By Amindha de Alwis
Several concerns have been raised in the recent past on the fitness-for-purpose of Sri Lanka’s present club cricket system, with the almost overwhelming consensus being that the existing 26-club structure - featuring a whopping 14 teams in Tier A - has resulted a dilution in the quality of cricket in the domestic system and consequently seen players who graduate to higher levels struggling to adapt to the vastly increased competitiveness at those levels (Be it for the national side, at A team level or even in franchise leagues).
Sri Lanka was awarded Test status back in 1981 and played their first Test match in 1982 at a time when there were eight clubs in the top division. Performing notably enough to ascend to ICC Full-Membership spoke volumes for the talent produced from the leading clubs at the time.
Given that close to four decades have elapsed since then one might consider it only natural that the number of First-Class sides would increase – especially after the 1996 World Cup victory which caused local interest in the sport to go through the roof. However, many leading cricketing voices have opined that more teams is not necessarily the way to go even when one considers the strong popularity of the sport.
Australia, despite cricket being its number one summer sport, has just the six sides featuring in its Sheffield Shield First-Class competition, ensuring that players are exposed to a high standard of competition well before having to sweat it out on the international stage. Two additional teams have been included in Australia’s Big Bash League T20 competition, but Cricket Australia have resisted going beyond the six traditional state sides in their core four-day and 50-over tournaments.
There is the argument that England with their 18 First-Class counties do reasonably well for themselves, but it should be noted that the English County Championship in 2019 (A shortened makeshift format was adopted in 2020 owing to the ongoing pandemic) featured just eight teams in Division One – a number significantly lower than Sri Lanka’s 14 teams. The 18 counties play on an equal footing in the limited overs formats of the game, but it is the superior level of professionalism in county cricket that allows this to be a feasible option without compromising a great deal on the quality of play.
Former senior cricket administrator S. Skandakumar told the Daily Mirror that a sensible course of action would be for the number of clubs in Tier A to be pruned down to between eight to twelve teams where the cream of local talent will be able to play at a competitive level – a view which has been echoed by several leading past-cricketers.
He further added that these clubs should be supported generously and a pool of players well remunerated to give them the financial security of knowing that they can devote their time fully to the sport and make a career out of it. Funds should also be allocated to these clubs for planned infra-structure development where necessary to ensure facilities for high level performance.
Furthermore, Skandakumar suggested that free movement of players between Tier A and Tier B clubs should be encouraged, with lower division players who catch the eye of Tier A sides being able to be take the field for an interested Tier A club during the same season; even if on a short-term basis.
Tier A will feed the national team and Tier B can provide emerging talent to Tier A since the national players are unlikely to complete a full domestic season due to International commitments. Consequently, Tier B clubs should also merit reasonable financial support.
The former cricket administrator also strongly advocated moving away from the model of having honorary office-bearers for the sport.
“The game has undergone vast changes since the new millennium. The financial resources are huge and with due respect, to leave their utilisation in the hands of honorary office-bearers who are elected annually stifles long term planning and even accountability.”
“Cricket, particularly since we won the World Cup in 1996, has become a national asset and merits totally professional full-time administrators which SLC can well afford. The change is long overdue,” he concluded.