Colombo, Sri Lanka: When he was only a stripling, a young man who arrived to play for the prestigious Sinhalese Sports Club in Colombo’s tony Cinnamon Garden neighbourhood was dismissed as a “sarong Johnnie.” The Sri Lankan national dress, sarong and long top, akin to an Indian kurta, sits as well now on Arjuna Ranatunga as it did back in the day. The formal SSC changed their rules for Ranatunga back then, and the World Cup winning captain continues to be a singular man.
When he spoke with a group of Indian journalists, Ranatunga, 53 years old and the Petroleum Minister, unusually sober and extremely busy in his ministry office, was charismatic without being provocative. For nearly an hour, Ranatunga held court.
There’s been a bit of commotion around your comments on the 2011 World Cup final …
When it comes to the 2011 World Cup final, I never said I was concerned about match-fixing. I said there were issues, address the issues. It is not my issues, the entire country saw it. I am not taking the credit away from India at all. I can remember when I was seated with all the captains before the tournament, I said my heart says Sri Lanka but India has the best side. But unfortunately, the way we approached that game and some of the things that happened in the final, I was not comfortable. So I said, these are the things the ICC should get into. I never said match-fixing.
Have you shared your concerns with the International Cricket Council?
No, because I am not directly involved in cricket, I didn’t want to get into details. I was doing commentary in India and I was seated with Kapil (Dev) during the final, and we all had a lot of answers. And that’s the reason I said these are the things not only the ICC but even our sports ministry should look into because when things are bad, you have to stop the rot straightaway, get rid of the cancer or it will spread into the entire system.
What are the challenges facing Sri Lankan cricket, and world cricket?
Cricket... To tell you honestly, I’ve stopped watching Sri Lankan cricket. I read the newspaper, but I hardly watch cricket. I was very disappointed after the last cricket elections. There are roles in this country, and I was not eligible to contest as the president [of Sri Lanka Cricket]. I have to, being in the government, go through the law properly. And I had the opportunity to contest for a vice-presidency, which I lost. I am a politician and a cricketer but I still lost! Cricket was something like a religion to this nation, and we don’t have a religion now.
A lot of people don’t watch cricket. You can imagine, if I’m not watching cricket, how can you expect the others to watch cricket? That is nothing to do with the cricketers. It’s all about bad and wrong administration.
How frustrating is it to watch the game today?
We formed this new government to get the country right, and I feel the country is getting there. But unfortunately, cricket isn’t getting there and that’s the worst part. Cricket is going in the wrong direction. It’s very frustrating because we are a very talented cricketing nation. People don’t know how to handle them. It’s all about the mind but they talk about physique and no one talks about cricket fitness.
A lot of people are talking about the bodies and the six-packs. Then you get models; I always say pick 15 models and tell them to play cricket! It’s so unfortunate that all these people who take decisions on cricketing matters haven’t seen proper cricket. You take the Duleep Mendises, the (GR) Viswanaths, the (Mike) Gattings and the (Colin) Cowdreys… These players – including me! – wouldn’t have played cricket if people running cricket today ran cricket then.
You contested elections for the SLC president’s post and vice-president’s post, but lost. What changes were you hoping to make if you won?
My theory was to get school cricket right. We have the best school cricket system in the world, but the standards have gone down very badly. In ‘81-82, we used to provide at least five to seven cricketers to the national squad. You can’t find a single cricketer from school playing even in the second XI. Something is wrong somewhere. When I contested for the vice-presidency, I said I’m going to handle school cricket. That was my dream, to get school cricket back to the same standards when we were playing.
The other main issue I was looking at was to change the mindset of the players. For them to erase from their minds the money part and to educate them on the value of playing for the country, value of winning games for the country. Those are the things lacking in some of these cricketers.
What do you make of Virat Kohli the captain?
To tell you honestly, I haven’t seen too much cricket. I watch international cricket (other than that involving Sri Lanka) when I go home, whenever I get time. I have seen him as a batsman but I still can’t rate him as a captain; as a batsman, I rate him very highly. I am not putting him down as captain but he has a long way to go to achieve a lot of things. If you want me to compare him now with Indian top captains like (Mohammad) Azharuddin, Dhoni and if I take captains of my time like Kapil Dev, he has a long way to go. I still feel they were really top-class captains.
If Kohli came to you, what advice would you give him?
I prefer him to be a little sober. I don’t think he will agree with me, but we have a culture in our world. You take India, Sri Lanka, we have a different culture, we are not aggressive as the Australians or the English. You need to be aggressive when you have to be aggressive.
You don’t have to show a lot of aggression as a captain all the time, that can drain through the entire system. That’s one reason why whenever I got angry, I don’t show it. I would get frustrated but I don’t show it in the middle, because it can drag into the entire, not only the team but the entire country. If he asks me a question, I’ll say calm down a little bit. He needs to be aggressive, but he doesn’t have to show it. He’s too young, he will learn.
What goes into making a good captain?
As a captain, I always used to admire Imran Khan, Kapil Dev – because he won a World Cup when I was 19. I thought if Kapil can win a World Cup as India captain, why can’t Sri Lanka win. Then in 1992, Imran won the World Cup and I thought if India can win and Pakistan can win, why can’t we win?
Depending on the place and the conditions, you need to adjust quickly and a captain is a person who will listen to all 9-10 players but ultimately take his own decision, as if he hasn’t talked to anyone. It is all about how he feels. I think that is the strength I had. I was never afraid to take decisions. Whatever decisions I have taken, more than 70-80% have turned out right.
Taking tough decisions today can put a captain in a spot of bother with his players. Did you worry about these things?
I was too strong and I would get rid of them. If you can’t work with me, then you can’t be in my team. I’ll tell you, the ‘96 team was not the best team we had at that time. But they were the most committed team I picked. I never wanted the most talented team, I wanted a team which gives me 100%, who will come out and give their lives to the country. Whatever plans we have, whether they can work with me to execute those, it was that sort of cricketers I wanted to pick. There were much better cricketers than that particular team, but that is the reason we could win the World Cup.
How do you earn the trust of players?
It doesn’t happen overnight, it takes a little time. It’s all about how you protect your cricketers. When you know that the cricketers are talented, that’s a gift given by someone at the top. When you look at a cricketer, you can say that this guy will go to the top, have a little patience. I can give you a couple of examples – (Sanath) Jayasuriya, he was awful at the start. Marvan Atapattu, he couldn’t get a single run. But when we looked at them, we knew that they were going to come out of this shell. It’s all about protecting them, safeguarding them, pushing them at the right time, throwing them to the deep end at the right time. With some of these present guys, without teaching them how to swim, they throw them into the deep end. And after two games, they are dead and gone. We’ve picked 40-odd cricketers in the last two years. It didn’t happen in my time.
How important is the coach in an international team?
Not very. When you have a senior cricketer…
Basically this is coming from what happened with Anil Kumble…
I don’t know why they have all the changes, but ultimately the captain runs the show. The coaches are there to only guide, but if the coaches are going to run cricket, then it’s a disaster. Coaches are there, they have a different job, but ultimately the vehicle is driven by the captain. The coach can be the conductor, but not the driver. When the coach tries to be the driver, that’s an issue you’re going to face.
I always wanted a coach to support us, do the coaching part. Selections have to be done by the chairman and the captain, ultimately the captain should be given the authority to pick the side. If something goes wrong, the captain takes the blame.
I’m totally against selectors being paid, it should be an honorary job. I know a lot of people will be angry with me, but when you’re picking a national side, you should not be paid to pick. I may be an old-fashioned guy, but when you are getting a salary to pick your own national side, I don’t agree with that. It should be an honorary job and it should come from your heart.
If money is involved does that ruin everything?
When the money comes in, ultimately it’s all about the money. That has happened to a lot of cricketers in the world. You take some of the, I don’t want to name them, some of them prefer to play in the IPL rather than for their own countries. Some of them prefer to play in the Australian league rather than playing for their country. Is that the advice we are going to give to young cricketers, to school boys? You are an icon, you have to behave and act like an icon. I always say that a lot of younger cricketers are watching you and doing the same thing you do, you teach them the wrong things, wrong policies. You’re heading towards disaster.
What can be done about this?
You need money to live. You don’t live to earn money. That’s the advice given by my father. If you’re going to play cricket to earn money, stop playing cricket. Whatever you get playing cricket, take it home, invest properly. Ultimately, you might not have money, but you will have people. I have a lot of experience with that. I have been a politician for the last 15 years, I have contested four elections, won all four elections. I contested from three different districts, and three different parties. I always say that my success was that people in this country trusted me as a sportsperson, as a cricket captain. That’s the same trust they give me as a politician, and I don’t want to lose that.