Thursday’s parliamentary debate of the state of affairs at Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) will surely resonate with all lovers of cricket. There is no need to labour over the fact that few things are right, and most things are wrong at SLC. That obviously affects the morale of the players as well as the national psyche. Sports Minister Roshan Ranasinghe’s declaration that many covetous (political) eyes are being cast on his portfolio because of the big bucks SLC commands needs no elaboration.
Many are the men who served the game because of their passion for the sport. But cricket has become a multi-million dollar business nowadays and there’s intense rivalry to win cricket elections while most decent men keep away from contesting. As Muttiah Muralitharan once said, if he contests the General Elections from any district, he will win it hands down but he didn’t stand a chance to win the SLC elections.
Robert Senanayake’s contributions to cricket were immense as he functioned as President of the Board of Control of Cricket for 16 long years uninterrupted. After him, other notable politicians like Dr. N.M. Perera, T.B. Werapitiya, Lakshman Jayakody and Tyronne Fernando headed the board. Cricket in Sri Lanka got a facelift when Gamini Dissanayake, a powerful Minister of JRJ’s government took charge in 1981.
By this stage, Sri Lanka’s bid for full membership of the International Cricket Council had been turned down on several occasions with the sport’s founding members England and Australia using their veto powers. Dissanayake, a meticulous planner, got down the Australian cricket officials to Colombo prior to the ICC meeting in 1981 and showcased to them the standard of the sport in the country and the cricket infrastructure. When he went for the Lord’s meeting that year, Australia supported Sri Lanka’s bid and once the Aussies were on board, England felt that they were fighting a losing battle.
Dissanayake succeeded in his first attempt helping the country gain Test status. He was surrounded by other capable men like Killy Rajamahendran, Neil Perera, Nisal Senaratne, S. Skandakumar, Anura Tennekoon et al. There was smooth sailing and under the visionary stewardship of Ana Punchihewa, the country went onto win the World Cup in 1996. Yet, a mere two weeks after the World Cup triumph, Punchihewa lost the reelection with his deputies Upali Dharmadasa and Thilanga Sumathipala challenging him. It was a bitterly contested election and even NCC’s representative voted against the wish of the club’s mandate.
The club duly suspended their representative but Dharmadasa in his wisdom made the individual a member of the national selection panel. Since then, it has been all downhill for the sport. Big money has been spent on cricket elections and ICC investigations have exposed how a board chairman paid a Sports Minister from a television deal, the money that was supposed to have been spent on development of the sport.
Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga did try to address the issue. In 1999, she sacked the board and put in place the first ever Interim Committee with reputed banker Rienzie T. Wijetilleke as the Chairman. Wijetilleke was never a cricketer but what he brought into the board was financial discipline. Sri Lankan cricket thrived in the early 2000s with other capable men like Hemaka Amarasuriya and Vijaya Malalasekara heading the board.
However, with Chandrika gone, politicians misused Cricket Interim Committees appointing their buddies to this august body, some of whom had contested the cricket elections and lost. What Parliament debated on Thursday is merely the tip of the iceberg. True, a colossal sum had been wasted on purchasing air tickets for the kith and kin of Executive Committee members of SLC. But there are more serious issues that need to be investigated.
In 2018, instructions were sent from the CEO’s office to the company that owned the television rights of SLC to transfer funds to an offshore account. SLC lost huge sums of money and despite intensive investigation, the findings have been pushed under the carpet and nobody has been punished.
Journalists who expose corruption at SLC have been punished with their accreditation to cover games revoked. Three journalists are considered persona non grata by the SLC. The board has also taken over 10 media institutions to court this year effectively putting an end to their criticism. This has been a major blow for press freedom and something that had never happened before.
The Sports Minister made some pertinent points in Parliament where he exposed that the board had been spending millions of rupees as legal fees to cover their tracks. The Minister went onto say that lack of discipline among players is because the board itself did not maintain the right standards. As a result, a Sri Lankan cricketer was jailed in Australia and currently he is on bail awaiting the verdict from a Sydney court after allegations of sexual harassment.
It must be also mentioned that three players were sent home from England two summers ago for breaching the bio-secure bubble. A retired judge who conducted the investigations recommended a two-year suspension for bringing the game into disrepute and lack of remorse. SLC in their wisdom reduced the suspension to one year and further brought it down letting the players off with a mere slaps on the wrist.
Under the current administration, the Test captain was charged for drunk driving while another contracted player was involved in a hit and run incident at Panadura three years ago. He was released on bail and while on bail, SLC went ahead and appointed him as the Vice-Captain of the national cricket team. So much for the standards in cricket.
Mike Brearley, one of the finest captains the game has seen, in his book, ‘The Art of Captaincy’ goes onto comment that a fish rots from its head. That exactly what has been happening to Sri Lanka Cricket.