England find themselves in the unusual position this month of being favourites for a series in Asia. On the back of Trevor Bayliss and Eoin Morgan’s continuing success in white ball cricket they arrived in Sri Lanka as the number one ranked ODI side in the world, travelling to a side who are currently ranked eighth and who appear to be in turmoil both on and off the pitch.
Sri Lanka were knocked out of the Asia Cup last month just three days into the tournament after heavy defeats to Bangladesh and Afghanistan. They then sacked their ODI captain Angelo Mathews and dropped him from the ODI side completely, criticising his weight and his running between the wickets. Since January 2017 Sri Lanka have lost 30 of their last 40 ODIs. Three and a half years since Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene retired, there is still a gaping hole in Sri Lanka’s middle order that is yet to be filled.
Former Sri Lankan all-rounder Dinusha Fernando spoke to the Sports Gazette and agrees that the home side are in some trouble: “Their main problem at the moment is a lack of discipline. They’re struggling in 50 over cricket and one of the problems is that the captain and the team are changed too often. They also should not change the batting order all the time because it’s hard then for the batsmen. As an all-rounder I understand how unsettled they feel.”
Fernando, who played 2 tests and a one-day international for his country, all against England back in 2002-3, explains, “Lots of players are new and when you see their first-class stats some of them have only played 10 or 15 first-class games. It used to be that you’d have to play 30 to 40 first-class matches, including for the Board XI and the Sri Lanka ‘A’ team, before you’d get a call up. When you play those extra matches you have the experience to take the next step.
“We need a solid top five, without so much chopping and changing as there has been recently. We need a balance between youth and experience. With the bowling I think we’re doing okay. Every team has a bad run now and then. We have been world champions in 50 and 20 over cricket. Hopefully we will do better from this series onwards.”
The home side will hope that the ODI pitches offer some help to their spin bowlers, in particular mystery off-spinner Akila Dananjaya. Their best hopes of stifling England’s powerful batting line-up will be preparing slow and low turners combined with the relatively big boundaries at the new grounds in Pallekelle and Dambulla where four of the five ODIs will be played. Though this is one of the fittest sides England have ever put on the field, the heat and humidity in Sri Lanka at this time of the year is also likely to sap the visitors’ energy.
Fernando is well placed to comment on the differences in cricket in Sri Lanka and England, having played first-class cricket in his country for 20 years, as well as making numerous trips to England where he has played club cricket in Yorkshire and Herefordshire. “We have to make better pitches”, he said. “Some first-class games in Sri Lanka last season finished in a day and a half, so you can imagine what the pitches were like. We need sponsors and broadcasters and the players need better salaries. Every club should have their own ground to practice on too.
“Our good young players are going to play in Australia and England. Every player needs a yearly contract instead of just having one for the six months of the cricket season. Then they can stay here and improve the standard of first-class cricket in Sri Lanka. Mainly we need good coaches. At the moment some clubs don’t seem to have them. I think the coaching is the main reason why first-class cricket in England is better than in Sri Lanka.”
Fernando was a schoolboy star for St. Sebastian’s College, one of the powerhouses of the remarkably popular schools cricket league on the island. The Under 19 Inter schools two day competition has over 200 institutions taking part and the traditional ‘Big Match’ between various local rivals is an important cultural event, with both school children and adults taking part in much of the activity surrounding the annual games. The oldest of these matches is the ‘Battle of the Blues’ between Royal College, Colombo and S. Thomas’s College, Mount Lavinia, where crowds can often number among the thousands. This is in marked contrast to the UK where the ‘crowds’ for even the more high profile matches amongst the public schools tend to be the proverbial ‘three men and a dog’. Meanwhile cricket in English state schools has for some time been on life support, kept alive in some schools by the ‘Chance to Shine’ scheme but largely ignored by vast swathes of the state school sector.
Club cricket in the two countries is another marked difference. In England, club sides can be found across the country, playing at all levels from the Sunday knockabout Twenty 20 on the village green to the ‘semi pro’ status of many of the regional Premier Leagues. However First-class status is limited to the 18 counties employing full time professionals. In Sri Lanka the club system is very much centred on the capital, Colombo, where the majority of the 23 club sides that enjoy first class status are based. Indeed the club-based structure of Sri Lankan professional cricket has drawn criticism from the likes of Kumar Sangakkara, but attempts to establish a more competitive regional tournament involving just 4 teams have so far floundered.
Other than those players centrally contracted as internationals, the vast majority in the first-class competition also have to hold down jobs when they are not playing cricket. This forces Sri Lankan cricketers to hone their skills, and more importantly earn a living, in England during the Sri Lankan winters. As Fernando says, “Lots of first-class players focus only on cricket. When they finish with it they need a job. The cricket board needs to organise a pension scheme for the former national players.”
Of the new players in Sri Lanka’s side, 25 year-old left-arm spinner Amila Aponso and 25 year-old seamer Kasun Rajitha will hope to trouble the likes of Jason Roy, Jonny Bairstow and Alex Hales. Fernando is particularly hopeful for Aponso, who he feels is a good one-day bowler and could be a long-term successor to fellow left-arm spinner Rangana Herath, as long as he gets a run of matches.
Political interference in the Sri Lankan board, as with their Asian counterparts Pakistan and Bangladesh, is a long standing problem with Sri Lankan cricket. “There is too much politics in Sri Lankan cricket,” Fernando said. “It happened to me in my career and I can feel how hard it is for the young players. We dedicate our lives to cricket. After being dropped I felt I had lost out, that’s why I went to play club cricket in England and Australia. There needs to be lots of changes to the cricket board. We have lots of ex test players who should be involved. If we had 10 people like Roshan Mahanama [a former Sri Lanka batsman who also served as an ICC match referee for 11 years] who is a true gentleman, it would be easy to sort out Sri Lankan cricket.”