By Rasika Jayakody –
It must be torturous to be Angelo Mathews right now, amid humiliating defeats to nascent Test-playing nations, facing vitriolic criticism on skill levels and performance, and dealing with growing pressure to step down from captaincy.
But if there’s one man who could empathize with Mathews, it would be Ranil Wickremesinghe, who currently holds the office of Prime Minister for the fourth time in a four-decade-long, tumultuous political career.
Many parallels can be drawn between Mathews and Wickremesinghe, who have both been entrusted with of leading the nation in two completely different areas.
Mathews cricketing career started with great promise. Soon after he was selected for the national team, pundits predicted that the all-rounder, who played with flair and panache, was destined for greatness. He was fast-tracked into captaincy and became one of the youngest captains to lead Sri Lanka in the international arena.
One thing Mathews, as captain, had in abundance, were challenges. For most of his captaincy, the Sri Lankan team was in transition after the retirement of several senior, high-profile players. There was a grave human capital crisis within the team making a debilitating impact on their performance. Was Mathews responsible for this human capital crisis? Yes and No. While there is a panel of selectors to name the final squad for every tournament, the final responsibility of managing his talent and squeeze out the best performance of every player lies with the captain.
The larger issue Mathews grappled with was on how to manage himself. The way he bats, at the moment, betrays his lack of self-confidence and zero clarity of mind. On many an occasion Mathews, with his slow strike rate at early stages of the innings, would let the entire team down and exert more pressure on the rest of the batting line-up. This, unsurprisingly, leads to the downfall of other, less-experienced batsmen who do not have the wherewithal to rise up to crunch moments. The team, as a result, crumbles in every high-pressure match and suffers humiliating defeats.
Mathews also has this notorious habit of making clumsy calls while running between wickets. This has caused the team costly run-outs, much to the consternation of Lankan cricket fans. According to cricket fans, those who have suffered the most due to Mathews’ clumsy calls are promising young all-rounders who even have the potential of outperforming the captain. To be fair by Mathews, these allegations are often hurled by those cheering from outside the boundary lines, without very little knowledge of the inner dynamics of a game
All in all, this explains how Mathews, once a man destined for greatness, has ended up in the current mire. It is beyond this writer to know if Mathews can ever lead himself and his team out of it. But, there is hope – at least in some quarters.
Ranil Wickremesinghe too was a man of great promise when he started off as a young Minister and a political leader. A dashing young lawyer, he was the youngest Cabinet member of the J.R. Jayewardene Cabinet, which boasted of several outstanding leaders in the calibre of Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayake and Ranasinghe Premadasa. Ranil, from the outset, was destined for greatness.
At the initial stages of his leadership, Ranil too presided over a party that struggled with a debilitating human capital crisis. There was no Gamini Dissanayake nor was there Lalith Athulathmudali. The party also lost many second-tier leaders due to a variety of reasons during the period between 1993 and 1995. It was a young and inexperienced unit that was undergoing a transition, under Ranil’s leadership. Unfortunately, even 24 years into his leadership, this human capital crisis has not been resolved. The party is still desperately looking for leaders who are capable of pulling off miraculous victories in seemingly disadvantageous electorates. Is Ranil responsible for this crisis? The answer is obvious.
Ranil’s other major problem is how to manage himself and project himself as a national leader, shedding his Colombo-centric cocoon. He still does not enjoy the majority support at the grassroots level and the public, despite the Prime Minister’s pledges and reassurances to resuscitate the rural economy, still believe he does not understand the pulse of the common masses. It is hard to blame it entirely on the ‘war-hero persona’ of his rival Mahinda Rajapaksa. It has a lot do with the manner in which the Prime Minister communicates with the grassroots level. This ostensibly unbridgeable communication gap and the Prime Minister’s continuous indifference to it, it must be noted, has frustrated the rank and file of the UNP, time and time again.
His habit of occasionally running fellow ‘batsmen’ out needs no elaboration. Some batsmen who were stranded in the middle due to his clumsy calls ended up joining the rival teams, causing irreparable damage to the party. Had he managed to retain those players without running them out, his team would have been in an unassailable position. According to some, those who suffered the most due to these unwanted and unwarranted run-outs are promising young players who even demonstrated leadership potential. Again, such assumptions are made by critics, who often fail to comprehend the inner-working of political power-play.
However, despite all these unique weaknesses, there’s one important factor that makes a clear differentiation between Ranil and Mathews. Unlike the latter, Ranil has an uncanny and un-rivalled ability to read the game and shuffle his batting order accordingly. If it’s a losing game, Ranil would never go out to bat and expose himself to bouncy conditions. He has aced the art of absorbing extra players into the team, moving them up the in the batting order and sending them out to face hostile pitch conditions and venomous bowling attacks. Ranil knows this practice would cause damage to the team’s image and reputation, but at least he survives to fight another day.
He also understands the game so well that he immediately notices when the opponent is internally fragile but seemingly invincible on the outside. In such an event, he typically causes more bleeding in the rival camp by engineering eleventh hour defections and eventually turning the tables on the opponent. When Ranil last played the equivalent of a World Cup final in January 2015, he poached the most important player in the rival camp and pit him against the opposition. Leaving aside what happened over the past three and a half years and all the Yahapalanaya debacles, the sole act of causing defection at the heart of an enemy camp, without even batting an eyelid, mirrors the man’s mastery.
While there is a fair amount of ‘Mathews’ in Ranil, the beleaguered Sri Lankan Cricket captain, who is under persistent pressure to step down after appealing performance, still has a trick or two to learn from the wily ole Prime Minister.