Saturday, 04 February 2023
'Getting Sri Lanka back on track is a long, slow process'

'Getting Sri Lanka back on track is a long, slow process'

Graham Ford, the team's coach, wants the island's special brand of cricket firing through his young team again.

What drew you back to Sri Lanka?

I've talked about how I'd thoroughly enjoyed the first stint. I enjoy the players' attitude and a lot of their approach to the game. Though I moved away from Sri Lanka, they were pretty much my team as far as the international competition went. I was supporting Sri Lanka, following them, and staying in touch with quite a few of the boys.

Going back to coach Sri Lanka was something I had to think long and hard about because I was really enjoying what was going on at Surrey. But in the end - weighing all sorts of things up - I decided that at this stage of my career it would be nice to take on a huge challenge, in that there's a lot of improvement that's required. But I think good things can be achieved with the kind of attitudes and the kinds of people that I work with.

Has anything surprised you during the second stint? What has stayed the same and what has changed?
Quite a lot has changed. In the last stint the senior players helped the youngsters along and set the tone in the matches. Now suddenly the young players have to make their own momentum. As you get older in your coaching career, you realise that you have to adapt your coaching style to the group that you've got.

There is a general understanding that there is quite a lot of work to be done, and there is a decent amount of patience, which is very important.

What sorts of changes have you made to your coaching style with this team?
When you have senior players, you're more of a facilitator - more of a behind-the-scenes-type supporter. When it's a younger group, you've got to be more out in front. More instruction is required. There's more involvement in the decision-making as to how the game is going to be played.

Your senior players know their game and what they need to work on. They might just ask you to monitor one or two things to make sure they're in place. You are more guided by the player, whereas with a younger player, you have to let them know the important areas they have to work on, and sometimes insist that they do have to work on certain areas.

Do you find younger players come to you with areas they personally want to work on?
I've tried to encourage a really good work culture. And it was one of the first things we had to establish. I feel they are getting towards where we want to be. If we're going to close the gap on some of these teams, we have to work harder than the other teams simply because of where we're at. The boys are starting to get on with the work on their own and also starting to ask for opportunities to work on certain areas they know they need to improve on.

You wanted the job till 2019. Is that a reflection the fact that this team had a long way to go?
It was pretty clear to everybody that we spoke to that it wasn't going to be a quick fix. It was something that needed to be built on a solid foundation. It's quite a long, slow process. If it's done properly, then hopefully it stays strong for a long time.

Do you buy into the idea of the "Sri Lankan brand of cricket"?
You've always got to keep a good eye on the simple basics, but after that, if you want to get the edge, doing something different, playing with flair and taking the attack to the opposition are all things Sri Lanka has used.

Sri Lankan players don't play according to the coaching manual, but they find something different and effective. A lot of people around the world have always enjoyed Sri Lanka because it's a small island with a small population and a small budget, yet they've always been able to go toe to toe with the big guns. They've been brave even when opposition has been bigger, taller and more imposing. I think that's what Sri Lanka is all about, and we need to get that all firing again.

What discipline requires the most improvement?
I'm not sure we're at a stage where we actually know who our best players are. That also takes some time because you need to give players a decent run and find out a bit about them. We have got a good amount of cricket ahead of us, so after a 12-month period we'll have a good idea of who has the technique and the mental strength for a long run in international cricket. Or if they don't cut it, we've got to go elsewhere - but we'll know for sure that that player's not up to it.

I think [chief selector] Sanath Jayasuriya has been brilliant with that process. He's really trying to explore talent as quickly as possible with lots of trial matches and things. But those only take you so far, because there's quite a step up from a trial match to an international.

In terms of which areas require attention - it's pretty clear we need to improve all of them. We need more allrounders, because we have a long tail, always. We don't have seam-bowling allrounders in particular. We need to develop a solid top order, where there is a lot of talent. We also need to find some good pace - someone to partner Dushmantha Chameera. We need to find depth in the fast-bowling unit as well, to account for injuries. There are also some talented young spin bowlers, but when Rangana Herath finally stops, we haven't got what we've had for so long with Muttiah Muralitharan and Rangana. There are a few spinners who could get there, but they need some time to develop.

Chameera is someone a lot of coaches are excited by. What does he need to work on to realise his potential?
He is a brilliant athlete. I remember seeing him bowl as a net bowler down at Galle some years back, and he just kept getting all our guys out. I think that maybe if he can get some lateral movement in the air at that pace, then he becomes something really, really special. On some of the Test match surfaces which are not offering much, you do need to do something in the air.

The batting has been fragile recently. Is that to do with skill, temperament or something else?
I can't say exactly what's causing the problem. If we're talking about playing in England, quite a number of them have had to make adjustments to their technique, which is a hell of a difficult thing when you've played one way all your life. It's tough to stick to those changes when the adrenaline's pumping and the ball is whizzing around. You revert to what's natural to you.

Going forward, it seems as though the board's vision is for the coaching at the emerging and development levels to be really good. Hopefully the necessary technical requirements are well entrenched by the time they get to the national level.

Kusal Mendis has made an impact on this tour. What does he have to do to establish himself in the team?
He has established himself - he's got a wonderful technique. He's one of our guys who's really got a technique that can survive wherever he goes in world cricket. Whoever has coached him as a young lad has done a magnificent job. He is still learning and needs to get to a stage where he turns his exciting starts into bigger contributions.

For such a young guy to be batting at No. 3 in Test cricket is very exciting. Ideally you'd break a young guy like that in at No. 6 and let him bat for a while in a position where the tone is set by the specialists, and the ball is older. But he's having to be the tone-setter, and he's shown that he can do it.

What excites you about his technique in particular?
Playing in this country, your shoulder alignment has to be good so that it's really in line with your eyes. Once you have good shoulder alignment and have the front side working, you can play with a much softer bottom hand, which absorbs the energy of the ball. If you keep pushing hard and there's a lot of energy with the bottom part of the bat, you end up playing away from your eyes and the nicks fly. Kusal's got lovely shoulder alignment, great arm work and a lovely soft bottom hand when defending. He always gets his eyes close to the contact point.

Over the last couple of years, Sri Lanka have got to good positions in many matches, only to let games slip. Is there a strategic weakness there?
That's something that you can't really coach. That's something that develops over a period of time, as these guys develop. As these guys become tougher and play together more, those sorts of issues will sort themselves out. Patience is important. The board have planted the seeds for growth with certain appointments that they've made. Now it's time to watch it grow.

Would you like to see the team be more attacking with their strategy and tactics?
From session to session that could be different. It's easy to say, "You should be more attacking", but it also depends on the bowlers and firepower. There are a lot of things to factor in.

What are some of Angelo Mathews' strengths as a captain that we don't see on the field?
On match day he leads from the front and he's got a record that shows that. He's got massive respect from the opposition. It's always great when your leader has that. He's also got respect from the young players. He's also had the benefit of playing with so many really good greats of the past, and he's been able to share that with the lads, which he's brilliant at.

Would you like to see Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene involved in some way with the side?
They've both got so much to offer. They have cricket brains like you can't believe. It would be sad to see them not getting involved along the way, because they certainly would make a difference.

Andrew Fidel Fernando

(ESPNcricinfo)