Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, RUSSEL ARNOLD talks about Sri Lanka’s history-makers, South Africa’s batting woes, Sanath Jayasuriya’s two-year ban and previews the ODI series, which starts on Sunday.
Sport24 asked: Your take on Sri Lanka’s historic Test series triumph?
Russel Arnold: When the Sri Lankan team came over I thought it was going to be a tough series, but the tour so far has gone much better than planned. Sri Lanka’s Test series win over South Africa was welcome and I was pleasantly surprised. (Sri Lanka had not won a match since October, the selectors were not on the best terms with the coach and their regular captain had been removed from the side prior to the series). I guess when your backs are against the wall, it can serve as extra motivation. The boys realised they only had each other and had to go out there and show more energy. It was very good for Sri Lankan cricket to have a breather by beating South Africa at home. (Sri Lanka made history by becoming the first-ever Asian team to win a Test series in South Africa). But the Test series win for Sri Lanka can paper over some cracks, so they have to be realistic. When you win, you see a different picture, but it’s important to assess all aspects and be honest about where you are at. If the results are good, you have to look at how they were achieved, what worked, what didn’t and come to a conclusion when making decisions going forward. The unlikely Test series triumph instils more hope within the Sri Lankan team and because of that hopefully they will be able to make better decisions. (After the first Test, Arnold was pictured in Sri Lanka’s dressing room). I don’t believe anyone is neutral and I think it’s bogus to say that you have to be neutral because your heart has to be in it as a commentator. If your heart is not in it, I don’t think you can bring the best out of your commentary. You’ve got to call it as it is, but my job is to give the Sri Lankan perspective.
Sport24 asked: How much of a blow was it for South African cricket?
Russel Arnold: The Test series defeat would have been heart-breaking for South Africa because they have been very dominant at home and, prior to their travels, there was nothing going right for Sri Lanka. It was a series where South Africa should have put Sri Lanka down. It was not only the fact that the current Sri Lankan team were struggling, better Sri Lankan teams have struggled in alien conditions. We knew that the tour to South Africa was going to be a massive ask, and for South Africa to have come up short will be very disappointing for them. The fact is that it happened not only once but twice, is a real concern for South Africa and they will have to assess how it came about. They really need to hit back and the players have to take extra responsibility as far as performance is concerned. South Africa gave Sri Lanka an opening, which they took with both hands.
Sport24 asked: How would you assess South Africa’s batting woes?
Russel Arnold: When the pressure is on and the ball is doing something, the South African batsmen don’t seem to be able to score runs and that is a real worry. In terms of South Africa’s batting problems, I think it should be about collective responsibility. Coaches are judged by the team’s performances. If they don’t perform, they are criticised and if they perform, they should be given credit. It’s the nature of the beast. You need to look deeper at a coach’s role and see what their contribution is and how well the players are developing. It’s tricky in terms of how you judge a coach (South African batting coach Dale Benkenstein has been roundly castigated) but the players are responsible because they do the on-field business. At this level, it’s about managing and getting your game in order. It’s not about a batting coach teaching you the basics. As a coach at international level, it’s more about man-management. It comes down to getting the players in the right frame of mind, fine-tuning aspects of play and reminding players of what has worked for them in the past. However, it’s definitely not about teaching them cricket when they are playing for the national side.
Sport24 asked: Has the T20 game affected batting in Test cricket?
Russel Arnold: The technique and mindset that has developed in the shortest format of the game is coming into Test cricket and is not helping batsmen playing Test innings, which you really want. You want your top-order batsmen to absorb pressure and accumulate runs, but at the moment it just doesn’t seem to be happening. If you look around the world, it’s probably only Indian batsmen Cheteshwar Pujara, who is absorbing pressure and piling on the runs, whereas almost all the other batsmen are flagging. The defensive mindset in Test cricket has gone out the window. Many batsmen don’t look to defend and wear the opposition down anymore, instead they look to attack. Michael Holding recently said that some batsmen should be reported to the ICC, rather than the state of the pitches. He was referring to the bigger picture and not only in this series, but in the series against Pakistan as well. On bowler-friendly pitches where the ball is doing a lot, batsmen will be challenged, but in Mikey’s opinion a number of top-order batsmen are not showing the requisite application or technique. That is what he was trying to say and you can’t disagree. The change in mindset is affecting the Test game where we are actually searching for the grind and the hard graft.
Sport24 asked: What do you make of Duanne Olivier’s defection?
Russel Arnold: That was really disappointing to hear because I thought everything was in front of him as far as South African cricket is concerned. I was looking forward to seeing him developing within the Test arena and being a force. The news came as a shock and I’m quite disappointed that he has looked to go away and take up a three-year Kolpak contract. It’s a blow not only for South Africa but for world cricket because you don’t find too many express fast bowlers around nowadays. However, looking at it from a player’s point of view, a cricket career is for a limited time and they also need security in their lives. But it’s disappointing he chose not to remain in international cricket.
Sport24 asked: Is Sanath Jayasuriya’s ban also a bolt from the blue?
Russel Arnold: Yeah. It’s disappointing news and is not good for Sri Lankan cricket because Sanath is one of the legends. Corruption allegations have been around Sri Lankan cricket, so I’m of the view that rather than having a cloud hanging over, it has to be cleared out. Whoever is implicated needs to be taken to task. There is nothing to suggest that Jayasuriya was involved in corruption, but him being charged and subsequently banned from all cricket activities for two years is because of a delay in handing in a phone and SIM card to the investigation when requested to (for the purpose of gathering evidence) and not fully cooperating with the ICC in his role as Sri Lanka’s former chairman of selectors. It’s difficult for me to comment on whether spot and match-fixing is still rife within the game because I don’t have the information and it’s not fair for me to comment on hearsay and what people talk about. There is a lot of loose talk about spot and match-fixing, but I really hope that it’s not still going on and would love it if we can trust our game and enjoy the entertainment provided.
Sport24 asked: Your outlook ahead of the five-match ODI series?
Russel Arnold: It’s a different format and I’m hoping it will be a closely-fought series. The goal for Sri Lanka is to pick up the pieces, get their act together and really push South Africa. It will be a disaster for everyone if it’s not a competitive series, and is the last thing South Africa would want. They would want to be tested leading into the World Cup, as it the last ODI series for both sides before the showpiece… Never having won a World Cup would be at the back of the South African players’ minds because everyone will keep reminding them, but it’s about going out there, expressing themselves and being consistent throughout the tournament. Come the business end, their bigger players must stand up. In terms of AB de Villiers, I feel people have to move on. AB played his part for South Africa and if South Africa is still sitting hoping he will make a comeback they are not going to be able to get over the line this time either. The focus has to be on the players who are available. David Miller can play the role of a finisher, but the foundation has to be set and I think Quinton de Kock is the man for South Africa. Meanwhile, at this stage, I don’t expect much from Sri Lanka at the World Cup in the UK, but this series will tell us if they can cause a few surprises. There is no doubt they have the talent, but getting their act together is the key. The two Kusal’s - Mendis and Perera - are playing outstanding cricket at the moment and I also like the look of 25-year-old Akila Dananjaya.
Sport24 asked: Who would be your dream dinner guests and why?
Russel Arnold: I would invite sporting royalty from football, rugby and cricket. Cristiano Ronaldo would make the guest list. I like his arrogance and the way he executes and goes about his business. I would also invite former All Black Michael Jones. I grew up watching the ex-flanker play and always admired him... I’m a big rugby fan and will be attending the Lions-Bulls derby in Johannesburg on Saturday. My third guest would come from cricketing circles. Someone I admired growing up was West Indian Garfield Sobers. He was one of the best all-rounders in the world. During my playing career, I was nowhere near him as an all-rounder, but as youngster he was one of the people I looked up to. I would serve my guests Thai food and light reggae would be heard in the background.