The last few weeks have been tumultuous for the Sri Lankan cricket team. While it lost both the T20I and ODI series against England, a bio-bubble breach saw three top cricketers being suspended.
And its woes continued as two members of the support staff – including batting coach Grant Flower – tested positive for COVID-19 soon after reaching Colombo. While that led to a doubt over the series against India, which begins on Sunday, the team has now cleared the COVID tests and is looking forward to the series, against the Shikhar Dhawan-led Indian side.
In a conversation with Sportstar on Tuesday, Sri Lanka coach Mickey Arthur spoke about the series against India, the road ahead for the Sri Lankan team, and why it is important to involve a legend with the U-19 and emerging teams.
Q. Soon after returning from England, there was a COVID-19 scare. How is the mood in the camp now?
A. The mood in the camp is a lot better now. The players were allowed training on Tuesday, but the support staff will be allowed to come out of isolation on Wednesday as we were in close contact with them (Grant Flower and team analyst G.T. Niroshan). It has been well managed and we are looking forward to starting our training sessions.
The team had a forgettable tour of England. What are the lessons from the series?
It was incredibly challenging. We had gone down a route of trying to get a vision for the 2023 World Cup, and trying to give the young players some opportunities. But around that, you also need some experienced players. Then we lost our No. 1, 4, 5 in one go, when they decided to go out and walk around Durham. It was really tough for us and we did a lot of soul searching in England. It was one of the toughest tours I have had in my 12 years as international coach. It was very challenging on numerous fronts. But whatever does not break you, makes you stronger, and a lot of those young boys got experience. We don’t have a magic wand and nothing is going to happen overnight, this is going to be a process for us. We have got some young talented players and we got to keep backing them and keep giving them the opportunities so that they can perform to the best of their abilities.
Even though the likes of Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma are not part of the series, India has some of the big names in its ranks. So, what’s the plan for Sri Lanka ahead of the series?
We are very much in a transitional phase at the moment. We are trying out a lot of young players and trying out our best combinations. We are under no illusion because we know this is a wonderful Indian team. The Indian team is amazing, they have got so many good cricketers – it is like an IPL All Stars XI. They are an incredible bunch of players, and for us, it is very much about giving game time to young players, looking at possible combinations going forward.
What are your thoughts on the Indian team?
They are incredibly talented and I often feel that they are Galacticos (laughs). They rock in and have a lot of IPL experience and they all hit the ball hell of a long, long way. Indian cricket is in a strong position and that’s because of the structure they have put in place way back and also because of the talent they have. These guys are wonderful players and I am often awed by the talents that are available for the selectors, Ravi Shastri or a Rahul Dravid. I can’t help but get a bit jealous at the stocks they have at their disposal.
This series is a wonderful opportunity for our guys and I hope our guys learn from these players, because these guys have not reached where they are just by chance. Indian cricket has a very competitive system at the moment and there is a lot of fighting for places and opportunities. These guys are under pressure to come and perform because there are another 20 players who could take their places. There is another entirely different squad in England at the moment, so they are under pressure to come out and perform. But they are incredible talents.
We don’t have a lot to lose. And I know a lot of our guys can’t wait for the opportunity to play against the IPL stars.
How do you see Rahul Dravid coaching this side? Do you think that it is important for Sri Lanka as well to involve a few former cricketers in the system to unearth new talents and guide them?
That’s something we would love to implement and that’s something that’s being spoken about. A guy like Mahela Jayawardene or somebody working with the U-19, Emerging teams will help. That will be incredibly good for Sri Lankan cricket.
I just think that India did very well by involving Dravid in the system. He is a wonderful man, and a great character. I watched him at the U-19 World Cup – his interactions with the players were always very positive. A man of his character and experience is so important for the set-up. India got it right by having a guy like him and I know Sri Lanka Cricket is also trying to do something like that – in terms of having an icon player mentoring the U-19 and the younger players, much like India has done with Dravid.
For a seasoned coach like you, who has worked with some of the top teams in the world, how challenging is it to work with a bunch of young, inexperienced rookie talents?
It is very frustrating at times, but it is very challenging and rewarding as well. We are going through frustrating times now, it’s just about finding the right balance, finding the right ingredients to make our team win. I love building teams, finding youngsters, and guiding them – I did a similar thing with Pakistan. I am really looking forward to this. Yes, it may be a bit frustrating initially for a number of reasons, but once we get it right and once we keep watering those young talents, then when we see some flowers starting to bloom, it will be very rewarding.
Roping in eminent cricketers such as Mahela Jayawardene (in picture) to guide the U-19 and emerging teams would help Sri Lankan cricket immensely, believes Arthur. – K. V. S. GIRI
Now that Grant Flower will not be available for the series against India, what’s the backup plan?
That’s the biggest challenge. We carry bigger squads and now have about 24 players. So, your support staff is stretched pretty thin. We have made some arrangements to get a couple of more coaches, who will come in as assistants, and it will also be good because it will be a personal development for them as well. They will get to work in an international environment and will get to see what are the requirements to be in those environments, and hopefully, they can take it back to the structure just down the line and bring the same intensity to their training regime. So, it is good and challenging for everybody.
Dasun Shanaka will be leading the Sri Lanka team in this series. Over the last few years, the team has changed several captains, so how difficult does it get for a skipper and the coach with so much of chopping and changing?
We are struggling for some stability and I think we see that a lot with most subcontinent teams, where there is an emotional environment that you work in. There is a lot of chopping and changing, we are striving for consistency; we are striving to get the right people in key areas, so that we can operate at full capacity. That’s what we are looking to do. It’s going to be a challenge for Dasun to come in. He is a wonderfully matured young man and a wonderful player and does have some captaincy experience. So, I am keen to see how he goes.
Sri Lanka has been in a phase of transition for quite a few years now. Over the last few months, seniors like Thisara Perera and Angelo Mathews have also moved on. So, how long do you think that this transition phase will continue?
Well, the transition phase has to end somewhere. You hope that you produce world-class players, and give them opportunity to grow. Once you produce those players, that’s when you start hunting trophies and start winning series.
We hope to get our things right soon and then give the guys more game time over the next couple of years, so that they can step up and [become] ready to deliver. We cannot be in transition forever, you need to reach a point where you can back and trust the players.
How much of an advantage is it for the team to play all the matches at R. Premadasa Stadium? And also, with the T20 World Cup nearing, how much of an impact will this series have in terms of picking the probables for the World Cup?
There is still a couple of months left for that. We will certainly be having a look at these performances. This is an opportunity for the guys to go out there, perform in a bid to hold on to their positions.
We know that that the wicket holds up a little bit at the Premadasa. It might turn a little bit for us someway down the line, but there hasn’t been any cricket at the Premadasa for nearly two years now. So, the wickets are pretty fresh. Who knows how it’s going to play. The fact that there are going to be no fans in the stadium makes it a not so hostile environment that you normally get with Sri Lanka otherwise. It’s going to be different, but at least for the first time in a while we are in home conditions, where we can do something.