Cricket: Stumped by world inaction

A year after Sri Lanka took cricket by storm Simon O'Hagan discovers a nation in sporting turmoil
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The Independent Online
With two notable exceptions they were all back together again last week, training in Colombo in preparation for their forthcoming tour of New Zealand. A year on from winning the World Cup, the mood of the Sri Lankan cricket team is "really good", according to their new coach, Bruce Yardley. But the legacy of what happened 12 months ago in India and Pakistan has been double-edged to say the least, and for all the honour and glory that has attached to the smallest Test-playing nation since they produced an upset to rank with any in sport, there has also been dissension and discontent.

Perhaps that was inevitable. Triumph can be as hard to deal with as disaster, all the more so when you are not used to it. And in the stunned aftermath of the greatest moment in Sri Lankan history - sporting or otherwise - it was always going to be difficult to keep everyone happy. Indeed, the political battleground that is Sri Lankan cricket made it virtually impossible, and with a public suddenly demanding success every time the team took the field, there was a price to be paid for their subsequent failure to deliver.

Throw in the country's continuing struggle to gain Test experience, the resignation of the coach who masterminded the victory in Lahore, and a bitter falling-out between the board and one of the stars of the World Cup, and you have a scene very different from the one that joyously unfolded all across the island as the team swept through their qualifying group and past England, India and Australia, rewriting the one-day rule book on the way.

The Sri Lankans were a revelation and a sensation. With the pinch- hitter supreme in Sanath Jayasuriya, the peerless Aravinda de Silva, and the wiliest of captains in Arjuna Ranatunga, they had class and character in abundance. The established order never came to terms with their daring and originality. Although the team were not especially young, they were the inspiration the country needed to go on to even bigger and better things, and it gave the Sri Lankans the confidence to reiterate their aim to become the best Test-playing nation by the year 2000.

The native talent was and still is obvious. Sri Lankans were no less enthusiastic about cricket than Indians or West Indians, likewise deriving an important part of their cultural identity from the sport. "It didn't matter whether you were Tamil or Sinhalese," Ivan Corea, editor of Sri Lanka Today magazine, says. "The World Cup bound people together." Sri Lanka's 11 best players had already shown that they could beat anyone else's. It was at the administrative level that the problems began to arise; the team faltered; and the way ahead that had been so brilliantly illuminated did not look so clear, in part because of obstacles the Sri Lankans put in their own way.

The first sign that all was not well came with the departure of the board's president almost as soon as the World Cup was won. Control of cricket in Sri Lanka is a complicated business. The Ministry of Sport has a say in matters as well as the board, and politicking is a way of life. But it is the changes on the ground since last year that are the most significant: Yardley's predecessor, his fellow-Australian Dav Whatmore, has left to become coach of Lancashire. And Asanka Gurusinha, the No 3 batsman who played crucial innings in both the quarter-final and final of the World Cup, is in Australia, nursing grievances against the board, refusing to play for Sri Lanka until his dispute is resolved, and saying he would "love to come out with everything that has been going on".

To begin with, the Sri Lankans were able to savour their achievement. The government rewarded each player with $100,000 for a new home, and the land on which to build it. They each received a much sought-after car permit, enabling them to import a luxury car. They were offered free holidays in the Maldives. "You couldn't go into a restaurant without being mobbed," Gurusinha says.

Within a fortnight of winning the World Cup, Sri Lanka went to Singapore for the Singer Cup one-day tournament and rattled up 349 in 50 overs against Pakistan, including a century off 48 balls by Jayasuriya, which set a new record. In the final Sri Lanka lost to Pakistan, but they made up for that by beating Australia in the final of the Singer World Series they hosted in August. They then won both Tests of their home series against Zimbabwe. But the slide began when they played in the Kenya Cup in early October.

Here they were given a taste of their own medicine by the 16-year-old Pakistani Shahid Afridi, whose 37-ball hundred in the semi-final set a record for the second time in six months and made even Jayasuriya look sluggish. It also cost Sri Lanka the match, and when they went to Sharjah in November for the Singer Champions' Trophy, they won only one of four matches and were well beaten by Pakistan and New Zealand.

It was then that Whatmore left. "We were terrible," he says. "Expectations increased to the point where it was becoming unrealistic. We were just coming to terms with all that, the things that are associated with being a World Cup-winning team. But when it comes to performances you've still got to do the same things to get results. It's easily forgotten that you have to remain disciplined. Training wasn't as good."

Whatmore had family reasons among others for giving up the job, and is reluctant to detail the disagreements he had with the board. But evidently his lack of autonomy was a problem. "It would be wrong to compare their administration with other countries'," he says. "They are trying very hard but they are still learning. They need to structure it a bit more. It's a slow process. There is a sports law that covers every sport, and it really inhibits what the board can do. It's a funny place, I can tell you."

Gurusinha was the other victim of the Sharjah setback. Dropped from the team - not just on grounds of form, he believes - he expressed his disappointment to a journalist and was then fined half of his earnings for the tournament - the equivalent of about $1,000. "I just want to clear my name," he says. He was due to go straight to New Zealand from Australia, where he is playing grade cricket for North Melbourne, but now says he won't do so unless the fine is withdrawn. For that to happen he has been told he must return to Sri Lanka, something he is reluctant to do. But nothing is very clear in Sri Lankan cricket. Yardley was under the impression that Gurusinha would be joining the team later on the New Zealand tour.

The board's position is defended by its vice-president, Thilange Sumapithala. The involvement of the sports ministry, he says, is a safeguard against the board influencing the selectors. "The selectors are not answerable to the board." Sumapithala argues that the country's form has been no worse than India's or Pakistan's was after they won the World Cup. As for Whatmore, the attitude is that Sri Lanka did as much for the coach as he did for them. "He was a nonentity when we appointed him," Sumapithala says.

What really hurts Sumapithala, and unites all of Sri Lankan cricket, is their inability to get the leading Test nations, and in particular England, to give them a proper chance to play in Tests. Australia and West Indies have both agreed to play short series later this year and next, but the diplomatic offensive launched against England has so far failed.

Sri Lanka want more than just the solitary Test when they visit next year, but the England and Wales Cricket Board are reluctant to eat into the programme of five Tests against South Africa that was set in stone years ago. "We feel very upset about this," Sumipathala says. "Something is wrong somewhere. Even if it was just two Tests we would be happy."

Yardley, meanwhile, has to make sure that no more momentum is lost. "I've got to keep them pumped up," he says. "It's very easy for a successful team to relax." The former spin bowler, now 49, toured Sri Lanka with Australia in 1983 and fell in love with the place. He is excited by the young players coming through, especially Nuwan Zoyser, an 18-year-old left-arm fast bowler. And whatever reservations Whatmore had are not shared by Yardley, who has a seat on the selection panel and says he "likes what I see". Like Yardley, there are millions who have been captivated by Sri Lankan cricket and want it to succeed. Whether it will or not is another matter.