The President of Sri Lanka Cricket, Mr. Thilanga Sumathipala, was reported on the Sunday Observer last week as saying that he has lost his respect for former Sri Lankan Cricketer Mahela Jayawardene for the latter’s signing up with England as a batting consultant ahead of the forthcoming ICC T-20 World Cup. Sumathipala had expressed his condemnation of former Cricketers who, upon retirement, sign up with Cricket administrations of other countries and (as hinted) “exchange / leak” strategy and finer points of the team of which that Cricketer was once a part – in Jayawardene’s case, Sri Lanka. Sumathipala had also expressed his wish to bring in regulations that would prohibit Cricketers from taking on similar employment in the future, in the time immediately after retirement.
Coming from Thilanga Sumathipala, a politician who was once a curl of former President Mahinda Rajapaksha’s government and – upon Rajapakshe’s being ousted – now, a prominent face in President Mithreepala Sirisena’s camp, the allegation against Mahela Jayawardene is a bit tragic-comic. Being an efficient and shrewd investor, in our understanding, Sumathipala has a very good acumen for good, competitive business, and has always used it to his advantage. He has been in the business of Cricket since that arena opened up for big dollars in 1996, and, in spite of a few headline-hitting setbacks, he has been the yoyo that keeps coming back to hound the Big Chairs of Maitland Crescent for the past 20 years. As far as loyalty is concerned, allegiance is Sumathipala’s cardinal virtue – which is best seen in his being on Rajapaksha’s side till power lasted on that side, before taking a stance on the side of Sirisena, who ousted Sumathipala’s previous patron, rising to the level of Deputy Speaker of the current parliament.
If Thilanga Sumathipala has lost his respect for Mahela Jayawardene – too bad: the loss would be Sumathipala’s alone. For, in a career that spanned almost 18 years, Mahela Jayawardene has done more than what a power-conscious bureaucrat’s wrath can take to undo. Post-1996, while Sumathipala was eyeing the colonnades of the newly opened Lankan Cricket Big Bucks Business, Mahela Jayawardene – freshly out of Nalanda College and with a bat that already knew how to talk poetry – was making his grand entrance to international Cricket. His debut Test was that long-drawn affair with India in 1997, where the Lankans piled up a world record 952, with Sanath Jayasuriya hitting 340. Jayawardene frustrated the already exhausted Indian attack with a half century, scoring 56. Since then, Jayawardene has excelled in his craft, cementing a place for himself in the Lankan team and developing as a player on whose shoulders the fate and destiny of his country of representation was wrested on many an occasion.
With time, Mahela Jayawardene would be Lanka’s regular number 4 – without an argument the best in that position during his playing time – and would be, with Kumar Sangakkara, a renowned combination in Cricketing circles. There are players in world Cricket who will be known in “pairs” for the way they carried themselves in the field – be it in building regular partnerships, discussing strategy or in the friendships they fostered. Sri Lanka’s Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, with time, would evolve into two icons of that nature – two ambassadors of the game, its spirit, and as the “Lankan identity” of the game during our generation. Jayawardene would lead the country through some testing circumstances, steer the team to victory in all conditions and against all opposition and be admired worldwide for his shrewd strategic prowess in the field. Mike Brearley, in his “The Art of Captaincy” talks about how a Cricketer’s playing style is a reflection of his temperament. The same can be said about a player’s way of captaining a team and the kind of strategy he would use in a given situation. For instance, Hashan Tillekaratne is the most defensive Captain I have seen during his brief stint at the steering wheel – a reflection of his personality as a player. Rahul Dravid of India – a calculated risk taker, but a technician and sedate field presence – had his personality written all over the field when running the team. Kumar Sangakkara and Saurav Ganguly had flair and a touch of the “flawed genius” in some decisions they took on the field marshalling their teams. Mahela Jayawardene – more closer to a Dravid than a Ganguly – was known for his balance, resilience and doggedness in turning games to his liking. All this, while Thilanga Sumathipala would not even feature in a footnote of Cricketing history.
Today, the game of world Cricket is fast changing and as a professional sport, there is a high conversion rate from the time where runs were scored at 2.5 per over and LBWs were not given on the front foot. As a professional sport, teams seek the best out of their ranks and they obtain the services and the knowhow of the best experts and resource personnel available at a given point. As a team that has shown much competitive prowess over the past 6-7 years, England has thus offered Mahela Jayawardene a seat from which their team can benefit. If Sri Lanka Cricket cannot utilize the strengths of their top batsmen after retirement, it is entirely their problem. To condemn them of being “traitors” is a putrid effort to scale down to the standards of the Lankan politician’s “patriot-traitor” formula the employment by a professional sporting body the skill and genius of a Lankan-born master. So, in Sumathipala we have the words of a man who has, for a long time, been a member of a political cult that has been trumpeting the “traitor” tune for whoever that opts not to step to their tune, while having scant perspective of the world of competitive sports. If you have any fear that your strategy would be leaked – then change your strategy and be more dynamic as professional sports bodies are, rather than banning and condemning free people from doing their bid. On the contrary to the “bruised victim” face Sumathipala strives to project, however, some of the close followers of the game were given the impression that when both Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara called quits, they did so with growing displeasure and with some “behind the curtain drama” of which not all was revealed to the public – which, some felt, was authored by some persons of the Cricketing bureaucracy.
Mahela Jayawardene – or any other Cricketer, past or present, performing at the highest level – has the right to sign up with any body that respects their talent and has an offer to channel their genius within a professional and competitive set up. Politician-businessmen-administrators like Sumathipala, too, have a right to their opinions – like feeling “angered” by Jayawardene’s move. But, they should also be less selfish and think as to why these resources are being allocated elsewhere. Rather than cutting a sorry figure by condemning a man who has always given his best under all conditions to the Lankan Cricket team throughout his playing years – and for setting the highest ethical and moral standards in the way he played the game – some of these Sumathipala-like administrators should first check their stance and re-take their position, without that gross exposition of their middle stump.