At Pallekele, following an embarrassing 48 hours for Sri Lanka’s cricket administrators, Dimuth Karunaratne misses and angled ball, Kusal Mendis misses a straight one, Kaushal Silva edges to slip, and the cricketers themselves are perhaps beginning to feel embarrassed. By lunch, the team is 84 for 5. Soon thereafter, they are 117 all out.
The Sri Lanka team has very many faults, but dishonesty is not among them. Several times already this year, Angelo Mathews has described performances as “humiliating”. Others have spoken frankly of their lean scores or unflattering figures. Some have publicly chastised themselves for costly drops.
Usually, the team does not offer excuses for its state, except that before this particular game, there was a single point of difference. Asked about the relentless spate of injuries depleting his attack, Mathews called on the Sri Lankan system to raise its game. “The coaches at the back-end have a big job to do,” he said. “If we don’t have bowlers, we have to know how to produce them.”
Mathews will know, perhaps, that of the 15 top wicket-takers in this year’s first-class tournament, only one was a seamer. He will have played in plenty of domestic matches where quicks exist simply to take the shine off the ball, modest spinners waiting with twitching fingers for a chance to bowl on the biscuit-powder pitches. He will understand that batsmen coming fresh into his team will have faced little of the quality of fast bowling, or the pressure, international cricket will relentlessly subject them to.
And though he himself may face down his flaws and freely admit mistakes, he should know that SLC officials – who have repeatedly shot down the opportunity to reform the domestic system, who this year nixed a plan to take the game meaningfully into the provinces, and who refuse to pay its first-class cricketers a living wage – do not have a track record of reflecting on their own gaping errors, of manfully owning up, or of speaking frankly when their own performances have not been short of humiliating.
When Sri Lanka won the Asia Cup in 2014, supporters thronged to the open-top bus parade that brought the cricketers and their trophy to Colombo. Two months later, when the winning runs of the World T20 were hit, the capital broke instantly out into euphoric mayhem on a colossal scale.
In 2016, the team has won only one match against Test-playing opposition, and passions have cooled. There were fewer fans staying up late to watch the team play in England than in 2014. Criticism has been plentiful, on the web and on the street.
In response, SLC has spent money attempting to woo back its public. It has called repeatedly for support on social media. It has held an expensive World T20 farewell event in Colombo. It has devised new slogans, made promises to improve stadium facilities, and streamline ticket sales.
Yet, none of this provoked as widespread or passionate a response from Sri Lanka’s fan base as the events preceding the Pallekele Test. When both the sports minister and an SLC official called Muttiah Muralitharan’s ethics into question, Murali launched a rapid counterattack, and hundreds of thousands of supporters joined his anti-establishment tirade. #isupportmurali began to trend on twitter. His interviews ran hot on Facebook, and his humanitarian record – perhaps the best for any recent cricketer – was widely invoked.
Within hours, fans had decisively landed on the side of sense and modernity, seen through the establishment’s narrative, and rejected arguments roiled in pettiness and nationalism.
Not more than three days after Australia arrived in the island, Mathews found himself seated in front of a microphone, metres away from Steven Smith. The pre-series chatter ahead of so many series – particularly those involving Australia – can vary from tense to downright nasty. Yet in his first public interaction with the opposition, Mathews had for Smith a smile and a compliment. “We would like to welcome the mighty Australians,” he said. More plaudits were freely given through the course of the press conference.
Two weeks later, Mitchell Starc had charged that Mathews was under pressure after the abysmal tour of England, and still, in the pre-match press conference, Sri Lanka’s captain was sober and generous. “You expect to be targeted when you’re the captain,” he said. Then he went on to praise Australia’s consistency. He drew attention to their No.1 Test ranking.
That same morning, about five kilometres away, cricket’s Test mace – which ostensibly should be its premier award – was handed over to Smith in as small a ceremony as possible, upon SLC’s behest. The ICC had flown over its CEO, and had designs to present the mace in a public event. “But a big ceremony for the Australians will deflate our team,” SLC had contended. And so, the presentation of the trophy Smith’s men had reclaimed with skill, poise and resolve, in enthralling home tilts against New Zealand, was debased by the home board’s insecurity, despite the fact that, to a man, Sri Lanka’s players understand they are facing the top-ranked side, and would have in recent weeks been made plenty aware of their opponents’ quality, by coaches and analysts.
Over the past five years, Sri Lankan cricket has at times been transcendental. There was that incredible start to 2014, and the series win in England. There have been exquisite individual performances, and unforgettable Test finishes, like the one against Pakistan at Galle, when nervous thousands watched from the Fort while apocalyptic black cloud bore down on their fun.
But for most of the past five years, Sri Lanka’s cricket administration has been consistently – almost uniformly – abysmal. Nishantha Ranatunga, the former secretary, has recently been in remand on charges of loosely-related fraud. Others in the board have lurched from crisis to crisis. Quality in domestic cricket has dived year-on-year, while almost every senior player recalls the better contests had in their youth, and calls relentlessly for change.
Time and again, Sri Lanka Cricket has proved itself unworthy of administering the country’s favourite sport.
It has proved itself unworthy of the team that collapsed for 117 at Pallekele.
It has proved itself unworthy of the captain with a worsening record.
It has proved itself unworthy of all Sri Lanka’s fans, who have tired of the politics, who have been disheartened by losses, who desperately await a reason to fall in love with cricket again. (ESPN)