We all agree that the job of acting as a national selector in sports is a thankless job. When the going is good, all ships sail to the same port. But when the chips are down, it’s like a harbour with a huge rock protruding right at the ‘port’s mouth’. Yet, if you are not [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Making of a one-captain policy amid undercurrents

The rift that nearly split Lanka’s cricket

Malinga, injured as expected

We all agree that the job of acting as a national selector in sports is a thankless job. When the going is good, all ships sail to the same port. But when the chips are down, it’s like a harbour with a huge rock protruding right at the ‘port’s mouth’. Yet, if you are not willing to face these intricacies of life you will never be a successful harbour pilot.  The current cricket administration was hardly a week old when I had the opportunity of having a chat with its newly elected President Thilanga Sumathipala. He told me he was convinced that Sri Lanka should adopt a one captain policy and added that he had mentioned those sentiments to chief selector Kapila Wijegunawardene, who was just walking out of his Maitland Place office as I entered the SLC presidential cubicle on that day.

However, when it was time for them to put things into action just before they embarked on the five T-20 series against the Indians, suddenly the sentiments had changed drastically. Instead of the one captain policy, the selectors had decided to allow Lasith Malinga to continue as the captain of the T-20 national team. Angelo Mathews was named vice captain along with another unheralded third man – Dinesh Chandimal to deputise in case if things went wrong in the injury prone band wagon. Many cricket experts felt that it was a huge come down on Mathews – the man who has been leading the national Test team and the 50 overs form for quite a while. This is not rocket science. When someone creates a wedge of this nature in a sensitive issue of this magnitude, it is natural that antipathy sets in.

Then the team was selected for the Indian T-20 series – lo and behold, for this tour both Malinga and Mathews were sent on sick leave and the third man or the fall guy – Dinesh Chandimal — was pushed to the slaughterhouse along with Pea Boys who hardly knew anything about the challenges in the Indian sub-continent. In the first round the Indians got it wrong and were soundly beaten, but, the rest of the tour was a tale of woes.  The new coach, Graham Ford, started his mission with a bang with the win at Pune, but, soon it turned in to a moaning whine – the bewildered coaches were non-plussed.

One captain policy in place now

Then came the Asia Cup tournament and the ICC T-20 title defence. Before departure, Malinga sat in earnest along with the selectors. The slinger demanded the head of Dinesh Chandimal stuck on a spear. But following a tug-of-war, Malinga had to give in to the resolute of the selectors. The rest of the names went according to the wishes of the captain. But, there was a catch. The captain made it clear that since he was not one hundred per cent fit, he would pick the matches that he would play and in all probabilities he would only play from the title defence onwards.  But, Malinga played the first game against the United Arab Emirates and aggravated his injury. In other words, he would even miss a greater part of the title defence.
This meant that now Mathews was saddled with a squad of players that he did not choose. The challenge of the Asia Cup was something new, but, Mathews was hardly ready for it.

When it was on offer the first time in 2014, some bright spark thought that rookie Chandimal was a better bet than Mathews as the T-20 skipper and it turned out to be a very sticky issue with the then seniors. The result was a coup d’état of sorts and Chandimal lost his batting form and his T-20 crown.  Even at that time the pundits did not look at Mathews as a possible T-20 captain, but, the Lankans won the title under Malinga, who made a sort of contribution to the whole effort.  But, the present scenario is different; during the Asia Cup two weeks ago, the Lankans even faced the ignominy of losing to Bangladesh – a side who is aspiring to get qualified to the ICC T-20 championship proper this time.

Meanwhile, with T-20 Vice Captain Mathews being forced to carry the burden of captaincy during the Asia Cup, the wedge between him and Malinga was growing in to a huge rift. It is against this backdrop that a set of rookie cricketers who are in a shock have been given the task of defending the T-20 title. Mathews was injured at the latter stages and Chandimal was forced to carry the burden, but once again the outcome was a bygone conclusion. Meanwhile, owing to his injury and may be also other external pressures, Malinga decided to give up his reins.  At that juncture, a few insiders mooted an initial discussion. Among those who took part in that discussion were Coach Ford, Malinga, Mathews and Chandimal. They were of the consensus that Mathews should take the side into the ICC T-20 tournament. By this time, the time to make changes for the T-20 final lineup was fast running out.

However, when the decision to hand over the captaincy to Mathews was conveyed to the Kapila Wijegunawardena-led selectors, they took a different stand. They were of the view that if Mathews and Malinga – both are in the injured list it should be Chandimal who should captain the side to India.  At that juncture, the SLC management who did not directly interfere with the selection process stepped in and requested much respected Aravinda de Silva to take over the task of naming the side.  After an initial discussion with the squad, de Silva’s first task was to put the bewildered cricketers at ease. Then along with Kumar Sangakkara and the others in the panel they sat for the task of naming the side at the eleventh hour. Part of the hierarchy had just returned from Bangladesh. They joined the process of selecting the team and worked late into the night.

Initially the new set of selectors discussed some changes like bring in Dhanushka Gunatilleke in place of all rounder Dasun Chanaka, but, stopped at their tracks due to time constrains and only brought Lahiru Thirimanne to strengthen the brittle batting order and Suranga Lakmal – the most experienced seamer after Lasith Malinga — at the expense of Niroshan Dickwella and Jeffrey Vandersay, who played very little cricket during the Bangladesh tournament.  But, the prologue is rather strange. Sri Lanka’s cricket, from the time SLC President Thilanga Sumathipala made a request to make a one captain policy, has gone through an exact circle at the expense of Sri Lanka cricket’s health.

What we have to say is that being a selector is indeed a thankless job. The selectors not only have to know about the skills of players, but also the dressing room politics and allied matters that may interfere with the wellbeing of a team’s general health. Now when it becomes a complete rookie issue, matters get worse and that impedes the proceedings of the entire game plan.  Not that there was no dressing room politics in the past. But, in all those instances, there were figures larger than the problem at hand to find a solution within. As a result, in spite of differences, the game moved forward. But, now there is no player who is certain of his place in the playing Xl. When this happens the storm in a tea cup could turn out to be a tsunami. This is exactly what happened during the past few moons of Lankan cricket.

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