate the status quo. With characteristic grace, he declined.
There is little doubt that men such as SLC president Thilanga Sumathipala have plenty of affection for Sri Lanka’s cricket. But in making a raft of short-sighted populist decisions (or at least, decisions they believe to be populist), they have also raised the question whether that affection is obscured by their astronomical love for themselves.
And to be fair to Sumathipala, his tenure at SLC has not been quite as detrimental to cricket in the country as Ranatunga’s was. But that is such a low bar that to find it you’d have to dig all the way out to Venezuela, on the other side of the planet.
Sanath Jayasuriya may not be the greatest cricketer Sri Lanka ever produced, but he might be the most courageous. In the second half of the nineties, when one-day batsmanship was transformed by the glint of his flashing blade, there was no bowler he didn’t plunder, no attack whose meetings his rippling-forearmed spectre did not haunt. He was the single greatest one-day match-winner of the era. If Jayasuriya scored runs, the remainder of the Sri Lankan dressing room could practically pour themselves drinks, light up a few cigars, and watch the numbers on the scoreboard turn over, almost by magic, until it declared them to have won.
In Jayasuriya’s second long stint as chief selector, however, the quality opposite to courage has defined him. It was as if, having lent his backbone to the team’s ODI success for more than a decade, he made no arrangements to save a bit of his spine for himself. In selection, as in his political life, Jayasuriya has lurched from one populist decision to another, never sticking long enough to one theory to work out if it was a good one, throwing Sri Lanka squads repeatedly into flux.
Since May last year, when Jayasuriya became chief selector again, Sri Lanka have fielded 39 ODI players. Divide that figure by eleven, and you have three-and-a-half full ODI teams. Admittedly, some of these changes had been brought about by injury. In Tillakaratne Dilshan’s case, a great player retired, and new applicants had to be trialled.
But what about the growing pile of one-day players who have been haphazardly dealt with? What about allrounder Milinda Siriwardana, who was dropped when in form and picked when out of it? What about spinner Amila Aponso, who impressed in a debut series, didn’t see the inside of a Sri Lanka dressing room for the next 11 months, then was axed again from the squad after one poor performance? Or how about Dhananjaya de Silva, who top-scored from the lower-middle order in the Test triumph against Australia, was asked to move up the order in the midst of the next major series, and after failing there (he was hardly the only Sri Lanka batsman to struggle in South Africa), found himself out of the team altogether in the first Test against Bangladesh?
All this, plus fast bowler Lahiru Kumara being picked on a flat Galle pitch before being dropped for the second Test, played on an always-spicy P Sara deck; Lakshan Sandakan bowling Sri Lanka to victory in the second ODI against Zimbabwe, being unexpectedly saddled with the death overs in two subsequent games, then axed for the decider on the most spin-friendly track of the series.
Perhaps the panel Jayasuriya leads will defend each of these decisions. Some of their explanations may even be good. But they have been in charge for over a year now, and the team is in more disarray than ever. A growing bank of evidence points to Jayasuriya’s committee repeatedly seeking quick fixes, and generally failing to find them.
All of this might even be tolerable – Sri Lanka has had bad selectors before – if Jayasuriya had not so brazenly sought kudos for the team’s limited successes. In the final stages of Sri Lanka’s victory in the second ODI, Jayasuriya appeared on the broadcast to blow his own trumpet on the selection of Wanindu Hasaranga – a rare good selection call amidst an ocean of perplexing ones. In almost the same breath, he talked up SLC’s recent hosting of a provincial one-day tournament, as if he didn’t know that Sumathipala’s board had actually cancelled the one-day tournament that had been scheduled for 2016. Nor have they played the provincial first-class tournament that had been scheduled and budgeted for by the previous board.
Like with that boundary-line interview during that second ODI, Jayasuriya has developed the quality of making himself endlessly visible whenever Sri Lanka have won a match. So predictable has this become that if you were to rave about Sri Lanka performance in your living room, a grinning Jayasuriya would probably appear out of the air before you, and weld himself to your praise.
But when the team loses, we could send out search parties and use all of the satellite tracking available to humanity, but Jayasuriya, it is possible, would not be found.
That Angelo Mathews was a strategically limited captain is an opinion held widely, and evidenced in any number of Test and ODI performances. He routinely made strange bowling choices, and often failed to deploy a Plan B, giving the opposition time not just to shred his Plan A but to separate it into individual atoms.
Where Sri Lanka captains had once made the pitch seem like their house and new batsmen unwelcome strangers in it, batsmen were more recently made to feel so at home that by the 20th ball, they’d practically had their feet on the coffee table and were scratching their genitals with the TV remote.
But for all his tactical flaws, Mathews seemed the only viable captaincy option. Upul Tharanga has been unconvincing when he has led (they have won four, and lost eight matches under his captaincy), and his exact position in the batting order was not nailed-down in any case. Rangana Herath and Lasith Malinga – who, in another life, might have made a wonderful Sri Lanka captain – are now too near the end of their careers. Dinesh Chandimal is too inconsistent with the bat, and Kusal Mendis, who has the makings of a good leader, is at 22 perhaps too young. And though Mathews had this one gaping hole in his leadership, as a batsman he is a potential great. As a person he is sensible, reliable and honest.
Given the paucity of alternatives, a more intelligent cricketing body might have afforded Mathews the support and guidance to overcome his strategic shortcomings. Instead, an already beleaguered captain had found himself having to fight fires of the administrators’ and selectors’ making.
Take this example. Ahead of Sri Lanka’s first match of the Champions Trophy last month, Mathews was battling a calf strain, but felt he was recovering well enough to pass the fitness test scheduled for the morning of the game. Suddenly, a message from Colombo. Team management relay to Mathews that his fitness test must be delayed until after the game (against South Africa), by default making him unavailable for that match. Why a cricket board might work to prevent the team’s own leader from playing is unclear, but what is certain is that a captain already trying to correct the course of a drifting team was now being made to fight a battle on another front. Two days later, Mathews said to ThePapare.com: “I could have probably played the last game, but there was a risk, so the management and the selectors decided that I shouldn’t play.”
And another from the Mathews files: Last year, after the whitewash of Australia, he was asked in a press conference what impact Aravinda de Silva – who at the time was an SLC consultant – had had in his role. Mathews answered: “He’s the man behind the scenes. He doesn’t get much recognition but I think he’s done a splendid job in getting all the coaches down – trying to fix up this whole structure.”
Nothing could possibly be objectionable in that answer, right? For any sensible person, this is just a captain paying tribute to the work of a former legend. For chief selector Jayasuriya, however, Mathews’ answer was unacceptable. In a reaction that a former player – one of Jayasuriya’s ex-teammates – described as “pure madness”, Jayasuriya rebuked Mathews, not because Mathews had spoken falsely, you understand, but because in heaping praise on de Silva, Mathews had failed to lavish sufficient attention on Jayasuriya’s own work and achievements.
I don’t really have a closing gag for this section because, honestly, what could possibly be more ridiculous than that?
The year began with a 0-3 Test series loss to South Africa. You could explain that away, because this team was hardly the only side to lose badly in South Africa. Then there was the Test loss to Bangladesh, to which you might proffer that Sri Lanka are hardly the only team to fall prey to Bangladesh’s rise. And at the Champions Trophy, there were three other teams to exit the tournament at the same stage, after all.
But no mitigating factors can dull the sting of this loss to Zimbabwe. They are the 11th ranked team, have a modest recent record, and though they played some astute and skilful cricket, Sri Lanka have in the past resisted them emphatically.
It would be glib, however, to blame 2017’s string of dispiriting losses purely on dysfunction. SLC has never failed to be dysfunctional, and yet the team has summoned up the resolve to perform. In 2014, a Sri Lanka team in the midst of an ugly contract dispute with its board won the World T20.
What is newer for this team, however, is insecurity.
Insecurity for coaches, for whom even a long contract term is no guarantor of their job. Insecurity for players, who are abandoned after two modest outings and recalled haphazardly. The insecurity of a chief selector, who routinely hijacks players’ good performances in attempts to divert credit to himself. The insecurity of a board president, who has categorically failed to achieve the good publicity he so clearly seeks. And ultimately the insecurity of a captain, who was defensively-minded on the field to begin with, and in the end found himself besieged on virtually every front.
On Monday, a top order that had passed 300 in four of its past six innings failed to overcome its own anxiety; failed to banish the thought that they could be the first Sri Lanka outfit to lose a series to Zimbabwe. They played this way because that is what the system has taught them.
Where once there was freedom, there is now gnawing, constricting fear.
July 11, 19.30BST: this piece was updated following Angelo Mathews’ resignation