Arjuna Ranatunga says he doesn’t watch a great deal of cricket these days, but he still has a handle on what’s going in the world of cricket. Sri Lanka’s only World Cup-winning captain has his hands full, having recently been appointed Petroleum Minister after serving as the Ports Minister earlier. One of his first challenges was to sort out a strike called by trade unions, a mission he accomplished successfully in quick time.
As he walks in to the conference room at the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation to meet up with a small group of Indian journalists, attired in the Sri Lankan national dress, Ranatunga looks completely at home in his no-longer-new avatar as politician. Over a protracted interaction during the course of which he shows no signs of impatience, the 53-year-old opens up on a wide range of topics, including his disillusionment with the state of affairs in Sri Lanka cricket. Excerpts:
You recently raised some concerns about the 2011 World Cup final…
When it comes to the 2011 World Cup final, I never said I was concerned about match-fixing. I said there were issues, address the issues. It is not my issue, the entire country saw it. I am not taking the credit away from India at all. I can remember when I was seated with all the captains before the tournament, I said my heart says Sri Lanka but India has the best side. But unfortunately, the way we approached that game and some of the things that happened in the final, I was not comfortable. So I said, these are the things the ICC should get into. I never said match-fixing.
On why Kohli needs to tone down the aggression:I would get frustrated but I don’t show it in the middle, because it can drag into not only the team but the entire country. If he asks me a question, I’ll say calm down a little bit. He needs to be aggressive, but he doesn’t have to show it. He’s too young, he will learn. Give him five years, he will be a different actor.
Have you directly addressed your concerns to the International Cricket Council?
No, because I am not directly involved in cricket, I didn’t want to get into details. I was doing commentary in India and I was seated with Kapil (Dev) during the final, and we all had a lot of answers. And that’s the reason I said these are the things not only the ICC but even our sports ministry should look into because when things are bad, you have to stop the rot straightaway, get rid of the cancer or it will spread into the entire system.
How does the current Indian team compare to some of the other sides?
Their strong suit is their fast-bowling attack, that has been very positive. It’s not happened in Indian cricket for a long time. They have two good spinners, they have about four, five good fast bowlers, I still feel they should look at one of the better middle-order players (in limited-overs cricket). They have a lot of batting, but they need quality middle-order guy. Someone like MS Dhoni is there, but I don’t think he’ll go very long. After the next World Cup, he might go, or maybe before that. But if you take (Virat) Kohli out early, a good bowling attack can ruin the Indian batting. It’s not the most experienced batting line-up, but they are getting there. Their commitment is there, they look pretty professional, but they have a long way to go. They can be No. 1, but they have to keep that thing going. I don’t know how long they can. But they are a very good side. They never had fast bowlers like this in last 20 years. They had Kapil Dev, (Javagal) Srinath, maybe one or two maximum. We had the same problem, but when you have five or six, they have many options now. I don’t know where they come from, whether it is the MRF or the academies. If you take Sri Lanka, we have better fast bowlers than in our days. We have quality fast bowlers, but we don’t know how to protect them.
On identifying and grooming talent:
It’s all about protecting them, safeguarding them, pushing them at the right time, throwing them to the deep end at the right time. With some of these present guys, without teaching them how to swim, they throw them into the deep end. And after two games, they are dead and gone. We’ve picked 40-odd cricketers in the last two years. It didn’t happen in my time.
You brought up Virat Kohli. Do you see any similarities between the two of you in leading the team?
To tell you honestly, I haven’t seen too much cricket. I watch international cricket (other than that involving Sri Lanka) when I go home, whenever I get time. I have seen him as a batsman but I still can’t rate him as a captain; as a batsman, I rate him very highly. I am not putting him down as captain but he has a long way to go to achieve a lot of things. If you want me to compare him now with Indian top captains like (Mohammad) Azharuddin, Dhoni and if I take captains of my time like Kapil Dev, he has a long way to go. I still feel they were really top-class captains.
If he asked you, what advice would you give Kohli?
I prefer him to be a little sober. I don’t think he will agree with me, but we have a culture in our world. You take India, Sri Lanka, we have a different culture, we are not aggressive as the Australians or the English. You need to be aggressive when you have to be aggressive. You don’t have to be aggressive all the time. You don’t have to show a lot of aggression as a captain all the time, that can drain through the entire system. That’s one reason why whenever I got angry, I don’t show it. I would get frustrated but I don’t show it in the middle, because it can drag into not only the team but the entire country. If he asks me a question, I’ll say calm down a little bit. He needs to be aggressive, but he doesn’t have to show it. He’s too young, he will learn. Give him five years, he will be a different actor.
What then goes into making a top-class captain? Are there particular characteristics you develop, or is it instinctive?
I think both. As a captain, I always used to admire Imran Khan, Kapil Dev — because he won a World Cup when I was 19. I thought if Kapil can win a World Cup as India captain, why can’t Sri Lanka win? Then in 1992, Imran won the World Cup and I thought if India can win and Pakistan can win, why can’t we win? I am a very positive guy, I don’t look at the negative side. If you look at the Indian side in 1983, it was not the best side India has produced, there were bits and pieces players surrounded by one or two top cricketers. If you take 1996, my team, it was the same sort of team we had. Imran’s team was totally different. Depending on the place and the conditions, you need to adjust quickly and a captain is a person who will listen to all 9-10 players but ultimately take his own decision, as if he hasn’t talked to anyone. It is all about how he feels. I think that is the strength I had. I was never afraid to take decisions. Whatever decisions I have taken, more than 70-80% have turned out right.
If you take tough decisions today, several influential people do not like it. Did you encounter any resistance like that when you were at the helm?
I was too strong and I would get rid of them. If you can’t work with me, then you can’t be in my team. I’ll tell you, the ’96 team was not the best team we had at that time. But they were the most committed team I picked. I never wanted the most talented team, I wanted a team which gives me 100%, who will come out and give their lives to the country. Whatever plans we have, whether they can work with me to execute those, it was that sort of cricketers I wanted to pick. There were much better cricketers than that particular team, but that is the reason we could win the World Cup.
On Sri Lanka Cricket’s incorrect emphasis on physique:
A lot of people are talking about the bodies and the six-packs. Then you get models; I always say pick 15 models and tell them to play cricket! It’s so unfortunate that all these people who take decisions on cricketing matters haven’t seen proper cricket. You take the Duleep Mendises, the (GR) Viswanaths, the (Mike) Gattings and the (Colin) Cowdreys… These players – including me! — wouldn’t have played cricket if people running cricket today ran cricket then.
Every player that played under you speaks glowingly of you and how you shaped his career. How do get the guys to trust you?
It doesn’t happen overnight, it takes a little time. It’s all about how you protect your cricketers. When you know that the cricketers are talented, that’s a gift given by someone at the top. When you look at a cricketer, you can say that this guy will go to the top, have a little patience. I can give you a couple of examples – (Sanath) Jayasuriya, he was awful at the start. Marvan Atapattu, he couldn’t get a single run. But when we looked at them, we knew that they were going to come out of this shell. It’s all about protecting them, safeguarding them, pushing them at the right time, throwing them to the deep end at the right time. With some of these present guys, without teaching them how to swim, they throw them into the deep end. And after two games, they are dead and gone. We’ve picked 40-odd cricketers in the last two years. It didn’t happen in my time.
How important do you think is the role of a coach in an international team?
Not very much. When you have a senior cricketer…
Basically this is coming from what happened with Anil Kumble…
I don’t know why they have all the changes, but ultimately the captain runs the show. The coaches are there to only guide, but if the coaches are going to run cricket, then it’s a disaster. Coaches are there, they have a different job, but ultimately the vehicle is driven by the captain. The coach can be the conductor, but not the driver. When the coach tries to be the driver, that’s an issue you’re going to face.
But I was very disappointed when someone like Kumble was taken off from the Indian side. Ravi (Shastri) can be a good coach. It’s all about getting their heads right. A coach who hasn’t played too many international matches, can he go and tell Dhoni how to play a one-day game? Or Kohli?
I had the same experience. I always wanted a coach to support us, do the coaching part. Selections have to be done by the chairman and the captain, ultimately the captain should be given the authority to pick the side. If something goes wrong, the captain takes the blame. The selectors are there to guide you. In my days we had Duleep Mendis, Roy Dias, Ranjan Madugalle, Asantha de Mel – they were top cricketers who played with me and before me. And I had to go to the selection committee and convince them, specially Ranjan Madugalle was the most difficult selector I had. I’m not saying he was bad, he would ask me questions, I had to go with answers. And I had to convince them. The selectors are there to question the captain on his choices, and push the captain to pick his best side. I don’t like to see selectors who keep their mouths shut, have their cup of tea, earn their money and then go home. I’m totally against selectors being paid, it should be an honorary job. I know a lot of people will be angry with me, but when you’re picking a national side, you should not be paid to pick. I may be an old-fashioned guy, but when you are getting a salary to pick your own national side, I don’t agree with that. It should be an honorary job and it should come from your heart.
So you’re saying if money is involved, you don’t necessarily think with your heart?
I don’t think so. When the money comes in, ultimately it’s all about the money. That has happened to a lot of cricketers in the world. You take some of the, I don’t want to name them, some of them prefer to play in the IPL rather than for their own countries. Some of them prefer to play in the Australian league rather than playing for their country. Is that the advice we are going to give to young cricketers, to school boys? You are an icon, you have to behave and act like an icon. I always say that a lot of younger cricketers are watching you and doing the same thing you do, you teach them the wrong things, wrong policies. You’re heading towards disaster.
On how the Sri Lankan cricket system has changed:
If you take Chaminda Vaas, Pramodaya Wickramasinghe, (Ravindra) Pushpakumara, when they came to practice, they would bowl for one and a half hours without a break. They would be match-fit by the time they went to play matches. Now, apparently the system is totally different. They bowl only about 30 balls per day. I can remember cricketers who used to run 25 rounds at SSC but couldn’t bowl five overs. But there were bowlers who couldn’t run at all but bowled 8-10 overs in one spell.
How do we stop this?
You need money to live. You don’t live to earn money. That’s the advice given by my father. If you’re going to play cricket to earn money, stop playing cricket. Whatever you get playing cricket, take it home, invest properly. Ultimately, you might not have money, but you will have people. I have a lot of experience with that. I have been a politician for the last 15 years, I have contested four elections, won all four elections. I contested from three different districts, and three different parties. I always say that my success was that people in this country trusted me as a sportsperson, as a cricket captain. That’s the same trust they give me as a politician, and I don’t want to lose that.
What are the main challenges facing Sri Lankan cricket now?
Cricket… (laughs). To tell you honestly, I’ve stopped watching cricket. I read the newspaper, but I hardly watch cricket. I was very disappointed after the last cricket elections. There are roles in this country, and I was not eligible to contest as the president (of Sri Lanka Cricket). I have to, being in the government, go through the law properly. And I had the opportunity to contest for a vice-presidency, which I lost. I am a politician and a cricketer but I still lost! Cricket was something like a religion to this nation, and we don’t have a religion now.
A lot of people don’t watch cricket. You can imagine, if I’m not watching cricket, how can you expect the others to watch cricket? That is nothing to do with the cricketers. It’s all about bad and wrong administration.
How frustrating is it to see things as they are today?
We formed this new government to get the country right, and I feel the country is getting there. But unfortunately, cricket isn’t getting there and that’s the worst part. Cricket is going in the wrong direction. It’s very frustrating because we are a very talented cricketing nation. People don’t know how to handle them. It’s all about the mind but they talk about physique and no one talks about cricket fitness. A lot of people are talking about the bodies and the six-packs. Then you get models; I always say pick 15 models and tell them to play cricket! It’s so unfortunate that all these people who take decisions on cricketing matters haven’t seen proper cricket. You take the Duleep Mendises, the (GR) Viswanaths, the (Mike) Gattings and the (Colin) Cowdreys… These players – including me! — wouldn’t have played cricket if people running cricket today ran cricket then.
Had you won the elections to either the presidency or the vice-presidency, what changes did you have in mind?
My theory was to get school cricket right. We have the best school cricket system in the world, but the standards have gone down very badly. In ’81-82, we used to provide at least five to seven cricketers to the national squad. You can’t find a single cricketer from school playing even in the second XI. Something is wrong somewhere. When I contested for the vice-presidency, I said I’m going to handle school cricket. That was my dream, to get school cricket back to the same standards when we were playing.
The other main issue I was looking at was to change the mindset of the players. For them to erase from their minds the money part and to educate them on the value of playing for the country, value of winning games for the country. Those are the things lacking in some of these cricketers. I don’t blame them because it has to come from the senior cricketers. When we were there, like Aravinda (de Silva), Roshan (Mahanama), Asanka (Gurusinha), when we were the seniors, these are the discussions we used to have with the younger lot. I know during Sanath and Marvan’s (Atapattu) time, it happened and after that it never happened. So you can’t blame some of the youngsters when they get into the system.
On why selectors shouldn’t be paid to pick:The selectors are there to question the captain on his choices, and push the captain to pick his best side. I don’t like to see selectors who keep their mouths shut, have their cup of tea, earn their money and then go home. I’m totally against selectors being paid, it should be an honorary job. I know a lot of people will be angry with me, but when you’re picking a national side, you should not be paid to pick.
What is your take on the spate of unconventional cricketers that Sri Lanka in particular keep throwing up regularly?
I personally feel we shouldn’t stop them from coming up. We shouldn’t go into these cricket theories, you need to identify talent and groom it. That’s where we are lacking. I can remember when we were playing, we never had these physios and trainers. They had local trainers who didn’t know anything about cricket and they were trying to get us into cricket fitness but it was up to us to get cricket fit. If you take Chaminda Vaas, Pramodaya Wickramasinghe, (Ravindra) Pushpakumara, when they came to practice, they would bowl for one and a half hours without a break. They would be match-fit by the time they went to play matches. Now, apparently the system is totally different. They bowl only about 30 balls per day. And even for the batsmen, it’s the same. We used to bat for at least 45 minutes and sometimes even one hour. That’s where you gain cricket fitness. I can remember cricketers who used to run 25 rounds at SSC but couldn’t bowl five overs. But there were bowlers who couldn’t run at all but bowled 8-10 overs in one spell. When we were playing, our ambition was to perform to win games. We never looked at cheques. I didn’t even know how much we got after winning the World Cup, someone told me it was 20,000 pounds and we had to divide that into 14. It was not the best gift we got, the best gift we got was winning the World Cup which we gave to the entire nation. These are the things these younger cricketers don’t look at. They look at the money part, not the cricket part. And it hurts me. Whenever a player does well, the media ask him what his plans for the future are and he would say his ambition is to play IPL, CPL or whatever PL. They never talk about playing for 10 years for the country, winning the World Cup. When you read these things, it hurts.