By Chris Stocks
Sri Lankan great Kumar Sangakkara has launched a scathing attack on the cricketing system in his homeland, admitting his country’s chances in the upcoming Test series against England have been undermined by poor administration.
Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene were part of the team that defied the odds to win their first Test series in England two years ago.
However, Sri Lanka will be without that pair of batting greats when the first Test of this summer starts at Headingley on Thursday following their retirements from international cricket last August.
Any country would struggle to fill the void left by two players who both scored in excess of 10,000 Test runs.
Yet Sri Lanka’s task has been made harder, says Sangakkara, by the deficiencies in their domestic system that so frustrated former coach Trevor Bayliss, the Australian who is now in charge of England.
“I think we produce our cricketers in spite of the system,” said Sangakkara. “It’s a very strange thing. We have a wonderful school system where over 400 schools play competitive cricket.
“Then we have 20 first-class clubs and all those good cricketers who come into that first-class system suddenly get lost.
“We have a lot of talent that’s spread too thinly among those 20 teams and a lot of the cricket that is played is not played to the standard that is acceptable at first-class level, so much so that when Trevor Bayliss took over Sri Lanka one of his complaints was we have to teach cricketers to play first-class cricket once they’re picked for Sri Lanka. It’s not a good place to be as a cricketing nation.
“We’ve been lucky that once every four or five years we produce a Murali or Malinga, or a Jayawardene, who defy the odds.
“But to consistently produce world-class teams, not one or two individual players, we need to fine-tune that system and that’s a work in progress.
“I think one of the examples we can look at is the English county system, splitting the teams into two divisions, making sure the wickets are good and consistently monitoring and fine-tuning the system over the years has enabled England to have the side they do now.
“It’s something Sri Lanka aspires to and hopefully sooner rather than later we’ll be able to get that system down pat so we don’t have to spend two years building a national side like now – I think that’s too long. We need to fix that system and fix it quickly.”
Despite that, Sangakkara, now playing for Surrey at the age of 38, believes Angelo Mathews’ side have a chance to compete with England over the coming three Tests at Leeds, Durham and Lord’s.
“No, I’m not writing them off at all,” he said. “The real test is going to be for our batting and to be able to get 350-plus runs on the board in the first innings.
“It’s going to be the first tough step in a journey that will probably last a good two years for us to rebuild. But they have the potential, they have the talent and I hope they have the temperament to step up.
“I’m not expecting the Sri Lanka team to perform miracles, I just hope they compete and stay in the fight for long enough to be presented with an opportunity to maybe win a Test match.”
Sangakkara, who played for Surrey against Yorkshire at Headingley this week, admits he has already fielded calls from former team-mates asking for advice ahead of the series.
It’s something both he and Jayawardene are happy to do.
“I got a text yesterday from one of our openers who said, ‘how are you doing? We’ve not spoken in a while’. I texted back, ‘are you sure you want to talk about me or do you want to know about the wicket at Headingley?’ He said, ‘yeah, the wicket!’
“You do get calls and there are chances to talk cricket and you try to give as much information as is needed. Not too much jargon or overloading, just a bit of what they need.
“Angelo will definitely call Mahela and they will ask me about conditions, but the one fact is they have got over our retirements. That’s done and dusted now.
“Everyone talks about the fact we’ve retired, but the side themselves have no baggage and they are going to be up for the job.”
Sangakkara is playing in England and scoring runs. So, with a series against England coming up, does he ever regret calling time on his international career?
“No, I’ve had my time facing Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson! I thought I might miss it more but I’m at peace with the decision I’ve made.”
England will certainly be glad they no longer have to face one of the game’s greats.
This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, Friday May 13 2016