Sri Lankans rise and fall with the performances of our ‘boys’. When Jayasuriya was out of form, we felt it deeply. Every time Aravinda pulled a ball on a good length, our hearts leapt up to our throats. The team recently suffered a painful test series defeat at the hands of a well-prepared and professional England team, and while many will debate the reasons, ranging from personnel to fitness to extracurricular activities to commercial interests; the cricketing aspect will be debated by far more astute observers of the game than myself.
Indeed, during my involvement in the Cricket Board in 1999/2000 as Chairman of Interim Committee, I was never involved in tactical discussions or player selections. These matters were delegated to others who formed part of a ‘team’. I have always been forthright with every one of my colleagues during my time at the cricket board. They did ask advice on cricketing matters, but largely, my job was to reorganise and administer the organisational aspects of Sri Lanka Cricket (then known as BCCSL). Cleaning up the financial irregularities and ushering in the next group of (hopefully) elected officials on the executive committee of the Board was my main responsibility.
I had personally always kept a limit on how long I intended to be at the cricket board, due to the obligations to my banking career. However, when I received the request, having always appreciated how important cricket is to the Sri Lankan national psyche, I felt a duty to assist, especially given the utter mess at that time. I want to state for the record that I personally, in my capacity as Chairman BCCSL, never utilised an official vehicle from the Board or any allowances; nor was any staff member utilised for business outside of cricket board duties. On one occasion I was requested to attend a match abroad, and I did so whilst being on official duty from HNB, visiting a counterpart at Barclays, thereby ensuring that no foreign currency or other benefits were drawn from the Cricket Board.
What I did insist on from members of the executive committee and the staff at the board was a level of professionalism befitting the standing of the institution. This must extend to the team, the management and coaching staff, without exception.
Towards the end of my tenure, there was an upcoming semi-final or final (forgive me I cannot recall), between SSC and NCC. Many of the country’s top test players were included in the squads. However, a few weeks before the match, I received leave applications from two senior players, which meant they would not be available for the club game. They wished to attend a benefit/exhibition match for which they would also receive monetary payments. My CEO asked what I thought. I said the decision was his, but if it were mine, there would be no leave granted. This is an important match in the season and in preparation for the next tour. There are youngsters who will benefit from this experience. An exhibition match should not be a priority at this stage. The CEO rejected the leave application.
The following day I received a call from the sports minister of the time, requesting that I grant these players the leave considering the monetary aspect and that they were senior figures. I stated that unfortunately I could not change how the committee and I felt about the issue and gave my reasoning. He then proceeded to have a minor argument with me. The following day I spoke to the CEO and decided that I should resign in protest against political interference in our work, which was of course one of the main reasons we were on an interim committee.
The Sports Minister sent me a message stating that he accepted my resignation. However, what neither he nor I expected was that many on the interim committee would also send their resignations. This left the government of the time on a bad wicket, so to speak. Corruption at the cricket board had angered the public, especially as it perfectly aligned with the abject performances of the team at the 1999 World Cup in England. Our committee had taken some difficult decisions; we had already dropped some senior players who the selection committee felt had not performed adequately to warrant their places. We had installed a new captain and vice-captain, departing from the extremely successful leadership of Arjuna Ranatunga. The coaching staff was also overhauled and the team’s performances had improved markedly since the debacle in England. Due to effective management of the team, our interim committee was extremely popular amongst the general public. I believe they recognised that we were only there to do the necessary and honest work that was required, plus people like Sidath Wettimuny, Michael Tissera, Asantha De Mel and Skandakumar had a lot of goodwill in the bank.
A mother of one of the players rang me on my personal line to plead with me to allow her son to play the exhibition match. I had to politely refuse the request, I simply did not see why the principle of the matter should be subordinated for monetary considerations.
A few days before we were due to resign, I received a phone call from the President’s office. Madam CBK and I always had a good relationship professionally. I admired her zest and the ease with which she represented the office, certainly it seemed in her blood to be a leader. Some of the decisions taken, I took issue with, and always stated so in the media when asked for an opinion. However, Madam CBK I believe, despite my sometimes negative utterings to the press, valued the work we were doing, and being a shrewd politician, she realised that our resignation due to political interference would create a stir. We spoke for almost an hour on the various issues at hand; I had to stick to my decision that the players in question remain in the country and fulfill their first class cricket obligations.
The following day, a relative of the President, who was also involved in Cricket, paid a personal visit to my office at HNB. We also had a good discussion on the various issues, specifically regarding the players and the exhibition match. I had to state once again that playing for the country was an honour, and to get to that position, the players had to earn their place in the squad. Furthermore, I did not want to send the wrong message to the younger players that we were promoting to the team. What example would it have set to those players if seniors on the team played by a different set of rules?
Eventually, I received another call from Madam CBK, she stated that she was at an impasse with the Sports Minister. She agreed that we were within our rights to refuse the leave applications. However, she did request a small favour: that the entire committee would delay our resignations by 30 days so that she might find suitable and acceptable successors.
That was the ideal result for me personally though I am sure some of my colleagues may have wished to continue; I respect them greatly for taking a stand. This brings us to the present day, whereby we hear alarming reports of players bribing a staff member to pass them on their fitness test. Then there were the extracurricular activities by which I do not mean a game of cards in the dressing room. Discipline has to come from the top. Players nowadays are making big money. It is difficult to expect that all professional sportsmen are innately disciplined. When you find success it is easy to relax and believe that you have ‘made it’. However, the management and the Board Members must take stern action. The state of cricket has been allowed to disintegrate for many years. The same people who were accused of mismanagement and fraud from my time on that interim committee are still running affairs at Sri Lanka Cricket. The officials at SLC should set an example and withstand the pressure from all quarters and take the difficult decisions. It is part and parcel of the job of being in a position of responsibility.