It can be said that it was only a matter of time before this happened: Sri Lankan cricket, already in the doldrums through a series of embarrassing defeats, is now being shamed after a ball-tampering saga involving no less a person than its captain Dinesh Chandimal.
When the issue first emerged during the second test match against the West Indies, the Sri Lankan team, presumably acting on orders from its management, refused to take the field when the charges against them were conveyed by the umpires. This held up play for almost two hours.
Then, Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) took the moral high ground, issuing a bold statement stating that it would “take all necessary steps to defend any player, in the event any unwarranted allegation is brought against a member of the team”. The insinuation was clear: SLC obviously believed the allegations were unfounded. A few days later, when the match referee conducted his inquiry, SLC had to eat humble pie. The inquiry found Chandimal guilty, suspended him for the final test match and forfeited his entire match fee. The video evidence, even if it lasts only a few seconds, was convincing. This raises the obvious question, what was SLC thinking when it stated that it would “defend any player”? Should it not have examined the evidence before jumping to conclusions about a player’s guilt or innocence prior to making indignant claims?
Worse still, by refusing to take the field, our cricketers are now charged with “conduct contrary to the spirit of the game” and skipper Chandimal, coach Chandika Hathurusinghe and team manager Asanka Gurusinha could miss up to four test matches. At the time of writing, SLC has appealed the decision, but the damage to the country’s reputation as a nation that values and upholds the traditions of the game has already been done. This is not to lay the blame at Chandimal’s doorstep. What happened is merely the symptom of a greater malaise afflicting Sri Lankan cricket.
It just goes to show that SLC is leaderless and drifting aimlessly these days. Nominations were called for the election of office-bearers to SLC but that was challenged in court. Then, Sports Minister Faiszer Musthapha appointed a Competent Authority- his Ministry Secretary Kamal Padmasiri- to run SLC until the issues before court were addressed.
It could be argued that the Minister had no choice because the matter was before court. However, in the light of the events in the West Indies, his choice of a Competent Authority is questionable- although that is not a reflection on Secretary Padmasiri.
Instead of nominating someone with established cricketing credentials, Minister Musthapha chose to nominate his Ministry Secretary- who must be surely having an umpteen number of other tasks to attend to- for the job. At least in this incident, whoever was taking decisions on behalf of SLC has clearly proved to be incompetent!
Therein lies the problem. SLC has been the monopoly of Thilanga Sumathipala in recent years. Sri Lankans have been able to change presidents and governments but even these presidents and governments have not been able to remove Sumathipala from the Presidency of SLC.
Sumathipala’s tactics are as simple as they are ingenious: he relies on the Constitution of SLC to secure his survival. Because the Constitution mandates that SLC officials are elected through votes from affiliated clubs, he has increased the number of clubs. This has demonstrably lowered the standard of cricket to the detriment of the game in the country, but then, the new clubs are beholden to him and ensure his re-election, again and again.
There have been calls to rectify this issue by changing the Constitution of SLC, but such pleas have fallen on deaf ears. At the recent Cabinet reshuffle, the United National Party (UNP) requested the Sports Ministry so they could effect changes, but Sumathipala, despite now sitting in the Opposition, was able to convince President Maithripala Sirisena to retain the Ministry with his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).
In cricketing circles, these are not secrets. Everyone agrees that cricket in the country is at its lowest ebb. They also agree that interference by administrators at SLC have contributed significantly to this decline. There is also a consensus that the ‘system’ needs to change before the standards of the game can be lifted and the country can again become competitive in the international arena.
However, there is no one capable of making those changes because Sumathipala is Lord and Master of all he surveys and will only do things his way. He has resisted change at every possible opportunity- just ask Arjuna Ranatunga and he will tell you!
The best evidence of the perilous state cricket in Sri Lanka is in came when Minister Faiszer Musthapha invited cricketing legends Aravinda de Silva, Mahela Jayewardene, Kumar Sangakkara and Muttiah Muralitharan to provide their services to uplift the game in the country. Their response was unanimous: they would all dearly love to do so, they would offer their time and services free of charge but they wouldn’t want to come anywhere near SLC in its current form. Jayewardene went one step further and stated that past cricketers should not be made part of an exercise to ‘buy time’.
All of these cricketers are those who have played the game at the highest level and their integrity has not been called into question. Why then do they not want to engage with SLC when they too dearly want the standards of the game to improve? Surely, something is rotten at the top there.
Maybe Sri Lanka can learn a lesson from Australia where its captain, Steve Smith, vice-captain David Warner and another player were found guilty of ball-tampering. We all know how hard the Aussies play their cricket and how hard they play to win, but they have since demonstrated, they do not wish to win at any cost.
Today, just a few weeks after their own ball tampering saga, Steve Smith is no longer the captain, David Warner no longer the vice-captain, Darren Lehmann no longer their coach and James Sutherland no longer the head of Cricket Australia: they have all resigned!
It is wishful thinking to hope that Sri Lanka will follow suit but it is clear- except to those who do not wish to see- that cricket in Sri Lanka has hit rock bottom. Now that we have been branded as cheats in addition to being losers, we must ask, what more will it take for the powers that be to sit up and take notice that their political henchmen are irrevocably ruining the game we all love so dearly?