Arjuna Ranatunga, the 1996 World Cup winning skipper, is now the country’s petroleum resources development minister. He spoke with The Indian Express on teams’ obsession with fitness, the current issues plaguing Sri Lankan cricket and also looked back at the country’s most famous win. Excerpts:
Do you still remember 1996, Eden Gardens?
You can’t forget that particular game (World Cup semifinal) but it (fans’ anger) was never targeted at us. Disappointment came for the Indian side, but I always say, whether it was for the visitors or the home side, it shouldn’t have happened. Because if you analyse, India and Sri Lanka have a shared history and culture, which gets neglected and gets a bad impression when things like that happen. Overall, we were not affected but we were concerned about the Indian players.
Do you see it as a turning point; winning a World Cup semifinal and then winning the title?
I don’t think Eden Gardens was the turning point. It was the Delhi game which we won against India in the first round. I think that was a crucial game as far as we were concerned. That’s where some of the younger cricketers realised that we were a capable side and we could beat anyone in their own country. I think that was the turning point of the World Cup. I think the turning point started from Australia. When we went to Australia we got toughened. We went through a lot of issues. We tested out a lot of things like opening with Kalu (Romesh Kaluwitharana) and Sanath (Jayasuriya). We peaked at the right time.
Were you surprised to see India putting Sri Lanka in after winning the toss at the Eden Gardens?
I think that was a plan the Indians came with. We were chasing very well and they were concerned about our chasing rather than looking at the wicket. If you analyse the wicket, it was a turning track. But when Sachin was batting and they got to 80 for one, they were not having a problem batting on a turning track. Then wickets started tumbling and it (pitch) started turning and jumping. A lot of people were trying to blame (the toss decision). But as far as we were concerned, even we had planned to chase if we had won the toss.
Recently, you demanded a probe into Sri Lanka’s 2011 World Cup final loss?
I never said ‘fixing’ about the 2011 final. I said, ‘do an investigation’. There were a lot of concerns we all went through and that is the reason, when I had to speak, I said ‘do an investigation on that particular game’. I never said A or B or C got involved in that. A lot of people had concerns.
You are arguably Sri Lanka’s greatest-ever captain. You were always aggressive. Did you believe in bullying the opponents, and maybe sometimes even your own players to get the best out of them?
I was a positive captain but I won’t say I’m Sri Lanka’s greatest. Ranjan Madugalle was the best captain I have seen and played with. Then, I had a lot of respect for some of the other captains like Mahela Jayawardene, Angelo Mathews. But I was given a job and I was supposed to do the job for the country, which I did. My strength was I got some players who were keen on playing for the country rather than looking at the money part. When you have a team, the team needs to work with the captain.
In 1996, we never had the so-called great world beaters. Like you take Murali (Muttiah Muralitharan), Vaas (Chaminda); they became world beaters but not at that particular time.
Aravinda (de Silva) was the only person that I would say who could get into any world XI any day. That was the strength we had. Like we had players who would give 100 per cent rather than thinking of their own glory. That’s the difference between the ‘96 team and the other teams.
Where do you think a line should be drawn between coach and captain? Who do you think should be the boss?
No, the coach will be there to assist and support. But the captain runs the show. If you take a vehicle, captain is the driver. The coach can be a different person but you take any coach — you take India now. Someone like Kohli, can a coach come and tell him how to bat? But if the coach can see a weakness or a defect, that’s when the coach needs to come and tell the player what he sees. Generally, the captain runs the show.
You mentored so many players, from Jayasuriya to Murali. What was your style of functioning in terms of dealing with the youngsters?
It’s all about confidence. When players start to realise that they are protected by their captain, looked after by their captain, they will give their best. If they are not sure, that’s where the concerns start. And I always felt that younger players needed to be protected; give confidence to them so that they could go for a longer period. That’s what I did and I was lucky to have some selectors who could understand the game and players’ mentality.
Most of the selectors, they played a lot of cricket with me, starting from Duleep Mendis, Roy Dias, Madugalle. And they were very helpful. That’s why I always say I was lucky to have very knowledgeable, understanding selectors.
Was inferiority complex ever an issue with those young players?
Not really. I don’t think we ever had a problem like that. As a captain, I used to treat everyone equally. And there were four senior cricketers like Aravinda, Asanka (Gurusinha), Roshan (Mahanama) and Hashan (Tillakaratne). They were close to the players as well. Most of the issues were handled by them. But the critical ones came to me.
So much talk about fitness, in Sri Lankan cricket and now the Indian team is also putting extra emphasis. Do you think cricket has changed enough to make skill secondary? Between skill and fitness, what will you pick?
I think if you don’t have skill, it’s better for someone to get some models and allow them to play cricket. You need skill and talent as far as cricket is concerned. Fitness is very important, but I don’t agree with some of these comments made by some of the people who haven’t played cricket. Overall, it’s all about cricket talent and the most important thing is cricket fitness. I think what we lack at the moment; some of our players are very fit, but they don’t have cricket fitness. Some of our politicians can’t understand that.
What is cricket fitness? (He was referring to a Sri Lankan minister’s comments on Lasith Malinga’s fitness)
When you are a batsman, you need to bat for a longer period. When you are a bowler, you need to bowl certain number of overs. Some of the fast bowlers who played under me, they used to bowl at least one-and-a-half hours for a day and at least three-four days for a week, and they never had any injuries at that time. So that’s where people should realise what is cricket fitness. There were players even under my captaincy who could run 25 rounds at the SSC. But they couldn’t bowl more than four-five overs. So you need to understand, when you are a sports authority, what cricket fitness is all about.
What’s the problem with Sri Lankan cricket at the moment ?
I think the worst part is, to tell you honestly, our administration is very poor. Cricket is run by gamblers and cricket has become a gambling game. So you can’t blame the players. I don’t agree with some of the things happening today, but unfortunately we don’t have a single person who has played international cricket in the cricket board. Some of these administrators were kept out for a long period by the former regime, because they were not suitable. That’s where the entire thing has gone wrong.
You and Imran Khan are the two most high-profile cricketers-turned-politicians. Have you ever spoken about politics with him?
I think when we meet, we generally speak about the two countries. But if I sit with any cricketer, 90 per cent of time is spent on cricket rather than politics.
Do you intend to contest for the SLC presidential post?
If you want me to lose again, I will (laughs).