Dubai: Arjuna Ranatunga, who lifted Sri Lanka from minnows of the game to 1996 World Cup champions, was not only an outstanding all-rounder but an astute captain too.
Ranatunga, known for his ability to inspire his players as well as his frank views on the game, is today a politician. He is on a mission to rescue Sri Lankan cricket.
In an exclusive interview with Gulf News, Ranatunga, who is in Dubai to give away the Shyam Bhatia annual cricket awards, took a trip down memory lane. In the process he hit out not only at his cricket board, but also at their Indian counterparts, who he says are harming the game through the Indian Premier League.
GULF NEWS: You led Sri Lanka to the 1996 World Cup triumph at a time when every nation saw your country as the minnows of the game and underdogs. Did such tags strengthen your resolve to win the World Cup?
ARJUNA RANATUNGA: No one expected us to win and that was the biggest advantage we had, though close to two years before the World Cup we were playing very well and those who understood the game knew we had an outside chance. We implemented new ideas like opening the innings with Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana, concentrating on having solid five batsmen in the middle and playing with four bowlers. We also understood the way we should play in Asia better than other teams.
Was there any instance that egged the players to join hands and fight hard to win the World Cup?
The first thing I wanted as captain was the players to have trust in me. I told them to follow what I instructed them to do and assured them that if anything goes wrong I will protect them. This is exactly what I did with Kaluwitharana because he never opened the batting in his career and, when I told him to open, he got very scared. I gave him the assurance that I was taking the responsibility and spoke to the selectors. I also feel I was lucky to get 13 cricketers who were committed and very keen to win and never bothered about money.
Why is it that Sri Lanka are missing out in big tournaments now?
The main factor is that politics has got involved with cricket. Starting from the president of the country, the interference into cricket is unbelievable. In my time cricketers were not used by the politicians for their success. It happened when President Mahinda Rajapaksa contested for the second time and he got most of the cricketers to go on advertisements for his success. Now the president and ministers are interfering with cricket with the sports minister putting a finger in everything. This is one of the factors for our cricket disaster.
You mean Sri Lankan cricket is being run unprofessionally and is pulling the game back?
Yes the cricket board is run by people who will say yes to the president and the government. When I was in the cricket board, the former sports minister wanted the board to pay the bill for his political function. I refused, though some said we should pay. I made it very clear that cricket money should be invested in cricket and not to keep politicians happy.
Is the Sri Lanka cricket board really bankrupt despite the game being the most popular in the country?
I feel it is going from bad to worse as cricket is being run by people who want this to be a business rather than invest in promoting the game. Today it is all about how to get money to show the president and the government and then spend on unwanted areas. It is in a total mess. Fortunately our schools cricket standard is good, but we are growing gradually when compared with countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan. They are grooming their players faster and are on a fast track. I had mentioned a year back that we will lose to Bangladesh and we did.
Do you think India is the big brother of cricket and is influencing the game in the region?
I feel very sorry for Indian cricket. The way they are going they are heading towards a disaster. They won the World Cup but look at the way they are playing Test cricket. They are losing to most of the countries and don't produce any more Gavaskars, Vengsarkars or Viswanaths, Tendulkars, Dravids and Laxmans. I am talking about classical cricketers. They will now produce butchers because of the IPL. Most countries are now being controlled by the Indian Cricket Board because they are the kingpin and have all the money. In the International Cricket Council (ICC), when India says something, all the others keep their mouths shut because they are dependent on Indian money. The ICC board officials are there to get money for their country rather than promote and protect the game properly.
So you believe the IPL is detrimental for cricket?
It has already started to show. Players now prefer to play IPL rather than for their country. Malinga has retired from Test cricket because he wants to play in the IPL and our board did nothing. You cannot pick and choose. The IPL is entertainment for a public who does not understand the game. People who understand this lovely game will never get into the shorter version. I like the way the West Indies cricket board handled the issue of the IPL. They allowed their players to go and play in the IPL and continued to stage their international matches against Australia. In the case of Sri Lanka, they played two Test matches and cancelled the third and also the one-day series to go and play in the IPL. We have a spineless cricket board that allowed this to happen. By doing this when we go to England we will also get to play only two Test matches. It is the younger generation who will lose by such acts. How can you stop the entire country from playing international cricket just to play in the IPL? There are seven cricketers from Sri Lanka in the IPL out of which three or four are playing regularly and the rest are sitting on the bench. More than 300 cricketers are forced to stay at home doing nothing because of the IPL. It is not only hampering Sri Lankan cricket, but the entire world.
So do you also believe Twenty20 is harmful for the game?
It is entertainment and you don't have to have a technique. I was so glad when I saw Sunil Gavaskar bat for the first time. It was like an art and you looked at him and you can watch him play the entire six hours. You don't have that calibre of cricketers in India. Once the days of Laxmans, Dravids and Tendulkars are over then it is all gone. You take Australia, they are more concerned about their traditional cricket than others. Even Pakistan, though struggling for money, is playing traditional cricket.
What prompted you to enter politics?
I come from a political family. My father was a minister and my brother is the present chief minister in the western province. My younger brother is also into politics. I was the least interested to get into politics, but when the former president Chandrika Kumaratunga invited me to get into politics to do something for sports, I thought it was another opportunity to give something back to the game.
So you want cricketers to run cricket and not politicians?
I would say honest people who love the game and country without thinking of money should get into cricket. One of the reasons I joined the opposition is to fight and show the public what is happening. My main goal is to topple this government because if this government runs for a longer period then the country will be in a disaster. You need to get the country right before getting the cricket right.
You were known as a brave captain. How did you take on Australians who were the masters in sledging despite you leading an inexperienced team?
I was lucky that I started playing international cricket when I was only 18. I went through the entire process and saw how they were treating us. Most of the issues started when we started winning and they needed to counter-attack us in a different way. As a captain I told my players to counter-attack, if they felt so, and also told them I will handle it the way I wanted.
How tough was it to defend accusations against Muralitharan's bowling action?
I used to read all the rules and understand them and how to tackle various issues. You look at the present captains and I am sure half of them will not know the rules and they will have to wait for the managers or the coaches to come to their rescue. So when the Muralitharan issue started, I knew there was an issue with his hand, which was genuine. We fought over that and, had I not taken up the issue strongly in Adelaide, his career would have been over. However, watching some of the bowlers' actions today, I think I might have created a monster. Now you do not know whether a bowler is bending 15 per cent or over 30 per cent.
What are your Sharjah cricket memories?
I have some great memories and we won many tournaments and played a few unbelievable games. I will always cherish the way Abdul Rahman Bukhatir promoted the past cricketers by benefiting them in a big way. It gave new life for some of the past cricketers. Take the case of the IPL, have they ever given one small packet for a past Indian cricketer? IPL is run by a few businessmen and film stars who now tell the cricketers how to play cricket. I am so lucky I am not playing cricket now with film stars instructing me how to play. I am very happy that the 20 years I played the game I played it with passion. We might not have earned big money but we earned respect.