It's been that kind of a summer at 35, Maitland Place, Colombo 7 - chaotic at best, confusing at worst. A summer, an eventful one at that, where the powers that be at the Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) HQ have opted to breach the status-quo somewhat, and played along with this much used buzzword of our times, change. Within 48 hours of Sri Lanka's World Cup final defeat in Mumbai, there was a torrent of resignation letters piling up, right from captain Kumar Sangakkara to vice-captain Mahela Jayawardene and as a humourist suggested, even the designated bus driver of that team. "Stepping down" almost became a fashionable epidemic in the Sri Lankan cricket circles. And perfectly perched amidst this ensuing crisis was another situation, this time involving the Hon. Sports Minister, Mahindananda Aluthgamage, with a botched-up effort at strong political posturing vis-a-vis the BCCI over contracted players for the IPL. Lasith Malinga, whose chronic knee injury has been a factor in his limited involvement in Test cricket, a somewhat forced situation, opted to hang up his whites forever, and with that, another promising career coming to somewhat an abject end.
Next, there was that attempt by former captain and now member of the opposition United National Party, Hashan Tillakaratne to try and use cricket, corruption and match-fixing as a political weapon to target the President and his men, who virtually run the SLC interim-committee. Again, Tillakaratne opted for conjecture over solid evidence, which he claimed he would and again, the cricketing discourse in Sri Lanka was more about the extraneous episodic events than the game itself. However, the only decision of note that the SLC managed to take was the appointment of a captain -- Tillakaratne Mudiyanselage Dilshan for the immediate tour of England, or as I see it, for a good couple of years.
Captaincy - A calculated gamble
I must confess, it took me a while to come to terms with Tillakaratne Dilshan's appointment as Sangakkara's successor, and this, not because of his track record and ability, but his maverick personality (let alone those gold chains) and outlook towards the game - aggressive, instinctive and at times, frustratingly petulant. His batting benefits from a rather simple, uncluttered and bohemian mental makeup, a modus operandi that makes up for the apparent technical deficit, that no doubt has been exposed time and again. But will Dilshan make a fine leader of men? Or even for that matter, a pointed question worth asking would be if Sri Lanka cricket is indeed ready for a captain like Tillakaratne Dilshan? Maybe, maybe not. I for one, believe that Sri Lanka's departure from a methodical engine-room captaincy model i.e. Jayawardene-Sangakkara could well be a double-edged sword and a mighty gamble, given that Dilshan is not the type of horse, you'd count your races on. Of course, there are positives that he brings to the table, most notably the invaluable experience of being a part of a largely successful setup, knowing how things work and even at times, playing a proactive stop-gap captain role. Secondly, I think Dilshan's captaincy will bring intent into the scheme of things straightaway, notwithstanding the fact that his batting transmits that very quality. Having said that, intent without the requisite resources to take it to its logical conclusion is a non-starter, and that is where lies Dilshan's biggest test -- i.e. managing resources. There is no conclusive evidence to suggest that he has done it rather successfully in the limited opportunities he's been given as captain, to the contrary, there were reports of acute indiscipline within the ranks when Dilshan led the side to victory in a triangular series in Zimbabwe last summer. Equally, his live-by-the-sword-and-die-by-it approach could well be the biggest impediment to his leadership, which again won't be surprising. But, given the leadership vacuum that is prevalent and apparent in Sri Lankan cricket today, Dilshan might well be a worth a try, at least for the interim.
I am actually looking forward to see how well Dilshan fares in by far one of Sri Lanka's most important overseas tours to England beginning next week. That in a way, might just well be a hint towards the direction Sri Lanka will be taking in the immediate future, with another difficult series in stow, Australia's tour to Sri Lanka. I think we'll get a good picture of where this team is heading upon the conclusion of those two series, and importantly, I think if anything, this is a fantastic opportunity for Dilshan to stamp his authority on the setup and try and bring a semblance of stability within the Sri Lankan ranks, given the recent departures and resignations. I am also intrigued to see how Dilshan approaches the game tactically i.e. field placings and selection, an area where I am half-guessing he might well be found out early, again something he might have to adjust very quickly and take it from there.
Now, my personal choice for the Sri Lankan captaincy would be Angelo Mathews and this is where I think the SLC may have missed a big trick. Given the lack of credible options for the hot seat in Sri Lanka, I would have invested in a young lad, with an ever-improving stature in international cricket as an all-rounder of much promise. I am also inclined to believe that the ankle injury he sustained on the eve of the World Cup final, and his subsequent unavailability for the England tour, might have played a part in the decision to appoint Dilshan, but I think Mathews' appointment could well have given Sri Lankan cricket a new direction altogether, almost in the same manner that South Africa did with Graeme Smith in 2003, or even the Indians, who in 2007 went with Mahendra Singh Dhoni as captain for two of the three formats. Yes, there are aspects of his game Mathews might have to improve, bowling being a clear area of concern, and one of the problems which goes against Mathews he's not quite an automatic choice for the Test team by itself, and that, many feel is unacceptable for a captain. That said, Sri Lanka, if they had opted for the long-term over the immediate, and with Mathews fit, I would have no doubt given him the captaincy over Dilshan. Importantly, for Mathews, he has time on his side, and even after two years and with more regular cricket, hopefully the powers that be at Maitland Square can well appoint him captain, and a possible vice-captaincy under Dilshan could well be his requisite internship.
The other glaring and noticeable change, a welcome one at that, would be the way the new selection committee has approached the tricky subject of blooding in young players into the national setup in Sri Lanka. For one, the Sri Lankan touring party for England features some of Sri Lanka's best young batting talents in Dinesh Chandimal and Lahiru Thirimanne. Not just these two lads, but there is host of batting talent waiting to be noticed and capped - the likes of Bhanuka Rajapaksa, Yasodha Lanka and even Dhananjaya Silva - young batsmen who have come through the cradles and ranks of grass-root cricket in Sri Lanka. Equally, if the selectors in Sri Lanka are smart enough, they'd involve these lads at some level, given that the likes of Sangakkara and Jayawardene, minus the leadership burden could act as worthy mentors for a young bunch. That, I would imagine would be critical in Sri Lanka's batting order shaping up in the next two years.
The problem area, as a lot of people will safely conclude and justifiably so, is the bowling where the depth is not as strong as batting. Yet, there are some young bowlers we must look forward to beginning with a new-look pace attack - with the likes of Shaminda Eranga, Suranga Lakmal, Chanaka Welagedara and the most exciting of them all - Nuwan Pradeep, another freakish slinger who has apparently been tempered by the fast bowling coach, Champaka Ramanayake. As far as spinners go, Sri Lanka might just face a problem, and this might actually take a while to resolve. Post-Murali's retirement, there will be a battle-of-sorts within the existing spinners to claim their stake to fill those invariably massive boots, but if given the time and backing, some contenders like Ajantha Mendis, Suraj Randiv, Sachitra Senanayake, Seekuge Prasanna and Rangana Herath might well do a good job of it. To expect the same level of performances as Murali from these bunch of spinners might well tantamount to stupidity, but importantly, given the fact that Murali's retirement could well change Sri Lanka's methodology as far as picking 20 Test wickets are concerned, these spinners might well have to evolve and develop into near world-class quicker than what would normally be expected of them. In a way, Sri Lanka might well be staring into the unknown here, but let's not ignore the fact there is constant talent coming through and one of those might just be the one to take them forward.
It's only fair to conclude that this summer, especially the Sri Lankan leg has been rather gloomy and has given fans little to cheer, with controversies, charges and counter-charges making more news than cricket, unfortunately. The English leg, will hopefully put an end to this very gloom, and signal the start of something new, or even something special as Sri Lanka will begin their first post-World Cup assignment at a venue much associated with the start of English cricket's latest attempt at self-renaissance - Cardiff, Wales. The Sophia Gardens might well present a golden opportunity for Sri Lanka to start from scratch and in a sense unveil the trajectory of the new direction they've chosen to undertake.