By Saj Sadiq
Russel Arnold played 44 Tests, 180 One-Day Internationals (ODIs) and one T20 for Sri Lanka between April 1997 and April 2007. A left-handed basman and off-spinner, Arnold scored over 5,000 international runs, including four centuries and 38 half-centuries and also had a successful domestic career, racking up almost 10,000 First-Class runs. Now a well-known commentator who is part of the commentary team for the Champions Trophy, Arnold spoke with PakPassion.net about Sri Lanka’s squad for the forthcoming ICC Champions Trophy, Sri Lanka’s chances at the aforementioned event, Sri Lanka’s ability to regularly produce world class and unorthodox cricketers and much more.
Excerpts from an interview:
PakPassion.net (PP): During the ICC Champions Trophy warm-up game between Sri Lanka and India, we’ve seen both the possible strengths and weaknesses of the Sri Lankan team. What are your thoughts on the Sri Lankan squad and how do you think the team will perform at the Champions Trophy, in England and Wales?
Russel Arnold (RA): I think it’s a well-balanced squad and the selectors have covered all their bases. If you look at the mix of experience and youth and levels of skill, they’ve got things covered. They’ve got the best team out there when you look at the squad on paper. The warm-up match [Sri Lanka vs India at Edgbaston on June 1 ] was perfect. All the batsman got a hit. It’s all about how good you feel about yourself, getting the game-plan in order and trying to define roles for players. They haven’t played together since the Australian tour in January. Since then they’ve played Bangladesh, and no disrespect to them, but it’s not the same as playing one of the top teams.
[Mahela] Jayawardene, [Kumar] Sangakkara, [Tillakaratne] Dilshan and Kusal Perera haven’t played together in the top order, so getting their roles in order was also important. Jayawardene likes to open, but we have Dilshan and Kusal Perera as openers so sorting out those factors was important. I think it answered a lot of questions in that regard. Everyone got a hit in good conditions, although I don’t think it will reflect the conditions in England for the rest of the tournament. However, at the end of the day feeling bat on ball and spending time out in the middle was important and in that sense, the pitch at Edgbaston turned out to be ideal for that.
A score of 333 was a good and you’d have expected Sri Lanka to defend that. They started off well in the field, but then Mathews went with the option of giving a bowl to all his bowlers which is probably the right thing. At a crucial time I think he missed the trick of putting pressure on the Indian batsmen, which is understandable considering this was a warm-up match. That’s where India got on top and they made Sri Lanka pay. But come the tournament I don’t think there’s going to be too many worries in that aspect. Tactically both teams were off the pace due to their desire to give opportunities to everyone and to blow away any cobwebs.
All in all it was a great workout. One more [warm-up] match to go and that will be used to get tactics in place. With the form Kusal Perera and Dinesh Chandimal showed, the senior players will be able to relax. They’ll come into their own, playing their own roles and I think Sri Lanka will be a threat.
Of course we missed Lasith Malinga against India. With him around the rest of the pack will work better and they will be bowled at crucial times suitable to that particular game or situation. You can expect a lot more to come from the Sri Lankan team. The spinners didn’t come into it too much because India always play spinners well but Sri Lanka are going to be playing New Zealand, England and Australia so if the opportunity does arise on such a pitch they will be more dominant. I expect Sri Lanka to be a serious threat.
PP: You make an interesting point regarding flexibility and versatility within the Sri Lankan squad with respect to both the batting order and bowling options. It seems to be a very well-balanced and versatile squad they’ve brought to England?
RA: Yes, it’s important that you cover your bases for any situation and that bowlers and batsmen complement each other so it’s all about identifying those players and situations and trying to utilise them in that manner.
PP: Were you surprised that Ajantha Mendis wasn’t included in the squad?
RA: When you look at it from the outside, you would think it’s surprising because New Zealand, England and Australia are in the group stages and Mendis is such a mystery spinner, but that’s where credit should go to Rangana Herath and Sachithra Senanayake. They’ve created a situation for the selectors where they can’t be left out, so that’s a massive plus and that’s what players should look to be doing — create situations where they have to be picked.
Sachithra Senanayake’s performances of late have been good, maybe not on the international stage but in Twenty20 cricket he’s made a point and showed that he can bowl against big-hitting batsman in Powerplay situations which would give the Sri Lankan’s more of an option.
It’s the same with Rangana Herath, who was safeguarded to play only Test cricket after Murali’s (Mutthiah Muralitharan) retirement, but his ability to adjust and not lose his guile and flight, which is required for Test cricket, ensured his selection. Herath comes on and tries to contain batsmen and his style of bowling is slightly different in the limited overs format but he’s equally effective. Both of them deserve their opportunity in the Champions Trophy.
PP: Thisara Perera is an interesting option as well. Hard hitting batsman who can be moved up the order and a decent medium pacer. He’s another versatile option for Sri Lanka isn’t he?
RA: Teams from the subcontinent — Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka — their all-rounders are generally spinning all-rounders, so when a seaming all-rounder pops up he adds great value because it allows them to balance their team much better. Thisara Perera is very good in situations that suit him and he can do a lot of damage in the last few overs with the bat. His bowling is very unpredictable and he has the ability to now and again sneak out a wicket and surprise batsmen. In more instances than not he ends up being a match-winner and that’s good to have in your set-up.
PP: You spoke about Angelo Mathews, the 25-year-old one day captain. It can at times be a little difficult being a young captain in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka due to the importance given to seniority. How do you think Mathews will handle the captaincy in the one-day format?
RA: There’s a lot of trust in him and I wouldn’t agree with the fact that he’s young anymore, because in two or three years’ time he’ll be close to touching 30 and the word would be “it’s time to look for someone else!”. I think he’s mature and he’s got a good head on his shoulders and reads the game well, but what’s important for him is to make sure that his game is in order. Whilst batting he’s got to make sure that his contributions are spot on so he can lead from the front and having senior players can also work against you with too many opinions [to consult]. At the end of the day as a captain you have to rely on your gut feeling. It’s good to take in the views and be helped but trust in yourself is what’s going to take you forward.
PP: During the previous ICC tournament that was held in England in 2009, Sri Lanka were very powerful but were beaten finalists against Pakistan in the World T20. They played really well throughout the tournament but just fell short at the final hurdle. Do you think this Sri Lankan team can go one step further and lift the Champions Trophy?
RA: The fact that you’ve mentioned that they were losing finalists isn’t something we want to talk about. It’s forgotten and best to leave it to history. They’ve got a good team out there – but it’s not going to be about individuals, the contributions have got to come from around the squad.
They have the capability and with a little bit of luck with the weather, Sri Lanka will be a major threat. The initial goal is to make the semi-finals. From then on, it’s a knockout competition and they may be able to lift themselves and think about the final. It’s all about taking things game by game, one step at a time — go through the processes and let the results take care of themselves.
PP: Who would you see as the main threats to Sri Lanka in this tournament?
RA: One mistake in this tournament can you put out and that can happen to the best team, so I think all eight teams have a chance of going through. If you sit back and take a look, until the first one day international against New Zealand, England looked favourites, but after losing to New Zealand that feel changes quite a bit, but England will have two quality bowlers coming back to the team in Stuart Broad and Steven Finn. For me, England and South Africa are the favourites and you underestimate Sri Lanka at your own peril.
PP: How is it that Sri Lankan cricket, despite the off-field issues that are part and parcel of cricket in Asia, keeps producing world-class cricketers with a natural flair?
RA: We produce great cricketers because of a lack of coaching. What I mean by that is that a lack of coaching allows you to find bowlers who are also freaks. If you let the coaches’ work with those freakish bowlers we have in Sri Lanka at an early age they’d be trying to coach them according to the textbook and that doesn’t work. A lot of these players cannot be coached. The ability to identify that and let them go their own way and still help and guide them is the key.
PP: So, in your opinion, sometimes coaching can backfire and take the best out of a cricketer?
RA: Coaching and over-coaching can sometimes be detrimental. Over-coaching in my opinion is simply defined as trying to change players for changes sake. If there were coaches working on Lasith Malinga as a youngster, he would have never ended up with that action by the time he played international cricket. That unorthodox action would have been coached out of Malinga and he would not have been effective.
Also, Ajantha Mendis would have never ended up with the varieties he has at his disposal. He would have been a much more orthodox bowler. Muralitharan wouldn’t have made it to international cricket and neither would Sanath Jayasuriya. You’ve got to identify strengths, weaknesses and try and work around them, without eradicating that natural flair and unorthodox ability that some cricketers have at their disposal.
PP: What’s the scouting and talent spotting network like in Sri Lanka?
RA: The general system is that you play for your school. Once you leave school, you’ve got to end up in Colombo because of work opportunities and you end up playing club cricket in Colombo. That’s the basic and simple system that exists in Sri Lanka.
To be spotted as a cricketer in Sri Lanka is more about luck and about being at the right place at the right time. As for the scouting system, there is no such a system. So-called talent can be spotted when you’re walking around the street – there have been several such instances where influential figures in Sri Lankan cricket have spotted a talented player when they were simply going for a walk or a drive.
For example Lahiru Thirimanne, who is one of the backbones of the Sri Lankan batting in all formats was not picked for the Under 19s a few years ago. Aravinda de Silva was passing by and he watched Thirimanne practising and having a hit in the nets and asked “Why hasn’t this boy been picked for the upcoming Under 19 tour?” De Silva pushed for Thirimanne’s selection and that’s how he ended up in the system and he ended up going on that Under 19 tour where he excelled with the likes of Dinesh Chandimal.
In addition there’s the story of 19-year-old Akila Dananjaya who has played six ODIs for Sri Lanka. Well, Lahiru Thirimanne drove him up to Sri Lanka practice to be used as a net bowler and that’s where Mahela Jayawardene saw him and Dananjaya’s life changed after Mahela faced his bowling. These are just a few examples within Sri Lankan cricket of how some of our players find their way into international cricket.
PP: Despite the hurdles to overcome and the off field issues, do you see a day when Sri Lankan cricket can be the dominant force in the international game?
RA: I’d like to see that day. We’re always competitive so it’s just about building on our consistency. A little more self-belief is needed and I believe they’ll be on their way.
Maintaining intensity over long periods of time is Sri Lanka’s issue at the moment. If that can be addressed, I think they’ll be a force to be reckoned with. Even in Test cricket, [they have] intensity in short bursts and that’s why they tend to struggle. When you win a Test match, you win big because you hit the opposition hard, but there are not too many of those tight games going down to the fifth day that Sri Lanka has managed to win. I am not sure how the mechanics of flair and consistency could work together, but that’s a shortfall I would say.
(Saj Sadiq is Senior Editor at PakPassion.net, from where the above article has been reproduced. He can be followed on Twitter at @Saj_PakPassion)
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