To say that the new Sport Minister’s thoughts, Monday, on the Sri Lanka Cricket Board was a breath of fresh air would be an understatement. Rather, Minister C. B. Ratnayake’s remark that cricket is “the third most corrupt institution behind education and the police” was more a tornado, which, while devastating surely the game’s administrators, can only have elicited the full-throated approval of the multitude.
After more than a decade of seeming ministerial indifference to frequent charges of corruption in the Cricket Board, you can only have applauded Ratnayake’s frankness. More so, as many of his predecessors, rather than strive to eliminate the corruption, were, allegedly a part of it. Allegations of course, are easy to make, but when, for example, controversy has accompanied just about every big-bucks television deal, then you must wonder why the sport’s supreme authority didn’t arm-twist the Cricket Board into answering those allegations.
If there was suspicion that corrupt Board officials had, as protection of their kickbacks, baited previous ministers into sharing the spoils, those suspicions were as good as confirmed by the new Minister. He told stunned media men that a top Cricket Board official had offered (read as bribe) an all-expense-paid Caribbean trip for three during the T20 World Cup.
Ratnayake made maximum of that offer of ‘bribe’ to get across the message that, under his stewardship cricket administration is going to be clean. “I won’t be a pawn of anyone. I will not hesitate to take stern action if someone is found guilty (of corruption)… we can’t let something that has brought great honour to the country to deteriorate. (Thus) it is important to have the right people at the Cricket Board” – and promised to appoint a new Cricket Board: Just what cricket’s faithful followers wished to hear.
Stirring as the new Minister’s words were, it must be said, the sentiments therein weren’t exactly new.
After all, lately, it has become something of a fashion for ministers to badmouth their predecessors, albeit cabinet colleagues, for the mess inherited and vowed not to tread down the same path. So you couldn’t help but wonder if Ratnayake was parroting from a government-authored script or was being the man he is. Much as we loved to believe that the latter was the case, alas, two days later, there was some reservation about taking him at his word.
With the reading of the riot act to Cricket Board officials and the promise of a corrupt-free administration, Monday, you’d expect Ratnayake to run the broom on the incumbents and appoint an entirely new interim committee. And as changes go, the first removals invariably are the boss and his deputy, the two who determine the administration’s course.
But the incumbent Chief, Somachandra de Silva, his number two, Secretary Nishantha Ranatunga, as well as Treasurer, Sujeewa Rajapakse, have been re-appointed to their old positions in the new six-member interim committee, announced Wednesday. The four vacating the old seven-member committee: Promodaya Wickremasinghe, Ranil Abeynaike, Lalith Wickremasinghe and Gunaratne Wickremasinghe.
The three new appointees: Asanga Seneviratne, one-time cricketer but better-known in rugby (as player, coach, selector, past SLRFU vice president and member of the last interim committee). Seneviratne, in fact, was the favourite for the president’s job in last Sunday’s rugby union elections, but withdrew his candidature the night before, at the behest of a powerful political figure, insiders say. His Cricket Board appointment is apparent appeasement for the number one rugby job he was asked to pass up. Lawyer Kalinga Indatissa and Sports Ministry Representative, Prabath Fonseka, complete the new committee.
That two past cricketers of repute, Wickremasinghe and Abeynaike were replaced by no one of similar pedigree is rather jarring. It suggests matters of cricket seem of a lesser concern before a governmental desire to secure firmer control of the country’s most profitable sport.
There’s one mitigating factor as to why the new Minister might have acted softer than his words of Monday. The World Cup is only some nine months away, and that isn’t a lot of time if you are hosting the event, which as all know, we are, jointly with India and Bangladesh. The old committee obviously has taken the event beyond the drawing board, and though removal of the old committee, lock-stock-and-barrel, might’ve been a popular move; practically, it would’ve been suicidal. New interim committee members would doubtlessly need time to get to grips with the job, and the nearness of the World Cup doesn’t offer time to learners.
Hence Ratnayake’s half-measure: He retains three from the very committee he derided as “corrupt’’ and appoints three fresh faces, just so that fewer tomatoes and eggs might be flung.
If appointments to the new Cricket Board cast doubts on the credibility of the new Minister, to be fair, his decision to dismiss in toto the Ashantha de Mel selection committee shows that he’s capable of taking some hard decision that others might shy away from. De Mel’s connection to the President isn’t such a well-kept secret; a connection that many allege was what got him the chairmanship of the Petroleum Corporation, until, of course, the Supreme Court ruled his unsuitability for the job.
However, being a former test cricketer as well as Cricket Board official, there was little danger that he might lose the chief of selectors’ job. He had held it for five years, way beyond the ideal two-year term others customarily serve. The impression was that de Mel will hold the prestigious job for as long as he likes. But brave Ratnayake asked de Mel to take a hike; whether Temple Trees clearance was obtained, you and I aren’t privy to, but the decision to eject de Mel and co. does say the Minister is unafraid to take sensitive decisions in matters strictly cricket.
His selection of the men to serve on the new four-member national selection committee clearly is untainted of bias. Few, if any, previous chairmen can match Aravinda de Silva’s cricketing credentials, and his previous stint as selector and his continuing involvement in the game, as junior coach and advisor, makes him a priceless acquisition. Encouragingly, de Silva says he is open to others’ opinions, which means skipper Sangakkara can be hopeful of getting a team of his preference, which, reportedly, wasn’t the case with the de Mel committee – causing a divide between the two that inspired a BBC report which spoke of Sangakkara’s imminent resignation.
De Silva has been given a helpful team: Ranjit Fernando, Amal Silva and Shabbir Asgerally, men not known for stirring the pot, men who have done the job of selectors before and men with good old fashioned commitment to enhance Sri Lanka’s standing in international cricket. Bar Asgerally, the rest of selectors, as well as the skipper, are all NCC stalwarts, and small-minded critics will, of course, warn of bias. But de Silva and co. are too big to think small.
Given independence, the de Silva committee can be counted on to take positive decisions. De Silva says he has been promised non-interference from any source, but the gap between promise and delivery is wide. One reason why the relationship between the skipper and de Mel went sour was the inclusion of 40-year-old Sanath Jayasuriya in the T20 World Cup team, widely believed to be a politically-compelled inclusion.
The old legend dismally failed in the T20 WC, but that hasn’t deterred his ambitions to play in the 50-over World Cup next year, at 41. It’s not impossible that political pressure might be brought to bear on the de Silva committee to include the cricket-playing MP, as happened to the de Mel committee. Where the de Mel committee yielded, will de Silva and co. resist?
The question was put to him, Monday – and, as expected was non-committal. All he said was that it would be unfair to disregard Jayasuriya’s past deeds. What this might mean is that age won’t be a selection criterion – only the weight of performance will. Jayasuriya’s performance weight was light prior to the T20 WC selections, but the heavyweight political backing pushed him through the dressing room door.
It will be convenient to the de Silva committee should Jayasuriya opt out of next WC of his own accord. If not, well, that would provide the de Silva committee their biggest test – and test if the new Sports Minister is as good as his word in at least his promise of non-interference in national selections. In his last test, Wednesday, he was pretty much a pus wedilla.