'Sympathise with what players have to go through today'

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Wettimuny became Sri Lanka's first Test centurion in his country's third ever Test
Wettimuny became Sri Lanka's first Test centurion in his country's third ever Test © Getty

It's upwards of 41 years since Sidath Wettimuny became Sri Lanka's first Test centurion. The right-handed opener made 157 against Pakistan in Faisalabad in March 1982, in his country's third ever Test, to go where no Sri Lankan had gone before.

Now 67, Wettimuny - who has been in various interim committees at Sri Lanka Cricket for eight terms - has been involved in a long struggle to get the constitution of SLC changed to usher in greater transparency and accountability. In this freewheeling chat with Cricbuzz, he reflects on his career, on how the game has changed, and what his visions are as he extends his fight for independence in the functioning of his home board.


It's more than 40 years since you did what you did. Do you ever think about what your place in history is?

Not really. I just look at it as something we enjoyed as players, had a great time. I sympathise with some of the players today for what they have to go through by way of the stresses of publicity, the sheer number of games one has to play in a year, etc. We had a lot more leisurely sort of lifestyle. Even the game was not as stressful. I'm quite happy with what we did in our youth. There wasn't the money at all. But we played the game for the joy of it. I thoroughly enjoyed my little stint of cricket, I have no regrets.

The first centurion of a country in Test cricket...

I was lucky. Somebody had to be the first and I was there, I was just lucky.

Do you remember what it felt like when you got to a hundred? Was it any different from scoring a hundred in first-class cricket?

I don't think so, really, because only when you come back after playing a match, and then somebody starts telling you, do you realise that's the first Test hundred? And then oh, is it so? That's it. Those were the days when we were trying to break into the bigger league and trying to establish ourselves as a stronger nation playing Test cricket. The key was, we enjoyed that. That's something I think of, I took a lot of lovely friendships from all the countries we played in. I remember just last March, I was in Mumbai, and Sunny (Gavaskar) had a function to which I went. That's the kind of thing you value today, in retirement. That was really good.

Is that something that's difficult to do today? Do you think just enjoying the game for the game that it is, is getting more and more tough?

The pressures are different these days. The demands are far greater, you're playing a lot more cricket. That alone puts a lot of pressure on the players. You hardly finish one tour and you have to think about the next tour and the next tour and the next tour. There is a lot more demand and likewise, the competition is great as well. The competition is great because you know when a player aspires to play for your country, and you see the wealth in the game, the money in the game, I'm sure that alone brings a lot of pressure. We were what I would call semi-professional players who were employed to play cricket. We played cricket for the love of the game. But today, it's a profession. It's a fully professionalised game of cricket. That tag of being a professional, I guess it brings more pressure.

Recently, R Ashwin spoke about how it's very difficult to have friendships, even within a team...

Yes, I'm not surprised. I'm not surprised, simply because there is this incredible competition within teams. When you have three teams playing now -- you have this Test team, one-day team and T20 team -- there are lots of changes happening all the time. You don't build that camaraderie which we did in our time. We had the same players playing over and over again. You were touring all the time. There were very little changes during that period. Those are maybe the negatives of today's game, but then there are lots of positives as well.

One of the offshoots is the tremendous influx of money into the game. There is a very legalised and channelised path through which you can earn a livelihood out of the game. Against that backdrop, does it surprise you that people still indulge in things that...

I guess that's the way with the world, you'll always have corruption, you'll always have greed getting the better of people. You have a little bit of that. But I think the ICC is doing very well, from what I gather, in keeping a lot of that at bay. Congratulations to the ICC, the anti-corruption units are doing fine. There was a lot of buzz in our country a few years ago, saying there's a lot of corruption and all that. But now, right at the moment, I find that's pretty quiet. But this will always surface once in a way. That's a way of life, with the kind of money that is there.

And yet, only recently, one of Sri Lanka's former internationals (Sachithra Senanayake) was taken into custody...

It's very sad, very sad. But we need to take strong measures to make sure that the game doesn't get corrupted. I think that's important.

You are in an interesting situation where you are driving a movement for change. Can you just take us through how the process first germinated? And where we are in the process?

For a long time, I've talked about this change, maybe since 2000, or even before. I have been saying that we need a change because we simply have too many votes in our system -- 147 votes against maybe 36 in India, 22 in England, five or six in Australia. It's crazy, we have 147 votes. What it does is, it politicises the system too much. We have clubs that don't play cricket and still have two votes, which is what SSC or NCC or any big club has. That must change. It's only natural that people will want to make these changes. I was chairing the interim committee in 2014 and I got this change going. Our (Sri Lanka's) current President (Ranil Wickremesinghe), who was then the Prime Minister, was very keen to get the change done. He spoke to the ICC, and we came to a situation where the ICC said go ahead and make the changes, we will support you, we will give you six months to do the change, stay with the interim committee. Unfortunately, the ministers changed and the whole thing just fizzled out. Luckily now, the minister agreed to get a committee to look at the fresh constitution. That committee, led by Justice (KT) Chitrasiri, has come out with a really good proposal. We are hoping we can push this through. Till it's done, you will never know. But we are certainly trying our best to get it through.

So, you are part of a group that is trying to get this change enforced...

Well, 12 guys, and I am one of them. Mainly ex-presidents of the Board. We petitioned both the Ministry of Sport and the SLC, and this is the result of that. We are hoping some change will take place very soon. Without that change, we're going to stagnate in our cricket.

Can you tell us what the proposed changes are?

The changes have a lot more independence, there are independent directors. There is a female member also brought on to the board and there is a much better balance. The clubs can select five members to be on the board, then the cricketers' association has a vote. The umpires' association, the coaches' association, the lady cricketers have a vote, there are about 15 or 16 votes, and a lot more transparency in what has been proposed. That's the kind of system we need so that there is more independence and transparency. There will be less bias, there will be independence, there'll be transparency and accountability, which is what you need. A good system must have that, and I don't think that's there now, sadly.

"As an Indian player, it must be very tough to take the pressure of carrying that on your shoulder"
"As an Indian player, it must be very tough to take the pressure of carrying that on your shoulder" ©Getty

Is that one of the reasons why you think Sri Lanka's graph has been a little up and down over the last seven or eight years?

I definitely think so. If you have good governance, that trickles down to the bottom, and I firmly believe that we need to make this change fast if we want to get up there again. It's like a company -- you have a company which is run well at the top, and then it will filter down. And I certainly hope, believe so.

Do you think the Lanka Premier League, which has assumed various hues, is keeping the interest going in Sri Lanka cricket?

I must say it is, it has done okay in the T20 format. I would have liked to have seen that same format going into the four-day. I always felt playing cities like what you do in India (the Ranji Trophy), it would be a good concept to carry through, even to the four-day tournament, simply because you need to have a sense of affiliation to a team. That comes only when you know it's city-involved. That's worked in India very well. As for the LPL, give due credit to them. It has been successful in that there are crowds at least watching some of our games. The problem we have had is that nobody watches first-class cricket, it doesn't have spectators. That's really sad, we need to galvanise that. I've been told that in India too, there aren't many spectators for first-class games but being a smaller country and being a much more manageable sort of set-up, if we take the four-day tournament also under the same umbrella of playing as the LPL, it would be more successful.

With a lot of money coming into the game, if you can put yourself in a player's perspective, how tempting would it be to prolong careers?

Very, I would guess so. If you're playing cricket as a livelihood and if you're doing well, maybe you will want to prolong your career and then when you stop playing for your country, you will want to play in these different franchises. I can't blame a player for that. Because you are a professional, you just got to play the game for as long as you can as long as you perform at that level which is required. I wouldn't blame players for playing slightly longer than what we did in our time. In our time, when we came to a certain age, you had to figure out what do I do. Do I continue to play cricket or find a way of making a living?

But increasingly, there's this trend of players leaving international cricket to go and play in franchise cricket. Does that threaten the fabric of international cricket?

Only time will say. I can only speculate but I recognise that as a problem. I've seen some young players or youngish players saying, I'm done with this. I want to go and play franchise cricket, maybe because the pressures are less, and maybe they think the money's easier. These are the challenges the modern game is facing. Administrators of different countries and the ICC will have to look at the pros and cons of that and figure out how to balance it.

Sri Lanka were the 1996 World Cup champions but have had to take the long route into the 2023 World Cup. As a Sri Lankan, how does that impact you?

We should be doing better, we definitely should be. There is a lot of talent around, we just need to get our act together. We need to get the systems in place to ensure that.

Is that because the players are too easily satisfied, or how do you think it works?

There are different thoughts about this. I may be a little old school, but I really think we are having way too many players playing in the three formats. To me, whether it is Test cricket, 50-over cricket or T20 cricket, it is about a change in attitude, not in skills per se. You will have one or two players who are like pinch-hitters. But if you look at the game, the best players have been able to adapt to any format. They have been able to adapt to any format if the will was there. Now if you take our cricket, Mahela (Jayawardene), Kumar (Sangakkara), Sanath (Jayasuriya), (Tillakaratne) Dilshan, they played all formats, and there was no problem. They played all formats and we did better in all formats. Now, there is too much cutting and chopping and changing which, to me, is not quite right. You need the main guys in all those three formats. Your top players can easily play in all three formats, unless they grow so old they can't run or something! Even going back to the good old days, the same players had the skills to adapt. Maybe they didn't want to adapt, that's different.

Just on that point, is it practically feasible for the same guys to be playing in all three formats, given how much the volume of cricket has increased?

That is a problem, I agree. The volume is huge and the sheer volume may cause the need for change of players. But that's where, you know, there is so much credit to India. Sometimes I get bored watching television now because every channel you change, there is a match somewhere or the other. But I guess it's supply and demand; if there is demand, there will be supply. And because there is a lot more interest in the game amongst the youngsters, so many will watch the IPL and the Big Bash and all that. I was told that even women's cricket has picked up a lot in England. It's good for the game. It's bringing more people to the game, but then the negatives of what you said, how much cricket can one play, because there is exhaustion. It's going to tell on you at some stage or the other.

What do you expect from the World Cup? How do you see it?

There are maybe four or five teams who are really, really good. I think India and Pakistan will have, in a sense, a home advantage in the conditions being pretty close to home. India, Pakistan, Australia, England, even New Zealand, they may be the frontrunners, but you never know. You could be the favourite, but sometimes that alone puts a lot of pressure. That's one problem India has -- the expectations on Indian cricket are too much. As an Indian player, it must be very tough to take the pressure of carrying that on your shoulder.

Every year, the expectations keep rising, and the pressure is on. And now, with the IPL, there are no secrets. Everybody knows everybody's game, that is a huge problem. There isn't that surprise element, you don't go into a tournament and say my gosh, who was that? That is gone, because everybody knows everybody. Before you go for the match, you have analysed all your opponents. Less expectation may be the way for India. But any one of those sides can clinch the title. I hope there will be an outsider who will come and put some pressure but on paper, it's these four or five teams that are in with a shout. Rohit Sharma made a very, very valid point the other day when he said that in winning teams, even the No. 8 or 9 has a role to play as a batsman. In 1996 (when Sri Lanka won the World Cup), our batters at 7, 8, 9 made some vital contributions with the bat. That plays a big role today -- you can lose three quick wickets but you need that depth to give your bowlers a chance.

I'm sure the World Cup will be interesting, as it always has been. I wouldn't know who will win it because they're all so damn good. You have four or five teams who on their day can beat each other. Pakistan has a very good side, India, England... Another thing that is equalised is the wickets. Even though we could sit in England, Australia, here, Pakistan, India, they are all beginning to look very similar. Now you don't go to England and say my gosh, you're gonna have green seaming wickets, that has gone today. These flat wickets across the world are very, very similar. Now the English or the Australians won't come to India and say, wow, we got a turning track. Because of the IPL, they are playing so much cricket in India. India is basically home for everybody now. Where is the surprise element then?

Your views on how England have approached Test cricket in the last one year?

Interesting, certainly interesting. Maybe it's making the spectators more excited. This is part of this evolution which is taking place. Twenty years from now, we may see a completely different game, who knows? I'm not surprised at the change. I go back to the fact that these changes can be made because the wickets have become a lot more flat. You couldn't do that (bat like England are doing now) in the 1970s, I'm sure. But maybe, now you can. It's a little experimental at the moment. It may not necessarily be what is going to be successful all the time. But today, sport is also about excitement and spectator interest. The traditional game is no longer what is wanted by the viewers. They want to see excitement. We're moving with the times, I guess. It's certainly exciting to watch but whether it's going to be successful or not in the long term, I honestly don't know.

The Asian Cricket Council was formed for the betterment of the sport in the continent. Is it the same unifying force as it was meant to be? India, for instance, don't want to play in Pakistan...

I can only hope that cricket has a unifying impact on all of our countries. At the end of the day, we all are the same. We've just got to be together and develop. When I was briefly heading the Asian Cricket Council, I proposed that we make Dharamsala the Centre for Excellence for this region and everyone accepted, there was no opposition at all. But then, as soon as I was out of it, that died a natural death. We must put an end to this; the game is about uniting, not disuniting. At the end of the day, it's a game, and the game of cricket can unite everybody.



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