The Sri Lankan brand of cricket is coming soon

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Like the Calypso brand of cricket played by Clive Lloyd’s men in 1980s, the attractive style of play introduced by Arjuna Ranatunga’s side a decade later came to be known as the Sri Lankan brand of cricket. Successive Sri Lankan teams managed to live up to the expectations, but in recent times, Sri Lankan cricket has suffered major setbacks. This year has been the worst with three 5-0 whitewashes in ODI cricket and two 3-0 clean sweeps in Tests. With the arrival of Chandika Hathurusingha as the new head coach, there are fresh hopes.
In an exclusive interview with Cricbuzz, the first after he was named Sri Lanka head coach, Hathurusingha speaks about his greatest moment as a coach, his plans to bring the best out of Angelo Mathews and Dinesh Chandimal and bringing back the Sri Lankan brand of cricket. The disciplinarian also denied reports that linked his exit as the Bangladesh coach to differences with Shakib Al Hasan owing to the latter’s decision to take a six-month break from Tests.
Here are the excerpts.
You had beaten Australia and England at home in Tests and beaten Sri Lanka away from home. You had reached the semi-final of Champions Trophy. Everything was going in the right direction for you at Bangladesh. What prompted you to quit?
Firstly, I felt that with Bangladesh, I have taken them to the best position I could. The other thing is that Sri Lanka Cricket had approached with the job for about four times. Then, I am coming to a stage where I can’t stay away from my family for too long. My dream was to coach Sri Lanka. This is perhaps the right time. They are not going in the right direction. The other thing is that if I am spending about three years away from my family coaching Bangladesh and if I want to spend another four years or so coaching Sri Lanka or another country after that, I can’t do that. Then I thought that this is the right opportunity to take up the challenge. This is the only time. So those are things that I thought about.
BCB Chairman Nazmul Hasan has gone on record saying that Shakib Al Hasan’s decision to take a break from Test cricket ahead of a tough tour of South Africa was the last straw that prompted you to step down.
That’s not true at all. Mr. Nazmul Hasan is a very clever, intelligent guy. He must have used it for some other reason. Maybe that is done to fire up Shakib. I see that Shakib has been made the captain now. He must have used that for some reason reading between the lines. He is very intelligent in handling things.
South Africa is not the ideal place to tour. Only England and Australia have won a Test series there in the history. What can other teams do to win in South Africa?
It is very very tough for sub-continent teams to win a Test series in South Africa. The challenge is not skill, it’s physical. For you to take 20 wickets, you need to have strong and quick fast bowlers. The two teams that have won series in South Africa as you pointed out are white teams and they rely heavily on fast bowlers. If you don’t have height and if you don’t have pace, you are not going to win in South Africa.
How does Sri Lanka address the problem of taking 20 wickets in Tests? They have struggled to do it even in the sub-continent?
First, we need to find bowlers who can take 20 wickets. I think wrist-spinners are going to be the key. Finger spinners, unless you have a Murali [Muttiah Muralitharan], Nathan Lyon, Ravichandran Ashwin or Rangana Herath, who have a very good game sense, very competitive and have exceptional control at what they are doing, it is going to be tough. We need to find those bowlers, but if we don’t have, it is all about strategy. Our conditions will have to help you. Otherwise, you need to keep fighting and never give up. That’s how you can make up if you don’t have match-winning bowlers.
When you lack match-winning bowlers, how important is it to have an exceptional fielding unit. Some say that Sri Lanka is world’s worst fielding team..
It’s a big call that you have made. I don’t see that way. We are not that bad. We can improve. It gives you so much advantage if you are a good fielding side. The half chances you are creating, you are going to benefit obviously. Your bowling unit is also lifted when you grab those half chances as you are bowling to a new batsman. Fielding is an important part. The other thing is that everyone has to field.
Some coaches have Bob Woolmer as their role model. Others have John Buchanan. Maybe coaches from other sports as well. Who’s your role model?
None! Why I say so is that that you cannot be original if you follow someone. However, I learn a lot from other coaches. I will take stuff from others. I read a lot and find out why they are successful. I observe their teams. But I will always stick to my style. I will do things that will make my team better. Teams are often unique from each other.
When you say you read, is that cricket books?
A lot of sports stuff. Graham Henry’s book I have read. Pep Guardiola, I read a lot. I also read Jose Mourinho a lot. Then John Longmire of Sydney Swans. I observe a lot as well. I follow other sports. I am fascinated by how other renowned coaches take their teams to other levels. Especially someone like Pep. What he has done with those three teams [Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester City] is truly amazing. Even at Manchester, he had a vision and stuck to it. He never doubted his philosophy and he has taken the team to amazing levels this season. If I try to do that without proper players, that’s not going to work. What I learned from Pep is that if you believe in something, you have to back your judgment. His books are truly inspiring.
Let’s talk about the year 2002. You had been with Tamil Union since the age of 14 and towards the tail end of your career, you had shifted to Moors SC as player-cum-coach. When you won the club’s only first-class Championship in more than 100 years, is that the time you realized that you had the potential to go on to become a successful coach.
That’s when I gained the confidence that I could do it. I felt that whatever I tried on that campaign was working. Prior to that, I had gone to Australia in the year 2000 to play Grade Cricket. There I met a guy called Chris Harris. He is a coaching instructor at Cricket Victoria. He encouraged me to get into coaching. There was a Level II programme taking place and he wanted me to take that up. The first seeds of coaching were sown there. Then I joined Moors SC and that’s where it all started.
Guys like Kumar Sangakkara and Muttiah Muralitharan; they have heaped praises on your coaching all throughout. What did you do so well with them?
I tried to be authentic. That’s all. I just tried to be myself. You may have some knowledge and how you impart that knowledge is your skill. You also should know what to say and when to say. If you are being authentic in what you do, people around you will begin to trust you. It’s as simple as that.
But obviously, with Murali, you have a long relationship having played for Tamil Union for several years.
I am proud to talk about Muri [Muralitharan]. I was the captain of Tamil Union Under-23 side when a 19-year-old Muri came along. My vice-captain was Damian Nadarajah. He is from the same school like Murali and he came up to me and said there is this young kid who can turn the ball square and he has taken over 100 wickets in the last two seasons for St. Anthony’s College. From there on, we had a good rapport. He was very competitive from day one. Even when he is playing billiards, he wants to win. He loves his cricket. I remember his first Test match. We were playing Australia at R. Premadasa Stadium. I was fielding at short-leg. Muri was going to bowl his first ball in Test cricket and Arjuna had set the field. Then Muri shouted and asked me, ‘Hatu aiyya, is this field okay?’ I felt embarrassed. Arjuna was having a laugh. He called me up and said, ‘Listen, from here on, you better start fielding at mid off and make sure you keep talking to the young bloke.’ These are the memories I have of Muri. We are very close to each other. We were having quite a bit of success at Tamil Union. He gave me another advice, which I cherish. I used to stand up for what is right and called a spade a spade. Muri told me, ‘Look here, just play your cricket. A cricketer’s life is ten years or so. By talking too much you are reducing your career into five years.’ They were golden words.
What’s your greatest moment as a coach?
A lot of things obviously which I cherish. The biggest sense of satisfaction was one day I was walking in Paramatta Area at Westfield Shopping Center in Sydney. One guy came and hugged me. I was a bit worried and pushed him away. Then he said ‘Look, I am a Bangladeshi. Because what you have done, we can keep our heads high in our offices.’ That was very satisfying having played a part to bring up Bangladesh cricket. We felt the same before 1996. The World Cup win was the one that gave us recognition. That kind of praise was very satisfying.
But any single moment?
Beating Sri Lanka at The [P.Sara] Oval. It was a massive one for so many reasons.
Is it because that win was at your home ground at Tamil Union. People say that you read that wicket better than the Sri Lankans.
That game was very emotional for me. The Oval is a special place for me. It was Bangladesh’s 100th Test match as well. Beating Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka was a huge achievement. Sri Lanka at home was a very good Test side. Very satisfying personally.
SLC treated you harshly in 2010. You lost your job and had to leave the country. How satisfying was that win in that sense?
I never had a problem with Sri Lanka Cricket. The problem was with a couple of individuals. I didn’t have any grudge against Sri Lanka Cricket. I could have easily sued SLC. My lawyers said you can sue them. I said no point. I had got everything because of Sri Lanka Cricket and I didn’t want to go on that path. I let go everything.
How tough was losing the job?
Your lifestyle suffers obviously. I had a family to look after. My professional career was never at a threat as I knew what I was doing. It is hard for a family to go on without me having a job.
Are you a big believer in Sports Psychology?
Well, Dr. Phil Johnsy is a different kind of psychologist. He has helped me to understand players better. Not only does he talk to players and fixes their mind, he believes that you don’t have to get your mind right to perform. Most psychologists will tell you the contrary. That is you have got to get your mind right to perform. We all have our doubts. We all have our own disappointments. If you deny that, you are not going to solve your problems, it is burning underneath. His theory is that you can perform even if you have doubts. He is all about being positive and I believe in that.
Angelo Mathews had spent lot of time with you with Sri Lanka ‘A’ team. You highlighted him as one of the brightest prospects for the future way back in 2009. Are you satisfied with what he has achieved?
Personally, I feel that he has underachieved. I told him that a few days ago. I think he is a much better player than what he has showcased. His injuries have not helped him either. His body is letting him down on a few occasions. The team changed around him when he was finding his feet and too much of responsibility came onto his shoulders. That probably didn’t help either. His best, however, is yet to come.
Dinesh Chandimal has been a prolific run-scorer in Tests this year. How do you bring the best out of him in ODI cricket?
It is about expanding his thinking when he comes out to bat. He has a very good game plan when he comes out to bat in Test cricket. So shift his mindset a bit and make him understand the challenge in that particular situation. We have to see how many matches we have won and lost by his performances. I am going to talk to him on his approach to ODI cricket.
Do you believe that he has still got a part to play in ODI cricket?
My last tour with the Sri Lankan team was in 2010. That was Chandi’s first tour with the senior team as well. In his second ODI, he scored a hundred. This was against India in Zimbabwe. I still remember he reached three figures by hitting a six. That instinct, I saw in him is lacking. I am now asking where it has gone? We have to find answers for that.
What prompted the selection of Shanaka Madushanka in the pool of 23 in preparation for the next tour? He has played less than a handful of domestic matches.
Well, he can bowl at 140 kmph. I believe that the pace that a player has got is the gift given by god. You can’t coach that. We can coach all the tactical and technical things, but you can’t get someone to bowl at 140 kmph.
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