“It’s like you win a game, and you’re a hero. The moment you lose a game, you have to start looking over your shoulder and see if they are going to catch hold of the coach as the scapegoat. It’s always the coach who’s to blame.”
These are the words of Marvan Atapattu, former Sri Lankan captain and coach, throwing light on the highly scrutinized role of the head coach of the Sri Lankan Cricket team. The above words from the former Sri Lankan great also aptly represent the emotions that the present head coach, Chandika Hathurusingha, must be going through. Sri Lanka have lost yet another series- they have been wiped off 2-0 by a ‘depleted’ Australian side – and the spotlight is again shining brightly on the role of Hathurusingha as the Sri Lankan Sports Ministry explores the legal options of premature termination of his three-year contract.
“On the instructions of the Minister of Sports, we have sought legal advice from the Attorney General’s department to see the possibility of ending his services early,” were the words from a senior Sports Ministry official. This was coming from the time Hathurusingha was removed as the selector-on-tour after the defeat in the first Test against Australia. In order to understand the present situation, we need to quickly roll our eyes through the journey Hathurusingha has traversed to reach the position of the head coach of the country whom he represented in 26 Tests and 35 One Day Internationals.
Hathurusingha has had a troubled relationship, which started way back in 2011, with the Sri Lankan Cricket (SLC) Board politics. In 2011, when Trevor Bayliss left the charge of the head coach of the National Team it was believed that the then shadow coach, Hathurusingha, was the obvious successor who was also backed by the then skipper Kumar Sangakkara. But the vested interests in the boardroom ensured that Hathurusingha’s separation from the top-job was prolonged as he found solace in the Australian comforts where he was appointed the coach to the New South Wales team.
The big break, however, came in 2014 when he was roped in for the coaching duties of Bangladesh Cricket Team which until that time was considered a ‘minnow’ in the international arena. But Hathurusingha’s arrival changed that perception altogether as the side reached unprecedented success in the coming years including a maiden world cup quarter-final berth in the 2015 World Cup. It was due to this coaching stint that Hathurusingha’s appointment for the Sri Lankan coaching top-job was almost certain when Graham Ford left the team early in 2018 -some 13 months back. Finally, Hathurusingha was at the place he aspired to be in for so long.
Now, let’s take a look at the challenges which Hathurusingha faces in wake of his duties as the head coach which are racked up heavily against him, at the personal level, as also against the team and have contributed to the ominous talks of his early termination-
Permanent criticism of his heavy Pay Package
Hathurusingha’s pay package of 90 million Sri Lankan Rupees annually has been the eyesore for many since his appointment as the Head Coach in January 2018. He is hardly at fault in demanding the pay package of his choice as he said during the deliberations that if the Sri Lankan board can match what he was getting in Bangladesh then only he was ready to take the position vacated by Ford.
So, now targeting the coach for his heavy pay package when there are surely other reasons for the dismal performance of the team is, in Atapattu’s words, equal to making him a scapegoat here.
Flawed domestic circuit
One of the important reasons why Sri Lankan cricketers are not able to translate their spoils in the domestic arena on to the international level is the flawed domestic structure which simply doesn’t condition them enough for the nerve-wracking challenges of the highest level.
Atapattu, in a recent interview with Cricbuzz, sums this problem perfectly as “We have 24 teams playing in the first-class system. These players then get picked for the A team or the developmental squad under the high-performance system. Where do they get their experiences? Playing Bangladesh A, Ireland A and Zimbabwe in our conditions. So, they are playing even a lower grade (at A level) than our first-class system. They come to the national team from there, and we expect them to be Sangakkaras, Jayawardenes, and Dilshans. It won’t happen. It’s an eternal wait.” A coach can’t control the domestic structure of a country that’s for the board to take notice of which they have not done yet and when these players underperform at the highest level, it’s the coach who comes under the scanner.
Administrative interests preventing a coherent National Cricket Policy
Right now, in Sri Lankan cricket, it is the votes (and the power that comes with them) that everyone is after with a clear disregard to put the game (and by doing so, the nation) first. What’s the result of this? Confusion prevailing all-over. There is still no vision of the players who are going to take the Sri Lankan Cricket forward. When you have five skippers and 30 players donning the Sri Lankan colors in space of just 18 months, what do you expect other than self-doubt among players regarding their capabilities? There is a clear lack of a coherent policy for Sri Lankan Cricket and for that matter any sport in the country, which ultimately leads to no planning at all.
And then there are the scandals of corruption in the management. The confidence of players and coaching staff in their administrators receives a telling blow when anti-corruption probes are conducted in the boardroom of a cricketing nation. Suddenly, there is an air of mistrust all-over and the player’s dressing room also can’t remain immune to it. This makes the job of Sri Lankan cricket coach all the more difficult to execute.
It’s true that in the period of his coaching stint, Sri Lanka have lost 24 of the 42 international matches played across the formats and have coped one ignominious defeat after the other but Sri Lankan Cricket, for its own betterment needs a hard taskmaster like him at the moment. Turning the fortunes of this transitioning side is a difficult task which is even acknowledged by Atapattu, who himself had a fairly successful coaching stint with the team and even helped the team registering the triumph in 2014 World T20. “In my opinion, you can’t judge a coach on performances at such a short notice. Look at the team Chandika has. It’s hard, isn’t it?” said Atapattu.
What Sri Lanka Cricket needs to do is to sort out the management mess that’s prevailing in the administration of the sport in the country. Making Hathurusingha a scapegoat for the vices larger than his role is simply not the solution. He needs to be persisted along with the backing of administration which, at present seems not to be happening. Sacking him won’t bring in any change in the fortunes of the team for the reasons which we have seen above, instead, allowing the coach to complete his term is the only prudent road to a stable future.