THE problems within their ranks notwithstanding, Sri Lanka have managed to pull the chestnuts out of the fire at the last possible moment. Their victory over New Zealand in the third Test has spared them some blushes but they will also be aware that they were never expected to lose to the team which is ranked ninth among nine Test playing nations -- and certainly not at home. That they did win only at the last hurdle would be enough of an embarrassment.
Lanka have problems aplenty to deal with as they begin the task of building up a squad for what would be their top priority -- the 1999 World Cup. And as they do this, one problem which was staring them in the face even at the time of their World Cup win in 1996 is still top of their list. The majority of the squad are around the same age and this means a lot of them would be leaving the game around the same time.
The new faces in the team do not offer much in the way of hope. Marvan Atapattu has been a poor replacement for the much maligned Asanka Gurusinghe; in fact, he has been unable to hold the number three spot and has been moved up to open, perhaps in order that he can retain a spot in the team. Jayasuriya seems a pale shadow of the past. And Aravinda de Silva's recent lack of form must be a worrying thing.
Mahanama has been pushed out and it remains to be seen whether he will ever come back. The team was spared blushes in the third Test against New Zealand due, in the main, to the batting of Tillekeratne and Kaluwitharane. The bowling seems to revolve around Muralitharan. The cupboard seems to be bare. New boy Jayawardene has alone given some cause for hope. And I know some must now be asking -- was the World Cup victory a real help to Lankan cricket or has it tended to derail the team a bit?
To some extent, their problems are their own creation. The captain has been given too much of a role in the selection of the team; one could perhaps accord such a role to a captain such as Clive Lloyd who was leading a team that was sweeping everything before them. Lanka are hardly in the same league; the bold promises about being the best Test team by the year 2000 have remained just that.
Observers say Mendis was unable to wield sufficient control over the team. Some say Yardley had nothing to contribute and had no influence over the team; Dias, say these individuals, is senior enough to ensure that the captain will have to listen to him. It remains to be seen whether this will work the way the administrators of cricket in the Emerald Isle want it to.
No dictator has ever been able to contribute positively to sport; that is a cardinal rule. Even Joao Havelange, the man who ran FIFA from the sevneties until a few days ago, brought more negative things than good into the game, says the greatest soccer player ever, Pele. Power tends to divert one's focus away from the sport and into power play. And unless they buckle down and heed some common sense, Lanka may well find that winning the World Cup was not such a good thing after all.