As a rule in September, the schools’ arena comes a buzz with the reigniting of the under 19 cricket season. This is nothing new; it is a ritual that has been repeated for the past one hundred years or more. Yes, we grew up with that and we knew about who were the guys to [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Are we over-killing our School Cricket system?


As a rule in September, the schools’ arena comes a buzz with the reigniting of the under 19 cricket season. This is nothing new; it is a ritual that has been repeated for the past one hundred years or more. Yes, we grew up with that and we knew about who were the guys to watch and which combinations had the best chances of beating ‘our team’.

Some schools may have to forego traditional games played for decades, just to cope up with the busy playing schedule of the schoolboy cricketers - File pic

But, does that hype still prevail and does the school cricket season excite anyone anymore? You just walk into one of the grounds now, where they are playing a school cricket encounter; the crowds which thronged the peripheries of the schoolyards are not to be seen now.

Yes, school cricket has become obese and unattractive and it does more damage to the child and the game equally, yet, interested parties still keep misleading the authorities for small gains.  Let us have a frank exchange of views about the realities of this ever growing problem and see where the game of cricket is leading. Is it in the right direction or is it meandering aimlessly to a point of no return.

In the pre-world cup win era, cricket was orderly and uncomplicated. A few schools played good cricket and almost 99 percent of them were well equipped – they had their own grounds and the facilities and the cricket played were of a high standard.
Even after Sri Lanka gaining Test status, the scenario did not change much. The international cricketers definitely got more exposure and they did begin to travel to unknown shores, but, still cricket had not become a poor kid’s dream.

In the early 1990s there was a development. The Sri Lanka Schools Association which was a run-of-the-mill affair until that time was taken over by a generation of new thinkers – Secretary B.S. Perera from Sri Jayewardenepura MV being the catalyst. The set of progressives aimed to broad-base the school cricket structure and thus break away from the system which had simmered into the scheme which was called traditional schools’ fixtures.

This change in the schools cricket structure and the World Cup win came almost simultaneously. Then with cricketers in the calibre of Sanath Jayasuriya (St. Servatius, Matara), and Pramodya Wickremasinghe (Rahula MV, Matara) – to name a few – led the way of cricket becoming the window to success. With the World Cup win it was not only fame, but, untold wealth also became a reality.

Soon school cricket also was expanding at a rapid rate and it became too big and fat and difficult to sustain.
The crux of the problem is that the clash between the SLSCA conducted school cricket championship and most major schools wanting to play their traditional fixtures which incidentally is the backbone of cricket of any kind in Sri Lanka.

In the past, there were around twelve matches a season. This number gradually grew with the SLSCA interests and the traditional interests beginning to overlap. The SLSCA advocated more matches and wanted the newcomers also to have fixtures against the traditional schools.

For instance, the SLSCA has stipulated sixteen matches to be played in a normal cricket season, which is a tournament. Then in most instances, individual schools add more into their itinerary to accommodate their traditional fixtures and big matches. Invariably for the season, a school ends up playing at least 20-22 matches per season.

Of late, Sri Lanka Cricket also has spread its tentacles into the junior cavalcade. This means this age group has to play two additional tournaments. Invariably, the successful cricketer in that age group would also play at least one under 19 International series during that time. This is our real target group. The whole exercise of playing junior cricket is to discover the coming talent. This is the cream that we have to nurture and take forward to the next realm.

Yet, there are wheels within wheels and most of them are hard to untangle. If a youngster is under 17 years of age and is in the first Xl squad, he would come into the main season after being engaged in a four-month-long season which has run from the beginning of May to end of August. Then the full SLSCA season runs from September to end of April, if the tournaments are run on schedule.

This means the youngster has been engaged in cricket right through the season without a break for recuperation. Then what about the child’s studies? Well every child does not graduate to become an international cricketer. Isn’t it the responsibility of the Department of Education to see that a kid comes out of school with a sustainable education?

Sunil Jayaweera, the coordinator for Sports at the Ministry of Education, has been given task of streamlining the Lankan school sports by the people in power. He understands the problem, but, does not have all the plausible answers. He says the tournament is needed; if not the smaller schools will not get any fixtures from the so-called traditional schools. At the same time he says he is seeking the assistance of Sri Lanka Cricket to put all the cards on the desk and arrive at one solid answer sometime in the future. But, nothing is certain and the cauldron is boiling.

I spoke to a school cricket administrator, who knows the real anatomy of the school cricket cause and why it has gone wrong. He explained, “There was a time that we understood this problem and tried to entertain the traditional matches along with a limited number of non-traditional games so that most of the schools also would get the opportunity of playing against the big schools. But, what I find out is that besides the sixteen traditional games we are stuck with at least another 7-8 are forced into the equation.

“This season we made an attempt to cut down some matches and do away with some of the traditional fixtures, but, it ended up in a load of bad-blood. Now besides the traditional two-day matches and the limited overs tournament, the T-20 tournament also has come into the equation. This means the schools cricket season will go beyond the Sinhala Aurudu holidays. This is not counting the new Provincial Tournament which comes under the SLC.”

He says the problem will only get more and more complex in the future and some parents are keeping away the children from taking part in the sport as a result. He said that he remembers some cricketers who went on to captain their respective schools also ended up as a much respected medical doctor. In the same vein, there had been a number of academics who had been members of the first Xl team, but, now there is none. He says the commitment and the price they have to pay may be too dear.

Finally, he suggests that they should revert to the time-tested system of traditional fixtures and let the others also find their own oppositions.

The can of worms:

  • Though the top grade schools have been elevated to be pitted with the traditional lot, most of the lesser known schools are no match for the traditional schools. 
  • With the cricketers being forced to play cricket throughout the season, most of the parents tend to woo the children away from cricket and make them concentrate on their studies. 
  • The bigger schools with powerful OBA employ professional coaches and they are obliged to produce results. So, the coaches keep hunting for talented cricketers from lesser known schools and enroll them into their cadre. Thus, more often than not, young cricketers from their own schools find themselves out of the team, to make way for the mercenaries. 
  • The practice was there even in the past on a very limited scale; but now it is being done on a very large scale. 
  • The coaches have to get good results to hold on to their contracts and it is win at any cost. Sometimes the methods employed may not be ethical. This means the school children at a very tender age, are used and exposed to dubious methods.

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