By his own admission Ranjit Fernando has lost count of the number of times he’s been the Manager of the national cricket team, one of the many roles he has played in his long association with Sri Lanka cricket.
Having played, coached and commentated in that time, he was re-appointed as Sri Lanka Team Manager in December last year and is among the contingent that travelled with the team to England for next month’s Champions Trophy.
Ahead of the team’s departure he spoke to Daily Mirror about the team’s preparations for the tournament, the importance of managing personalities and the necessity for pitches in Sri Lanka to be better policed.
How have preparations been for the Champions Trophy?
The preparations for the Champions Trophy have been exceedingly good, purely because there was enough time between tours to try and plan out a programme and I think Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) really has kept no stone unturned to ensure the players got the best opportunities to train. (They) Have spent a lot of money and organised this training camp (conducted in Pallekele) which to my mind is one of the best training camps that I’ve experienced. In fact it is way above what has been held in the years gone by, even in the times that I did play.
They’ve really done everything possible to make the players comfortable and motivated and the choice of Pallekele is absolutely brilliant. Players find the facilities outstanding, the indoor net facility is exceptional and the fact that it has been constructed by converting some un-utilised space in the stadium is a very good decision to make. All that motivated the players to work as hard as they could and even having looked at the work ethic during the camp, there was no question in my mind that the level of motivation, commitment, was at a very high level. In fact after that, you could sense the change taking place in their fielding skills, and their motivation to give of their best. Having seen that, there is no question that these initiatives, on training camps such as this, would pay rich dividends. And I also felt that staying together, doing things together and other (team building) initiatives did create a lot of togetherness which I am sure will hold them in good stead when they go to England.
You have been with the team since December last year. What progress have you seen between then and now?
South Africa were hell-bent on making sure that they would not give us any condition that was going to suit our type of play. That had been a part of their plan, and as a result of it they made sure the pitches were absolutely green, they were sort of like lawns in certain instances. And at the same time the practice pitches we got had low bounce, were slow and didn’t help very much to prepare for the type of condition we were confronted with. Unless you have a long period of preparation for conditions such as that, which the schedules of international cricket does not provide (it will be difficult).
Having said that, those tough conditions were such that it was a learning curve for the younger players and I can assure you, there were quite a few of them who didn’t make as many runs as they could have because of the conditions, but would have matured in their cricket far quicker than they ever would have if they hadn’t been on that tour. So when you’re going through transition in a team, you have to look at those positives as something which is going to be holding the players in good stead when it comes to hastening their maturity and their progress.
And what they have learnt and the toughness they got was shown in the fact that out of nowhere they won a T20 series – a format where we are one of the few countries in the world that does not have a franchise T20 tournament, which the pundits say is the catalyst for the development of their cricket. So without having any of that, these players beat South Africa in South Africa and beat Australia in Australia. Lot of the sceptics who want to undermine our cricket said that South Africa and Australia didn’t play strong teams – that’s not true, because those (teams) may have not played big names but those big names don’t play T20 cricket all the time.
And it was very evident with the Australians because all those guys who played against Sri Lanka have been playing in the leagues, in the franchise tournaments, some of them even in the IPL. And they fail to remember that the Sri Lankan team was a very young team without (Angelo) Mathews, and they lost a lot of their key players. They were also an underdone side. If you’re realistic, practicable, these are the positives – positives that people are not either prepared to see or don’t want to see. So you have to look at it in a holistic manner if you’re going to judge a team.
Sri Lanka always lifts their game for major tournaments
A club T20 tournament will help expose the best players in the country
First-class status of clubs should be re-evaluated regularly
Mathews amongst the best with the right conditions and attack
If you’re looking at it in a positive way, which I am, during my association with cricket over the years I’ve seen these ups and downs. There were times when we were team building, we had to play very strong Zimbabwean sides and we sort of just managed to hold them. But those players grew up to be world class cricketers and that’s where the (Kumar) Sangakkaras, the Mahela Jayawardenes, the (Tillakaratne) Dilshans, the (Muttiah) Muralitharans, the Aravinda de Silvas all came out of.
This is a sport where everyone is moving forward and we have to also move forward. And whilst we are putting a lot of effort into our money, into our grounds, our facilities and indoor nets, our competition is probably putting in thrice as much because they get thrice as much money. England, Australia, India -- the money that they get -- they can afford to do it. I believe we are actually a country everyone hates to lose to. And the greatest thing that we have achieved, is that on the big stage whenever it comes to a world cup we are the country that everyone fears, because we lift our game by three four pegs, to beat some of the best. One World Cup win, one T20 World Cup win, one Champions Trophy win, two world cup finals in addition – what country, with our (limited) infrastructure and funding (has achieved this). I’m very happy that the present board seems to be putting the money in the right places.
But then they lost to Bangladesh at home…
I have to say I was on the ICC Cricket Committee in the early days when Bangladesh were admitted and there was a group that was very sure that they were fit for admission. Their cricket was nowhere near what it should have been but they had all the ingredients to be a cricket playing nation. They have been growing in stature over the years which took them a long, long time and I was disappointed that they hadn’t grown fast enough. I had a lot of faith in their cricket and I am very happy where they are now.
But no one is prepared to accept that they have some of the best players in the world today. You can’t look at the name of a country and say they are a side that cannot be lost to. We have to accept that players and teams are going to evolve, and Bangladesh has evolved into a team which can take on these sides and their record proves it. Bangladesh have also beaten some of our best teams in the odd one day game. The fact that they beat us in a test match here doesn’t in any way say that we have gone down. And I think Bangladesh must be very disappointed that they did not beat us (in a series) because they were a side that could have beaten us.
You mentioned about franchise T20 tournaments, and the consensus that it was a catalyst for development of cricket. Does Sri Lanka not having such a tournament stunt the growth of their players?
I am not subscribing to the fact that it should be a franchise tournament or such a thing. All I am saying is that we should have a tournament which is going to motivate players into playing that form of cricket. And probably we might be a better side than a lot of the other countries, because some of our T20 players are good and they do play in the other leagues and perform exceedingly well.
But there are only three Sri Lankans who were picked for the IPL this season -- two of whom didn’t get much playing time. Doesn’t that reflect the poor standard of Sri Lanka’s players compared to international T20 players?
The IPL has a limitation in that you’re allowed only four foreign players. At the end of the day, you have eight teams, and there are other foreign players who are also on the bench all the time. So I don’t really think it reflects much on the quality and skills of our T20 players because all these players who play in these leagues are picked on their performances in their own leagues. So if you don’t have a proper league to expose and exhibit your players, then no one knows about you, and the only way they know about it is if the management of some team has a few Sri Lankans or has a coach who has worked with the Sri Lankans.
There’s Mahela now, and I can see obviously they would have known about Asela Gunaratne and Asela was picked up by that side. I also think there is a network of people who know the right players they want so it’s not something which we can make a comment on and say that Sri Lankans are not wanted in any of it. But I feel that very soon we will have more Sri Lankans coming in and if we do have a tournament that would expose them to the world. That is I think the key.
This must be your third or fourth stint as manager of the national team...
I don’t know, maybe even more, I’ve lost count. I was the assistant manager – and at that time the assistant manager was also the coach – of the first ever tour that Sri Lanka undertook (tour to Pakistan). Anura Tennakoon was the manager. I sort of think that managing a team is a very important factor in cricket administration now. Gone are the days when you can pick someone and say, ‘look you manage this tour’ and you pick people for tours. That’s why I think the appointment of Asanka (Gurusinha) is a very good idea and I’m sure he’s going to make a big contribution. Of course you can’t expect results overnight. People are doing (expecting) that. Change is not easy when someone comes and takes a job. So it will take time, you’re going to ruffle a few feathers but I think it is important to know how to manage people and that is the important thing that has to be put in place.
"South Africa were hell-bent on making sure that they would not give us any condition that was going to suit our type of play"
About that -- the importance of management in the current game. There have been rumours of senior players not getting along and that has caused divisiveness about Mathews’ captaincy. How do you deal with that sort of disharmony ahead of such a crucial tournament?
That type of (situation) does come in when you don’t handle those issues at the right time. I think it is now very important that teams or senior players in teams not confine to one or two, and a group of seniors players are given a leadership role in making certain decisions. If you start encouraging clique-ism, then you have a problem. That is why I say you need individuals who can manage people and keep them together and hold them together, who should also be allowed to handle people. A sportsman can be very immature on life skills. His cricket or sport might be at its best, but when it comes to handling situations you have to help them on those things. And then you get their trust and that is why at times senior players tend to sort of treat some different to others.
How do you rate Mathews as a captain?
I think he has a lot on his plate, and he’s growing in maturity in what he is doing with a side which is not very mature. So you have to back him at all times and make him realise that there’s always support even when things aren’t going too well. You have to treat him as a leader and prop him up at every level, because that’s the only way you can get the best out of him.
His tactics have come under criticism, for being too defensive...
See, this criticising of tactics is not something that you can help. Any decision in cricket, except for maybe the toss, you’ll have a minimum of three or four options. And if you make the wrong decision with the options you have, which you have only about five seconds to make, you can’t call that the wrong decision, because we haven’t seen the outcome of the other options. It is a game of speculation and we just, for the sake of saying things, say that ‘he should have done this’, but what guarantees the outcome would have been different?
That is what captaincy is. To be an attacking captain, you must have a very good attack, and I can tell you that Angelo, whenever he has got the conditions and the bowlers on those conditions, he’s been as good as any. It’s too early to even judge him. He’s the most senior guy and the most respected by everyone and I think he will learn.
"A sportsman can be very immature on life skills. His cricket or sport might be at its best, but when it comes to handling situations you have to help them on those things"
Going back to the Champions Trophy, what do you make of the team that has been selected? And how realistic is it that Sri Lanka could go the distance and win the tournament?
I think it’s a very good side, and they’ve covered all the holes and areas and we have to back them. Like the coach has been saying, we need to be realistic, we have to take one game at a time and play at our best.
I don’t think any team could be guaranteed of going the distance and winning the tournament. But I have great hope in the fact that Sri Lanka raises its game on the big stage and that is the fear of a lot of other teams. Even to beat Australia 3-0 in a Test series is not an easy task.
But people argue that that was because we played at home.
The thinking of every country is that you must win at home. Winning abroad is something you have no control over, (for) a lot of things. So that is really lifting your game. Tell me one country that wins overseas on a regular basis? Very few teams do. I think, and I have not done an analysis on this, but I think Sri Lanka could be in the top rung of teams that can win overseas.
Is it fair to say that the pitches used for club matches in Sri Lanka have a negative impact on their fast bowlers, who aren’t used consistently as a result?
That is something that we have to ensure in our domestic cricket, and to police the conditions of pitches a little bit more. There are times when pitches are made, particularly in the dry weather, where spinners open the bowling and fast bowlers have no opportunities in the game. That has to be managed and I think it can only be managed if you have only two top tournaments, maybe the provincials. I am a believer that the provincials must be made the top tournament but at the same time I think a strong club tournament is also important to sustain a provincial tournament. The facilities in Sri Lanka are mostly in the hands of the clubs and it is when the three top clubs are at their best that the game flourishes, because they produce the players.
Do you think having 24 clubs with First Class status has diluted the competition?
I don’t think Sri Lanka has too many players who are good enough to play in First Class cricket, so I think that is something that has to be looked at regularly and re-evaluated to see if it is doing any service. There may be 12-14 clubs that can probably play first class cricket at various levels but I don’t know if there is space for (so many teams). It is something they will have to re-evaluate on a yearly basis or every two years to see if it is going to work.
Sri Lanka has not had the best form over the last year or so. Given the patchy form what would Sri Lanka have to do to be competitive at the Champions Trophy?
I think they have to field brilliantly. That’s something that everyone has been talking about with regard our cricket, that our fielding hasn’t been up to the mark. That is something they have been working on and I think Nic Pothas and the other fielding coaches, have all been working towards it and we’re hopeful it will pay a rich dividends. If you’re a good fielding team and can save runs that makes batting more difficult for the other side, and you won’t have to chase big totals. Even when we won the 1996 World Cup the fielding standards were outstanding for a country where we played like semi-amateurs. They were all obsessed with their fielding. They didn’t kill themselves and train but the little they trained they trained really hard.
Is that lacking among the current crop of players -- that intensity in training?
(What we have lacked is) specialists for specialist (fielding) positions. If you’re playing one day cricket in particular you have to have specialists. In T20 cricket you can be a good fielder everywhere, but in one day cricket you must have those cover points who are going to save runs, short fine legs who will save the singles. We need to do a lot more specialisation for Test matches as well. It seems to not have got enough attention.
"I believe we are actually a country everyone hates to lose to. And the greatest thing that we have achieved, is that on the big stage whenever it comes to a world cup we are the country that everyone fears, because we lift our game by three four pegs, to beat some of the best"