August 25, 1997
BOOKS & THINGS
"India's problem is with its selectors!"
If there is one cricketer whose mind you would want to peep into just now, it would be that of Arjuna Ranatunga.
You would have to imagine it won't be a particularly easy exercise, clad as it is in a rather substantial shell. But the Sri Lankan skipper, once grouchy and irritable, once the man with the stay away from me look, is now accessible, forthcoming and extremely lucid.
Confidence brings with it many agreeable qualities. It allows visitors, even if they are only acquaintances like me, a hearty welcome. Like most happy Sri Lankans, and you would have to spend a few days to find an unhappy one these days, Ranatunga welcomes you with a smile. It is amazing how comfortable he is before the cameras, and how willing he is to talk about the truth behind this exhilirating success story.
I remember much the same Indian side coming to India, early in 1994, and looking, feeling and behaving like they would much rather be somewhere else. Victory seemed the furthest thing from their minds, like it were a theoretical, but impractical, concept mathematicians conjure up sometimes.
Bandula Warnapura, a small man never far away from a laugh, was the coach then and he spent an enormous amount of time being frustrated. Madan Lal is a bit like that now, for even his smile is liberally coated with resignation. Indeed, this Indian team to Sri Lanka, so rich in ability and so substantial in terms of individual achievement, reminds me so much of that Lankan team in India three years ago.
Even if they don't say so, it is apparent that this Indian team does not believe it can win.
I was very keen to ask Ranatunga how he and his side overcame this slump, how they broke through the downward spiral they were trapped in. "When we got a new sports minister, I went and met him," says Ranatunga. Obviously, Ranatunga must have been hoping that the new man would be different from his predecessor who wanted to sack half the team because he felt they couldn't run like... well, Susanthika Jayasinghe.
In the new sports minister (Sri Lankan cricket, unlike Indian cricket, has to report to the government), Ranatunga found an easy listener. "I told him that the key to success was in having good selectors. He asked me to give him five names. I did, and that was it."
The new selection committee, with the likes of Roy Dias and Duleep Mendis in it, was very sympathetic and committed to continuity. More important, they were able to win the trust of the players. The team felt secure in their hands, and that was half the battle won.
An edgy, nervous team is as confident and cheerful as an inmate in a death cell, and it hasn't helped India's cause any that Madan Lal has such a poor, and public, opinion of the team he is paid to coach.
Ranatunga for his part cites the cases of Jayasuriya and Mahanama as examples of what happens when you trust a man. "We knew that Roshan was better than his average of 27 or 28 suggested, and all of us agreed that Sanath was bound to come good. See, we even gave Romesh (Kaluwitharana) such a long run. He has been left out now, but I am sure he will come back."
"I think," says Ranatunga, now magnanimous and feeling free, apparently, to offer his point of view, "that India's biggest problem is with selectors. You have to keep faith in certain players," he adds, and not for the first time, he reminds me of Clive Lloyd, an articulate senior citizen who never shied away from speaking his mind.
If confidence is the most noticeable addition to Sri Lankan cricket, then their fielding is not far behind. Maybe the two are related, because it is amazing how often a man in form with bat or ball discovers hitherto unsuspected fielding skills. Sri Lankan cricketers had traditionally been Indian, rather than South African or Australian, in their attitude to fielding. "Ranjith (Fernando) used to help us with our fielding, and we used to hope that he wouldn't turn up for the practise sessions," Ranatunga recalls, with a most laidback, almost careless, air of honesty.
"Now we have Alex (Kontouri, the Aussie physio) as our trainer, and he has made a tremendous change in this side," Ranatunga says, in rather obvious admiration of the physical trainer's skills. In doing so, he also makes a statement about the indecisiveness of his counterparts in India. "He (Kontouri) is always counting the calories, so for someone like me, I figure it is easier to eat less, than have him make me spend a further 45 minutes in the gym."
The essence of Ranatunga's argument is that a team must have an easy and open relationship with its administration, and that both sets of individuals should be committed to a common cause. Sri Lanka are in that happy situation now. South Africa have been, for quite a while.
India, for its part, isn't. The seeds of mistrust are sowed too deep, and nobody at all is looking ahead.
Teams that do not look ahead normally get lost.