I remember the smiling faces of all Lankans irrespective of them knowing the intricacies of cricket or not. On March 17, 1996, the entire country was rejoicing after the tiny island nation won the ICC World Cup beating those baggy-green-capped guys Down Under by seven wickets. The elation lasted for a while. From almost the [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Will it be déjà vu for President Thilanga?

Lanka’s T-20 title defence in tatters

The Stand-in Captain of the Sri Lanka team Lasith Malinga disembarks from his flight at Katunayake after they had won ICC T20 title in 2014. Will the ICC Twenty20 title defence be a repeat of 1999?

I remember the smiling faces of all Lankans irrespective of them knowing the intricacies of cricket or not. On March 17, 1996, the entire country was rejoicing after the tiny island nation won the ICC World Cup beating those baggy-green-capped guys Down Under by seven wickets.

The elation lasted for a while. From almost the oblivion, in no time the Lankans had converted themselves into pin up boys.

Then within that short period of three years, the Lankans went on to win eight ODI series and were on top of the world.

May be the welcome lingered a bit too long. Problems within the dressing room began to sprout.

By the time the team was selected for the 1999 World Cup, the dressing room squabbles had grown bigger than the game itself. When the team left our shores to defend the title it was akin to a good old Western movie where the motto was ‘kill or be killed’.

The quality of the game also suffered. Then in the real defence of the title the Lankans miserably failed. It began with an eight wicket loss against England. To Sri Lanka’s 204 all out in 48.5 overs host England romped home to score home making 207 for 2 in 46.5 overs.

Then in the next game the Lankan bowlers restricted the South Africans to 199 for 9 in 50 overs, but, in turn crashed to 110 all out.

In the game against India, a young Rahul Dravid and Saurav Ganguly put the Lankan bowling to the sword while making 373 for 6 in 50 overs. The Lankans made only 216 all out in 42.3 overs, thus crashing to a huge 157 run defeat.

The defending ICC Word Champions only managed to beat low ranking Zimbabwe and Kenya.

Interestingly, there was another development. In 1998, the then entrepreneur Thilanga Sumathipala was elected as the President of the Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka.

But, with the ignominy of the Lankan cricket debacle at the 1999 World Cup, the then Lankan government sacked the Sumathipala administration to form the first ever Cricket Interim Committee.

In 2012, the ICC World T-20 was held in Sri Lanka. The Lankans then a good enough side and came up with an impressive show, but, met their waterloo against the hard hitting Marlon Samuels in the finals when the right hander scored 78 runs in 56 balls with three fours and six sixes while smashing hapless Lasith Malinga to the tune of 54 runs in his allotted four overs at the rate of over 13 runs per over.

West Indies won the T-20 title beating Sri Lanka by 36 runs.

Two years later, the Lankans came to the ICC World T-20 tournament in Bangladesh. This was a few days after the then Lankan coach Graham Ford had decided not to renew his contract — his first — with Sri Lanka.

Just before Ford’s departure he said he could not see any reason why the Lankan could not win the T-20 Tournament — he had seen something good in what he saw.

Bewildered Sri Lankan Captain Arjuna Ranatunga sulks after their 1999 World Cup defeat against India (Inset).

At that time, we had a team that included openers D.M. Dilshan and Kusal Janith Perera. The top order had Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardena with an in-form Angelo Mathews and T-20 skipper Dinesh Chandimal to bolster the middle order along with Lahiru Thirimanne who was in roaring form in Bangladesh.

Mind you, during that time the Lankans even had the luxury of changing the captain when they capped Lasith Malinga replacing Dinesh Chandimal who had to be dropped because of a batting slump.

The Lankans operated as a unit. When the then unknown Alex Hales prevailed and England beat Sri Lanka in a first round game, there was no doubt that the Lankans were going to make a game out of that challenge at hand.

Then when Kumar Sangakkara batted like a champion to see Sri Lanka beat India in the final, there were not many eyebrows that were lifted.
Then came the issue of defending the ICC T-20 title which we won in Bangladesh two years ago.

After Thilanga Sumathipala took over the SLC hot seat as President, I remember him saying that he was interested in converting the Lankan team back to the one captain system.

But ironically, a few weeks later, the band of Lankan selectors led by Kapila Wijegunewardena put out a three- name list – Lasith Malinga as captain, the national cricket captain Angelo Mathews as vice captain in the T-20 segment and Dinesh Chandimal as the stand-by captain if the big guns begin to shoot blanks.

Some felt that placing the national cricket captain Angelo Mathews who held that job for quite a while and demoting him to the level of a vice captain was unwarranted. If it was only cricket that mattered they could have placed Dinesh Chandimal as vice captain.

Sri Lanka’s next assignment was to take on India for their three match T-20 series. Lasith Malinga and Angelo Mathews were rested; experienced T.M. Dilshan was held back in the first game while ‘Billy-Boy’ Dinesh Chandimal was pushed to shoot the blank bullets against the marauding Indians.

Thilanga Sumathipala

For coach Graham Ford who is used to carrying championship material in his larder this was a new experience. The first game was almost reassuring when the young Lankan guns boomed to have the Indian armory in tatters, on a green top.

After the pack of young fast bowlers restricted the Indians to just over a hundred runs, the stand-in skipper Dinesh Chandimal batted with purpose to see the Lankans home for an impressive win.

However when the Lankan batting crumbled against the Indian turners in the second and the third T-20s coach Ford saw the reality. While veteran T.M. Dilshan came up with another aging show with the bat, the rest of the batting crumbled under the Indian spin.

The real exercise of the Indian depleted show was the filling of blanks for the ICC T-20 and the Asia Cup. Yet, with the T-20 defence coming in on the Indian soil itself, Coach Graham Ford was under pressure.

The selection of the squad for the defence of two titles – T-20 World Cup and Asia Cup — which was a formality turned into a nightmare.

While Ford was jittery about his choices, skipper Lasith Malinga began to play his own taunts on the selections. The discomfort that Malinga had entertained against Chandimal as way back as the last T-20 tour in Bangladesh re-surfaced. Malinga was apparently of the view that Chandimal should be coldshouldered in spite of him being one of the best batsmen in the pack.

So much so Malinga began to dictate his preferences and the selectors began to meekly cave in. Once it was Niroshan Dickwella to keep wicket and open batting and thus taking away the keeping gloves from Chandimal.

Explaingin the situation, an insider said: “Yes, Malinga at times gets carried away with the situation but, according to Chandimal’s present form, he has to make the tour.

But if he does not perform up to the expectations, then there is a chance that he may be dropped during the tour.” We ask whether veteran T.M. Dilshan is in his prime form right now.

Then in another development, Malinga was insisting that he would not be playing during the Asia Cup leg of the tour, but, would stay in the squad to keep an eye on the proceedings.

Another insider quipped, “Malinga wants to be the first non-playing captain in International cricket”.

There were more witty developments that went along the way and the squad which left for the Asia Cup last night was approved by the Minister of Sports only on Thursday afternoon.

What the grapevine says is that all’s not well in Sri Lanka’s preparation for the defence of the T-20 title.

It’s almost déjà vu to what happened in 1999. Captain cool Arjuna Ranatunga’s title defence was a disaster. We cannot see much promise in this year’s T-20 defence with the Lankan selectors’ blunders compounded by the haughtiness of Lasith Malinga this time.

However we beg to ask – does Malinga merit a place in the Lankan T-20 line up, given his present credentials.  In 1999 poor Sumathipala paid for the others’ follies. Wonder who will have to pay for this inevitable.

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