The situation is a bit more complex than the problem with the dog in the manger which did not even let the oxen of the farmer eat the hay. I whacked my brains to arrive at a similar situation among the known parables, but, failed, but I do agree that the Lankan school cricket is [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Probing into the school cricket quagmire


The situation is a bit more complex than the problem with the dog in the manger which did not even let the oxen of the farmer eat the hay. I whacked my brains to arrive at a similar situation among the known parables, but, failed, but I do agree that the Lankan school cricket is definitely in a perilous state.

Recently, Interim Committee Chairman Sidath Wettimuny was explaining to me that the just retired national cricketing icon Mahela Jayawardena has dwelled upon a cricket structure that would bring about a new trend and governance in local cricket and thus help to bridge the gap between the local game and the international quality requirements.

Yet, I believe, even the mighty rivers begin in a trickle and every source of water that enriches it helps it grow into a mighty life-giving body that keeps roaring unceasingly till it reaches the ocean. This is the flow of thoughts we believe would help enrich the mind wave that has observed the state of decay in Lankan cricket and is prudent enough to derive avenues to curb it or completely stop it.

Last week this column spoke about the compromise of quantity to quality in our junior cricket and that being the primary source for the state of decay in our local cricket, and thus in eleven years we only have produced one cricketer of true international class in Angelo Mathews. At this end, our attempt is to report to the authorities that they also should consider these side effects that unknowingly keep eating into the rich ingredients that the Sri Lankan cricket is based upon, and as a result the Lankan junior cricket is growing wildly, instead of growing with the professional vision required for a Test playing nation to structure its nursery.

Some claim the junior cricket tournaments are flawed - File pic

When I was gathering facts to back up my argument, I happened to be in a conversation with a former school cricket stalwart. He too had been looking at the whole scenario with concern and lamented, “It’s not only the under 19 that one has to look into. The present guys who are in power keep promoting undeserving sides even at under 15 and under 17 levels. For instance, a school which is promoted does not have the wherewithal to confront the well-established schools and the matches are over in half the allocated time. Some schools cannot make more than 50-60 runs against an established opponent and the end result is the promoted kids’ buildup a wail of fear in them while the lads from the established school do not get a proper game and someone even may end up with unrealistic score or figures playing against oppositions which should be playing in lower segments.”

Till the late 1980s, Sri Lanka’s school cricket was playing its own kind of cricket with no interschool cricket tournament, but was vibrant enough to produce sides like the one which toured India under Mithra Wettimuny in 1969, where future national stars like Mithra himself along with Ajith de Silva and two other future national captains in Bandula Warnapura and Duleep Mendis were discovered.

When the Sri Lanka School Cricket Association (SLSCA) was formed in 1914, only twelve schools were involved. Yet, by the 1980s it had grown towards fifty and the schools played a limited number of matches against teams that were equal in strength.
It was in late 1980s that a growing company, Pure Beverages, launched the Coca-Cola schools’ 50 overs tournament. It was by invitation where the schools Cricket Association provided the necessary data. The first two years went without any surprises, but in the third year, Dharmapala Pannipitiya became the eighth team – getting the nod over more established S. Thomas’ Mt. Lavinia in the draw. This tournament became topsy-turvy. From nowhere Dharmapala with their playmaker Ravindra Wimalasiri won the tournament, beating St. Peter’s in the final.

This became huge media hype for cricket. It became a media focus and a year later the Sri Lanka School Cricket Association took over the responsibility of conducting the tournament along with Pure Beverages which continued as the sponsors.
Soon, the accent shifted to some unknown schools like Kalutara Vidyalaya playing under fast bowler Dulip Liyanage who went on to beat a star-studded Royal XI — and the gospel spread.

It was during these formative years — when the spread began — that the Lankan cricket authorities should have become mindful of the monster in the making. It was at that time that the authorities should have given proper thought about the issue, approached the education authorities and taken control of the situation so that they could have structured this growing unit to cater to the national need rather than letting it grow wildly.

There was a time when the Schools Cricket Association was manned with people who understood the game, sometimes even masters-in-charge (MICs) who even could take care of the first XI team or even attend to the needs of the junior teams in a proper manner.

But, when the Schools Cricket Association was growing, the schools authorities had to structure the growing entity in different layers like A, B and C for instance. It definitely is a human irony, but, a stubborn truth. Among the layer schools were a set of school teachers who also were involved in cricket in their own schools that were playing in lower divisions. By this time Sri Lanka had won the ICC World Cup and the Lankan teenagers were also reaping the benefits with an increased number of overseas engagements topped by the Under 19 World Cup.

The MICs in the lower divisions could see the teachers in the SLSCA executive committee receiving many benefits which included overseas engagements and a per-diem, when it comes to national duty. The plate on offer was irresistible. The lower rungs did not want a piece of the cake. They wanted even the platter that the cake was laid upon.

Meanwhile, another significant factor had taken place among the traditional cricket-playing schools. Some of the topmost schools which were in the forefront for ions and managed mostly by the old-boy principal concept had changed. The political stooge concept that engulfed all forms of society during the last one and a half decades had eaten into these schools. The ministry-appointed principals did not have a hang over the school traditions or pride in sports achievements. So, some of those traditional schools faced a slump in their sports activity, in spite of the school possessing all basics to promote the sports.

The bottom rung members of the SLSCA worked out a huge coup d’état. They pursued one of the politically backed big school principal to be their president and managed to take over power. Yet, most of the executive committee members did not have a hang about the basics of the game of cricket, but it was their chance to rule the roost in cricket. Soon the formats began to change and once some of the traditional schools even pondered breaking away from the system, but, in doing so they learned that they would only be taking away the little chances that their respective cricketers have. The SLCA chiefs – the principals –were oblivious of the situation, but, they had a crown on their heads, which they were proud of.

Meanwhile, the SLSCA carries two votes at the SLC elections. This is a very valuable component to the crooked vote seeker who is looking either to stay in power or capture power. As a result the SLSCA has become the master of school cricket in Sri Lanka. But in reality it is unproductive and lacks vision. Adding insult to injury, like the dog in the manger, they resist improvements to cricket in that age group even at a national scale, if it is going to be managed by the system.

I never forget what that former SLSCA official said to me in conclusion: “The country’s junior cricket which is the lifeline is heading for disaster, but there is no way that anyone could bring in changes superficially. If this is going to be cleaned up, the authorities along with the Ministry of Education would have to effect some drastic changes, beginning from doing away with the inter-school cricket tournament. But, I wonder who can bell this cat?”

PS: Some of the insiders at the SLC are aware of the situation.

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