Sri Lanka needs better systems


Is a team only as good as the systems that sit behind it? This is an important question. It’s one that keeps coming up as Sri Lanka inspects the wreckage of the England tour. In James Clear’s book – Atomic Habits – a key idea he brings to the table is that “You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall the level of your systems”. This is a powerful insight.

As James says in his book – every sports team has the same goal – to win the contest. Sri Lanka wanted to win just as much as England did. At least that’s what I assume the goal must have been before the series started. However, anyone who watched day one of the first Test will have a pretty strong case against this. For our purposes, let’s assume that winning was indeed the goal. But as Clear says “goals aren’t important – because everyone has the same goal”; to win the match, the day, the session, or the hour. It is the systems that you’ve put in place over a period of time that ultimately gets you to your goal.

System Failure

So, what are the systems and processes that sit behind Sri Lanka’s national team?

Immediately under the top tier is the first-class system. We know it isn’t a very good system. It hasn’t been one for a long time. More importantly, it hasn’t been improved upon since before Sri Lanka’s World Cup win in 1996. No administration, outside of the oh-so-many interim committees, has ever attempted to change it in any meaningful way.

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Back in 1996, when Sri Lanka won the World Cup, this wasn’t a big deal. Cricket as a whole wasn’t really the professional sport that it is now. You could afford to have a not-so-robust system because you were not competing with ultra-professional setups from other countries at the time. That didn’t last for long though. The setups and systems in other countries evolved with the changing tide. Sri Lanka’s did not.

Inspired by the World Cup win, talent sprung up despite Sri Lanka’s system. But that just meant that outstanding players carried the side for decades. Sri Lanka got lucky because enough of these world-class players bubbled to the top at the same time to mount a challenge to other teams. Unfortunately, it meant that the 2nd tier players weren’t up to the mark needed for a cricket world that had become much more professional. Once the world-class talent started drying up, Sri Lanka had nothing to fall back on.

That’s the benefit of a good system. Over time, it helps to increase the average quality of players within a player pool. It helps you transition between teams more easily. This is why a team like Australia doesn’t go off a cliff when their all-time great level players retire en masse.

Another benefit of a strong system is that when players go out of form, you can send them back into a reliable system where the quality and standards are high enough to help them refine and re hone their skills. Sri Lanka doesn’t have this luxury. Runs scored and wickets taken in first-class cricket are often viewed with a heavy dose of skepticism because it has become ingrained in the psyche of the Sri Lankan cricket culture that the domestic system is poor. They are labeled as cheap runs and easy wickets. Sri Lanka’s domestic system is the equivalent of a cheap Chinese knock-off. It works at a surface level but breaks easily.

This is what Kumar Sanggakara had to say about it in a recent interview after the series was over.

“The cracks are widening and we see it more obviously than we did before, and that is the deeper malaise that is in the in the system itself in terms of our first-class cricket, where our quality is low, we have enough talent and potential but it is not being refined into ability and that, of course, means it won’t convert into measurable performances on the international stage”

We’ve heard of all these ailments a thousand times now. There are too many clubs. They are too Colombo centric. The quality is diluted. Sri Lanka is in need of a provincial system. They need to play 4-day cricket. The list goes on.

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In a recent article by Rex Clementine of The Island, he wrote that there is an SLC administrator who has said that A-team tours are useless and a waste of time. This is in stark contrast to countries like India and England. India owes much of its recent success to the U-19 and India A teams that have been managed so eruditely by Rahul Dravid. The Indian U-19’s have made it to the final of the last three U-19 World Cups, with one win. Their A-team engages in shadow tours prior to most major overseas assignments. The England Lions team also played a key role in England’s success a few years ago. It’s alarming to think that the national team directly below the first XI would be seen negatively by administrators. There is obvious value in developing these teams under the proper tutelage and giving this team much more playing opportunities. But not according to the SLC it would seem.

In a recent panel discussion on cricket on a local TV program, Avishka Gunawardene, a former Sri Lanka A-team coach, alluded to a total breakdown of communication between the national team and the junior levels. Talent is not being identified and groomed. Sri Lanka A has only engaged in one tour in the 20 months prior to Covid according to Gunawardene. All this put together the chasm between the first-class system and Test cricket is growing wider. It appears now that Sri Lanka has truly reached a tipping point, in the wrong direction.

Bad systems and time are not a good combination

This brings us to another big idea in Atomic Habits – “Time makes good habits and good systems it’s ally, but bad habits make time their enemy.”

Teams like England and India have restructured their cricket domestically over the years. Those changes have had measurable successes linked to them. India’s recent success can be traced back to domestic changes and investment in better pitches, better coaches, the development of infrastructure, and the appointment of key staff at critical points in the development chain. Supported by the BCCI, India has followed through on the vision of Virat Kohli, Ravi Shashtri, Anil Kumble, and Bharat Arun with support from Rahul Dravid at the breeding ground level with the U-19 and A teams. The specter of the IPL also looms large and its impact also cannot be ignored. England’s rise up the Test rankings came about through their changes to the country set up with 2 Division cricket and a huge investment in their A team, the England lions.

These teams wanted to get better and so they invested time, money, and effort into making changes and this brought about the desired results.

They built good systems and let time compound their results. These were not overnight successes. Behind every overnight success is the hard slog of years of planning and execution to reach a tipping point. Sri Lanka has the same goals but not the systems or the planning. This only leads to a battle they will lose. And keep losing.

As James Clear writes – “Your outcomes are the lagging measure of your habits and in turn your systems. Your weight is a lagging result of your eating habits. Your messy room is a lagging result of your cleaning habits”. Sri Lanka’s current demise in quality and standards is a lagging result of the years of working with a bad system and neglecting real change. The current state of affairs should not be a surprise. It was inevitable.

“Time magnifies the margin between success and failure. It will multiply whatever you feed it.” – James Clear

When the German football team was humiliated at Euro 2000, finishing bottom of their group, the German Football Association went back and rebuilt a lot of their system by investing heavily in coaching, facilities, and in their youth setup. It was a complete overhaul of their philosophy to playing as well as an exercise in building a talent factory from the bottom up. They built a good system, good processes and 14 years later they won the World Cup.

Sri Lanka on the other hand has known for a long time their domestic structure needs an overhaul. They’ve known that provincial cricket, better infrastructure, and big improvements at the School level, amongst others are needed. At the core of the resistance to change lies the cancerous voting system where a bloated 147 votes decide the board elections. These 147 votes include clubs that do not even play matches. Yes, you read that right. India with its billions of people has only 46 votes, Australia 7 and England 20. You couldn’t ask for a better situation for mutual back-scratching to stifle attempts at changing the system. These political gymnastics and administrations that have failed to follow through on anything they promise, has left Sri Lanka perpetually at square 1.

James Clear explains this pointedly in Atomic Habits. “When we repeat 1 percent errors, day after day, by replicating poor decisions, duplicating tiny mistakes, and rationalizing little excuses, our small choices compound into toxic results. It’s the accumulation of many missteps—a 1 percent decline here and there—that eventually leads to a problem.”

Can Sri Lanka turn this around?

So where to from here? Is there a solution to all of this?

In Atomic Habits, James Clear talks about why change is hard. “1) We try to change the wrong thing. 2) We try to change in the wrong way. The first mistake is that we try to change the wrong thing. To understand what I mean, consider that there are three levels at which change can occur. You can imagine them like the layers of an onion. The first layer is changing your outcomes. The second layer is changing your process. The third and deepest layer is changing your identity. Outcomes are about what you get. Processes are about what you do. Identity is about what you believe.”

So, the real question then is what is Sri Lanka’s identity as a cricket team? In his infancy, Sri Lankan cricket battled its imperial hang-ups. Then they forged its unique brand on the world stage. What about now though? Do we now identify as a middling to lower level Test team, living off the glory days of the past? An okay (ish) white ball team that was once world champions in 2 formats, who can occasionally catch fire? With a domestic structure that fails to produce quality players and has become meme worthy? One that leaves all involved praying for more once-in-a-generation players despite its systems? Is that all Sri Lanka amounts to now?

In response to the loss against England, a number of new initiatives have been tabled by a team led by Namal Rajapakse, the newly minted sports minister. Committees have been formed. New faces will take up important positions. Provincial cricket is back on the table. Club teams are going to be reduced to an amount they used to be at anyway. And it’s all just going to be okay, I guess?

It is difficult not to view these plans with anything more than pessimism and skepticism. All this feels very much like Groundhog Day. It is good though that people like Aravinda de Silva, Mahela Jayawardene, Muttiah Muralitharan, Roshan Mahanama, and Kumar Sangakkara are involved in the process. It’s often said more former players would get involved in the setup if the SLC itself was cleaned up. And in Namal Rajapakse, Sri Lanka now appears to have the most powerful sports minister they’ve had in modern times. The political lightsaber he wields can cut through most of the self-imposed bureaucratic hurdles that the SLC were ever willing to stumble over. If he gets good advice and he listens to it, it could be a transformative period for Sri Lankan cricket.

The technical advisory committee headed by De Silva has laid down a holistic view of the changes they would like to see in the future. De Silva’s vision encapsulates changes to all of the critical links in the chain in Sri Lanka’s structure and systems. The committee is seeking to elevate provincial cricket to the highest level possible. He has hinted that decentralizing cricket from a geographical and management level is fundamental to their plans. Crucially there has also been a petition lodged to the Court of Appeal to change the voting structure of the SLC.

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Additionally, the committee is proposing a review of School cricket and exploring avenues to invest in technology. An idea close to De Silva personally – establishing a sports university – such that young players would not have to face the challenge of deciding between cricket and academics has also surfaced during these initial discussions. De Silva’s strategy seems to be an overhaul of the system from the ground up. In other words, he and his colleagues appear to be looking to change the narrative of Sri Lanka’s system. A true change in identity.

What is not yet clear is how many of these proposals will actually see the light of day. Namal Rajapakse has signaled that he expects the SLC to adopt these changes. But at this stage, it’s very much a waiting game. After all, these are decades-old problems. And as we’ve seen – it takes time to compound the effects of the actions you take now.

However, as James says “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.” So, we can only hope these new slews of changes are small votes that will amount to a large snowball of change over time. A lot of planning, foresight, and conviction in the execution is needed to rebuild Sri Lankan cricket. Huge doses of patience and Sri Lankan grit will need to come to the fore to see the promise of these changes to their fullest potential. This won’t be an overnight success story. Many votes will need to be cast. So, Sri Lanka, please keep voting for yourself.

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