The name Arjuna Ranatunga will forever bring one image to the mind's eye: gliding Glenn McGrath to the third man boundary to bring up the winning runs of the 1996 World Cup, before running to Aravinda de Silva for an embrace to rejoice the fulfilment of a pipedream. He was the captain who helped Sri Lanka truly grow up in world cricket. He did not do it by mincing words, always speaking his mind and standing up for his players. So when he, now the Minister of Ports and Shipping in the Sri Lanka government, invited the Bangladesh media people, including The Daily Star's Sakeb Subhan, for a press conference at the Port Authority Ministry in Colombo, it made for an entertaining and enlightening discussion. The following are excerpts from the 30-minute interview of one of the greatest captains cricket has known.
ON WHETHER HE PREFERS CRICKET OR MINISTRY:
I will analyze both as something giving back to the country. I played 20 years of cricket for my country. I gave my entire life, sacrificing lot of things. And it’s the same thing happening again. I don’t have fixed time or dates for ministry. It’s like 24/7. We were able to earn a lot of profit last year -- from 5 billion to 11 billion. We cut down corruption and expenditure, the workers are happy. So it's all about giving something back to the country.
After I retired, I was wondering what I could give to the country. Then I was invited by the former lady president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga for me to get involved in politics. Actually she started to say that I should get involved in sports, but I was never given an opportunity to get sports and the present president asked me to handle sports, but I told that I was too old to handle sports at the moment. Then they only took the 's' out and gave me port (smile)
ON NOT LIKING T20S:
I personally felt when IPL started it was power against technique. Brains against no brains. And it’s all about entertainment rather than proper cricket.
I cannot see players like [Sachin] Tendulkar, [Sunil] Gavasker, Aravinda de Silva coming into cricket anymore… it seems that the power hitting guys who comes to entertain in T20 survive.
But I still feel happiness when I watch England playing Australia or Australia playing South Africa and the commitment they are giving. Even the public, how they come and watch, still they are coming to see Test matches.
And this is something I am scared that all the young cricketers, I am talking about U-13, U-15, U-17 cricketers. When they don’t look to the technique aspect, ultimately cricket will go down. You need to have a technique to survive at the top level. But in T20 you don’t need technique.
Generally you could feel that you are producing cricketers who do not have technique. So these days if you are a technically good batsman, then he would not have survived in the shorter formats anymore.
We played 50-over cricket and Test cricket. Luckily we did not play T20. I know entertainment is essential but for me it's all about junk food compared to a proper meal cooked by your mother at home.
Test cricket is proper meal prepared in home.
ON PLAYERS RETIRING EARLY FOR T20S
When I was playing, I considered winning for the country as the most important thing. I don’t know why we don’t have the same attitude anymore.
I think most of the cricketers want to earn money. Most have the ambition of playing IPL or Big Bash and if they have to miss a tournament in Sri Lanka for that, they will go there [to the IPL or Big Bash].
It never happened in our era. We did not have these IPL or T20s when we were playing. But the 14 guys that played for Sri Lanka in the 1996 World Cup were the most committed cricketers you can ever get.
They were not bothered about getting money and prominence but they were concerned about winning. That’s why I was so lucky that I played cricket with those 13 cricketers.
ON BANGLADESH AND SRI LANKA CRICKET:
I think Bangladesh have improved a lot.
I said three years ago that the way Bangladesh are going, they would beat Sri Lanka in Tests. And that happened in the series. Their commitment is good.
I have played in Bangladesh for three seasons in Mohammedan in 88-89. It felt good that they are doing well.
I always told them to improve school cricket when I played in Mohammedan. Concentrate in junior level otherwise your cricket structure will not survive. I think they have successfully implemented it so far.
Some Sri Lankan coaches helped Bangladesh cricket in the last decade. And the current coaches are doing well also. I think the Bangladesh Cricket Board (BCB) is more focused than Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) at the moment.
ON WHETHER BANGLADESH CAN WIN THE 2023 WORLD CUP IN THE SUBCONTINENT:
The only thing they need to concentrate on is looking after younger cricketers.
They need to play a lot of A team cricket, they should go on a lot of U-19 tours. I personally believe they are on the right track, but they need more commitment from their younger players.
They should plan for 2023. Maybe they should groom a top U-19 side, maybe U-23 side and allow them to play lots of cricket, not mix them with the national side.
If they plan properly I think it could not be difficult to win the World Cup in the subcontinent. I always prefer that you should target the semifinals first. After that, it’s all about commitment and luck.
The World Cup will be in June-July in England, right?
They have a few good pacers. They have some who can bowl at good pace, and they have a very good left-handed pacer, very promising.
They need to plan to protect them till the World Cup and even till 2023. Their team will be very good for the next World Cup.
They need a very good batsman in the middle order. To win the World Cup they will have to find their own Aravinda de Silva.
ON WHETHER THE 1996 SRI LANKAN TEAM, WHICH HAD A LOT OF FIREPOWER, COULD WIN THE T20 WORLD CUP TODAY:
We might have done that. But it’s a totally different game. I never played that game, so I cannot comment on that. But generally we were the ones who started with two opening batsman who went after the bowlers.
If you take Kalu [Romesh Kaluwitharana] and Sanath [Jayasuriya]. Kalu had very good technique. Even Sanath had decent technique. Then we had players like [Asinka] Gurusinha, Aravinda, [Roshan] Mahanama, [Hashan Tillakaratne] -- they all had very good technique plus they could hit the ball hard. Today what I see is that some of the players do not have good technique. So they would not survive in the longer version or they would not survive with good bowlers. It’s all about power-based cricket now.
ON THE CURRENT BANGLADESH-SRI LANKA SERIES:
Bangladesh played poorly in the Galle Test, but the bounced back well in the P Sara Oval Test.
It is a matter of the players taking responsibility. The way the openers batted, it was important. I think the team will expect something like this from them.
I think there is no problem regarding technique. It’s a matter of mentality.
I think Bangladesh need one guy who can motivate them with proper mentality. As cricketers they are really good and talented. Batsmen have many shots in their hand. It is about proper mentality (pointing to head). And they have to adjust it soon.
ON THE LACK OF QUALITY BATSMEN OR BOWLERS FOR SRI LANKA THESE DAYS:
I will give you an example. When we won the World Cup in 1996, Aravinda batted at number 4 and I batted at number 5.
After Gurusinha’s retirement we brought Marvan Atapattu in at number three. Then we brought Mahela Jayawardane in at number five and I went down to number six.
Mahela got a good support from me and Aravinda as he was batting between us. Mahela could play his natural game as we were there to protect him.
Unfortunately that strategy has not been followed in the last few years. [Tillakaratne] Dilshan, [Kumar] Sangakkara and Jayawardane batted at number two, three and four respectively. They did not change their batting order.
I blame the selectors. We had Lahiru Thirimanne and Dinesh Chandimal in the squad at that time, but they did not get chances at that time. And they were not protected at that time as well.
The biggest example is Sanath Jayasuriya.
To convert him into an explosive opener, we were patient and gave him enough time. For Chandimal and Thirimanne I don’t think the selectors have such kind of patience. You have to give them time and confidence.
When a young player will understand that the captain and selectors have faith in him, then he can play pressure-less cricket. As a captain I did that. I gave support to my players that if you got out while playing an aggressive shot, the team would be beside you. So play your natural cricket. And I also got support from selectors like Duleep Mendis, Ranjan Madugale, etc.
ON THE ICC'S BIG THREE:
I was very disappointed in the Big Three proposal. At that time I was stern in my opposition to it, saying that it should not be allowed to happen in any shape or form.
Three countries will control cricket, you cannot let it happen.
For example, in football, two or three countries do not control the game. The same should be true in cricket.
I always say that the ICC does not always do the right thing. They are always under pressure from India or some other country when it comes to running the game.
That is why in some areas cricket has been harmed. Now Indian cricket is under the protection of the Supreme Court. This could have been the best thing for Indian cricket. I am certain that if this happens in our country, it will save our cricket too.
I am sure that if the Supreme Court gets involved in cricket in this country, and creates the right combination for running cricket in this country, then cricket in this country will be benefitted like India’s too.
ON PINK-BALL TESTS AND PROPOSED FOUR-DAY TESTS:
I am an old-fashioned person. White kits and red ball cricket, that’s traditional cricket done for ages. We are talking about something that has been going on for more than 100 years. It has a long history.
Okay, you have cowboy cricket. Coloured clothes and you play with any clothes you want to wear, but don’t ruin the traditional thing.
I feel very sorry for people not getting into the grounds. It’s not an excuse.
Get the schoolboys to come and watch free of charge. This is the way you could protect the longer version.
When I was the cricket board head, wherever we used to play we used to invite about 500 boys everyday. They would come and watch cricket; we would give them lunch. We got a couple of players to go and sit with them and sign autographs. This is the way we encourage the schoolboys into cricket.
It is very easy to do that. You don’t have to be a businessman or anyone to do the right thing.
ON HIMSELF AND IMRAN KHAN, TWO CAPTAINS THAT THE WORLD RESPECTS:
When I was young, I used to admire Imran [Khan] and Kapil [Dev] because I used to wonder: "How can Pakistan win the World Cup or how can India win the World Cup?"
The ambition was given to me by those two guys, then I felt why can’t Sri Lanka win a World Cup.
What I saw from Imran was that he used to lead from the front and he was a top cricketer. And he always protected his colleagues. He played for the country, and I did the same thing. I was not as good a cricketer as Imran -- I could bat, I could bowl a little.
My policy was to try and win games for the country. I was more keen on winning matches for the country than getting hundreds. I don’t have many hundreds. I have four hundreds in ODIs and I have four or three hundreds in Tests.
I don’t look at records, but I am the first one who could win a World Cup. So that is the happiness I get.
I captained and won a Test match in England. We used to be given only one Test match every time we toured England. And I remember after the Test match, one of the English media guys asked why Sri Lanka was not getting three Test matches. I said that England does not want to lose 3-0 to Sri Lanka. And the very next year we got three Test matches.
So it was all about the happiness we used to get by playing for our country. I think there is nothing like representing your country, wearing your national blazer, your national tie and the cap.
I can’t compare that with money. You will get money when you are playing for your country. That’s the only thing I tell the players -- play for the country, play for the school.
Money will come. Don’t look at money and play cricket. Most of the cricketers are doing that. That’s where we go wrong. I hope that Bangladesh cricket does not get into that. Whenever they perform, let them be paid properly. But don’t allow the players to look at money and play for the country. There is nothing like representing your motherland. That is the happiness you will get. I got that for 20 years.
ON HIS MEMORIES OF BANGLADESH:
They really looked after me when I went in 1988. Every time I go there I know that -- I played for Mohammedan for three seasons. One was a proper season, then two years I played maybe about five games and I was very well looked after by Bangladesh officials and fans.
I have lovely memories. I had some incidents... in one of the games I had an argument with a wicketkeeper (laughs), but it was fun. And I tell you honestly, the first time I walked out for Mohammedan it was fully packed in Dhaka. I had never seen a domestic cricket match with that kind of a crowd. And there was one guy I will always remember. One guy carried tea for the entire stadium. He started in the dressing room, one cup, the entire tea basket.
Mohammedan-Abahani was like a traditional rivalry. Two of my brothers played in Bangladesh. Nishanth played and Sanjiv also played, all three played. And I played a lot of cricket with Nannu, Athar Ali and most of the past cricketers and I have very fond memories.
I haven’t been to Bangladesh for a long period, maybe I may have to go as a minister for shipping now that I want to get more ships from Bangladesh to here, not the cricket part.
ON SHIPPING RELATIONSHIP WITH BANGLADESH:
I am very keen. Actually my brother is chairman of the port authority. He met the Bangladesh authorities, and when the president tours to Bangladesh, I might go. Or I might go separately to try and get more ships, try to avoid ships going to Singapore, to try and get a berth here.
I think especially with the clothes, the government industry I think they are big... as soon as they come to Colombo it will be cheaper; our ports are quicker and cheaper than Singapore. So that’s something we are targeting most probably within the next two months.
ON ATTACKING BATSMANSHIP 20 YEARS AGO, BEFORE T20S:
At that time we needed to create something new to win a World Cup. We were good cricketers. We had a very good bowling and fielding side and we had a very good batting side.
So according to that we fixed the batting order.
We got Sanath and Kalu to go and hit the ball, then Gurusinha to anchor the innings, then Aravinda who would be allowed to play the way he wants. Then Roshan, Hashan and myself used to control the innings in the middle. Then Kumara and Vaas could bat.
I think generally, whatever plans we had, we could implement them properly. More than anything, they were more committed to playing for the country and winning games. That is why a captain can be a lucky captain. You don’t have to have stars to win a tournament. You need good cricketers, who are committed to play for the country. I think that’s the luck I had as a captain.
I think at that time even we had some issues. But generally that is something I always said that as a player if someone is cheating, he should be banned for life. That is my policy.
And even if someone is getting into drugs, he should be banned. No excuses, because if you are giving an excuse then you are creating too many people who will get into that.
And I am a great believer that if you are cheating your country, nothing good will happen to you.