A cricket match starts at 5pm. Every one learns of this by word of mouth and the players are ready to play a match next to Galle fort. The game starts with XI players on each side, two umpires and a scorer. They use a tape ball, marking out the pitch by drawing lines and using someone’s sandals. If a ball is hit out of the ground, it’s replaced in less than two seconds. The umpire is strict with no balls and wides, maybe too strict. The batting team stands at point while the game goes on so that when a batsman is dismissed the next batsman will face within 30 seconds. It’s fast and hectic, there are no crowd sponsors nor media interest. It’s a high-quality amateur game played by cricket lovers.
I’ve only seen one of these games up close, but from this one game I’d say that the quality of cricket in Sri Lanka is high, and when people who love the game and have no agendas are running it, it can be administrated well.
Unfortunately at the top end of the game Sri Lankan cricket couldn’t be run much worse. Of late the Sri Lankan players have been thrown into two largely useless and forgettable tournaments, the tri-series in Australia and the Asia Cup. This is how they prepared for a Test series against the number one Test team. With no first-class warm ups and seemingly endless weeks of ODIs. But what is way worse is that they did some of this unpaid. It’s partly because of the US$20 million SLC lost (they also lost the disk auditing why they lost the $20 million) while hosting what the ICC describes as “the most successful world cup ever”. Or the fact the board is roughly $45 million in debt. It’s hard to see success when a small cricket board loses $20 million on what should have been a money-making event.
One way Sri Lanka Cricket went about making some cash was with sponsors, one of which is a health product that helps cure penile dysfunction in men. Did the SLC think it was a good idea to get their heroes to endorse it?
Another way the board thought it could make money was by starting its own Twenty20 Premier League. But even though the SLC has signed away the tournament for 25 years to Somerset Entertainment Ventures, which seems to be a shell company that deals with Hotmail accounts based in Singapore, the tournament remains an idea. Many blame the BCCI for withdrawing its players and making it less appealing for the TV markets. While that may be the case, the Twenty20 leagues in Australia, New Zealand, England, Bangladesh, West Indies and even Zimbabwe seem to work without Indian players. As it stands they are losing money by just not having it at all.
Luckily they can find other ways to make some money. During the Tests against England they tried to cover even more of their debt by upping the ticket price from 300 Sri Lankan rupees – which it was not six months ago – to LKR 5000. That was a staggering grab at cash.
In England the prices are consistently too high, and quite often rule out families at the cricket. But they didn’t go from five quid to 75 quid in six months. You can see why English fans who assumed they were getting their tickets at the old rates were complaining about the new prices. It was made worse by some fans being sent away before the ground was sold out. Most local fans at Galle were in a segregated standing zone having paid far less. Originally members of the Galle Cricket Club were even told they could not sit in their own stand to cater to the English fans.
Not that I saw that much security. Yes, there were armed men all around the ground but no one was checked for any kind of weapons on their way in. Had any fan, drunken idiot or fundamentalist nutbag wanted to go out to the middle he could have done so with ease. Fans even helped put the covers on at the end of the day’s play. And any ground with open gates is not exactly putting security at the forefront. Nothing happened, and from what I could tell nothing close to happening happened, but something only has to happen once for you to look bad forever.
Not that the SLC is terribly worried about how it looks. Nishantha Ranatunga is the secretary of the SLC. Nishantha Ranatunga is the CEO of Carlton Sports Network. This network sprung up overnight and won the right to show cricket in Sri Lanka while it was still bolting in satellites.
Of all the conflicts of interest in cricket none seems so blatantly obvious. In many parts of the world cricket and TV are just a bit too close. In Australia, Mark Taylor commentates and is also on the board for Cricket Australia. In India N Srinivasan runs the BCCI and owns shares in an IPL team. But compared to a CEO of the TV company with the rights being on the SLC, Taylor and Srinivasan seem like minor offenders. Ranatunga’s position brings up any number of issues, the first being quite obviously if this is a cricket board in financial crisis, and cricket makes so much of its income from TV, is the SLC getting the most out of its home TV deal?
Before this tour by England I’d only had one bad encounter with the SLC – when they decided not to have a press conference without telling any of the media. Considering press conferences mean more work for me, I wasn’t too sad to see one not exist. This time it all started so well. Brian Thomas, SLC’s media manager, went out of his way to help us with filming the Two Chucks show inside the ground after the day’s play. My press pass was the coolest one I’d received from any board. And on the last day at Galle we were invited into SLC president Upali Dharmadasa’s room because of our Sri Lankan ODI-coloured suits.
It was a fairly odd moment. Suddenly we were in the inner sanctum, having beers, chatting about the cricket and wearing these suits. During the chat we mentioned that we were making a film on the future of Test cricket called Death of a Gentleman, and we’d love to have the president interviewed for it. He was more than happy to oblige.
Earlier in the Test we’d even chatted to Kumar Sangakkara about appearing in the film. He’d said he love to, but that he would need permission from the SLC as they had banned him from speaking to the press. We were told that all the Sri Lankan players had been banned from talking to the press, except at press conferences. Sangakkara is probably the most eloquent and thoughtful current speaker in world cricket. As well as being a lawyer he’s also the only current player on the ICC Cricket Committee – why would he need to get permission to speak to the media?
A recent SLC press release states: “Kumar is a role model to be emulated by all young hopefuls.”
The SLC told us he was banned for speaking for his own good because, as it was put to us, “players at his stage of his career need to be protected from themselves”. And that it was “dangerous” for him to talk to us about anything controversial. Or, as we read it, it was dangerous for him to repeat what he had said at the Cowdrey lecture. Even with all this danger that he may actually admit there were problems with cricket in the country he had previously proudly captained, we were allowed to speak to him. Just not about administration or politics.
Later that afternoon we were told that the Kumar Sangakkara interview had been cancelled. It felt like suspicious timing, so we asked Dharmadasa directly what the reason was for the cancellation. He told us honestly, and in a surprisingly friendly way, that it was cancelled because of our interview with him.
Our questions for him were less extreme than the many vitriolic editorials written in the Sri Lankan press, and weren’t anywhere as damaging as the Sri Lankan Sports Minister calling the SLC corrupt. Was it because it was going to be aired abroad?
Cricket in Sri Lanka is not in a great state. Bad management, an over-reliance on India and political interference are all major factors. Sri Lanka is a place that all cricket fans should try and travel to, as it’s a great place to watch cricket. When you have a situation where players are picked for political reasons, conflicts of interest are blatant, players aren’t paid, officials mute people and no one is checking tickets at the gate, it’s hard to be optimistic about the future of the game.
There are reasons why Sri Lanka may not be as important to the world of cricket as the bigger countries. But what it lacks in financial clout it more than makes up for in cricket innovation. It was Sri Lanka who changed one-day cricket by sending out batsmen without fear to get the game started. With Murali they have given Test cricket one of its most controversial and successful players. Aravinda De Silva was cricket’s first minnow hero. Arjuna Ranatunga was an ideal pantomime villain. Ajantha Mendis has changed finger spin forever. Lasith Malinga showed us a new way to bowl fast. And Tillakaratne Dilshan invented a shot you needed to be suicidal to try.
The tape ballgame by Galle Fort was seen by about 12 spectators. One player was a phenom. He bowled like Mitchell Johnson trying to imitate Lasith Malinga and cartwheeled the stumps of at least six batsmen. When he batted it was with a stance copied from Shivnarine Chanderpaul and he put two balls onto the road.
I didn’t need to see this tape ball match to know how special cricket in Sri Lanka could be. I just wish like that, all cricket was run because of the love of the sport and not as a political or financial tool by those who should know better.