It’s been a decade since Arjuna Ranatunga retired from international cricket, but his passion for the game has not dimmed with the passage of time. An active Sri Lankan Member of Parliament and a prominent leader of the Opposition, Sri Lanka’s only World Cup-winning captain still follows cricket with great interest and has strong views on where the game is headed.
In Bangalore recently as part of a Sri Lankan Tourism delegation, Ranatunga made time to speak to Wisden India on a wide range of issues. Excerpts:
The outcome of the Chennai Test notwithstanding, what’s your take on Test cricket as far as the top three subcontinent teams are concerned?
I think all three teams are struggling very badly. Sri Lanka had a really bad tour of Australia and, before that, they drew a series in Sri Lanka against New Zealand when, generally, on turning tracks at home, we have tended to easily beat teams like New Zealand or the West Indies. India are struggling in the longer version even though they beat Australia in the first Test, while I have a little more sympathy for Pakistan because they are unable to play at home. I feel India and Sri Lanka are more focussed on the shorter version and by that, I mean the Twenty20 format. In 50-over cricket, you still have 300 balls in an innings but T20 is mainly about slogging. All the younger guys are concerned about is playing shots – unwanted and creative shots – rather than thinking about technique, and that is the biggest problem in the subcontinent right now.
If you take our top-order batting, even players like (Kumar) Sangakkara and (Mahela) Jayawardene are struggling with their technique. (Gautam) Gambhir is struggling with his technique. I always felt Gambhir was technically one of the most correct guys in the Indian side five years back, but I am not so sure he is now. Twenty20 is an entertainment format. I think some of the players have got into bad habits because of that. I feel if I was captaining Sri Lanka now, I could have beaten India 3-0 in India with limited resources. When I was captaining Sri Lanka and Azhar (Mohammad Azharuddin) was captaining India, we knew wecould at least draw the game if we got them out in less than two days. But they got 500 runs every time we played them because their technique was so strong. We are talking about the Dravids, the Gangulys, the Tendulkars, the Laxmans, even (Vinod) Kambli or Azhar – whoever came into the side, they always had technique. Prior to that, you had (Sunil) Gavaskar, (Dilip) Vengsarkar, (Gundappa) Viswanath, (Mohinder) Amarnath – they all had solid technique. In Sri Lanka, there was Roy Dias, (Sidath) Wettimuny, (Ranjan) Madugalle, Aravinda (de Silva), (Asanka) Gurusinha, (Roshan) Mahanama. The younger generation is not concerned about technique. You won’t survive against good sides when you play in the longer version if you don’t have proper technique. Thanks to T20, we are all struggling in the longer version and this is something the Asian nations should address as early as possible.
How do you address that?
Twenty20 cricket is obviously here to stay. You need to have a balance. I am not saying T20 should be gone. T20 has to be there because that is the entertainment people like, it’s another format through which you can take this game into new countries. There are positive things in T20 but when it comes to things like SLPL, IPL, BPL and Pakistan and West Indies and Australia – everyone wants to have their own league – then the country invariably comes second. The Sri Lankans have shown they are more keen to play IPL than for their country. Even Indian players have been postponing surgeries or rehabilitation so that they can play in the IPL and then have a surgery, even if it means missing a Test series. This is an area administrators must look into very carefully. To understand the value of Test cricket, you need past cricketers to be in administration. In Sri Lanka, of all the members in the Ex Co (Executive Committee), we have only one Test player, (Jayananda) Warnaweera. How can you expect them to think of Test cricket? You need to understand the value of Test cricket; you need to address this with the younger lot. If you don’t respect the value of playing for your country, if you pretend that playing for the country is the best thing when you are actually thinking of the money, cricket will not survive. That’s why players like Tendukar have survived for 20 years. But that’s all in the past. This generation, they need to focus in a different way. Our cricket board says cricket is a business, it’s not just a sport anymore. If you have that attitude from the administrators, how can you expect the younger cricketers to say ‘no, we don’t want to earn money’? You need to figure out whether the money is more important than respect among other cricketing nations. A lot of people will say money, but I will say respect for cricket.
Should the orientation then begin at the first-class level?
Absolutely. You need to concentrate on the longer version at the domestic level and the standard has to be improved. Maybe there can be different sets of players in different formats. I’ve always said that a good cricketer can play in all three formats. People like (Javed) Miandad, Imran (Khan) and Salim Malik, Wasim Akram, Azharuddin, Kapil (Dev), Aravinda, Mahanama, myself, we could all have played in the Twenty20 version too, but I don’t know if most cricketers of today can survive in the longer version if they don’t concentrate on technique. In the subcontinent, we used to be gifted with technique, with natural strokes, with wrists and hand-eye coordination. But everything is blurring now. When I see the younger lot playing Tests or even ODIs, I can see that the passion is not there anymore. If we don’t address this quickly, we three (India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan) will be bringing up the rear of the Test table. A young player like (Mitchell) Starc has avoided coming into the IPL because of the Ashes series, so you can see how much value the Ashes holds for them. I don’t think we have that attitude in our cricketers. I won’t tell the cricketers not to play in the IPL. Never. But they should know their limits … they should know their values. With franchises coming into the game, businessmen and those with money who don’t know much about cricket are controlling the game. And these guys are calling the shots. It’s lucky that I am not playing today – I would have told them to shut up. ‘You do your job, I will do my job.’ The players can’t do that today because they respect money too much.
There has been some criticism of the Big Bash in Australia being bang in the middle of the international season.
Very true. Only, their cricket standards are very high. Compared to our domestic structure, theirs is better. I don’t think they did the right thing by playing the Big Bash at that particular time but even then, the focus was on Test cricket. Everyone wants to get into the Test team. We have a long way to go to get to their level. Our state or club first-class standards aren’t that good. There is a marginal gap between Australian Test cricket and domestic cricket, whereas in Sri Lanka and India, the gap is huge. The same is the case with Pakistan. I was impressed with the way England managed the (Kevin) Pietersen issue. That’s the sort of attitude the administrators should have. Players can’t pick and choose; the selectors must pick and choose the players. Now players tell the selectors, ‘I won’t play Test cricket, I will play the odd One-Day International match and I will play all T20 games’. I am fighting in Colombo to stop that. I am sure I will get there but the entire country has realised what has been going on for the last couple of years. Some of the Sri Lankan players aren’t as popular as we were, and that isn’t because we won a World Cup. The commitment we showed when we were playing and the commitment of players today are totally different. The respect you get from the public, even as a retired cricketer, is the best gift possible. But I think some of the current players may not be considered important once they retire.
How do you view Sanath Jayasuriya being made the chairman of the Sri Lankan selection committee?
I think we need to give him some time. My only problem with him coming in now is he didn’t retire from cricket until he got the job. I feel he should have taken up this job after two-three years of retirement because he has played with some of the current players and there can be issues. I am not saying he will do anything wrong, but even when he does the right thing, people will ascribe motives. It is a very difficult job because there has been so much political interference in selection in the last five-six years … it is unbelievable. You need to be very strong to do the right job. I want to see Sanath get a proper deal and do the right thing. I am not sure the decision to leave out Prasanna (Jayawardene) and (Thilan) Samaraweera for the Test series against Bangladesh was correct because these two play only Test cricket. Prasanna is the best ‘keeper in the world. I thought he should have captained the side because he is one of the players who are a certainty in the side. I have a question mark over (Angelo) Mathews as a Test batsman. I feel someone like Prasanna could have been captain for at least one year and Mathews could have learnt and grown during that period. We are playing Bangladesh, they could have rested some of the senior batsmen and tried out a few youngsters. Selectors must analyse things carefully. The cricket culture has changed totally.
The modern trend is to have multiple captains at the international level. I feel if you are a good captain and a good cricketer, someone like (MS) Dhoni, for instance, you can play in all three formats. I feel a good captain should captain the Test and ODI side. T20 is more like entertainment; more youngsters should be involved in that. If someone plays Test cricket, he can adapt to one-day cricket. Anyone who has 5000 or 6000 Test runs can adapt to ODIs as (Alastair) Cook and (Andrew) Strauss showed. I feel players like Dhoni, Sangakkara and Mahela, even Misbah (ul-Haq) – they can all play in the top two versions. The T20version can be a different ball game; the focus should be totally different from the other two.
How do teams cope with top batsmen retiring in a clutch – Dravid and Laxman in India, Ponting and Hussey in Australia, for instance?
It’s a very difficult issue. It’s not very easy to fill Rahul or (Sourav) Ganguly or (VVS) Laxman’s shoes. That’s where ‘A’ teams and the grooming process are very important. It didn’t happen in Sri Lanka. Mahela, Sangakkara and Samaraweera batted between three and five for a long time with (Tillakaratne) Dilshan opening. Youngsters didn’t get a chance. Someone like (Dinesh) Chandimal got in only when a player got injured. Their focus was not right. I won’t blame the cricketers for that. I will blame the administrators and the board. You have to plan for the future.
How much of a run do you give a youngster to determine if he has what it takes?
They need to be give proper time, a decent go. It will be very unfair if they are dropped after two-three matches. But the attitude has to be observed, the commitment has to be observed. I remember when I was captaining after the 1996 World Cup, we brought in Jayasuriya as vice-captain, took Mahela, Dilshan and Russell (Arnold) to play four-day games and get exposure. Whenever we got the opportunity, we gave one of the younger guys a chance to play. It’s very difficult when two or three seniors leave at the same time for two or three youngsters to come and fit in immediately. It takes a lot out of the seniors and particularly the captain because the burden becomes unbearable. The captain is not used to that system, he is used to a system where he is comfortable with the seniors. The best example is Dhoni. I feel Dhoni should bat at No. 5 because that entire pressure comes to him at No. 7. If I am Dhoni, I will tell the selectors I will bat at No. 5. To me, Dhoni is one of the unluckiest captains in India, batting at No. 7. By the time he comes in at No. 7, the match is gone more often than not. With his talent in ODI cricket, he must not bat below No. 5. In Tests, he should bat at No. 6. Now that Dravid and Laxman are not there, he can bat at No. 5 in the Tests and get a younger guy to bat below him. I am sure there is a lot of pressure on Dhoni because he has got used to having Dravid and Laxman in his team, now he has only Tendulkar. You need to give players enough time before labeling them ‘brilliant’. I always felt (Virat) Kohli and Gambhir were very good cricketers but they are not concentrating on their technique anymore.