Brickbats at Fernando and stones at Johnston
By Dr. Michael Roberts
Cricket in Sri Lanka is a national asset. It is a major revenue earner in foreign currency. It is the only team game at which we compete reasonably well at the highest levels. It brings honour and recognition to the country. It is a focus of attention, if not devotion, across class and ethnic divisions. It has also served as a palliative during the last twenty years of political calamity and deadly conflict.

But it has been badly served by some of its leading administrators in recent years. Minister Johnston Fernando looks as if he is joining this line of maladministrators and the present Interim Committee is being tainted in the process. He is rendering the organization of cricket in Lanka into a global joking point. In the interests of cricket, this article throws brickbats at Fernando and stones at Johnston. Let me present my criticisms in point form.

1. Those who serve on the Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka do so in an honorary capacity and are, for the most part, well-meaning men. Given the importance of their brief one would have thought that the Minister Fernando would meet them at some point. Yet, up to the end of March 2002 (I was in Lanka till then), he had not had the basic courtesy of arranging a brief consultative gathering with the two Malalasekera Committees.

2. Between December 2001 and July 2002 we have had four Interim Committees for the BCCSL, admittedly with some overlaps. This must surely be a world record. How can a stable long-term policy can be secured through ever-changing management 'teams'?

3. The third Interim Committee under Hemaka Amarasuriya's generalship was not only a large body, but included diverse 'fictional' groupings. It was a case of mixing accharu with polmallun! A benign interpretation would be that it was a well-intentioned an effort to bring conflicting parties together.

A more likely explanation is that it was designed to force one of the parties, the 'Triumvirate' of Wettimuni, Tissera and Gunasekera, an effective working group that had established a rapport with the Sri Lankan cricket team, to resign. That eventuated in May, as anyone could predict. If this was the Minister's design, then it says little for the Minister's sensibilities. If he was merely listening to voices in his ear, then, he proved himself to be a fool.

4. In effect, the timing of this change in the Interim Committee and the resignation of Wettimuni and company on the 13th May 2002 meant that the Selection Committee changed in the middle of the critical tour of England. The timing could not have been worse. Touring England is not like a series at home, or a visit to Sharjah or even to India or Pakistan. Players require a span of time to acclimatize. Players who fare well in Asian conditions are not necessarily suited for the seaming wickets that one often encounters in that land.

This meant that there had to be a greater mesure of continuity between the squad for the Test matches and those for the ODI series that followed - greater continuity than normal. Albeit with some changes. Given the absolute necessity of an all-rounder who could bowl medium pace, I surmise that Eric Upashantha was earmarked for that role and was part of the squad as a lead-up to the ODI series. There may have been question marks around his capacities, but he had toured England before and could swing the ball. In effect, he was potentially at least, Lanka's version of Dominic Cork.

He was pitchfork into the Third Test because of injuries to key bowlers and failed miserably. The de Alwis Committee then ditched him. Given the basic requirements for English conditions, this was a foolish decision. At the very least, someone like Dulip Liyanage, Gayan Wijekoon or Jeevaka Kulatunga should have replaced Upashantha (or, better still been selected with Upashantha for the ODI squad instead of Gunawardena and Wickramasinghe). The point I make here is that one cannot have two different committees slecting teams for one foreign tour.

5. The selections of the ODI squad were further aggravated by the thinking that informed the de Alwis Committee's decisions. I shall review that subject elsewhere, but the Minister also seems to have got into the act. If valid, this would be another record! Only in Sri Lanka: a Minister becomes a cricket specialist overnight. Would he tell his mother how to cook her (or even his) favorite curries? Can a politician tell an army captain which personnel to include in his commando team? To repeat: only in Sri Lanka.

6. In overview, it seems that Minister Fernando bends with the wind, that is with the voices of powerful men who happen to whisper in his ear, kusu kusu with some pandam perhaps. Swinging with the latest wind like a strand of bamboo will not serve our cricket interests at all. My information (and I was in UK in June) is that, unlike previous occasions, the morale of the team was affected by the happenings in Sri Lanka on this occasion in May -June 2002.

Maybe Johnston Fernando has learnt from his errors. Recently at least he had the sense to sit down together with Dav Whatmore and Jayasuriya as well as the Selection Committee for deliberations on the future. Nor has he given into a carefully orchestrated campaign, with journalistic support, to replace Jayasuriya as captain with Aravinda de Silva. In any event, he would, hopefully, have seen clearly how his choices upset the balance and effectiveness of the ODI squad in English conditions.

But, literally, as I write, indeed, after the previous segment of this essay had been drafted, another contretemps - ho hum yet another ho-ha one could say with resignation - has developed over the composition of the Test teams for the two Tests against Bangladesh. This development arises from disagreements between the Selection Committee and the captain Jayasuriya on the policy of resting key players. In the result the Minister has been called in as adjudicator, or rather, interested parties have utilized the ministerial channel to push their own barrow. In effect, one has a good illustration my Point 6 above.

The consequence is an unseemly and unholy mess. All manner of 'old cricketers', - whether well-intentioned, partisan or relatively unbiased as the case may be - are getting their earful of advice across the media waves or the ministerial corridors. It's a rugger scrum of selection, lots of push and shove - not merely from two sides but from all sides of the compass! An unbecoming melee in mud with some of the mud being generated in the sky. As this problem escalated, just yesterday Johnson Fernando went public in complaining about the meddling of "interested parties."

Wow! He has convinced himself that he is not an "interested party". In brief power has penetrated his head. People in power think they are disinterested and know best. This is a dangerous delusion. The fact is that even well-intentioned parties tendering advice are in some sense interested bodies of people with a particular line to push. This applies to my intervention as well.

The key problem, of course, lies in the constitution of the Sports Law, and within its framework, in the powers vested in the Minister in affirming selections. Every Tom, Dick and Harry, or if you prefer the indigenous version, every Perera, Silva and Fernando - not forgetting a real live captain Jayasuriya - runs to Minister Johnston Fernando - not forgetting a real live captain Jayasuriya - runs to Minister Johnston Fernando when they think a wrong has taken place. Team selection is being made into a bargain counter.

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