Sidath Wettimuny blamed structural failure at all levels for Sri Lanka’s abysmal run in recent times.
Sri Lanka were swept 3-0 in the Test series before being whitewashed 5-0 in the One-Day Internationals against India. Even before the Indians arrived in Sri Lanka, the home team had suffered a humiliating 3-2 loss at the hands of Zimbabwe in ODIs, whom they narrowly beat in a one-off Test.
Their performance in the Champions Trophy 2017 too was tepid, with a solitary win against India the only saving grace.
Earlier this year, Sri Lanka were also whitewashed 3-0 in Tests and 5-0 in ODIs in South Africa and subsequently lost a first-ever Test match to Bangladesh, at home.
“This is just the effect of neglect,” the former Sri Lankan opener told Wisden India in a telephonic exchange on Tuesday (September 5). “This has been coming for a while. I remember telling someone five years ago that we would go below Zimbabwe (in rankings). We’re getting there. It’s embarrassing and it’s humiliating.
“Even in the 1970s, before we were a Test-playing nation, teams knew that if they came to Sri Lanka, they should be ready for a fight, especially in ODIs. We fought hard and we played quality cricket. We never just put up our hands and surrendered. That is what is happening now. It’s terrible.”
Wettimuny, who had been at the helm of one of the many interim committees which have handled Sri Lanka Cricket’s affairs until recently, pointed out that the problem started at the first-class level.
“How can you not include Dinesh Chandimal in the one-day squad? He is among the only batsmen we have in the side who can bat properly. How could you make Chamara Kapugedera the captain? That just devalues captaincy. Kapugedera is a lovely guy but you don’t just do things like that. It’s all politics. I don’t think the selection committee was given a free hand to pick the right side.”
“We have a huge problem with our first-class cricket. It’s in shambles. We cannot have 24 teams playing club cricket. That just dilutes the talent all the way down,” he thundered. “We have great talent in school cricket, but that’s where it ends. We need to bring back provincial cricket if we can be competent at the highest level going forward.”
Until Thilanga Sumathipala’s re-election as Sri Lanka Cricket president in 2016, Sri Lanka’s top domestic cricket tournament comprised two tiers, but only the 14 teams in tier ‘A’ had first-class status. However, since Sumathipala’s ascension, first-class status has been granted to even the bottom ten clubs, competing in tier ‘B’.
“We have a crazy constitution. How can we have 147 votes for the board? Even clubs that do not play cricket get to vote like some of the great cricket clubs in the country. That is one of the major reasons why this first-class format has taken a hit. All because they wanted extra votes,” he revealed.
The system is one where 85 member clubs vote during elections to the executive committee of the SLC. Some of these clubs are not serious cricket-playing clubs but have the right to vote. Committees have urged the SLC to give premier clubs and Provincial Cricket Associations two votes during SLC’s AGM, but so far, their pleas have fallen on deaf ears.
“You have got to sympathise with the players. It really is not their fault. If this is the quality of cricket they’re playing at home, it will reflect at the international stage,” said Wettimuny. “Also, there have been some astounding selection decisions made in this phase. It’s hard to understand why they’re doing this.”
When asked to explain some of the more high-profile selection “glitches”, Wettimuny said: “How can you not include Dinesh Chandimal in the one-day squad? He is among the only batsmen we have in the side who can bat properly. How could you make Chamara Kapugedera the captain? That just devalues captaincy. Kapugedera is a lovely guy but you don’t just do things like that.”
Sri Lanka made Kapugedera the stand-in skipper while Upul Tharanga was serving a two-match ban for maintaining slow over-rate against India in the second ODI at Pallekele. Even with Angelo Mathews and Lasith Malinga in the side, they asked someone with insignificant numbers, even in first-class cricket, to lead the side.
Malinga was eventually handed the rein for one game when Kapugedera was ruled out of the series with a bad back.
“It’s all politics. I don’t think the selection committee was given a free hand to pick the right side,” he noted.
The selection committee, led by Sanath Jayasuriya, resigned mid-way through the series after fans in Pallekele took to throwing bottles onto the playing area to vent their frustration.
“We need to completely dissolve the current structure and build things from scratch. We need a new constitution if Sri Lanka has to get out of this rut,” he said.
While Wettimuny gave the batsmen the benefit of the doubt, for the most part, he did not hold back on criticising them for the quality of their shot-making in the ongoing series against India. While a planned attack from the visitors has resulted in low scores, throwing away wickets has been one of Sri Lanka’s major concerns.
“Take a look at (Virat) Kohli, he barely plays a shot that is not in the book. He does not try anything out of the ordinary. That is why he is that effective,” compared Wettimuny. “Our boys start trying things right from the start of the game. They approach 50-over cricket like they are Twenty20 Internationals.
“Dickwella is a good talent but he cannot be throwing his wicket away each time. You need to consolidate. If you go back to 1996, you’ll see that we had players who were great at doing just that. Asanka Gurusinha could weather a storm and so could Aravinda (de Silva). You knew you could always depend on them.”
He continued: “They don’t have a good defence and they cannot stay at the crease. They don’t have that solidity. They think they can overcome this basic flaw by throwing their bat around. When has that ever been the answer to anything?”