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March 4, 1999


The Rediff Interview/Asantha de Mel

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'The Asian Test Championship has ruined our preparation'

Asantha Lakdasa Francis de Mel, easily one of the finest quick bowlers produced by Sri Lanka, was lucky to reach the top level of the game just when Sri Lanka finally won its battle for recognition, and was awarded Test status. A haul of 4/70 in England's first innings, in Sri Lanka's first official Test against the former at Colombo in February 1982, announced his arrival on the map.

De Mel then went to Pakistan, and did very well with his high arm action and natural awayswinger. Injury worries meant that he was not a regular member of the side for a while, but he did come back to have a great tour of England in 1984, followed by a good series against India in India.

59 wickets in a total of 17 Tests are evidence enough of his abilities -- given how few Tests Sri Lanka gets to play, it was unfortunate that he did not get more of a chance to parade his abilities.

Now a national selector, De Mel talks as he played -- no holds barred, and frank as you please. Faisal Shariff caught up with him in Bombay, where he is accompanying the Lankan Under-19 side. Excerpts from an extensive interview:

After winning the 1996 World Cup, Sri Lanka launched a program to make the country the best Test-playing nation by the year 2001. How successful has the board been?

Arjuna Ranatunga with the 1996 World Cup The board has not managed to reach anywhere close to the goal set four years ago. We pick bowlers, they show a lot of promise but they don't deliver. There is a lack of commitment in this new lot. They want to achieve a lot with a minimum of effort. There is no burning desire to work hard and channelise raw talent.

And what is being done about it?

We have been going to the outbacks, to try and tap new talent at the grassroots levels. However, tapping raw talent is not enough. They have to have the physical strength to play at the highest level. The right co-ordination of muscles is important. It's not so easy to find good fast bowlers. We have no fast bowler in Sri Lanka today who can run through the opposition -- in fact, barring Muralitharan, we have no bowler capable of doing that.

What about Chaminda Vaas?

Chaminda Vaas Vaas is going through a lean period. He has not been bowling as well as he would have wished to. Also, there has been no support for him at the other end. So our search for quality fast bowlers continues.

Sri Lankan cricket has in fact been on a slump after the 1996 World Cup triumph -- what factors, according to you, are responsible for this?

It's easy to get to the top, but very difficult to sustain your position there. You have a strategy and you win, which is fine -- but you have to realise that the opposition is going to read you, to understand your strategy and formulate a counter. So you in turn have to be ready with new plans.

Anyway, we have never been an exceptionally great Test side. In one dayers we have managed to do well, but have always struggled in Tests. And that is because in Tests, you need to have bowlers to win you matches, batsmen can't do it, like they can in ODIs. There is no other way, you have to grab 20 wickets to win a Test match. And that has been our biggest problem.

But yes, even in ODIs, our results have been a bit poor and I think that is because in 1996, we had a brilliant fielding side, but our talent there has palled a bit. We need to pull up our socks in this department, get back that edge we had in our fielding, hold all our catches.

Any other reason you could think of, for the decline?

Too much cricket! It is all getting to the players, I think.

But that is strange, Lanka has been complaining about not having enough matches, and keep asking for more...

Yes, you have a point -- but there has to be a limit. Players need to space themselves out. I'll tell you what happens when there is too much of cricket -- players do not play to their full potential, they only play at about 60 per cent because they are trying to conserve their energies. Also, to prevent injury, they tend not to take too many risks. In the process they get selfish and that pulls down the team's performance. I understand that the boards need funds to develop the game and to get funds, you have to play cricket -- but I still think no side should play in excess of 20-25 one dayers and 9-10 Test matches in a year.

We've been hearing of the proposed pay cut for the Lankan cricketers, what are your views on that?

What pay cut? I have no idea about this -- it is true? I have been here with the team, so I have no idea about it. Before commenting, I will need to find out if it is on the basic salary, because the salaries are in order of seniority. If that is the case, then I think it is not justified because if you increase the pay packet when the side performs well you can't cut it just because the team is going through a bad patch.

Would you say Ranatunga exceeded his brief when he called his players off the field in Australia, had that showdown with Umpire Emerson?

Arjuna Ranatunga If that is your argument, then I would like to know what the umpire was doing about it. The umpire has the authority to warn the captain that he would forfeit the game in favour of the opposing team if the team walked off. Why does no one talk about that? By no means am I defending Arjuna's behavior, but I am also of the opinion that the umpire was at fault.

I think the Australian board bungled things up. Firstly, by appointing Ross Emerson as the umpire. They were inviting trouble the moment they appointed him as umpire.

That brings up the Muralitharan controversy -- what are your views on it?

Like I said, the Australians bungled things up very badly. Do you realize the agony a bowler called for chucking goes through? You call someone to your country to play and then humiliate him in front of millions of viewers! It is the saddest moment in Sri Lankan cricket. Nowhere in the world has Murali been called for chucking, except in Australia. Based on that Ranatunga, unlike other captains, stood up for his bowler, I think that was a good thing.

But didn't he push it a bit too far? That he was lucky to get away with a suspended sentence?

See, if action has to be taken against Arjuna then I am of the view that there are four other players who should be punished. Alex Stewart, Darren Gough, Roshan Mahanama and Adam Holliaoke.

Adam Hollioake?

Adam Hollioake Yes. When Arjuna passed him, he made the most outrageous, sickening comment -- I wouldn't even want to repeat it, but if you look at the video, you will find that the stump mike captured his obscenities, it is all there on tape. The umpire reported the incident to the match referee, but he preferred to ignore the incident.

Later on, one of the most respected commentators, a former Test player himself, took Arjuna and the match referee through the tape. Why else do you think Arjuna got away with only a suspended sentence? The match referee was making a conscious effort to push the matter under the carpet.

At this point in time, would you say you are happy with the Lankan team's preparations for the World Cup?

No. Not particularly. This Asian Test Championship has ruined our preparation. Playing a Test match so close to the World Cup is not the ideal thing to do, I would have preferred to have the team play ODIs, space themselves, find time to plan strategies, work on things, get rest, and be fresh for the title defence.

Do you think, given the conditions in England, that Lanka can afford to stay with the strategy that won it the Cup in 1996, or will it have to go in with different strategies?

I think we need to go in with two, three different strategies ready. Attack, to me, has always been the best form of defence, even if that means reversing a bit of the order, sacrificing the lower order, asking them to go after the bowling early, even if they get a quick 20-odd, that should do it, the specialist batsmen can then take over and consolidate.

Lanka's strategy has been to go after the bowling early and I think we need to stay with it, rather than fall prey to worrying about conditions.

Reverting to the ATC again, are you satisfied with the points system? You were one of the trio that drew it up, in the first place...

I think that the point system could do with some changes. Points will need to be awarded for the second innings as well, to keep interest alive and force teams to push for results. I guess that aspect will come up for review when we sit down again, for our next meeting.

Something that puzzles us is the fate of Roshan Mahanama, dropped from both the Tests and the ODI squad -- what is the problem with him?

We sat down with Mahanama's career statistics and found that he has been getting a 50 once every 15 innings. Compare this with Aravinda D'Silva, who gets a fifty every 3 innings, or Jayasuriya and Arjuna Ranatunga, who get a fifty every three and a half innings! So you see, this indicates that his form has slumped, and we cannot afford to carry him along with the team since there are other players knocking for recognition.

Jayasuriya was the man of the moment for Lanka, in 1996. Do you see him being equally successful in English conditions?

Sanath Jayasuriya Well, most definitely Jayasuriya will not enjoy the same success, you know there has been talk about bowlers sorting him out. True, they have him more tucked up, but still, even today, when he does cut loose there is no stopping him, on his day he shreds any opposition to pieces. Then again, our gameplan won't revolve entirely around him, you should realise that.

And now the big one -- who is your favourite to win the Cup, this time?

It's very difficult to name any side but I think South Africa and Australia are the favourites. They have very professional sides, good all round players. But my dark horse candidate would be New Zealand.

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