Sri Lankan team after winning the 2014 Asian Games Men’s cricket gold medal 

Very recently, the West Indies abruptly withdrew from the tour of India with one One Day International (ODI), 1 Twenty20 International (T20I) and three Tests pending due to disputes over the payment structure. The recant had severe repercussions with the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) cutting off all Indian tours to the Caribbean nation and the future of West Indian players in the Indian Premier League (IPL) put in peril.

Though the contract dispute may have seemed trivial to some, given the country-over-money propaganda done by many, Sri Lankans will have felt a familiar scenario. In essence, the current cloud of controversy surrounding the West Indies has been prevalent in Sri Lanka since 2003. Even though the players from the Calypso land have resorted to strikes quite a few times, the Sri Lankan players amidst disputes have never fallen upon a decision to quit playing. However, it is the board that has been constantly deterring the national players of sending a second string team to the ICC events.

Several similar factors led to the West Indies players threatening to “take the appropriate action as see fit”. On the other hand, all that the Sri Lankan players have done is to refuse signing the contracts.

Juxtaposing the decision of the Windies players and the Sri Lankan players unveils a lot of facts that need to paid serious attention, since it paints the real picture of our cricketers.

The background of the payment dispute between WICB, WIPA and players

On the 18th of September, the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) and the West Indies Players Association (WIPA) signed a new collective bargaining agreement and a memorandum of understanding, which was supposed to allay all the previous feuds over contracts. The agreement was based on meritocracy and made sure that there was an increase in the share of revenue for the domestic players, which meant that the international players had to compensate.

The president of the WICB called it a “watershed moment” and said that “West Indies cricket is not about the administrators, it is really about the players.”

However, almost a month later, ESPNcricinfo published a letter written by Dwayne Bravo, the West Indies captain, to Wavell Hinds, the president of WIPA, which expressed severe concerns about the agreement and disappointment about not being properly informed about the clauses in the agreement.

“The first time any agreement was seen by the players was a match/tour contract with a new fee structure significantly different from what we received in the past. This was given to us in India,” said Bravo, which made players make a hue and cry midway during the Indian tour.

The background of the payment dispute between Sri Lanka Cricket and Sri Lankan players

The dispute over the contract first raised its head in 2003, prior to the 2003 Cricket World Cup. The players demanded 20% of the cricket board’s guaranteed income of 6.4 million USD from the tournament, to which the board threatened to send a second string team. The Sri Lanka Cricketers’ Association (SLCA) also complained about the selling of players’ image rights without prior permission from the concerned.

The board refused the proposal; instead, it consigned 12% of the guaranteed payment in addition to 3% of the guaranteed performance related incentives. The board also agreed to the proposal by the players, who had donated 100,000 USD to the SLCA to share 2% of the guaranteed fees among lowly paid domestic cricketers.

In 2011, the Cricket Board in Sri Lanka ran into a financial crisis after lavishly spending for the building of two new stadiums. This led to the board becoming bankrupt, resulting in the players not being paid for eight months. Sri Lankan players lead by Mahela Jayawardene protested in signing the SLPL contracts, proclaiming that the contracts will be signed only if the central ones are settled. In July 2012, the issues were solved, and the players signed the contract.

In 2013, the SLC discounted 25% of the ICC fees from the new contracts, which led to the players refusing to sign. After a 24-hour deadlock, chief selector Sanath Jayasuriya intervened and got the players to sign the contract with an understanding that, in the future, players’ share of the ICC event fees may be reinforced.

In January 2014, players sent a letter to Jayasuriya requesting to be given 20% the sum of money paid by the ICC to the SLC for global events. But when the new contract was sent to the players, when they were playing in Bangladesh, they found no clauses that dealt with the share from the ICC events; hence, they refused to sign the contract. The board threatened to send a second string team to Bangladesh, again, but they didn’t go ahead with it.

Without any assurance for a payment, Sri Lankan cricketers won the World Cup T20 2014. The SLC offered 6% of the ICC participation fee for future tournaments, but the players resisted it. On the 23rd of April, the SLC offered 10% of payment for both the ICC and the ACC tournaments, and the players agreed to sign the contract.

The similarity in problems and the difference in reactions from the players

Kumar Sangakkara

It is easily perceivable that both the West Indies players and the Sri Lankan players faced similar issues. Both the WICB and the SLC acted in ways that severely jeopardized cricket in their respective countries. As a result, the West Indies cricket has hit the rock bottom, while Sri Lanka cricket is still afloat amidst numerous predicaments.

So, what made the difference? It is the players who did it. The West Indians clamored against the injustice meted out to them by entering a strike, while the Sri Lankan players did not want to give up on their fans and were altruistic enough to continue their national “duties” without any payment.

Had the Lankan players took to the catastrophic methods adopted by the Caribbeans, then Sri Lanka Cricket would have fallen into an abyss from which they could have never recovered. The officials in the SLC would have accused the players of treason, arguing that they should have continued playing for their country over monetary disputes. It is noteworthy that the officials in the SLC have come under severe criticism for alleged corruption within the board.

Here is where Sri Lankans as fans should be grateful to their cricketers who have endured a lot of hardships yet practiced self-denial to represent the Island nation at any cost.

But can the situation in Sri Lanka be allowed to perpetuate? The stand taken by the West Indies players has sent a serious message to Sri Lanka. The quandaries faced by the WICB are great lessons to the distinguished men within the SLC.

The accusations levelled at the WICB and the WIPA by Bravo are very much relevant to the SLC, too. One of Bravo’s accusations was whether the West Indies board members have taken a pay cut as the players were asked to do.

The Sri Lanka Cricket officials have enjoyed a plethora of financial benefits amidst players being refused to have their contracts honored due to the financial frailties of the board. The officials have had their Christmas bonuses, and, very recently, there was a report that there were plans to purchase tickets for the 2015 World Cup for the ex-members of the SLC spending Rs.9 million. Rs.40 million was to be spent to purchase super luxury vehicles for eight high ranking officials including the CEO.

During the contract issue, the board accused the payers of being mercenaries saying that the players cannot have all the money, the money that is brought in to the system by the performance of the players.

As Bravo stated in his letter, players spend day in, day out to increase their fitness level and perform to win matches for their country.

“As you would appreciate Mr. Hinds, this is how we as professional cricketers earn our livelihood and provide for our families, our careers are short and uncertain, furthermore it is a highly competitive and stressful environment as one bad performance can see you out of the team forever, a player can suffer an injury at any time which could not only be career threatening but in many cases affect their lives even after their playing days are over. Mr. Hinds, the list can go on and on.”

When the SLC approached Steve Rixon for the post of a coach, Rixon called the salary package of the SLC as “embarrassing”. The pay received by the top level players is nowhere near the global standards. Yet the players continue representing Sri Lanka, only because they take a lot of pride in representing the nation.

Nishantha Ranatunga, the secretary of the SLC, has constantly been accused of corruption and has a reputation of making attempts to mar the images of several prominent Lankan cricketers.

Thisara Perera, in an interview, said: “Yes, first they promised me to grant citizenship, and they said later I can get into the New Zealand team step by step. The recent happenings to me had deeply disappointed me, which made me contemplate about the invitation. I thought I should side the one who recognizes me. Hence, I thought about it a lot. Later I realized my country deserves top priority.”

Even though most of the franchises are after Perera, he was denied NOCs to play in a number of leagues. In other words, amidst being poorly paid, Perera was denied to receive a healthier income. Even when New Zealand Cricket (NZC) approached the Sri Lankan all-rounder, a country that would have paid Perera lavishly, Perera refused giving precedence to the country of his birth.

Sangakkara chose Kandurata Maroons over Sunrisers Hyderabad in the 2013 Champions League, even though that cost him 140 000 USD. In 2014, every Sri Lankan player except Thisara Perera sacrificed an opportunity to earn through the IPL, after the secretary of the SLC shoehorned a series with Ireland.

Furthermore, Sangakkara accepts no payment for playing in domestic matches; instead, he shares it with staffs. The history is replete with players donating and making sacrifices to keep cricket in Sri Lanka alive.

But what the officials have done is diametrically opposite. “These Ex-Co members have been elected to office to do a service and develop the game of cricket, not to enjoy perks and benefits at the expense of SLC,” Upali Dharmadasa said.

Even though 2014 has been an excellent year for Sri Lanka Cricket, the members of the SLC made sure that the trend of splitting into factions and engaging in feuds would continue to exist.

The West Indies’ implosion was abrupt. The crisis hit the board and the team in the last few months, and the response by the players has been impulsive. They are players who do not want to be “hoodwinked” and financially manipulated. They are players who are brave and bold enough to stand for their rights even though their team’s future is harmed.

However, fortunately, Sri Lanka have got a different kind of cricketers. A kind akin to a candle, which would keep cricket in Sri Lanka alive by burning itself. They poignantly see their rights being infringed, integrity being questioned and patriotism being disputed. Even though everyone who follows cricket knows where the fault lies, our cricketers have carried the dreams of 20 millions in their shoulders by being stoic while having their image marred by the blame game.

But how long can the officials of the SLC hide behind the selflessness of our cricketers? Our cricketers have the patience of saints. But there is a limit to it, as well. Can the ordinary human beings of the SLC bear it? Can Sri Lanka withstand it?

Resurrection of West Indies cricket is under dark clouds. The BCCI has hit back with an embargo that could be deleterious to their finances. Sri Lanka must have faced the same situation long ago in more than one occasion, but the commitment of the players towards their mother nation proved to be the difference.

The time is ripe for the officials in the SLC, if not the ministry of sports, to act and create an environment where the players are fittingly paid for their services to the nation. There should be an environment where players are respected and their self-esteem not decimated. If they fail to correct their mistakes of the past, it won’t be a surprise if Sri Lanka cricket finds itself in the same place West Indies finds itself now.