Jayawardene Column: The problem facing Sri Lanka

It is always easy to blame the cricketers. They are the first in the line of fire and when things go wrong, especially in a country like Sri Lanka where cricket is so important, there will be people quick to point fingers. The truth though is that we have taken too long to address a fundamental problem that undermines the national team and threatens our future: the quality of our domestic cricket.

Kumar Sangakkara, who has retired from international cricket, poses for photographs with ground staff after the second Test between Sri Lanka and India in Colombo, on August 24, 2015. Sangakkara has been in the forefront of suggesting changes in Sri Lanka's domestic cricket structure.   -  AP

Angelo Mathews, the Sri Lankan captain, is a picture of frustration in a T20 International against New Zealand. Sri Lanka had a bad tour of New Zealand and the people back home are, quite unjustifiably, having a go at the players.   -  GETTY IMAGES

Sri Lanka have just arrived home after a bruising tour to New Zealand and, perhaps predictably, there is lots of concern in the media and amongst the public. Defeats in the Tests, ODIs and T20s have caused alarm in some quarters, especially in the Sports Ministry and the cricket board. However, it’s important we don’t over-react and we need to put everything into perspective.

The tour to New Zealand was always going to be a tough one. Very tough, in fact. The Black Caps have performed admirably in all formats of late. Their runners-up position in the World Cup was no fluke and in Tests they have been playing aggressive and skilful cricket. They are no longer the low-to-middle table opponents that are well-organised and combative, but not quite good enough.

 

New Zealand possess a world-class batting line-up and some very skilful pace bowlers. Their attack also has variety with exponents of swing and seam. Playing at home was also a big advantage. I don’t think we could honestly expect our boys to win. We have lots of talent and potential, but we are very short of international experience and the players need more exposure.

I was actually quite pleased to see some good fighting cricket from us at certain stages. We created some chances in the second Test and also came back well, albeit briefly, in the ODI series to give ourselves a chance of levelling things. Unfortunately, when it came to the key moments we were unable to take our chances, but that is simply a lack of experience.

We need to be patient with this young team. There have been a lot of changes during the past few years and re-building is not an overnight job. This is a long-term project that could take two to three years. And we will only be successful in that process if we realise this and give the squad time to develop.

It is always easy to blame the cricketers. They are the first in the line of fire and when things go wrong, especially in a country like Sri Lanka where cricket is so important, there will be people quick to point fingers. The truth though is that we have taken too long to address a fundamental problem that undermines the national team and threatens our future: the quality of our domestic cricket.

Sanga and I have been warning for 10 plus years that changes were needed. The standard of our domestic game is poor and the gap between domestic and international is unsustainably wide. We have a strong school system, but the first-class system slows down development and when players are selected for the national team they usually struggle at the outset.

As a batsman, for example, in our three-day club-based Premier League you will face some excellent bowlers, but once they are tired and replaced there will invariably be weaker bowlers to target. You will always get that welcome boundary ball to keep the score ticking along. In international cricket, however, you will often face five top-class bowlers and suddenly there are no easy runs. It’s a completely new challenge and the pressure often leads to an ill-judged stroke and soft dismissal.

The whole world is playing four-day first-class cricket right now, but Sri Lanka is still playing three-day cricket. That sums it up. Plans had been drawn up for a Zonal System to sit above the club system and I was involved in drafting those plans alongside some very good ex-Sri Lanka cricketers. I hope the new board does not shelve those plans because I think they are very critical to our future.

Of course, the players can’t sit back and blame the structure. Their challenge is to learn, develop and perform despite the structural challenges they face. They need to focus hard, believe in themselves, and keep moving forward. There are clearly several youngsters with lots of natural talent and that is very exciting.

The new board will be focussing on the search for a new coach and that is going to be very important. It’s not that easy signing top-quality international coaches these days. The best ones have lots of opportunities and several are no longer keen to be on the road 12 months a year. Franchise cricket pays well and gives them plenty of time at home with their families. So we need to manage the recruitment process and provide an attractive package and the right assurances that whoever is deemed the right person is given security of tenure. With a young team, we also need to think carefully about the type of coach and personality that is going to bring out the best in the guys.

Hopefully, in the next few weeks, we will see some positive progress. The new cricket board will announce its development plans and hopefully they will be able to secure a top coach, ideally before the England tour in May and June. The players, meanwhile, are best not reading the newspapers or paying attention to what is being said on social media and instead focussing on old-fashioned hard work.