The Nidahas Trophy opener witnessed Sri Lanka claiming victory against India at a packed R Premadasa Stadium in Colombo. At the time, the commentary box was occupied by two past cricketers: Russel Arnold and Sanjay Manjrekar. On air, Arnold remarked in a cheerful tone, “This is not the same Sri Lankan team you saw in November and December.” The reaction of Manjrekar to this quip was, “Can a coach make such a difference?” to which Arnold responded, “It is the mindset of the players.”

Free hit contributor – Dishan Assen

During the post-match presentation, the host Roshan Abeysinghe too asked skipper Chandimal about Hathurusinghe. Chandika Hathurusinghe, is he the talk of the town in Sri Lankan cricketing circles? The media briefing after the successful tour of Bangladesh saw skipper Angelo Mathews going on to say, “The Messiah is back with his disciples.” Is the coach the difference?

After a forgettable 2017, Sri Lankans were desperate to get the services of Hathurusinghe. Fresh thoughts and fresh hopes were the need of the hour for the cricket-crazy nation. Assurance of autonomy and a freehand were some of the demands of the coach. Fans were walking out of the great sport and their anger was clearly visible on social media platforms. This was when Hathurusinghe accepted the challenge of coaching Sri Lanka, with huge expectations from a nation. This speaks volumes of the man.

The coaching stint with which Sri Lanka began included two defeats in Bangladesh. “Coach can’t do miracles, players have to step up,” were the words that came from Thisara Perera. Since then, Sri Lanka went on to win the tri-series, tests, and the T20s. Prior to the Bangladesh tour Hathurusinghe held a special coaching camp with 23 players. One of his strong characteristics as a coach was to have a say in player selection. He picked rookie paceman Shehan Madusanka for his potential and the youngster was handed his debut in the final of the tri-series.

Ric Charlesworth, who was an international field hockey player for the Kookaburras (the Australian national team), a first-class cricketer for Western Australia, and a coach once said, The interesting thing about coaching is that you have to trouble the comfortable, and comfort the troubled.” This was almost the same formula Hathurusinghe used on his players. He brought in Dr. Phil Jauncey, a performance psychologist, who has worked with cricketers and other sports persons in Australia, New Zealand, and a few other countries. Dr. Jauncey has sent a list of 40 questions to be distributed among the players to make players understand how the future can be controlled and will explain the various steps for success. Practice does not make perfect. But perfect practice makes perfect. He changed several training methods of certain players. One of the beneficiaries was Thisara Perera, who claimed the player of the series award in the Bangladesh tri-series.

Sri Lanka played with almost the same set of players, but what changed? Selecting the right person for the right job is the largest part of coaching. This time, it was Kusal Mendis. Having been left out from the tour of India, Kusal Mendis may have rekindled his finest form. Opening the batting in tests he displayed some excellent batting mastery. The credit should go to the selectors for making tough decisions amidst high criticism. Coming in as a replacement for the T20s, it was a masterstroke in making Mendis open the batting. Mendis eventually bagged the player of the T20 series award. “Kusal’s mentality is really good these days,” Hathurusingha said. “He knows his game and understands himself better.”

Coaching is people management; getting people to do what you want them to do and making sure they like what they are doing. Can a great cricketer be a successful coach? When one looks through cricketing circles, it finds that in fact, great coaches are not always the cricketing greats. Greg Chappell had a coaching stint with the Indian team. Even the players and the cricketing world admit the fact that he had a great cricketing brain and a wider knowledge of the sport. But Chappell failed in player management. His stint ended creating a rift among senior Indian players. Most recently, Anil Kumble, the greatest spinner India has produced, ended his coaching stint with India in a bitter way.

English cricket experienced a rift between coach Peter Moores and Captain Kevin Pietersen. The English Board removed Moores as coach, and saw an unexpected resignation by Pietersen as captain. On the other hand, John Buchanan, who had only seven first class matches under his belt, went on to be a world cup winning coach for Australia. Mike Hesson, the current New Zealand coach does not have a single first-class cap under his belt. It is said that a presentation during his interview process had impressed the board officials. Hesson currently ranks among the best coaches.

In Hathurusingha’s case, with 26 tests and 35 ODI caps, he did not have a decorated international career as a player. Hathurusinghe had coaching stints with the Sri Lanka A team and served as a batting coach, shadow coach, and assistant coach for the national team. After the removal of Hathurusinghe from the post of assistant coach by the board officials of Sri Lanka Cricket, he made his way to Australia. The letter to the heads of the Sri Lanka Cricket Board from the great Sri Lankan Kumar Sangakkara, who was the captain of the national team, made an influence on Hathurusinghe’s s coaching CV. The letter highly praised Hathurusinghe and requested that he be reinstated as coach, but the board officials turned a blind eye. This influential letter gave Hathurusinghe the opportunity to interview with Cricket New South Wales (NSW). He eventually took on the reins as assistant coach for Cricket New South Wales in September 2011, on a two-year contract. Hathurusinghe took over as coach of the Sydney Thunder in the Big Bash League as part of the Cricket NSW system. Highlights of his coaching career began with the acceptance of a position with Bangladesh Cricket in 2014. His achievements as coach with Bangladesh Cricket is no secret. It was the discipline and the belief that he brought into the setup that paid rich dividends. The Bangladesh Cricket Board suspended Shakib Al Hassan for six months because of his “serious misbehaviour” with coach Hathurusingha. Discipline was the bottom line. No compromises were made in suspending a high profile cricketer in the calibre of Al Hassan.

It is still early days in terms of Hathurusinghe’s coaching stint with Sri Lanka Cricket. Leadership is more about responsibility than ability. But the early signs are encouraging; and reflects the brand of cricket we play as Sri Lankans. The stands are packed with papares around the stadium and an assurance that a coach will bring back the glory days of the island nation lingers in the crowd. In the end, what matters is not what the coach knows; but what his players have learned.

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