A powerful provincial system with clubs being given the decision-makers role together with some fine-tuning of our school cricket system could rejuvenate Sri Lanka’s cricket and make it one of the best in the world, says Kumar Sangakkara, the ICC’s ‘Cricketer of the Year 2012’, member of the ICC’s Cricket Committee and one of the [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Sanga sets the field for Lanka’s cricketing future

ICC cricketer of the year stresses the need for a path-breaking change

A powerful provincial system with clubs being given the decision-makers role together with some fine-tuning of our school cricket system could rejuvenate Sri Lanka’s cricket and make it one of the best in the world, says Kumar Sangakkara, the ICC’s ‘Cricketer of the Year 2012’, member of the ICC’s Cricket Committee and one of the most eloquent and authoritative people in the modern version of the game. Speaking to the Sunday Times Sports editor S.R. Pathiravithana in an exclusive interview, he shared his views of Sri Lanka’s next step towards the cricketing pinnacle and many other issues

The question posed to him by the Sunday Times was: “The club cricket system in Sri Lanka is more than a hundred years old and theoretically it is time-tested and the main feeding point of the national grid. However, of late we have noticed the quality of cricket in this important sphere has been diluted and the intake of quality products is dwindling. Do you agree with this view? If so, what should be the remedial action adopted to arrest this situation?

Sangakkara in his own inimitable way explained: Club cricket in Sri Lanka is unique and it’s been entrenched in our cricketing culture and it has been there for over a hundred years. There have been some great clubs that have participated in the tournaments and they have also produced a great number of players of top quality, who have contributed to the journey of Sri Lanka cricket. They also produced a World Cup winning team in 1996.

But at the same time as the game has progressed and we have come to this stage of cricket development in Sri Lanka, we see that with so many clubs playing first class cricket there is an aspect where the quality has been diluted. As there are a lot of players spread across in varying clubs and at times it is difficult to find the best players being filtered, because they get lost in the system. Some get into clubs where they do not compete at the first-class level and may never get noticed.

We have issues with club cricket and the quality of cricket played; maybe we’ve seen a slight backward step. There are a lot of great clubs around us. Also there are a lot of great players who play in this system and, of course, the players must be given the opportunity. They should have the opportunity to exercise their skills, to try and reach the ultimate cricket of their careers – that is to play international cricket.

Sangakkara insisted that the restructuring was a necessary move at this juncture. He said:

I think restructuring is definitely necessary because we have that responsibility to ensure that players would come through the club system. Then the system must have a very clear path and have a very clear feeder system into the higher level of cricket. The club system is always going to be very important to Sri Lanka cricket even in the future. At the same time there are other structures that we can bring in to combine with the existing club structure that would really enhance not only the clubs themselves, not just their cricket and the players who play in it, but also the final ambition of any club, which is to put a top quality player in the national side who is performing at the highest level.

Then the former national captain drew a comparison between the achievements of three leading cricket-playing nations in the world. Sangakkara explained: 

Some main points emerge when you look at these three countries. Australia has always been a strong cricketing nation. They have a very set state system where six state teams take part. The best players are fed in through a club/grade system into the state sides and because the numbers are so low the quality of cricket is very high. You have to be one of the best performing cricketers to be able to get into one of the state sides and compete at the state level. England has had a similar system to ours in terms of counties. But they clearly restructured their cricket by dividing the first division and the second division then dividing the clubs so that the best quality and the best performing clubs keep playing at the top level. Now you see a huge resurgence in their cricket over the last few years.

Then take South Africa. They have changed their club structure to a provincial structure. There again you see a very quick and fast rise in South African cricket. All these changes have been depicted in their rise in the world rankings.

Once again Sangakkara referred to the home scene. He said:

Look at Sri Lanka. We have club cricketers who surface so well. We need to protect that. We need to ensure that it lasts and it keeps going, giving the opportunity to players. But at the same time there should be another stage of cricket, maybe provincial or whatever you want to call it. A system above the club level, where the best club players are filtered through into a tournament of such high quality where the teams are a few, maybe five, and let the best club players get the opportunity to fine tune their skills against the best among their peers. This is very important to bridge the gap between club cricket, the ‘A’ team and the international level. We need to have that middle section that has very high quality super competitive pressure to stage that provincial tournament.

Sangakkara took a few steps back and looked at the past provincial tournaments.

We had provincial tournaments in the past. There were times when many people were not happy with the way it was conducted. But provincial cricket at the end of the day was the most enjoyable form and the most competitive form that the players had played – that is when you talk to players.

We had an instance a couple of years ago when the national players were away on international duty and the provincial system itself got diluted. That happens even at the club stage. We had discussions at the base going on for a long time and various proposals have come through. One very important proposal has been the restructuring of the clubs. Allocation of first-class, second tier and maybe third tier clubs into provinces – maybe twenty first-class clubs with four teams to a province. The same way you divide the other clubs to join those provinces. There the clubs are given the responsibility of running their provincial cricket, the school in that area and forming their own selection committees to select the best club players to go into the provincial system. They could find sponsors, maybe if the provinces are where an international stadium is situated (we have about 6-7 international stadiums), centre them around that, put clubs in charge of running provincial cricket, so the clubs themselves become very important and powerful decision-makers in the future of Sri Lanka Cricket.
They will be in charge not only of their own future but will be one of the major stakeholders of the game. Maybe when an international game is played at the venue, they even could share the profits. Then the children in that province will understand if they want to play for a particular province they will have a clear idea of which club they are going to join. If strong clubs are clustered together in a certain province when the best cannot get into the first eleven because of the competition of the provincial system, they will have to move to other clubs and other provinces so the club strengths will even up, like in Australia.

“There is a lot that this system can offer Sri Lanka cricket. This system will actually enhance the stature of clubs and their role in Sri Lanka cricket. The role they play is very important. But in the provincial system the role they play will be even greater.They will be hands-on decision-makers. So it is beneficial not only to clubs, not just to the country or to the players, but the final ambition of anyone who is involved, which is to produce the best international side. This system has proven time and time again to do that. I think we need to have that shift, and the attitude change to try and get to where we want to go.

Factoring in school cricket

Then the Sunday Times asked as to how the school cricket system fit into this scenario. Sangakkara

School cricket is unique in this country. We have one of the most vibrant school cricket systems in the world. I have never seen anything like this anywhere else in the world. All of us have gone through this wonderful school cricket system. Yet every system needs a little refinement from time to time. We have had many meetings about this and I think the scrapping of the Under 13 inter-school competition is a great idea. Maybe we can take it further to the Under 15 level. Make sure that the Under 13 and Under 15 levels are given a solid technical foundation. They can play friendly games. They can enjoy competition at that level, but pay a lot of attention to give the kids a chance to express themselves with a sound technical training, which will keep them standing in good stead when they go into the Under 17 and Under 19 levels. The Under 17 and 19 levels are very important. You choose an Under 19 World Cup squad.

Sangakkara also stressed the point that scrapping T-20 cricket up to the Under 19 level was a very good move. That was important from a technical point of view, he stressed. He said that by the time a cricketer reaches the Under 19 level his technique is entrenched. Even restructuring the point system and taking them to round figures rather than decimals is also a very good move.

When you do that you have to select your best batsman and best bowler in one side to compete. You can even raise the bar of points to 300 runs from the present 250 to give the points. Maybe for an outright win you can keep their points. This encourages a big first innings to be played. That is important.

At international level if you take Test cricket, a big first innings is vital in deciding the final outcome of the match. We’ve got to get that system into our children’s minds and give them a very real and very clear direction as to how they can progress. Make sure that the fitness levels that the national team expects and the information is filtered down to the trainers, coaches and selectors at lower levels so they could ensure that the children are training in the right form and the right methods and with the right attitudes and the right goals in mind. Then when they graduate to the next level in cricket they have done the necessary work to be there. If we can fine tune this structure and get this entrenched in Sri Lanka cricket, I think the contributions we’ve seen from schools and clubs will increase even further. We had Arjuna and Aravinda playing international cricket while in school, you won’t see that for a long time in Sri Lanka. You will never see that in Australia, they have a very performance-based culture. Yet, it will give the children a great advantage where players of ability play at the international level at a younger age.

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