Marvan Atapattu is among the most elegant batsmen to have represented Sri Lanka. In stark contrast to the swashbuckling style of Sanath Jayasuriya, with whom he opened almost throughout his Test career, Atapattu was more old-school in his approach.
In 90 Tests, Atapattu scored 5502 runs at an average of 38.48 with a highest of 249 against Zimbabwe. The stylish right-hand batsman had a penchant for marathon knocks, as evidenced by six Test double-centuries. He built a successful Test career despite scoring five ducks in his first three Tests. In 50-over cricket, he scored 8,529 runs in 268 matches at 37.57.
Since his retirement from international cricket in 2007, Atapattu has been actively involved in coaching. He had a short stint with Canada and Singapore, before being drafted in as the batting coach of the Sri Lankan national side in 2011. He subsequently took over as the head coach in September 2014 following the exit of Paul Farbrace, only to quit a year later, after the island nation’s 2-1 Test series loss to India at home.
Currently in India mentoring the Belagavi Panthers in the Karnataka Premier League 2017, the former Sri Lankan captain spoke to Wisden India about his coaching methods, the changes needed to bring back the glory days of Sri Lankan cricket, and the need for Sri Lanka to move beyond the transitional phase. Excerpts:
How has your experience as the mentor of Belagavi Panthers been so far?
I did a little bit of homework on what I am getting into and have to admit so far it has been good. I am happy with what I am seeing and what I have been doing up until now. The atmosphere has been really good. It is all very well organised. The infrastructure, the importance, the coverage, the quality of cricket that I have seen is top notch. Honestly, I didn’t expect it to be that great, but there are a good set of youngsters who are willing to learn, willing to listen and willing to develop themselves. It has been very interesting.
You have been involved in coaching since your retirement. Do you see yourself getting back with the Sri Lankan national side in future?
Not with the national side now, for the simple reason that I have been with them for the last four to five years. The lot that we have today, most of them, at least 70-80% of them were with me in those years. I have given them all the different things that I have known. I don’t think I should go back, plus I don’t intend to take any long-term contracts. My cricketing career and my coaching days have been for 25 years, and I don’t intend to extend that by any means.
When you are given the responsibility of mentoring any side, is there any specific way in which you prepare yourself?
Yes, the process I follow would be to know the players first and then based on that, I approach each individual. But unfortunately, in a case like this where I have got very little time, it is very hard to get to know the players. When the players are in the middle of a tournament, considering the pressure and the schedules, the individual then becomes a bit different, so it is not the easiest time to get to know the characters 100%. But what we have done here is that we are getting a lot of feedback from the other coaches to see how these individual players behave, what suits them and how they can be approached. Those small hints help me get the message across.
How important is it for you to know the players on a personal level, keeping the cricket aside?
The higher you go in the age-group, the importance becomes greater. As far as I am concerned, for an elite cricketer, I would expect him to know his game. You would treat him, advise him in a different manner to somebody who is making his debut. So, each individual has to be coached in a different way so that I can get the best for the team and the country. Having said that, being mentally strong is the key. The mental attitude is 80%, is what we say, and 20% is the skill. That is true by every name in my book. Simply the amount of cricket that is being played today, you tax your body… Supposing you practice and practice two-three days before a Test match, you are almost ending up playing an eight-day Test, but if you are mentally tough and strong, you can get through. And, I think modern-day cricketers are like that. In the team, we are now having optional training days, and stuff like that, which wasn’t there in our playing days.
“The term, ‘transitional period’ should go away now, you can’t live on it forever. Sri Lanka needs to rethink, and plan things well in advance. Like, for example, you cannot possibly have your next seven series away from Sri Lanka.That is just bad planning. You have to make decisions correctly for the side to come out of this pickle.”
Sri Lanka’s recent form has been very disappointing. What’s your assessment?
As a team, we need to have faith in people, give the much-needed confidence to them. For that, we need to find out who we can rely on. And once you do that, it is important you give all your support and confidence for them to be as free as they can be and play their own game. One thing is that because of this pressure, it is not easy. Yes, people do back winners, that is true. At the end of the day, everybody wants to be there in that winning dressing-room, and if this is not happening regularly, people tend to change things in the team and tinker with the combination. When you are looking to win every game, and it doesn’t happen, you tend to become desperate. Through that desperation, you make changes, and those changes sometimes aren’t the best thing to do. But before they even realise, they are back to square one. What this only does is hamper the confidence, because the player who comes in knows that he has only one chance, and the one who is going back thinks that he is not good enough. It tarnishes everybody’s confidence. It affects the player concerned, also the so-called seniors in the side. It is contagious. And when that feeling spreads in the dressing-room, then the fear of failure comes in, you are internally thinking, I’d be here only if I score a fifty today or if I get my ten overs for 30, and that is a fearsome thing to have in the dressing room. I reckon first things first, you need to go back, sit and put your faith in certain players, the good ones that you think can take the country forward and give them a good number of games so that they can get good results for the country.
How do you think Sri Lanka can overcome their current slump?
I have always been saying that we need to figure out who falls where in terms of the format. Be it Test cricket, one-day cricket and Twenty20 cricket, we need to find out who are the personalities which are going to represent Sri Lanka at least for the next 24 months, then manage them well, train them well, and give them some time to perform. It should be a combined effort. It should not be only the coaches or the administrators or the captain, everyone has to be together in this. At the end of the day, the player has to perform. When that happens, the team does well automatically and we get the results. The saddest thing I have seen is the players that have been around, the senior players, there is no reason why they can’t give good performances. You need to lead the way, encourage the juniors, and that should be the culture going forward. The term, ‘transitional period’ should go away now, you can’t live on it forever. Sri Lanka, as I said, needs to rethink, and plan things well in advance. Like, for example, you cannot possibly have your next seven series away from Sri Lanka. That is just bad planning. You have to make decisions correctly for the side to come out of this pickle.
“As a fast bowler, if you are not bowling 15 overs a day at the club level, there are high chances that when you do bowl 15 overs in a Test match, your body will reject that. And that is exactly what is happening. You can’t dilute the quality of club cricket, play on tracks that are not good enough, on tracks that only suit spinners. You end up playing spinners who you think are good enough, and then when they bowl on a good surface, they aren’t the same spinner you saw in club cricket. Decisions should be made thinking of national interest rather than domestic, individual. That has to be struck out of the door and people need to think of putting down a system to benefit Sri Lanka and that alone.”
The ‘transition’ word hasn’t yet gone though and has been used a lot for Sri Lanka over the past few years. Do you think the problem lies at the grassroots level?
Absolutely. There is a definite problem at the grassroots level. School cricket, first-class cricket is not at all as competitive as it used to be. The school cricket structure has atrophied. It has come down from being the best in the world to probably the worst. We are not getting too many products from schools that are good enough to come and actually play for clubs even, which are really not up to the standards. There is a huge problem there. And the other thing is that it is the basics that are lacking. We get people who are still getting their technique adjusted at the national level and that is not a healthy thing to do. We have to be very, very careful in putting down a strategy where things are easy not only in terms of getting the desired results but also to run the system smoothly.
There have been a lot of injuries of late. Does a lack of fitness have anything to do with it?
Your body has not been trained to do the discipline that is required for the longer game. As a fast bowler, if you are not bowling 15 overs a day at the club level, there are high chances that when you do bowl 15 overs in a Test match, your body will wear, and reject that. And that is exactly what is happening. You can’t dilute the quality of club cricket, play on tracks that are not good enough, on tracks that only suit spinners. What happens then is you end up playing spinners who you think are good enough after seeing them bowl on such wickets, and then when they bowl on a good surface, they aren’t the same spinner you saw in club cricket. He suddenly isn’t getting the same amount of purchase. Decisions should be made thinking of national interest rather than domestic, individual. That has to be struck out of the door and people need to think of putting down a system to benefit Sri Lanka and that alone.
A lot of players in the Sri Lankan side have shown promise but haven’t been consistent…
My doors are open for anybody to come and speak to me and I will be the happiest if I can contribute even one percent. I am sure every past cricketer is willing to help. We want the product that we have shown faith in to blossom and become successful. What happens a lot of the times is that you score runs, you become a sensation, you show so much promise, but it does not mean you can’t go through a bad patch. It is just that you have to be patient and have to work even harder. It can happen to people like (Virat) Kohli, it happened to people such as (Steve) Waugh, even Sachin Tendulkar for that matter. You just have to be a bit patient and the most important thing is not giving up and then working on whatever aspect you think is lacking from your game. And then come back even stronger, harder and hungrier.
What has been the reason behind the Indian team’s success in the last two years?
The primary reason is that India have got all bases covered. Obviously, it is easier for me to refer to the last time that I played against India. They probably did not have the best of fast bowlers. They had one or maximum two pacers, didn’t have a battery of fast bowlers. There was success, yes, but that wasn’t as consistent as today because then, they didn’t have everything covered. And by having all bases covered, I don’t just mean in India, overseas as well. Now, there is a better setup in place, better pool of players from which they can choose any day and be sure of them performing well. Just have a look at all the players. Virat has been sensational, (R) Ashwin has been doing a great job and then don’t forget the fast bowlers. They have always been able to get those breakthroughs with the new ball, which makes it easier for bowlers like Ashwin and (Ravindra) Jadeja to come in later on. Then they have the unorthodox players, who give that X-factor to the team. The one thing that really impressed me is that there are people who are mentally at a different level like the (MS) Dhonis. And even the ones outside of the team, players such as (Suresh) Raina, Yuvraj (Singh), who can walk into the team and be a match -winner. If the situation does arise, then you have competition among the players and that only raises the standard of cricket.
And how do you rate Virat Kohli?
Going by records and the numbers, he is at the top of his game right now, and that is not a difficult statement to make. He looks very committed, determined, and he looks hungrier every time he comes in to bat, which is an excellent quality to possess.