The impending “sacking” of Head Coach Chandika Hathurusingha may cost it an arm and a leg but Sri Lanka Cricket, pressured by Sports Minister Harin Fernando, is determined to do it in order to “achieve” on-field success. Changing coaches has done hardly any good for a team in “transition”, a term used to describe the [...]


A costly Sack?


Chandika Hathurusingha, in a soup?

The impending “sacking” of Head Coach Chandika Hathurusingha may cost it an arm and a leg but Sri Lanka Cricket, pressured by Sports Minister Harin Fernando, is determined to do it in order to “achieve” on-field success.

Changing coaches has done hardly any good for a team in “transition”, a term used to describe the national cricketers since the retirement of the Fab Three: Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardena and TM Dilshan.

Coaches do get fired everywhere–whether it be in football, basketball, cricket or any other sport–when the results are suboptimal and patience runs out at the prospect of no turnaround. But the rate at which SLC hires and fires coaches baffles many. Also in question is whether the decisions are politically motivated.

If Hathurusingha gets sacked, he will be the third coach to be removed since 2015–following Marvan Atapattu and Graham Ford. Eighteen months since his return to Sri Lanka, the 50-year-old Hathurusingha is preparing answers to a charge sheet by SLC to say why the Board should not sack him in possible violation of one or many contractual obligations.

That a charge sheet was issued is a sign of the Board’s desperation after Hathurusingha refused to resign sixteen months before his term’s end in December 2020. It is looking for wriggle space out of an ironclad contract which entitles Hathurusingha to a year’s pay in the event of dismissal.

It was Minister Fernando who demanded that all coaches resign and renegotiate their contracts at the end of the recent Bangladesh tour. The contracts of some ended in August. Two resigned. But Hathurusingha didn’t bat an eyelid, knowing he had a legally binding contract to his advantage.

Since then, the Minister has publicly ridiculed him so much that there are whispers of a personal vendetta. (Angelo Perera is his nephew but spent his entire World Cup stint in England as a back-up player).

Attempts at an amicable exit failed and, with the Sports Minister exerting pressure, SLC wants to sack Hathurusingha despite the financial–and other–consequences. But certain Executive Committee members at Tuesday’s meeting opposed the move, particularly former President Thilanga Sumathipala who pointed out the sheer cost of such dismissal.

The Board then changed its stance. It is now looking to take legal action against a man it went behind with a begging bowl just two years ago. SLC President Shammi Silva on Wednesday admitted that recruiting Hathurusingha was a “mistake”. This is a slap in the face of Sumathipala, his former boss, and an indication of a possible rift between the two over the issue.

Silva was Sumathipala’s Treasurer when he ran the Board for over two-and-a-half years till a court case in May 2018 stopped a second term. It was Sumathipala who backed Silva’s candidacy at the last election.

“We’ve been watching the Coach’s performance for over a year-and-a-half, and it’s based on that we’ve taken this decision,” Silva said at a press conference. “I was also in the Board that recruited Chandika Hathurusingha, and we’ve made some mistakes. But if we are to do right by cricket in future, we have to correct those mistakes.”

“We can’t save the Coach and let cricket suffer,” he said. “Do you lose on the field and continue losing, and save a bit of money, or do you lose some money and win on the field? We have to decide between those two things. Our main focus is cricket. We have to think about that.”

Should he be sacked?

Hathurusingha was long under scrutiny over the team’s inconsistent performance in international cricket. It wasn’t that Sri Lanka had done better without him. It was that his arrival had not heralded the expected turnaround of fortunes.

It was not entirely his fault, though. The absence of a coherent and consistent policy in cricket administration saw players being picked and dropped at the drop of a hat. Selectors were shuffled too often. And there were more captains and coaches than any other team has seen since the 2015 World Cup. There was just no continuity and consistency. Is it fair to crucify him when poor performance is the result of a dysfunctional system which he is only a part of?

Hathurusingha also lost his control of the team in January this year, when the Board, administered by a politically appointed Competent Authority, removed him as selector-on-tour. It was the first sign of discontentment over his work.

Before this, Hathurusingha had enjoyed a level control over team affairs hitherto unseen for a SLC national coach. Under his watch, Sri Lanka has won 24 matches out of 67 international matches across all formats. They lost 38. From a purely return-on-investment perspective, he has not delivered enough to justify a huge pay packet exceeding US$ 40,000 a month. Also he has lost the support of the dressing room, particularly after he played a major role in dumping Angelo Mathews from captaincy and team after the last Asia Cup. But by replacing him alone, without overhauling the corrupt and failed system, can Sri Lanka change its cricketing landscape?

There are examples to show it will not. After Marvan Atapattu was removed and replaced with Graham Ford, expectations were high. But the Board’s actions forced him to vacate the post just 17 months later when bad results continued after a couple of good series. Ford has repeatedly urged patience with the players who are challenging themselves in tougher conditions compared to what they played in domestically. This gap has been too wide to bridge.

A Coach is only a part of the problem. Without a full overhaul of this dysfunctional system, Sri Lankan cricket will struggle to be what it was. The Minister should ideally push for radical changes within the Board if he is really keen to see the game’s development, rather than playing to the gallery and crucifying one man for the sins of many.

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