Sri Lanka Cricket is playing for the future with a straight bat - Nishantha

Monday, 23 December 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

  Sri Lanka Cricket is never short of controversy. From its never-ending financial woes in the recent past to accusations of politicisation and with an elected board taking office only recently, the board has had a running battle with public opinion. The most recent has been serious criticism levelled against the board’s pre World Cup investment into two new grounds, in Pallekele and Hambantota which has seen the board having to shoulder the majority of the $ 70 million debt it found itself in, in order to see the project through to completion. Even with pledges from the Government to pay off the debt, the board still sees itself struggling to balance its payments and keep the sport developed and properly administrated under these circumstances. Sri Lanka Cricket Secretary Nishantha Ranatunga however sees it from quite a different point of view. In his opinions, the country needs the grounds as a money spinner for the rural economies which would bring in much needed foreign exchange to the country. The country’s cricket administration it turns out has a dual responsibility in terms of developing the game and the country’s foreign exchange reserves as well. The Daily FT sat down Ranatunga to get his views on these issues and more. Following are excerpts: By David Ebert Q: The board has faced severe criticism with regards to its investments in two new grounds – in Pallekele and Hambantota – where some even single it out as the reason for the financial situation the board finds itself in now. What is your rationale behind the building of the two new grounds and what will be the return on your investment? A: Firstly, the purpose of building the grounds was to make sure that we get the World Cup to Sri Lanka and to get additional games due to the security situation in Pakistan. So we had the opportunity of hosting six extra matches where Hambantota and Pallekele were considered. Initially we got only eight matches but we ended up getting fourteen games. That gave us additional revenue in host fees but the benefit comes really to the nation, not to Sri Lanka Cricket. That is the important thing that the politicians have forgotten. People who are criticising, they don’t understand the rationale. For example, by having these grounds there is a lot of revenue that got into the country. The ICC itself spent about $ 30 million for the World Cup in Sri Lanka. In 2012 again they spent about $ 35 to $40 million. So that money doesn’t come to us direct. It’ll go to the hoteliers, travel agents, the food suppliers, the transport agents and from the baggage handler to the airlines, everybody gets a part of that. Firstly, yes the Government agreed to build the stadiums having that rationale in mind. At least we can say that the Government had a vision, in bringing the economy into the whole thing. The Cricket Board won’t get the whole benefit, but we had to spend some money because cricket-wise we did the grounds and the area, wicket etc. but the investment into the stadiums was entirely from the Government. Most of the investment. So that is why the Government has taken over the payment of these stadiums. So if somebody is comparing how much we get from those grounds, in terms of revenue they are badly mistaken. I will give you some good examples take SSC, NCC and CCC; if the Government wasn’t funding, they can build super-luxury apartments here rather than giving it to develop sports in the country. So you don’t expect people to build stadiums and make money, that is for the development of cricket in this country and to get more tours where the economy is also benefited. That rationale, most of the politicians who cry and shout don’t understand or they want to hide and misguide the public and the media. That is how I look at it. Basically while developing these grounds, take for example what was built by President Premadasa 25 years back. The value that ground has brought to Sri Lanka Cricket and to the country you can’t compare it. If you look at the income we got from that ground that is probably zero. Just like Khettarama, Hambantota, there is no difference. Here also we don’t charge people because it is a product development process. That part you have to very clearly take it to the public. Q: How many years will these grounds serve Sri Lanka? A: Probably 20 to 30 years. We refurbished Khettarama after 22 years. It is basically a foreign exchange earner for the country rather than an income source for itself and the benefit doesn’t come to use, it comes to the people, the businessmen and to the economy and the Government. In all, 70 to 80% came from the Government. We contributed 20-30%. This message they don’t understand. I’ll give you another good example. Now we are playing a club tournament and if SSC is playing a match versus NCC, the board pays the hosting team a match fee that is for ground fee as well. So even the clubs today are paid by the Cricket Board. We pay close to Rs. 30,000 per game. So I thought I should explain this to you so that the majority of the people who can understand will get the right picture. Q: The current financial position of the board has been constantly in the spotlight in the recent past and the board also announced the application for a loan of $ 8 million from the ICC. What will this money be used for? A: The $ 8 million dollar loan was applied for to settle another loan that we obtained from Bank of Ceylon because we are paying a higher interest rate with the bank and we want to pay that off and instead pay a nominal fee because the ICC also have their investments. So based on that we suggested to the ICC that they give us the loan and reduce it from our World Cup funding which is due in 2015. So it’s not another loan you need to be clear on that part. A lot of people don’t understand this. We are trying to save the interest component by obtaining this loan. Q: So what exactly is the Board’s financial position right now? A: Firstly Sri Lanka Cricket is not a profit making institute. We are supposed to develop cricket. If you look at the problems that we face today in this region, most of the countries have a better financial advantage over us. India has 2 billion people, Pakistan has 200 million and Bangladesh has 180 million people. So they have the opportunity of making better revenue than us. WE have only 20 million people. So we need to make sure that we provide the best for our players to compete. The development of players is not only about the national players. If you look at Sri Lanka Cricket we look after players starting from the junior levels, under-13 to 19 and at school and club level. Then we have squads playing and training and all that. We look after players from all angles; from the clothing, the food, fees, in everything we look after them when they’re ready to be full time cricketers. So we need to have sufficient funding to make sure that cricket is competed with other countries. Take Australia for example, they have 20 million people but their per capita income is higher than us. They have other advantages and we need to compete with them to make our money and for us to have a proper cricketing system in this country. So we can’t keep on building up funds in our bank account and do this. Q: When do you see the board’s financial woes finally ending and how? A: We do feel we have a few financial challenges, but looking at our future tours program and the ICC events we are quite comfortable with what we get and how to pay off the loans, so we don’t see a problem. Q: Has a long term plan been discussed in order to address this issue? A: Yes we have done a seven year budget in terms of our revenue. Although people criticise Sri Lanka Cricket, our revenues have gone up by between 400% to 500% versus what we had. Our TV revenues have gone up 400% to 500 % and team sponsorships have gone up by 600% to 700%, so we are quite comfortable. If you don’t spend the money all those investments won’t come to us. Q: In comparison, how much have your overheads gone up? A: Comparatively it has increased but it is manageable. Q: How is the Sri Lankan future tours schedule looking in the next couple of years? A: This year is not a good year for us but next year we have got some ICC and ACC tournaments so we are ok. In 2015 we have the World Cup in Australia so we are basically ok with that too and next year we have the England tour. From next year onwards things will fall into line much better than what it is today. Q: The position of head coach of the Sri Lankan team should ideally be a hotly contested and in-demand position. Has there been a lack of interest in it given the recent call for applications for the position and could the reason for that be due to maybe the general perception of the board’s financial position? A: We have had about eight to ten individuals applying so the interest levels were there but today the top level big names basically prefer to get into short term coaching assignments. If you look at the IPL they have about 10 or 12 teams and their period is maximum four to five months but the revenue they get probably is about two years of our revenue within those few months. So even if you look at English club cricket, they have about 20 clubs playing and people prefer to go and coach there because its only six months of cricket there. So most of the cricketers, once they retire, prefer to be with their families and a lot of them are looking for short term assignments rather than coming and staying here for the long term. So that was a challenge for us but we feel we have got some names and we will do the best selection in time to come. Q: Could the issue of short term contract preference be avoided by hiring an ex national cricketer as coach instead? A: We were very positively looking at that and we all felt that looking at the tour program we felt that up to 2015, having a foreign coach would be better although some of the candidates that applied have got the qualifications and experience to do the job, still we felt with the World Cup 2015 in mind, it would be ideal to have a foreign coach. That is what the board felt. My thinking was different but I don’t want to be quoted on that. Q: Is there a big difference in technical knowledge levels between a Sri Lankan and a foreign coach and was that a big factor in the board’s decision? A: I think there are pluses and minuses as well, where favouritism and things like that would be minimised but the negative sides would be the language barriers, then knowing the local system is something positive for a local coach.  But the biggest positive for a foreign coach is the ability to have an objective view of the team. Q: The board recently submitted a proposal for the shifting of the ICC office to Sri Lanka. How comfortable do you think the ICC would be in moving to Sri Lanka and what benefits do you see it bringing cricket in Sri Lanka? A: When you say the ICC, it is only the countries that are playing cricket. The ICC is a body consisting of all the 10 countries and some of the other members who have representatives. I’m sure they are looking at this very positively and looking and the development in Sri Lanka after three decades of war, things have really from bad to very good I would say. The living standards have come up quite well, the facilities for offices have come up and the place is quite clean and safe. Considering all that, they will look at this very positively. In terms of benefits, image-wise that will add a lot of value and even in foreign exchange-wise the country will benefit. Although the board won’t benefit, the country will gain from that. Q: So how does the board plan on increasing its revenue? A: By bringing in the ICC, the board won’t increase our revenue. The politicians may say it’s a waste but it’s good for the country I would say. Q: What plans does the board have in terms of future infrastructure development? A: We have very limited grounds in this country. Our plan is to talk to the Government and the Sports Ministry to develop a ground in every district. Why we are trying to do that is, there are 110 countries playing cricket; 10 countries are test playing countries and there are an additional 100 countries and they would all love to come and play in Sri Lanka due to the facilities offered here but we have a challenge. At the moment we have four or five teams in Sri Lanka at different levels, school teams etc. They want to come and play but we don’t have sufficient grounds. Our plan is to try and develop a cricket ground for each district. That’ll add a lot of benefits for the economy like we discussed earlier. If you have a ground in Anuradhapura and if you get a foreign team coming and playing there, the hotels in that area would get the benefit. The teams will come and spend 30 – 40,000 pounds for two weeks of cricket. That money won’t come to Sri Lanka Cricket. It will come to the country, so that is something that people should understand and that is why we are trying to promote that concept. Q: Will that also be funded by the Government? A: We feel that we can take over two grounds for a year. We have spoken to the Government and they are quite positive and they also felt that we should work on that program. So it’s under discussion still and by next year we will know how much funding we can get from the Government to build these cricket grounds in each district. It has to be a three to four year plan. Our plan is to bring in more revenue and to build a sports economy in this country. That part is very important. Rather than play all the games in Colombo, if we take them to other areas like Anuradhapura, Kurunegala, Monaragala etc that economy will grow. Pix by Upul Abayasekara