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Atapattu issue a good eye-opener for officialdom

The six-month ordeal which former Sri Lanka captain Marvan Atapattu underwent at the hands of the selection committee headed by former Sri Lanka fast bowler Ashantha de Mel ended with him being recalled to the national team for the Test tour of Australia.

Even that was made an eventuality because Sports Minister Gamini Lokuge stepped into the scene to douse the fire that was building up between De Mel and Atapattu who were trading words at each other in the media.

From the statements made by both individuals to the media it was quite clear that relationship between them were strained. However as chairman of selectors De Mel held a responsible position and he should not have used that to gain revenge on Atapattu for whatever the reason was between them. Apparently Atapttu was made to feel that De Mel was after his blood during the 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean, when he was present as the selector on tour, where Atapattu did not get a single game. Further humiliation on the senior cricketer followed when he was ignored for the one-day series against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi. Unable to contain the treatment meted out to him Atapattu pulled out of the Test series against Bangladesh saying that he was not mentally prepared to play Test cricket. Instead, with the permission of Sri Lanka Cricket he went on to play a season with English league side Lashings. When he found himself overlooked for the World Twenty20 and subsequently for the five-match one-day series against England, Atapattu asked SLC to relieve him off his central contract so that he could look elsewhere to ply his trade.

When the Australian tour loomed up, a player of Atapattu’s value and experience was too good to ignore and efforts were made by SLC to patch up the difference between Atapattu and the selection committee by arranging a meeting between them. But Atapattu turned down the offer saying he did not have any respect for the selection panel headed by De Mel. In an interview he stated that he was prepared to meet a selection committee without De Mel and thrash out his problems.

The Atapattu issue became the talk of the town and among the cricketing fraternity. It became a national issue and the Sports Minister had to, at some point, step in to put an end to this sad state of affairs. He summoned a meeting between the SLC hierarchy and the members of the selection committee. At this meeting he gave De Mel a piece of his mind. The chairman of selectors was exposed to the core on the statements he had made to the press with regard to Sri Lanka players joining the rebel Indian League which he was in favour of, and on the non-selection of Anil Rideegammanagedera, Sri Lanka’s Cricketer of the Year, who could not find a place even in the Sri Lanka ‘A’ side or the Sixes team to Hong Kong. Unable to face the music De Mel dragged the name of national team captain Mahela Jayawardene into the controversy saying that Atapattu did not give Jayawardene the support he deserved, a statement which Jayawardene has strongly denied.

What all these events point to is that De Mel who has strong political affiliations with the President of the country has used it to his advantage causing great damage to the game in the country. Only the other day he admitted on a TV program that he does not go out to witness cricket matches but watches them on TV. But the fact remains that he has time to travel abroad with the national team and watch matches.

The Sri Lanka team may have performed exceptionally well during his period as chief selector but at the same time he has with his mulish attitude destroyed the careers of many budding cricketers and ended some, all-rounder Upul Chandana being one of them who accused the present selectors for his premature retirement from international cricket. Had not the Sports Minister stepped in, Atapattu who is one of four Sri Lankan batsmen to score a Test century in Australia, would have also gone the same way. The Minister spoke to Atapattu personally and wanted him to return to the team in the best interest of Sri Lanka cricket to which the player agreed.

In the circumstances if De Mel and Co. have some kind of dignity they should resign from their posts en bloc and pave the way for the appointment of a fresh selection committee.
The SLC, knowing the difficulties their officials faced with De Mel, declined to send his name up when the selection committee came up for renewal at the end of the year. But the Sports Minister, who is also a political appointee of the President, overrode that decision and retained De Mel for a further two months on the undertaking that he (De Mel) would quit at the end of it, but he is still in the saddle and riding high. If only the Minister had heeded the direction given him by SLC who are in a better position to judge who is best for the job, all this needless controversies could have been avoided. One hopes that at least now the Sports Minister would be wiser and in future listen to the advice given him by the SLC hierarchy and act in a responsible manner so that the Sri Lanka is not made a laughing stock in the eyes of the cricket world.

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