The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Resuscitating junior cricket drive


The national team have just completed their first post Murali series win and that too over the high riding Pakistan. To continue with performances of this nature the Lankans will first have to restructure their nursery which has been stretched beyond repair.

As a junior reporter I was covering an inter-schools cricket match between St. Peter’s and Ananda at Bambalapitiya. Please don’t ask me what the year was. For St. Peter’s it was Rumesh Ratnayake opening the bowling in the Ananda second innings. In the very first over Ananda opener Deepal Dharmasekera (if am not mistaken) had his stumps rattled by a Ratnayake snorter. Now the contest was really on. The next in batsman was none other than Arjuna Ranatunga. Ratnayake roared in, dug the ball in short and Ranatunga swerved with a hook shot and the ball ended up in the Wellawatte canal.

It was not very much later that both Ratnayake and Ranatunga were in the same dressing room wearing the national crest representing the country. This was not an isolated incident. There were many stories of this nature where the school cricketer or cricketers in contention were only a few inches away from the national crest.

In the early 1980s and before, may be the Lankan cricket was not intense as at present and the returns of indulging in the game were limited to a job at the end of his career. Then after school cricket, their careers in cricket brought limited returns and it was more a labour of love rather than a ride on green backs.

In that era cricket was played by a few schools and the structure was built on traditional games. In most of the schools it was a past cricketer who was trying to part with his expertise to his alma mater as coach. Not that it was entirely so. For instance, at Nalanda former Josephian Gerry Goonaratne produced more national caps than his hands and legs could count.

Yet one thing was certain. Inter-school competition was very intense and the cricketers were geared to the two-day mode of cricket. Almost all schools had their own home ground. Moreover every cricketer had a good basic training from the very junior level. Any cricketer’s basic technical skills were not lower than the others. The brilliant ones became stars and they pushed on to better deeds. In short, there was an unplanned method in that madness.

After gaining Test status there was a change of stance in cricket even at junior level, but, yet that was not startling. At senior level unlike before, the general public could watch the national players in action on TV and the onus of the centre of attraction moved a wee bit.
However, with the winning of the World Cup under Arjuna Ranatunga Sri Lanka junior cricket took a definite turn. At this point everyone wanted a ride in the cricket chariot. The Schools Cricket Association which was a dormant giant (which was good to cricket) suddenly woke up.

Junior cricket like a common weed began to grow. This time junior cricket began to spread unplanned, with no method in the madness. Every school which could field eleven young lads who could hold a bat wanted to have its own team.The spread of anything is good as long it is sustainable. What happened in Sri Lanka was that cricket kept on spreading. There were more and more schools taking on to the game but the drive lacked direction.

The Schools Cricket Association lost its focus. It did not know what its ultimate goal was. Earlier the schools system was the nursery of cricket in this country, but in the aftermath, though the game spread, the quality of cricket dropped and dropped drastically.
No more there are much awaited contests like the one we spoke at the beginning of this narration. Now even the coaching is done by certified professionals, who are bent on producing teams to win matches at a given level, but it is done at “any cost” and there is a huge ingredient that is missing in the soup. Spinners bowl flat and at times even open bowling. New ball bowlers tend to bowl safe rather than fish for their wickets. The batsmen have to make runs – and techniques are hardly respected.

At the same time the coaches must have the end of the season credentials right and have batsmen who have scored a thousand runs and bowlers who have bagged a hundred wickets. For this over twenty matches are played in a single season. Young lads play through the year from under 17 to under 19 cricket and at the end of their school careers the lads are jaded.

At the same time there was another serious development that went unnoticed till very recently. The traditionally cricket playing schools which also have the best facilities began to lose the test in a different manner. With the economic challenges taking a different avenue than before, the jobs also became harder and more competitive. For every job the tab of qualifications rose. Playing cricket through the week became more than a luxury to a segment of the students mostly in urban schools. This definitely resulted in the talent that was rolling out of the established schools diminishing.

Junior cricket in this country cannot take this two prong attack on its talent intake. So much so now we cannot think of a school cricketer who could command a place in a leading club even if the young lad has gone to represent the county at his age level.
The crux of the problem lies here. There is a school of thought which feels the rot has gone too far and school cricket is beyond redemption. Even if there are changes effected in the system – they will have to be drastic ones where it may affect a section of cricket.
There is another suggestion of talent scouts going around picking up talent and getting them into SLC managed pools. Then with proper monitoring, they get them moving up the scales. In other words, the harnessing of that cricket talent would strictly come under the purview of SLC. However, to do that SLC will have to change the present sleepy and unproven district coaching system and moot a better system with more responsible people getting involved right from the bottom. If such a system is adopted, at least the authorities know where the cricketers’ future lies and how to nurture them even by name.

For instance it could be a person in the calibre of the national fast bowling coach Champaka Ramanayake who would be in charge Ruhuna cricket and he would design the structure of persons that would harness and nurture the talent that the national grid needs.
Hopefully in another few days there will be a scrutiny about the prevailing system and what could and what should be done — and wisely the SLC is hoping to borrow the brains of a person none other than ICC stalwart Haroon Lorgat.  This is a crucial juncture and wish they would do the right thing.

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