Great start, now for the finishing school

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The Independent Online
SRI LANKA became the new cricket world champions with an exhilarating combination of outrageous innovation and hard professionalism. The really bad news for their opponents is the likelihood that they ain't seen nothin' yet.

Even as the marvellously rotund captain of the side, Arjuna Ranatunga, was striking the final's winning blow in Lahore, plans were being laid back home in Colombo to ensure that any laurels resting would be brief.

Last December, one of Ranatunga's predecessors, Anura Tennekoon, was given the task of developing a cricket finishing school for talented youth, the sort of institution which has been frequently discussed in England, though never established. During the World Cup, Tennekoon supervised the finishing touches to the building and grounds and took delivery of the last of the necessary equipment. In the next three months he will formulate schedules, select candidates and hire coaches. By June the Sri Lankan National Academy of Cricket will be open.

"Our cricketers start playing at a young age in senior cricket and it is not uncommon for them to be in at the ages of 18 or 19 so they are gaining much experience early," Tennekoon said from his Colombo offices last week. "But it was felt that an academy could bring them something extra so that they are more prepared by the time they go on to the field. Technique is an important part of that but so is mental resilience."

Tennekoon, who retired as his country's captain two years before it was awarded Test status in 1981 and was general secretary of the Board of Control until starting his present job, is aware that the formidable one-day triumphs have not yet been matched by anything remotely similar in Test matches (victory over England in both forms of the game hardly counting in this regard). On Sri Lanka's tour of Australia earlier this winter they provided stern opposition in the limited-overs internationals but were thoroughly outplayed throughout the three-match Test series.

"There is a difference; of course we know that," Tennekoon said. "That is what we have to try to address here. We are fairly sure we have good, sound players coming through, bowlers as well as batsmen and we have to make them ready for the long haul of international competition, to be ready for games of five days.

"We want to develop players who have the concentration,shrewdness and resolve to last out long days of hard international competition. That is the main objective but we don't intend to stop their natural flair."

Tennekoon, 49, is hardly less revered in the country today than Ranatunga and his team. He was captain in their first World Cup sortie in 1975 and when they won the inaugural ICC Trophy which allowed them entry into the 1979 competition. (He was absent with a hamstring injury on the day they beat India.)

The team stayed on in England that summer for a series of first-class matches against thecounties and the immense charm and joy of their cricket was fully appreciated for the first time. Not that anybody considered what might be happening a mere 17 years later.

Tennekoon's most enduring contribution to the tour as a batsman - one he still affectionately recalls - was a graceful century at Canterbury. It almost helped the Sri Lankans to a noteworthy win but Kent were rescued from deep trouble by an elegant centurion of their own. Tennekoon may shortly be renewing acquaintance with Bob Woolmer by adapting some of the South Africa coach's original training methods.

The World Cup win has caused an outbreak of cricket in a country already overflowing with it. "It has boosted the game wonderfully at the right time," Tennekoon said. "School cricket has always been extremely popular and will remain so but now I think the whole country has fallen in love with the game. It's a joy to go into the rural areas and see all sorts of games of cricket being played by the kids."

He does not view the lack of a professional domestic competition as a disadvantage. More worrying is the occasional lack of Test series. In their 14 years as a Test nation, for instance, England have played them just five times, never in a rubber of more than one match.

"That's been disappointing," Tennekoon said, politely refusing to go further. "Perhaps now we are world champions it will change. We have some fine players. We know some will be going out of the game soon [among whom may be the 32-year-old Ranatunga] but we are prepared for that. And the only way they can learn to play Test cricket is to play it.

"What I have proposed before is that instead of a host country playing a Test series of five matches against another country and then giving us one at the end, perhaps they could play for four and give us two."

It was shaming to hear such words of humility. For world champions, at whatever version of the game, it was hardly too much to ask.