Arjuna Ranatunga will always be amongst the first names associated with Sri Lankan cricket. In 1996, he put Sri Lanka on the cricketing map by leading the side to a historic World Cup triumph.

Vishaal Loganathan

Playing for the Sri Lankan team since February 1982, Ranatunga went on to play 93 Tests (5105 runs at 35.69) and 269 ODIs (7456 runs at 35.84) and captained the side during its hey days. He was also at the helm during Sri Lanka’s turbulent times, notably during the 1995-96 tri-series tournament in Australia when Muttiah Muralitharan was called for chucking. Upon retirement, Ranatunga entered politics and cricket administration. He has served as President of Sri Lanka Cricket, and also was the minister for Ports and Shipping. He is currently the Minister for Petroleum.

Speaking to a group of journalists, Ranatunga spoke on a range of topics, from the issues plaguing Sri Lankan cricket to his plans for its resurrection; from his views on modern-day cricket to captaincy, from his own struggles about getting into cricket administration to his views on Indian cricket.

As a minister, what is your average day like?

Average Day… Generally, I start a little early. I come to the ministry around 8:30. Being a new minister, it takes a little time so I spend till about 8:30 – 9:00 in the night. Generally I work till late, but when the kids are here… they are not kids anymore… but when the children are here, I tend to go a little early. But, the last month has been very busy, especially with the new ministry taking over. You have to get used to the system as well. But, I don’t complain, I generally enjoy working. I hardly watch cricket, so I have a lot of time (laughs) to spend on my ministry.

You were used to different kinds of challenges earlier on, do those things help you?

I think cricket has given me a lot. Not only recognition, but how to manage people, how to take decisions at the right time. I always say that all the politicians should play cricket before they get into the parliament. Because they’ll know how to play with and work with the group.

How has the experience of captaincy helped you? This is also a leadership role…

I think it’s all about taking decisions. This is one of the biggest weaknesses we have in this government. I think we take decisions after a lot of things happen, I don’t do that. I take decisions. Sometimes it maybe not the right one, but I’m not scared to take decisions. I think that came from cricket. I always say you have to take strong decisions when things are bad. It can be a collective decision, I feel that that was one of the mistakes we go through.

What are the main challenges facing Sri Lanka cricket now?

Cricket… (laughs) To tell you honestly, I stopped watching cricket. I read the newspaper, but I hardly watch cricket. I was very disappointed after the last cricket elections. There are roles in this country, and I was not eligible to contest as the President (of Sri Lanka Cricket). So I thought I have to, being in the government, go through the law properly. And I had the opportunity to contest for Vice-Presidency, which I lost. This is not the first time it has happened. I contested for President, I lost, and I contested for Vice-President and I lost. And we wrote to the minister, we wrote to the commissions, we wrote to them and told them the problems the cricket will face, especially with unwanted people getting involved. Unfortunately, no one was listening to me. So I thought, okay, if the government thinks this is right, I’m part of the government. I took a step back and I allowed them (the current SLC set-up) to run. They ran two years, messed up everything.

Cricket was something like a religion to this nation, and we don’t have a religion now. I think a lot of people don’t watch cricket. You can imagine, if I’m not watching cricket, you are expecting the others to watch cricket!

That is nothing to do with the cricketers. It’s all about bad and wrong administration. We have a sports law in this country which governs you. It categorically says that gambling people can’t get involved in sports, the entire country knows the present (SLC) President’s family business. Then there’s another thing about media. The entire country knows the present cricket board President’s involvement with the media. Unfortunately, people who are running sports don’t understand that. So I kept my mouth shut for about two years.

I’m a little concerned about the young generation, especially the school cricketers and the young cricketers who started playing, so I decided, ‘let me open my mouth’. We suffered to bring cricket to this level – Not this level, I’m talking about different level – and I felt that it’s high time that I should be part of the system. Like I should try to correct them, so I started talking to media. And there were cricketers I spoke to and I think it’s high time, we need an interim committee. If we go like this, we are going into (disaster). We have done badly but it’s not end of the world, but we are heading there. And unfortunately people don’t realise that, people who run sports don’t realise that.

Is there something that you can do on a more tangible, legal level?

I think if we did that at the elections, most of these guys were not qualified to come to the cricket board. They should have stopped straight away. But unfortunately they didn’t. Even Human Rights commission. I wrote to Human Rights commission. Apparently they have done the file, but they don’t give a reply. So I can push as a minister, but I don’t want to get into that.

I felt ‘Okay, I was given a job at the port, I did that, I was given a job here (Petroleum)’, but cricket-wise I thought I’ll start talking. I know that the entire country listens to me when it comes to cricket. So I decided, okay let me give my view. And I’m very keen on writing to the President and the Prime Minister within the next two weeks. I was planning to do it this week, but I need little more time. So it’s upto the two top leaders in this country to protect cricket, if they want to protect cricket. If they don’t, then they can do anything they want.

“A captain is a person who will listen to all 9-10 players, but ultimately take a decision without listening to anyone.” © Getty
How frustrating has it been to see things transpire the way they are today?

It’s been very frustrating. Cricket is going in the wrong direction. So that’s why I thought… let me write to the President and Prime Minister and explain it to them and let them take a decision. Otherwise cricket authorities can say I am trying to get into cricket. I have the right to get into cricket more than the ones who run cricket today. But to tell you honestly, it’s very frustrating because we are a very talented cricketing nation. People don’t know how to handle them. It’s all about mind games but they talk about physique and no one talks about cricket fitness. A lot of people are talking about the bodies and the six packs. Then you get models. I always say pick 15 models and tell them to play cricket. It’s so unfortunate that all these people who take decisions on cricketing matters haven’t seen proper cricket. You take Duleep Mendises, (GR) Viswanaths, (Mike) Gattings and (Colin) Cowdreys… These players wouldn’t have played cricket if people running cricket today ran cricket then, including me! So, I always say that this is not the right thing but I don’t blame because this is Sri Lanka.

You contested for President’s and Vice-President’s post, what were the changes you were trying to bring in, and how many of those still apply today?

My theory was to get school cricket right. We have the best school cricket system in the world, but the standards have gone down very badly. Like in ’81-82, we used to send at least five to seven cricketers to the national squad. You can’t find a single cricketer from school to play even in the second XI (these days). So something is wrong somewhere. So when I contested as Vice President, I told them, I’m not going to get involved too much, I’m a minister. I’m going to handle school cricket. That was my dream, to get school cricket back to the same standards when we were playing.

The other main issue I was looking at was to change the minds of the players. For them to erase their minds on the money part and to educate them on the value of playing for the country, value of winning games for the country. Those are the things lacking from some of these cricketers. I don’t blame them because it has to come from the senior cricketers. When we were there, like Aravinda [de Silva], Roshan [Mahanama], Asanka [Gurusinha], when we were the seniors, these are the discussions we used to have with the younger lot. It was more like teaching.

I’m sure that after our period, I know Sanath [Jayasuriya], Marvan’s [Atapattu] time it happened and after that it never happened. So you can’t blame some of the youngsters when they get into the system, they were promoted by managers and agents, and the agents used to tell them what to do and what not to do. It was not their parents or wives or the family. Ultimately, they were controlled and run by so called agents. And these agents getting into selections, they get hold of some of the young cricketers, some of the cricketers were ruined because of them, because if they don’t agree to sign with them, the seniors could harass them. It has happened to a lot of cricketers. I’m sure one of these days, people will come out and talk about it.

When I was at the cricket board in 2008, I was trying to stop and get rid of the agents. I said cricket board will be the agent. If India wants 10 players for IPL, okay, we will raise the players. Whatever the percentage this agent takes, give it to Sri Lanka cricket, to develop school cricket. This is the policy I was trying to take. But there were senior cricketers who were protected by this agent mafia and never wanted that to happen.

What makes top-class captains, are there particular characteristics or is it instinctive?

I think both. I always say I, as a captain, I always used to admire Imran Khan. [But] it started with Kapil Dev because he won a World Cup when I was 19. I thought if Kapil can win a World Cup as India captain why can’t Sri Lanka win. Then 1992, Imran. Then it was more like a double thing: If India can win, Pakistan can win, why can’t we win.

I am a very positive guy, I don’t look at the negative side. If you look at the Indian side in 1983, it was not the best side India has produced, there were bits and pieces players surrounded by one or two top cricketers. If you take 1996 my team, it was the same sort of team we had.

A captain is a person who will listen to all 9-10 players, but ultimately take a decision, more like without listening to anyone. It is all about how he feels. I think, that is the strength I had, I was never afraid to take decisions. Whatever decisions I have taken, more than 70-80 per cent was on the plus side.

Now, it’s become such that if you take a tough decision, there are several other influential people in the side who do not like tough decisions. Did you encounter any resistance like that when you were there? Or were you too strong?

I was too strong and I got rid of them. If you can’t work with me, then you can’t be in my team. I’ll tell you, the ’96 team was not the best team we had at that time. But they were the most committed team I picked. I never wanted the most talented team, I wanted a team which gives me 100%, who will come out and give their lives to the country. Whatever the plans we have, if they are going to work with me to get through, those sort of cricketers I wanted to pick. There were much better cricketers than that particular team.

How do get the guys to trust you?

It doesn’t happen overnight, it takes a little time. It’s all about how you protect your cricketers. When you know that the cricketers are talented, that’s a gift given by someone on the top, have a little patience. I can give you a couple of examples – Jayasuriya, he was awful at the start, Marvan Attapattu couldn’t get a single run. But when we looked at them, we knew that they are going to come out from this shell. So it’s all about protecting them, safeguarding them, push them at the right time, throw them to the deep end at the right time.

Some of these present guys what they do – without teaching them how to swim, throw them into the deep end. And after two games they are dead and gone. How many cricketers we’ve picked in the last two years, there are 40-odd cricketers who played in two years. It didn’t happen in my time.

I can remember when I picked about 20 cricketers. Somewhere in early ’95, I decided ‘Okay, I’m going to work with these 20 guys’. The only cricketer who came to the side away from this 20 was Marvan Attapattu. He was struggling at that time. We never looked at him as a one-day person, but when we plan, it was more like looking at ‘what if Asanka Gurusinha gets injured?’ Marvan was the only guy who could fill this. We had all the hard hitting guys. Roshan was shifted down, Hashan [Tillakaratne] was shifted down, I shifted down and our target was to protect Aravinda. We knew if Aravinda is going to get runs, we will win the World Cup. So we kept him very happy, comfortable, allowed him to get runs. All the pressure, I used to bat at 5, Roshan at 6, Hashan at 7, we used to take all the pressure.

“The ’96 team was not the best team we had at that time. But they were the most committed.” © Getty
Sri Lanka seems to produce a lot of unconventional cricketers…

I personally feel we shouldn’t stop them from coming up. We shouldn’t go into these cricket theories, you need to identify the talent and groom them. I think that’s where we are lacking. I can remember when we were playing, we never had these physios and trainers. They had local trainers who didn’t know anything about cricket and they were trying to get us into cricket fitness but it was up to us to get cricket fitness. If you take Chaminda Vaas, Pramodya Wickramasinghe, [Ravindra] Pushpakumara… When they came to practice, they would bowl for one and half hours without any stops and only after that would they take a break. They would be match-fit by the time they went to play matches. Now, apparently the system is totally different. They bowl about only 30 balls per day. And even for the batsmen, it’s the same. We used to bat for at least 45 minutes and sometimes even one hour.

That’s where you gain cricket fitness. I can remember cricketers who used to run 25 rounds at SSC but couldn’t bowl five overs. But there were bowlers who couldn’t run at all but bowled 8-10 overs without stopping. So those are the things you need to understand and groom.

When we were playing, our ambition was to perform to win the games. We never looked at cheques. So these are the things these younger cricketers don’t look at. They look at the money part not the cricket part. And it hurts me. When you read the paper and whenever a player does well, the media ask him what’s his future like and he would say his ambition is to play IPL, CPL or whatever PL. They never talk about playing for 10 years for the country, win World Cup… No one talks about that. When you read these things, it hurts. But if you take our generation, we used to say play for 20 years, try to play for 15 years, try to win games, try to get into the World Cup semifinals. That was the thinking we had when we were playing.

How do you look at the role of a coach in an international team? How important is his position?

Not very much. I don’t know why they have all the changes, but ultimately captain runs the show. Coaches are there to guide only, but if the coaches are going to run cricket, then it’s a disaster. Coaches are there, they have a different job, but ultimately the vehicle is driven by the captain. Coach can be the conductor, but not the driver. When the coach tries to be the driver, that’s an issue you’re going to face.

You had spoken about the need for a probe into the 2011 World Cup final between India and Sri Lanka…

When it comes to the 2011 World Cup final, I never said I was concerned about match fixing. I said there were issues and that we had to address the issues. I am not taking the credit away from India at all, I can remember when I was seated with all the captains, I said my heart says Sri Lanka but India has the best side before the tournament. But, unfortunately the way we approached that game and some of the things that happened in the final, I was not comfortable, so I said, these are the things the ICC should get into. I have never said match-fixing issue.

Now take the Zimbabwe tour, there were issues. Without proof I don’t want to talk about it, there were guys who were going inside the dressing room. I am sure the ICC can get into it, I am told there are tapes, the cameras are fixed, so they can get the videos and see if there are unwanted people who have got into (the dressing room). These are the things, I always said that the ICC should take decisions, I always said they are toothless tigers, and I don’t know whether it is worse than that.

Have you directly addressed it to the ICC?

No, because I am not directly involved in cricket, so I didn’t want to get into details. I was doing commentary in India and I was seated with Kapil in the finals, and we all had a lot of answers. And that’s the reason, I said these are the things not only the ICC but even our sports ministry should do it because when the things are bad you have to stop straight away. Get rid of the cancer or it will spread into the entire system. Hypothetically, when you look at the present cricket board, people who run cricket, the family business is that so how can you get cricket right. These are my concerns. I don’t want to think about it, I better concentrate on supplying petrol to the country.