"While I was in lockdown, I got all sorts of YouTube clips out. I tried to understand the players "
"While I was in lockdown, I got all sorts of YouTube clips out. I tried to understand the players "
Sri Lanka's coach talks about the talent pool at his disposal, his coaching philosophy, and his strengths as a man manager
Do you find yourself giving out a lot of bollockings as Sri Lanka coach?
No, not really. It was a stop-start affair. We came in and felt we were really getting ourselves on the right path in the West Indies series [in February-March 2020]. We had identified players, we had a really good working system going. The guys were making good progress and everything was going swimmingly. And then Covid hit.
We had eight and a half months of trying to keep guys busy - a couple of residential camps. But we lost a lot of momentum, so it was almost a total reset for us once we started playing again. International cricket happened and the board needed the Lanka Premier League. And I'm just starting again to feel like we're getting the players going in the right direction.
We've had some good conversations. We've got parameters and we've got non-negotiables. We're very ambitious as a group. There's no point dishing out bollockings. The players are working extremely hard and they have bought in to where we want to go.
You switched from being Pakistan coach to Sri Lanka coach within a space of a few months. You've said you loved your time with Pakistan. What was it about that job that made it difficult to leave?
I guess what made it difficult at the end was the relationships you've built with players. That takes time. We'd identified some young talent and given them opportunity. And we were just starting to see the fruits of all our labour. So for us to not continue as a management team was pretty disappointing because we were starting to make such good strides.
I loved my Pakistan job. It was three years of my coaching career that I'll never forget. I loved it for the chaos. I loved it for the emotion. I loved it for the natural talent the players had. The ability then to create that structure for these young players to come in and start performing. My coaching mantra is to give players the roots to grow and the wings to fly. And I felt we were on the cusp of something really good with Pakistan.
"I want to be sitting in my lounge in three years' time watching Oshada Fernando, Pathum Nissanka, Kusal Mendis and whoever it is, score consistently, knowing that we've given them a base"
How much pleasure does it give you to watch some of those Pakistan players doing well now?
I get a hell of a lot of pleasure out of that. Coaching for me is more than a job. It's a real passion. Building those relationships with those players - I get so much satisfaction seeing a player work hard and then go out and get the results. That's my adrenaline rush. That's what feeds me every day. To watch those players that you might have played a very small role in their development then having some ultimate success gives me a lot.
Do you still talk to those players?
Yeah, I do. I get a lot of messages from them and I share in their good moments. But when Sri Lanka play Pakistan, I'll be wanting to get one over them for sure!
Is player development your strength as a coach?
Player development and player management. Player development has so many facets to it. I've always had a vision of where I want to take the team. I've had a vision of the brand of cricket I want us to play based on the talent you have at your disposal.
And then it's just a matter of trying to create the stable environment. Particularly in the subcontinent, environments tend to be unstable. Guys get a game and then they get dropped and aren't seen for three years. They go to the back of the queue. For me, bringing stability to any organisation is key. With stability you give the players some confidence. But you also get players playing for a common cause. When there's instability, players play for themselves because they're just doing enough to get into the next Test. They lose that team ethos that is so important in going forward.
With the structure we have now, I'm starting to see [a change]. It's a great movement that's been [supported by] the technical committee [headed by Aravinda de Silva]. We've also got Tom Moody as director of cricket looking at all aspects of the business. That frees me up to do my role to the best of my ability. And we've got a selection panel now that's very good. They've got their own vision and we talk about it. We spend a lot of time looking at players we think can take us forward.
"Lasith Embuldeniya is going to be an incredible bowler. He's still young. He's lacking just a little bit of confidence in his own ability. I don't think he knows yet how good he is"
Simon Maina / © AFP/Getty Images
"Lasith Embuldeniya is going to be an incredible bowler. He's still young. He's lacking just a little bit of confidence in his own ability. I don't think he knows yet how good he is" Simon Maina / © AFP/Getty Images
How does the chaos of Pakistan compare to the chaos of Sri Lanka?
(Laughs) There is a little bit of chaos, but it's different as well. Both environments are very emotional. I say to the players: "You're always only one win away from being heroes again. People will cut your knees off when we aren't playing well. But next time you get a win everybody's back in your corner again." It's about riding those waves and staying stable. And yeah, I get emotional, I'm an emotional coach. You can see the state of the game just by looking at my face. But that's just me. I try and keep the decisions we make in terms of selection and strategy on an even keel so there's a lot of consistency in the system.
I'm hoping that we can bring that consistency - we can give players those roots to grow and wings to fly. We can back them for an extended period once we've identified them and the results will come as a consequence.
Have any similarities or differences between the two teams surprised you?
Sri Lankan cricket now is almost in the same situation Pakistan cricket was in when I went there. It was almost in a transition phase, from a playing group perspective. It did need direction, it did need leadership, but it also needed some big decisions. It needed an outsider coming in with an unblinkered view to make those decisions to get the team going on the path they are.
That's where I see Sri Lankan cricket at the moment. We're in a transition. Our rankings tell us exactly where we're at and the rankings aren't lying. However, I see enough potential that - given an extended time to back the right players and get them right, playing a brand that suits Sri Lankan cricket - there's no reason why we can't find ourselves going up those rankings. But it's going to take time. It's not going to be a quick fix. Covid's taken a year out of that. We've almost gone back to square one now.
There has been talk for years now of Sri Lanka being in transition. With Pakistan, I think we saw after Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan left, things picked up again easier than for Sri Lanka with the exits of Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara and Tillakaratne Dilshan. Why do think that is?
I just think the amount of players available plays a role. It's a population of 200 million in Pakistan. You're drawing on a much bigger player pool [Sri Lanka's population is 21 million]. I do think the transition from domestic cricket to international cricket was too big. Hopefully with the new structure that's going to be put in, that transition is going to get easier, so that players from domestic cricket are almost ready to play internationals.
"For me, bringing stability to any organisation is key. When there's instability, players play for themselves because they're just doing enough to get into the next Test"
I found with Pakistan, right at the start - which I didn't with South Africa or Australia - that when we got new players, it was a case of doing actual hardcore proper coaching with them, instead of managing them into an international environment. That upskilling wasn't necessarily happening in domestic cricket.
With new players we've got to think about game-plan standards, clarity, fitness standards across the board… the distance was bigger. That's not a go at anybody within the system. There's a lot of good things that are happening in Sri Lankan domestic cricket. There's some good coaches out there. There are guys who are putting in the time and effort. It's just that the system is a little bit too diluted at the moment.
What we often hear about that transition is for new players to just do the same things in international cricket that they were doing in domestic cricket. You're saying hardcore coaching has to happen to supplement the things they have learned in domestic cricket?
Definitely. That's just the system we face at the moment. And there's instability because there are so many players playing in the system that it's probably not as good as it should be. Some performances get amplified a little bit, so for example, on turning wickets, a guy might get a batch of five-fors, but that doesn't necessarily mean he has the weapons to walk in and be a good international player. Yes, he's got the ability, but does he have what it takes to transition? I'm talking about skill level, about fitness level, and the ability to take the pressure and the scrutiny that comes with international cricket.
In a lot of other places, the media and scrutiny is quite big on domestic cricket, so the guys grow up with that a little bit. Whereas with Sri Lanka, it's not as magnified.
So walk us through this hardcore coaching. To take a recent example - Pathum Nissanka came in and did well in the West Indies Tests. What did you go through with him?
Pathum Nissanka is an interesting case. We put him in a larger training squad while we were preparing for the West Indies tour, and immediately I saw a boy that could play. I watched him for ten minutes in a net session and he looked the goods.
"I think we have a very-well stocked fast-bowling department, led by Suranga Lakmal [third from left]. The unit is very young, in terms of experience, but we have the potential"
Ishara S Kodikara / © AFP/Getty Images
"I think we have a very-well stocked fast-bowling department, led by Suranga Lakmal [third from left]. The unit is very young, in terms of experience, but we have the potential" Ishara S Kodikara / © AFP/Getty Images
He's a different beast because technically he's outstanding. Physically he's very good and his fielding standards are exactly where they need to be. Yes, we've had to chip away and polish a little bit, but whatever Nissanka did with his coaches through the ranks has been pretty good. I guess mentally we had to give him assurances that this is where we wanted him to play. This is what we wanted him to do. And irrespective of whether he was a success, we still backed him.
But he's different to a guy like, say, Ashen Bandara. He's made a massive impression in white-ball cricket for us. We had to polish him really well in terms of game plans, understanding the situations where he was batting, what was required in that batch of five overs, and the angles he needed to patrol in the field. There was a lot more coaching that went into Bandara than to Nissanka, who was just proper.
You've mentioned the setbacks that the pandemic has caused, but you spent virtually the entire year in Sri Lanka. Is there something you learned about yourself as a coach in that time during lockdown?
It was tough. I was locked away for two and a half months on my own. I haven't been home since I took the Sri Lankan job. It gave me a lot of time to study the players. I got all sorts of YouTube clips out. I watched the players and tried to understand the players. I dissected club cricket. It gave me a really good indication of who were the players we thought could drive our team forward. It gave me a lot of reflection time as well, on stuff that I've done well in my coaching career and what I really needed to improve on. I kind of moulded that into a Sri Lankan way, if you like. I got a clearer idea of what could work in our system and structure. And we're busy applying that now.
We've got unbelievable buy-in from our players. They are training the house down. They just want success. They want Sri Lanka to get back to its rightful place. I think we've got this ship turning in the right direction now. But we've got to back the players. When a player goes failure, failure, failure, we've got to back them, because I think we've got the best players available to us in our squads now.
One thing you've focused on here, as well as in Pakistan, is fitness. You've brought a no-compromises attitude. Why is it so important to you?
Runs and wickets are always going to be the selection criteria, but by being fitter and stronger, you give yourself a better opportunity to bring in match-winning performances. I'm all about match-winning performances. That means when a guy gets to 40 or 50 in these conditions, he's got the fitness to get us a hundred. Now when he's getting a hundred, he's starting to win games. When a guy gets through five or six overs, and he's got them on the ropes, he's got the stamina and the ability to bowl those one or two extra overs. When it gets to five minutes to 6pm in a game and [Lasith] Embuldeniya is coming around the wicket to a No. 9 or 10, our silly point and short leg are aware enough to take the catch that's going to change the game.
There can be no compromises. We need to be as professional as we can in everything we do.
"We've got to qualify for the T20 World Cup this year. We should never, ever be in the position of having to qualify for any event. That, for me, is unacceptable"
In terms of captains in teams you've coached, you've had some well-established leaders in your past stints. Dimuth Karunaratne has come in a little more recently and Sri Lanka have had a lot of turnover in their captaincy. What's it been like to work with him?
It's been wonderful to work with Dimuth and he's a wonderful man. Every captain I've worked with has been different. Graeme Smith had this massive aura about him. When he walked into a dressing room, people listened to him. He was outstanding tactically and players followed him.
Michael Clarke, a brilliant tactician out on the ground.
With Sarfaraz Ahmed - he was kind of different. He was very emotional and he was also a young captain when I worked with him. He captained incredibly well in Asian conditions. He was always a step ahead of the game. He had the ability to be this hard taskmaster on the field, but he was this brother off the field. He had that wonderful ability to be both.
I see Dimuth as a leader that our players respect a hell of a lot. They back him because of his values in life. He's just a good bloke. And he's a pretty good player at the top of the order, particularly in red-ball cricket.
Where do you see yourself fitting into that coach-captain relationship?
I've always had a very clear understanding with any captain I've worked with, from Smith to Clarke to Sarfaraz to Dimuth now - that I will run everything off the field to give those players the best opportunity of concentrating on their games. He supports me with those decisions off the field. The day before the game, I'll have my meeting, and it kind of swaps. He takes the team on the field and he's responsible for the tactical decisions. I will give him my support from off the field. We have tactical discussions every break. I think that approach allows captains to concentrate on their own games. When they are playing well, they're confident in themselves and people follow that.
There are a few players who you seem to have focused on in your time with Sri Lanka, and one of them is Wanindu Hasaranga, who is playing all three formats now. What did you see in him?
Immediately, the first thing I saw was that he's a match-winner. He's got that flair and talent. He's got that streak in him that all good-quality players have, which is, when the game gets tough, he wants the ball. When the game gets tough and he's batting, he wants to be there to hit the winning run. He's got that deep desire. He doesn't give a s**t, if you like. He's got that attitude. Any player who has that is gold. His work ethic is outstanding and I see an incredible talent that just needs to be backed.
With Sri Lanka captain Dimuth Karunaratne in Pallekele: "I've always had a very clear understanding with any captain that I will run everything off the field to give them the best opportunity of concentrating on their games"
Ishara S Kodikara / © AFP/Getty Images
With Sri Lanka captain Dimuth Karunaratne in Pallekele: "I've always had a very clear understanding with any captain that I will run everything off the field to give them the best opportunity of concentrating on their games" Ishara S Kodikara / © AFP/Getty Images
How have you seen him develop in the time you've been with the team?
I find him understanding the game a lot more now. He's got a wonderful googly. In T20 cricket, you can go legspin, legspin, googly. In one-day cricket you're probably going five legbreaks and then a googly. In Test cricket, it needs to go on a little bit. We need to get him a better game plan for Test cricket and get him [to be] more patient. He's still finding his way with the red ball in understanding fields and understanding the role he plays. In white-ball cricket, he's an absolute gun.
There's been a little bit of a falling away in Sri Lanka's spin since Rangana Herath's retirement. Which players have you identified who could win Sri Lanka matches at home?
Very simply, Lasith Embuldeniya is going to be an incredible bowler. He's still young. He's still lacking just a little bit of confidence in his own ability. I don't think he knows yet how good he is. With Hasaranga, you've also got the wristspin to go with the fingerspin of Embuldeniya. You've got Lakshan Sandakan [left-arm wristspin] in conditions that work. Behind Embuldeniya, you've also got Praveen Jayawickrama, as well as Duvindu Tillakaratne, who are very good left-arm spinners. And we're trying to develop Ramesh Mendis, who is our offspin option, with Dhananjaya de Silva, who is giving us that option of being that second spinner. Akila Dananjaya is also there as a white-ball option. We've got to make him confident to bowl long periods.
Lahiru Thirimanne is a player who had a frustrating career, and it now seems like you've backed him over the last few months. Where do you see him in the team?
I did a little bit of delving and having a look at Thirimanne. When I got here, I saw a player with very good technique. I saw a player with the ability to score big runs in Test cricket. I wondered whether he was inconsistent because in one game he opened, then he was at No. 5, and the next he was at No. 4. So he never had consistency in terms of his role clarity.
When I started out, he was a reserve batter. What I did see when he got an opportunity at the Wanderers, on a pitch that went up and down, I saw a player who could play away from home as well as at home.
We gave him the confidence where we said he was going to open in both Test matches at home because Dimuth was injured. He took that opportunity and got a sixty  and a hundred, which showed he had the ability to win games in all conditions. He then went to the West Indies and had an outstanding tour. He has the ability to open the batting in Test cricket. As I always say to any player, we will back you for an extended period, but we just need to get a return. If we don't get a return, there can be no qualms in us moving on from you. Thirimanne has come in and arguably been one of our best players in the last three series.
"Runs and wickets are always going to be the selection criteria, but by being fitter and stronger, you give yourself a better opportunity to bring in match-winning performances"
Which players you've identified do you think could form the core of the Sri Lanka team for the next little while?
Oshada Fernando has shown signs of being a really good player going forward - certainly in that all-important No. 3 position. I think Kusal Mendis is still all-round one of our best players. Getting him to deliver to his potential is at the forefront of my thinking. I'm loving what I'm seeing of Pathum Nissanka at the moment. He'll carry Sri Lankan cricket forward - certainly in Test cricket, and he'll play a massive role in one-day cricket. How he develops his T20 cricket, time will tell.
I think we have a very-well stocked fast-bowling department led by Suranga Lakmal. I call Lakmal the Asian Jimmy Anderson. He just has that ability to control games. Our attack with Lakmal in it is far stronger. We've also got Lahiru Kumara and Dushantha Chameera, who both bowl above 145kph. It means we can compete in any continent. Vishwa Fernando swings it at good pace. We've also got Asitha Fernando, Kasun Rajitha and this young bowler Dilshan Madushanka, who I think is going to be a very good prospect. That fast-bowling unit is very young, in terms of experience, and that's going to take time. But we have the potential.
We've just got to be getting our batting to a level where players are averaging 40 consistently. Because if they are averaging 40 consistently, we're getting enough runs. With our attack, we'll have enough to bowl sides out.
You mentioned that Tom Moody coming on took the pressure off a little bit. Can you elaborate?
I found myself at the start trying to get the structure right. That's not a slight on anybody. My role as head coach was to come in and deliver a clear vision and try and put it into practice.
We've got a lot of good staff at Sri Lankan cricket, contrary to what a lot of people think. The guys do a damn good job down there. As head coach, I couldn't have come in and looked at the domestic structure, developed the player contract lists, and looked at all the medical structure - that's too big. So to have a guy that's come in with unblinkered vision and working with him to create best practice is really good.
"With the structure we have now, I'm starting to see a change." Arthur will work alongside Tom Moody, who has taken over as director of cricket for Sri Lanka
© Getty Images
"With the structure we have now, I'm starting to see a change." Arthur will work alongside Tom Moody, who has taken over as director of cricket for Sri Lanka © Getty Images
Tom and I also go back a long way. And he lives about five kilometres from me. We work really well together. I'm really excited to have a guy with his ample experience to bounce ideas off. I think Sri Lanka Cricket's technical committee is awesome as well. Aravinda's been very focused on where he wants to take Sri Lankan cricket. I'm also very good friends with Kumar [Sangakkara, who is in the technical committee] and Mahela [Jayawardene, who is head of the National Sports Council]. They have been in my franchise teams and I know them well.
I think we've got a structure now that will work at best practice. The players will be given the opportunity now to work in a very controlled environment. Then it's up to them to perform. If in a couple of years we look at this and we haven't got it right, I'll be very, very disappointed. We've got all the tools in place now to make players the best they can possibly be. And if that happens, we'll get the results.
What are the specific things you'd like to achieve as Sri Lanka coach?
First and foremost is to develop the player. I want to be sitting in my lounge in three years' time watching Oshada Fernando, Pathum Nissanka, Kusal Mendis and whoever it is, score runs and score consistently, knowing that we've given them a base.
Our team goals are very simple. We've got to qualify for the T20 World Cup this year. We should never, ever be in the position of having to qualify for any event. That, for me, is unacceptable. In terms of qualification for the 2023 World Cup, we have started on the back foot. We lost our first three games to the West Indies, and we also got a two-point penalty for a slow over rate. We can't let that happen. I want to see our white-ball team develop to be a threat at any world event. I want us to be able to beat anybody on our day. But I want us to be consistent so that our best and our worst are a lot closer together.
In terms of Tests, the thing I love about Test cricket is the World Test Championship. When the next WTC cycle starts, I want us to be really threatening the top guys.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.