The two collapses of Sri Lankan cricket

What was it that made the ICC say, enough is enough?

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0, 0, 1, 0, 1, 0, 0. Sri Lanka is batting in binary. Byes out-score their first seven batters. They don’t make it to 20 overs. They lose by 302 runs. That should be the most embarrassing thing that happens to you in a World Cup. In the space of 24 hours, being dismissed for 55 wasn’t the worst thing to happen to Sri Lanka.

A week later the former World Cup winners are suspended by the ICC.

You may be asking how on earth this all happened.

Sri Lanka Cricket’s membership with the ICC was suspended immediately due to the Sri Lankan board’s failure to manage its affairs autonomously and without government interference.

Sri Lanka is one of those countries - and there are a few - where government interference is actually a part of their cricket. It’s been this way for decades. So what was it that made the ICC say, enough is enough?

On November 2nd, Sri Lanka produced one of their worst performances at the World Cup - given that they finished in 9th position in the tournament, this is not a high bar. But that loss to India was hard to ignore.

Especially as just over a month earlier, the same thing had happened to them against India. That time they only managed 50.

It happens once, you might be able to write it off as just a bad day in the field, but the same happening for the second time in two months, against the same opponent? It was impossible for Sri Lanka to not see just how far they were from the top sides.

The relationship between the Sports Ministry and the Sri Lankan Board had been on shaky ground since Roshan Ranasinghe took over the portfolio of Sports Minister in the first quarter of 2022. When he decided to take matters into his own hands, Sri Lanka Cricket took issues with a politician taking over.

The day after the match, Ranasinghe called for the resignation of the Board as well as the selectors - threatening them with ‘dire consequences’ if they did not comply. It was like what would happen if you let your uncle run the team.

And perhaps that is why SLC did not comply.

On November 6th, the Minister followed through on his warning, sacking the Sri Lankan board led by Shammi Silva and appointing an Interim Committee to take over the affairs of Sri Lanka Cricket.

This would be a good time to mention that according to Sri Lanka’s Sports Law, the nation’s Sports Minister does have authority over all sporting bodies in the Country, so this was completely within his right to do. In fact, the Sri Lankan sports minister signs off on squads for Sri Lanka. He is the boss of cricket in the country.

The seven-member interim committee he appointed was to be chaired by former national skipper and current politician Arjuna Ranatunga, who has made no secret of his disdain for the SLC administration. The committee also included 3 retired high-court judges, former SLC President Upali Dharmadasa, a lawyer and a property developer - the latter two coincidentally being sons of politicians, with no known history of cricket administration. Just in case you were thinking they were actually trying to fix the problem, and not just do more of the same with a new crew.

Ranatunga’s revelry in taking over Sri Lanka Cricket, unfortunately, or fortunately, only lasted 24 hours, with the country’s court of appeal issuing a 14-day stay order almost immediately. That prevented the sports minister’s Ranatunga-led interim committee from taking effect.

By now this was so big that the President of the country, Ranil Wickramasinghe wanted a piece of it. According to some reports he was not pleased that the Sports Minister had gone ahead with the sacking of the Board and installation of an interim committee without a courtesy text.

The matter was discussed at a Cabinet meeting and ANOTHER committee was appointed to investigate Sri Lanka Cricket, this time led by the foreign minister. Sri Lanka now had as many interim committees as their top five made runs against India.

That 4-member subcommittee’s primary objective was to “recommend immediate, viable measures to resolve the outstanding issues in Sri Lanka Cricket”, according to a statement from the president's media office.

This was now being treated as a matter of national interest. Extensive, intensive debates in parliament finally reached a conclusion on November 9th, with a unanimous decision to pass a resolution to remove the SLC Executive Committee on allegations of financial mismanagement. Their team being dismissed for 55 runs was really the dereliction of duty that ended with them here.

This seemed to be the last straw for the ICC, who then decided to go ahead and suspend Sri Lanka’s membership with immediate effect.

As bad as suspension sounds, the worst thing that happened was losing hosting rights to the U19 World Cup that is scheduled to take place in early 2024. But it’s still a slap in the face of Sri Lankan politicians.

Now you can be forgiven for thinking that all this was caused by Mohammad Siraj and Mohammed Shami. That would of course be the funnier explanation, and it certainly made it more immediate. But the real reason for it all is the breakdown of the relationship between SLC and the Sports Minister - powerful men, with big egos.

Let’s go back to May 2022. Plans were being made for the Asia Cup, which Sri Lanka were supposed to host for the first time since 2010. But, Sri Lanka was facing some major political and economic issues at the time - the most concerning ones in terms of cricket were that the country was having daily power cuts that lasted hours and also facing significant fuel shortages.

In this light, Sri Lanka Cricket were of the opinion that moving the tournament to a neutral venue, would be the wisest choice.

However, this suggestion did not go down well with the newly appointed Sports Minister, who as you can imagine, was keen to make a big impression early in his tenure.

Ranasinghe, perhaps informed by Ranatunga, who was then part of the National Sports Council, was critical of SLC - saying they did not do enough to keep the tournament in the country and were moving it to the UAE with some ulterior motive.

Of course, Sri Lanka Cricket did not take these accusations well and the seeds for future discord between the two parties were planted.

Sri Lanka, to everyone’s surprise, went on to win the Asia Cup in the UAE and all was well back home. The public were back to loving the team and the critics, well, they had to lay low.

In the T20 World Cup campaign that followed, not only did Sri Lanka perform badly in the tournament, but they also had several cases of disciplinary issues and it also  merged that Sri Lanka Cricket had sent a busload of officials to Australia, without the Sports Minister’s approval - not that they needed it, but the minister obviously took that as a personal slight. Are you sensing a theme?

In November 2022, Ranasinghehe appointed a committee, yes another one, led by retired Supreme Court Judge Kusala Sarojini Weerawardena to investigate incidents involving the Sri Lankan team during the World Cup as well as the Board’s conduct.

The findings were handed over to the Sports Ministry in January 2023 and in it were details of the misappropriation of SLC funds and recommendations for tough action against those involved in embezzlement.

The Attorney General’s department advised the Sports Minister that they needed to conduct a comprehensive audit before they could go forward with legal action against the board. So that’s the route he took.

While these allegations were being investigated, Ranasinghe escalated things further by introducing new sports regulations, including age and term limits, to prevent SLC officials from standing for re-election - but the Sri Lankan Board challenged the new regulations in the Court of Appeal and a stay order was granted until June 2023. This basically meant SLC could go ahead with their elections. Shammi Silva once again was voted in as President alongside long-term supporters who had served in the previous term.

In July, a draft audit report from the Auditor General’s office was leaked to the media and, surprise surprise, it showed that SLC had spent over 68 million rupees - that’s over 200k USD for 14 Executive Committee members to watch the World Cup in Australia. Just in case you were thinking anyone here was the good guys.

While Shammi Silva denied these allegations and promised to resign immediately if any of them could be proven, the relationship between the Board and Ranasinghe was now pretty much non-existent - they only communicated through public rants about each other’s conduct.

It didn’t come as a surprise to anyone when the sports minister decided not to attend the opening or closing ceremony of the Lanka Premier League, Sri Lanka Cricket’s showpiece franchise tournament in August - his reason - SLC did not seek his permission to conduct the event.

So as you can see, by the time Mohammed Siraj and Mohammed Shami came onto the scene, things had already escalated to a boiling point.

Whatever his motives may be, Ranasinghe was not going to back down to the Sri Lankan Board and let them run things as they saw fit. Nor was he going to take a backward step with the President of the country - who he publicly accused of trying to shut him up.

In the immediate aftermath of the suspension, there were reports suggesting that it was actually the Sri Lankan board who had approached the ICC and more or less asked for a suspension.  It is not the first time a cricket board has used the ICC as a nuclear bomb when politics gets too much. They just couldn’t deal with the amount of interference in their affairs by the minister. If this actually happened, then the ICC’s decision to suspend SLC now, instead of the many many times similar things have happened in the past, actually makes sense.

Since the ICC suspension, things have been moving fast in Sri Lanka - the SLC board, the minister, Arjuna Ranatunga have all traded personal insults in the media, hosting their own press conferences at various points.

In welcome news for the board, the sports minister Ranasinghe was eventually relieved of his duties by the President of Sri Lanka on the 27th of November, after the latter made several accusations against the president in parliament.

The sacking of Ranasinghe and the appointment of Harin Fernando as Sports Minister may ease the lifting of Sri Lanka Cricket's suspension by the ICC - though this may not be such great news for Sri Lanka in terms of good governance.

I want you to think back to that horror show that happened to the Sri Lankan batters. The abject failure, embarrassment and annihilation of the best their nation could produce. Because as bad as being destroyed for 55 runs is, the truth is that the Sri Lankan cricket administration is far worse. While the team has struggled, they have occasionally come good. It would be hard to find any peaks for how the sport is run in the country.

When it comes to cricket administration and the politicians who love it, Sri Lankan off-field cricket is always bowled out for 55.