‘Players demoralised by the present system’ : Atapattu
Marvan Atapattu retired from international cricket at the end of Sri Lanka’s Test series in Australia. A technically correct batsman, he finished his Test career with an average just below 40 and was instrumental in the team’s revival after he took over as captain in 2004. However, a back injury in 2006 saw him increasingly sidelined, and losing the captaincy to Mahela Jayawardene. His career ended in less than happy circumstances: he just might end up being more remembered for calling the selectors – with whom he had a series of spats – a “set of muppets headed by a joker” before calling it quits.
Atapattu, now headed to India to lead the Delhi Jets in the Indian Cricket League, spoke to Sa’adi Thawfeeq.
What made you retire from international cricket so suddenly?
Two main reasons: I did not wish to continue in a system where I don’t have faith and belief, and two, I wanted to give an opportunity to a suitable youngster who is coming through.
Was it the situation with the national selectors that forced your decision?
It wasn’t a sudden decision. I had been giving thought to it. The tour of Australia, I thought, was a good time. It’s always good to go out on a high. I had indicated to the previous administration and selectors that, had everything gone according to plan before I got injured, I was to retire from Test cricket after the 2006 tour of England and after leading Sri Lanka in the 2007 World Cup.
What are your immediate plans? Your name has been linked with the ICL, and also there have been reports of you playing club cricket in Sydney and doing television commentary for Channel Nine during Sri Lanka’s one-day triangular in Australia in January.
ICL has been finalised. I am on contract with them till December 18. I am captaining a team from Delhi. The Sydney club and TV commentator matters are still on the surface at this stage. There is nothing in black and white. There are opportunities if things fall into place. I still believe I’ve got two to three years of cricket left in me.
How will you reflect back on your career?
It has not been a rosy start, but to come all the way and to captain your country and score more than 14,000 runs in both forms of the game – you couldn’t ask for more. The principles I had, playing over 18 years for Sri Lanka – I’d rather be remembered for them than the runs and records. I am a person who spoke and worked straight or made an effort to do that.
Considering the start you had to your Test career and to finish with an average of almost 40 with six double-centuries … how would you rate yourself as a batsman?
It is up to the public and the media to assess my performances. From my point of view, after 17-18 ducks from 90 Tests, if I can still average nearly 40, I have done pretty well. My fifties were almost on par with my hundreds. I believe that if you get a start, you go on and get a big one. That’s my attitude. Maximise when you can.
What would you want to be remembered as?
If I have given somebody entertainment over the years in my own way, that’s the satisfaction I get. Staying in a system for 17 years you get your fair share of compliments and criticism. Constructive criticism I don’t mind.
What were your most memorable moments?
Being part of the 1996 World Cup winning squad. Scoring 132 at Lord’s to win the Emirates Cup one-day final in 1998. Scoring my maiden Test century in Mohali. Sourav Ganguly walked up to me and said the first hundred is very hard to come by but after that you will know how to make a hundred. How true.
Your biggest disappointments?
My biggest disappointment was having an [back] injury and losing the captaincy. To have captained the 2007 World Cup team and quit from cricket would have been a dream. But God has given me more than enough.
How would you rate Mahela Jayawardene as a captain?
He is good. In time to come he will get better. Everybody has his own way of leading and it shows in their personality.
What contribution did you make as captain?
I tried out a couple of things, starting with senior players taking on more responsibility to finish matches off rather than leave it to others. What we lacked as senior players was at the top of the order we didn’t finish the job as expected. Over the years it has changed. With the competition you have in world cricket, you don’t sit comfortably on past performances but always look to raise the bar.
What did you tell your team-mates in the final speech you made in the Hobart dressing room before you announced your retirement?
I told them that we had enough talent in the room and it was a matter of putting heart and soul into it if you want to achieve anything. As individuals, by the age of 20-25 you’ve got to stand on your own feet and know how to handle situations. You’ve got to have your say because you owe it to cricket, because cricket has changed your lifestyles. Over the years we have come a long way in cricket and made a name in the world. We cannot go downhill.
What needs to be done to keep Sri Lankan cricket on top?
The school and domestic structures leading up to Test cricket need to be streamlined in a way similar to Australia so that players don’t feel the transition from domestic to Test cricket. The entire process of selection, in my view, is highly subjective. An objective selection process needs to be adopted. Personal feelings and vested interests should be set aside and cool judgements made. For that to happen, the selection committee should constitute of honourable personalities with cricketing knowledge and administrative ability. We presently lack this. The concept today is, ‘Show me the man and I will show you the rules.’
Who was your best Sri Lanka cricketer?
In bowling nobody can match [Muttiah] Muralitharan. He is nearing the world record but still keeps on working hard at his game. This has been the success story for him. In batting there is no one to match Aravinda de Silva. The amount of time he spent at the nets and at physical training was unbelievable. I only saw six or seven years of Aravinda but his commitment was fantastic. His thinking on the game was out of this world. [Kumar] Sangakkara ranks close to him.
The best bowler you faced in world cricket?
All bowlers tend to give you a torrid time. But for consistency Wasim Akram has to be one.
Do you think Sri Lanka has enough players to replace the likes of you, Sanath [Jayasuriya], Murali and [Chaminda] Vaas?
It is the responsibility of the selectors to groom players to take over. I don’t think they have planned it right. Cricket cannot suffer because of one or two people. No cricketer or the cricketing public has openly stated that what I’ve said about the national selectors was wrong. It is not something new; I have expressed this to many differently, but this time I was more emphatic and I hope what I said of the selectors will ring a bell with the authorities concerned and changes [are] made for the betterment of the game. I do stand by what I have said and I don’t think it has tarnished mine or my country’s image in any way, although elements with vested interest are attempting to paint a different picture to what I have said. How many players have confidence with the present selection committee? I have spoken to some of them and they are demoralised by the present system. It is sad that they cannot talk and are tongue-tied by contracts.