Rumble At Sri Lanka Cricket

Upali Dharmadasa and Thilanga Sumathipala broke ranks with Ana Punchihewa to contest the 1996 cricket elections, a mere two weeks after the country won the World Cup. Later Dharmadasa and Sumathipala became bitter rivals.

As in politics, there aren’t permanent enemies or permanent friends in cricket. Friends who come together to topple an incumbent administration, end up fighting one another within a matter of months, as we have seen over the years.

When the last cricket election was held in 2016, the unthinkable happened. We witnessed  a coming together of sworn enemies, Jayantha Dharmadasa and Thilanga Sumathipal, to demolish Nishantha Ranatunga’s empire.

Thanks to the backing of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s sons, the younger Ranatunga was running the game of cricket with an iron fist. To bring him down, Dharmadasa and Sumathipala had to make common cause.

The two business magnets entered into what they called a gentleman’s agreement, according to which Sumathipala would be the President for the first two years with Dharmadasa as his deputy looking after international cricket. For the next two years, Dharmadasa would lead SLC with Sumathipala playing second fiddle.

However, a few months after toppling Ranatunga, there were internal quibbles and Dharmadasa stepped down due to difference of opinions with Sumathipala. Eventually, Dharmadasa teamed up with Ranatunga to bring down Sumathipala by staying the cricket elections which were scheduled for May this year through a court order.

Gamini Dissanayake returns home having won Sri Lanka Test status in 1981. He was assassinated while still holding office as President of SLC in 1994.
Gamini Dissanayake returns home having won Sri Lanka Test status in 1981. He was assassinated while still holding office as President of SLC in 1994.

The Appeal Court was told that Sumathipala was unqualified to contest the elections. The court is yet to give a verdict, but the cricket Supremo has withdrawn from the February 7th elections. Instead, he has nominated his confidant Mohan De Silva to contest for the post of President.

This literally means that Sumathipala will run the show as an eminence grise in case of de Silva’s victory. SLC’s constitution allows the Immediate Past President to sit on the Executive Committee. The Ex Co, which contains nearly two dozen individuals will be full of Sumathipala loyalists!

Sumathipala has mastered the art of cricket administration so much so that heads he wins and tails his rivals lose.

Some reputed Sri Lankans have been at the helm of Sri Lanka Cricket over the years. The country’s first Executive President R. Jayewardene was the President of SLC for three years from 1952 to 1955. Robert Senanayake succeeded him and held the post for 20 years. Those were the times that no one wanted to be involved with the game, which hardly had any money.

Former Ministers Dr. N.M. Perera, Gamini Dissanayake, T.B. Werapitiya, Lakshman Jayakody and Tyronne Fernando also headed SLC at various stages and most of them were elected uncontested.

The rot set in after the team won the ICC Cricket World Cup in 1996. With millions of dollars pouring in the form of television revenue, the cricket board suddenly became El Dorado, as it were.

One of the bitterly contested cricket elections was held in 1996. It happened barely two weeks after Sri Lanka had been crowned World Champions.

Ana Punchihewa had played little cricket, but his business acumen helped SLC get richer. He had signed a four-year deal with Singer Sri Lanka to be the sponsor of the national cricket team. Furthermore, when he assumed office in 1995, he put out an ambitious plan, which was to make Sri Lanka the best cricketing nation in the world by the year 2000.

This plan was not just to improve results, but to develop infrastructure at venues, improve umpiring, coaching standards and lot more. With the team having won the World Cup under his charge, it looked a foregone conclusion that he was set to win a second term.

But his two Vice-Presidents turned against him. Punchihewa was surprised when Dharmadasa informed him that he was going to take him on at the elections. The other Vice-President Sumathipala was backing Dharmadasa. The Ranatungas, too, joined the fray and the incumbent President had his work cut out.

The cricket election was closely contested but all that took place that day was not quite cricket.

Nondescripts Cricket Club (NCC) with a history of over 100 years is a highly respected cricket entity. The club that has produced some of the finest Test captains such as Ranjan Madugalle, Aravinda de Silva and Kumar Sangakkara has fought hard to preserve the intrinsic values of the game.

Thilanga Sumathipala leaves Sports Ministry premises after handing over his nominations to contest the 2003 cricket elections.
Thilanga Sumathipala leaves Sports Ministry premises after handing over his nominations to contest the 2003 cricket elections.

NCC, being a controlling club, has two votes. As a tradition, the club has never voted for one group at elections. It always splits the vote and casts one each for different groups. So, at the NCC AGM, it was decided to give one vote to Punchihewa and one vote to Dharmadasa.

NCC stalwart K.M. Nelson was representing the club at the SLC AGM. When it was NCC’s chance to cast the vote, Nelson announced that he was casting both votes for Dharmadasa. All hell broke loose as the club’s nominee was voting against the wish of NCC. There were several other similar instances where the representatives of the newly created clubs turned up at the cricket elections and voted for Dharmadasa.

The Dharmadasa camp benefited hugely as Sumathipala’s confidant S.B. Dissanayake was the Sports Minister. Eventually, Punchihewa lost a closely contested election. Cricket saw the first election marred by malpractices. Many more would follow in years to come.

The NCC membership suspended Nelson immediately for voting against the wish of the club. But within days of being elected President, Dharmadasa appointed Nelson a National Selector!

Every election since 1996 has brought the game into disrepute. People who canvass ahead of elections promise clubs and provincial and district associations millions of rupees. They end up spending colossal amounts of funds on member clubs on the pretext of cricket development.

There are also other perks involved. Would anyone believe that a tiny island like Sri Lanka has the most number of First Class teams in the world? At the last elections we had only 14 teams playing First Class cricket. But more teams were promised First Class status. One of the first things Sumathipala’s Executive Committee did was to grant ten more clubs First Class status.

Former President Chandirka Kumaratunga smelt a rat in SLC in 1999. When the team failed to progress beyond the first round in the 1999 World Cup an ideal opportunity presented itself for her to sack the SLC Executive Committee.

Jayantha Dharmadasa failed to win the cricket elections in 2000 and 2001. Later he was appointed as President of the Interim Committee in 2004 by Sports Minister Jeevan Kumaratunga.
Jayantha Dharmadasa failed to win the cricket elections in 2000 and 2001. Later he was appointed as President of the Interim Committee in 2004 by Sports Minister Jeevan Kumaratunga.

In order to usher in financial transparency, she appointed reputed banker Rienzie Wijetilleke Chairman of the Interim Committee.

However, later on, the Interim Committees too became political tools. Those who had failed to win cricket elections entered SLC through the backdoor as Interim Committee members.

An intervention from the highest level of government is needed to clean up the mess that cricket currently faces.

Wijetilleke may not have been able to tell a googly from a doosra, but he brought in financial discipline to the cricket board. His appointment was the best thing that has happened to the game since the county won the World Cup.

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