'We don't want to miss out on anyone'
Thilanga Sumathipala has been president of Sri Lanka Cricket since January 2016. He talks ESPNcricinfo through several of his board's decisions, his plans for Sri Lanka's domestic cricket, and the national team's prospects.
Why did the board scrap the zonal (provincial) tournaments that had been designed and scheduled by the previous administration for the 2016 season?
I have no idea whatsoever about the so-called zonal, or cluster tournament. Those are not researched, or board-initiated ideas. Those are vendor-driven, television-company driven documents, based on some cricketing background.
Even to date, my cricket committee and our tournament committee are not very much in favour of clustering people without any ownership. We started the SLPL and we had to shut it down. It was a failure. We don't want to start something to shut down again. The thing is, if you're building up a domestic tournament, you have to have ownership. What we have done now is got 600-odd schools, more than 12,000 games - 20,000 students are playing cricket. That is the quantity.
What is your plan for domestic cricket?
When it comes to the district level, we have district teams, which will feed into provincial teams. So, for example, if you are a southerner you will play for Southern - where Galle is our main centre. Then there are teams in Dambulla, Kandy and Colombo, and those players will feel like they have ownership of those teams. Those teams will also virtually have international facilities.
What about the restructuring of age-group cricket?
All the age-group cricket from now on - Under-15, U-17, U-19, U-21 and U-23 - are done at the district and provincial levels. We have scrapped age-group cricket as far as the clubs are concerned. There's no interest in playing age-group cricket in the club set-up. We are passing that off to the districts.
Last year we started U-19 and U-15. We are building the capacity at the bottom. So, as an example, a Debarawewa boy could come forward, and if he is outstanding, he will be picked to play for Hambantota district. Say he does very well there, then he becomes a member of the Southern province team. Then he plays provincial cricket - he'll play for the Southern team in a tournament that consists of ten teams [the Western province has more than one team]. Above that are super provinces, four teams based at our international venues, in Dambulla, Kandy, Colombo and Galle.
By the time they come through that pyramid, we know exactly the top 20 players in that age group island-wide. We don't want to miss out on anyone. If you are at Richmond College [Galle], for example, you don't have to feel you're going to miss out because you don't play in a Colombo school. In fact, you might feel you have a better chance of playing for the Galle or Dambulla teams, and you can come to the national side faster. You'll get recognised earlier.
We will also allow teams to import players. Say, Dambulla is weak. They can import up to five players from elsewhere, and play at any given time. Because the Western province is the most populated, they may have outstanding players who don't make the cut for the Western team. They could be better than a player from Dambulla - so we have to give them the opportunity to play at that level.
How will this model be adopted at the senior level?
While we are building this up at the age-group levels, we're not going to sit and wait. We've played our super provincial tournament at the senior level. We've got the national selectors to come. We've given them as close as possible to our national team's facilities. Then we have bridged the gap between domestic cricket and international cricket. Club cricket is not up to that standard, which we all know, but all that will still go on. If we try and rectify too many things overnight, it's not going to happen.
Why have no first-class provincial tournaments been played in the two seasons you have been in charge?
This year we've given priority to the Champions Trophy. We don't want to play the longer version when we are building up to our Champions Trophy campaign. Players would find that difficult. We had also planned a club one-day tournament, but because that was stayed by a court order, we lost about six to eight weeks from this year's domestic season.
Will there be a first-class provincial tournament next season?
Definitely, we are going to play the super provincial four-team tournament. We are looking at day-night pink-ball cricket for that as well. Initially, for the next two to three years, we've decided to distribute the players into the provincial team based on where they come from, as much as we can. The national selectors will then sit together and work out the best possible balance, and assign players accordingly. For example, Upul Tharanga led the Galle team this year [in the List A tournament], because he is a southerner. Chamara Kapugedera, a Kandyan, captained the Kandy team.
So what is the proposed schedule for next season's domestic tournaments?
We have set aside September to November for inter-district and inter-provincial T20s. Then you go into a club set-up, and they play from November to March. Then there will be the inter-provincial one-day and four-day tournaments.
Would this not represent too great a workload for top domestic players, who would have to play in at least five tournaments a season [three for their provincial side, and two for their club]?
I think there will be 85 to 100 days of cricket per player. We're looking at various controls as well - that's up to our cricket committee and technical committee. Our fast bowlers, especially, we're going to monitor the number of spells bowled per day and week and so on. Player management is coming up with technical programmes. We're going to impose that from this year.
Why were nine new clubs granted first-class status for the 2017 season, bringing the total number of first-class clubs to 23?
We called for a meeting, and the clubs were of the view that there are players who are playing two seasons. Some are going to Australia in their summer, and some are going to England. We have contracted 70 players and asked them not to leave. Then we paid them 200,000 to 1 million rupees per player [US$1300 to $6550 approx] to 70 players. We gave them a contract for domestic cricket. Some are already playing first-class cricket.
Our intention here is to get the best 300 players to stay back in Sri Lanka and play by supporting the club teams. We didn't want to lose anyone by their going to Australia during our season.
For the smaller clubs, they don't get a lot of revenue. They don't have the resources to play if they are not first-class clubs. Their players would creep into the top teams. Then the game would suffer and the districts would suffer. I think this year they are all happy, and everyone stayed back. Our contract was from November 1 to April 30. They are playing six months. They can leave and play in England during their summer if they want.
Don't the club tournaments lack in quality?
We have a problem there. We have to have the top curators looking at the grounds and playing conditions. Next year we're going to have independent curators approving certain wickets. It's all costing us money because we have to retain a lot of people. For an SSC [Sinhalese Sports Club] and NCC [Nondescripts Cricket Club] match, they'll have good facilities, but a team like Badureliya or Ragama will have to depend on someone else's ground. Sometimes when they hire a ground, they may be given a used wicket. There's one ground, for example, where they don't maintain it.
This year we're putting the grounds on notice. By June or July, we'll tell them they need to have good wickets ready by September. They have to put the top dressing and so on. It takes about three months. Hopefully next year we'll have some better wickets. We're importing rollers. We would like to have more of those three-ton rollers, because that is important to getting an even surface. We've asked our curators to go around and give the ground staff some training. We need to give some infrastructure assistance to the clubs. By the time we get to September, they'll be sound.
Given that your administration was the first to appoint a high performance manager, Simon Willis, what benefits has that appointment brought?
Simon has been given a lot of responsibility. He's not a coach. He's looking after all the top teams. We had a lot of injuries before, and we've reduced that number by about 37%. We are working on our three-year business plan. Simon has to now help Graham Ford with the national team. He's got to give the national team the option of choosing from trained, well-maintained, and managed players. When they are injured and come back, we manage the players with rehabilitation and monitor them, then keep the national players involved.
This is not something that has happened in Sri Lanka before. Look at someone like Kusal Perera. He was failing. We got him back here, got him to play England A, where he got back to his runs. Now he's playing well. [Dinesh] Chandimal was a little shaky with his form, and now he's coming back with this provincial tournament. So it's looking good.
Simon also oversees and organises all the coaches. They have to report to the office at a certain time. They are under pressure to perform. It's not a very popular position, but he has a lot of responsibility. I'm very happy with the way Simon is working. But then it's difficult for him to adjust to our culture, and it's difficult for others to adjust to the performance manager's role. People are not used to reporting to him and being answerable. I'm quite convinced we need him there.
Why is there no dedicated batting coach with the Sri Lanka team?
We asked the players. Some are very comfortable with Ford. Some are good with Avishka Gunawardana [A team coach]. If we had Kumar Sangakkara or Mahela Jayawardene today, they would have been the ideal batting coaches. But unfortunately they are both still playing cricket.
We are trying to get juniors under Roy Dias, and we also have Hashan Tillakaratne on the coaching staff. Avishka is a good batting coach. We have seven to eight people all lined up, but Graham Ford has to look after them when they walk into the national team. Ford's main focus should be batting. He's good with that, although people don't realise it. He talks to the players very nicely, one to one. He does the throwdowns and gets some footage done. I think where our national team is concerned, Fordy is looking after the batting.
And why is Nick Pothas, the fielding coach hired last year, only sparingly deployed with the national team?
It's difficult to correct fielding at the top level. If our A team is weak, and our U-21 teams are weak, it's going to be tough. Already, we sent him with the A team and U-19 teams to South Africa. That's the age they have to learn the techniques and understand the flexibility. Now, because the Champions Trophy is important, he's been put with the national team at the moment. Nick is a brilliant fielding coach. He can do workshops with the national team, but it's the build-up to the national team that's important.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando