Recently returned from Sri Lanka, Andrew Alderson believes New Zealand can learn a thing or two from the host country's international success
Sri Lanka used to be the laughing stock of international cricket. Granted test status in 1982, they were the easy beats. Within four years, they had won their first test (compared to 26 years for New Zealand) but still struggled. Even New Zealand pummelled them until they lost a test at Colombo in 1992.
During that first decade, the weakling perception was reinforced by Australian comedian Billy Birmingham. Birmingham's mimicry of Channel Nine commentator Tony Greig mocked "these little Sri Lankans" in his 12th Man Again satire. Rain stopped play with Sri Lanka one for six after 10 balls chasing 560 for three to win a one-dayer. The Sri Lankans were scorned for running off into the dressing room at the first sign of drizzle. Giveusahand Tolickyouracne, Ramatonguea Downthethroata and Smellabitofa Ratnayake became fictitious cricketing household names. Oh, how we laughed ...
The 1996 World Cup changed everything. Ridicule became respect. The Sri Lanka Lions roared, winning the final against arch-enemy Australia who had refused to tour their country earlier in the tournament due to security reasons. Added to that snub was the previous Boxing Day test when spinner Muttiah Muralitharan had been no-balled for throwing by umpire Darrell Hair. Shane Warne described the series as his "most discordant" in his autobiography.
Pugnacious captain Arjuna Ranatunga riled the Australians to such an extent that even Warne suggested his actions were contrary to the spirit of the game.
Ian Chappell, in an interview with Wisden Asia Cricket, said after the toss in the final Ranatunga described Warne as a media myth. Warne got a whiff and ran to Chappell saying: "What's that fat bastard said now?" Chappell said he knew then the Australians were rattled. Ranatunga went on to hit the World Cup-winning runs.
After attending the World T20 in Sri Lanka, it's hard to find anyone who doubts Ranatunga has been a pioneer for the success of the current era. Sri Lanka has not won an international limited overs tournament since but their record is impressive.
In four World Cups, they have been in one semifinal (2003) and two finals (2007, 2011); in four World T20s, they have been in two finals (2009, 2012) and a semifinal (2010). Since the 1996 World Cup, they have beaten every test nation at least once in a home series.
Sri Lanka is not considered a "Big Four" cricketing country, yet they have no problem competing with Australia, England, South Africa and India. International player of the year Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene, Tillakaratne Dilshan and Lasith Malinga are all respected opponents.
In fact, since 1996, the country hasn't lacked for international greats; World Cup-winning squad members Sanath Jayasuriya and Muralitharan retired only last year. Initiatives such as securing private investment to set up the Sri Lankan Premier League T20 competition are in place to develop their next generation.
The flipside is Sri Lankan cricket's finances have seldom been strong.
It's estimated they lost $29 million jointly hosting last year's World Cup, although the benefits of tourism and infrastructure, like the building of new grounds in Hambantota and Pallekele, are hard to quantify. Sri Lanka also continues to recover from a protracted civil war which ended in 2009.
However, walking the streets of Kandy and Colombo over the past fortnight, one senses the influx of tourism and other overseas investment means prosperity has ceased to be a dream for many. There is a joie de vivre among the people which suggests Sri Lanka is revelling in peace.
Kandy's Old Trinitians' Sports Club is a picture of civility on any given afternoon. Dapper men sit in leather back chairs, reading the newspaper and sipping whisky as a breeze wafts in the open doors from the cricket field.
From the vaulted ceiling, a coat of arms reads Respice Finem (the Latin translation: "Look towards the end") as it casts an eye over the scene. This is the motto of the members' alma mater, Trinity College. It also sums up a Sri Lankan cricketing mantra which treats schools as a treasured nursery; at least as much as clubs and provinces.
Most of Sri Lanka's top players from 1996 onwards, like Ranatunga, Aravinda de Silva, Muralitharan, Sangakkara and Jayawardene, came through this elite schools system.
New Zealand could take note. Yes, there has long been the Gillette Cup for secondary school cricketing supremacy but little else of major significance. Sri Lanka places school cricketers on a pedestal.
An example came during last year's World Cup. The tournament, held from February to April, coincided with Sri Lanka's 10 leading colleges playing the annual series of two-day fixtures at the Sinhalese Sports Club, Colombo's test ground. It is a springboard to national recognition. Defending world champions Australia trained at the ground early in the week but were denied access later because of the schoolboy matches.
Parents admit enrolling their children in particular schools based on the cricket team's standards. Sangakkara's mother was advised by the Trinity College principal to encourage her son towards cricket.
On the flipside, Sri Lanka is cannier at spotting raw talent than other countries, like New Zealand, who channel their players through structured academies and regimented coaching. This can add value but can also curtail flair.
Sri Lanka has three examples in its current T20 team: Lasith Malinga, Ajantha Mendis and Akila Dananjaya, each of whom went to lesser-known schools. Malinga's unorthodox slinging action originated from years of winning village swimming championships across a local lake. Consequently he has shoulders like a suit of armour.
Mendis hails from near Moratuwa, about 20km south of Colombo. Now 27, he was recruited for active military service as an army gunner. He was spotted aged 18 playing against the army and immediately encouraged to enlist to bolster their cricketing ranks.
Dananjaya (19) bowled his seven variations with such venom to Sri Lankan captain Mahela Jayawardene as a random net bowler one day that he was fast-tracked into the local T20 league and the national squad. He has taken four wickets in two T20 matches at 14.50 apiece this tournament.
The moral of the Sri Lankan story for New Zealand is in three parts. First, frank and robust leadership along the lines of Ranatunga will be needed for New Zealand to climb out of its current rankings slump. Ross Taylor has shown he can lead from the front in important games but is yet to articulate a detailed vision of how New Zealand can reach audacious cricketing goals. Ranatunga used aggression rather than appeasement to take on the world's best. The 1996 World Cup and subsequent Sri Lankan success are his legacy.
Second, NZC could boost the profile of the schools system. Clubs rather than schools tend to dominate New Zealand thinking because it is seen as better for students to be challenged by grizzled veterans than their peers. The Sri Lankan model suggests this needs re-visiting.
Third, the unorthodox cricketer is a rarity in New Zealand compared to Sri Lanka. Scouts could be dispatched beyond the academies and schools to the rural hinterland. There must be gems waiting to be discovered. Cricket Idol anyone?
Change is required at New Zealand Cricket. The national side has never been a world champion in any form, whereas Sri Lanka can claim that 1996 crown and the legacy derived from it, despite a lack of resources. It's a proven model that "looks towards the end".
The 12th Man teasing has long since ceased.