Fitness is key to success for Tony Opatha
  Published : 12:29 am  May 18, 2017 | One comment | Print This Post  | 0 views

By Shehan Daniel

Whether it was opening the bowling against some of the greatest batsmen to play the game or constructively calling out the cricket board, Tony Opatha has never been one to shy away.


A confident and cocky cricketer, Opatha’s international playing career was brought to an end prematurely in 1983 after he and a group of Sri Lanka players undertook a rebel tour to South Africa, banned from international cricket at the time because of the apartheid regime. Opatha was crucified for eternity for that decision, being singled out as the person who led that tour, and he spent almost three decades away from the country plying his trade as a coach in the Netherlands, Ireland, South Africa and Bangladesh.

Opatha speaking to the Daily Mirror in an exclusive interview elaborated on his involvement in that tour, also sharing his views about where the current national team stands.

Q: You played at a time when cricket was not as lucrative as it is now. Did you plan out your career and was life after playing something that was always on your mind?

I never planned my cricketing life. I took it the way it came and I worked hard at it, and as time went by I developed myself in how everything has to be done. I worked myself to the future but not by making plans. It came naturally over time, and if you want to develop yourself as a cricketer you have to sacrifice a lot — the way you train, the way you apply yourself, the amount of concentration, the amount of confidence, all those things come as a package, and I worked at that. As I used to say, there are a lot of cricketers behind you, to fight for your place, so if you want to be the best there is a lot of hard work to outbid all the bowlers who want to take my place. I was always full of confidence that I can achieve that because I knew that the first thing I needed to do was to be 100 per cent physically fit. Concentration, performance, success — everything is based on fitness. I gave my life to that, killed my body. We didn’t have gyms those days — my gym was chopping wood to strengthen my arms, running at the beach, on the road at 5.30 in the morning. I also never had a coach — today there are more coaches than players when they tour. It’s unnecessary. If you have a weakness you develop yourself, take two three extra hours to work on your skills.

I had to retire to be honest. Going on that tour of South Africa, forced me to retire. After that tour I was told that I couldn’t work here, so then I got a break in Holland, to coach one of the top clubs in their domestic league, and I did very well there, winning the championship several times. I ended up spending 21 years there and coached nine clubs, and then helped the national team, also serving as manager of the World Cup team. I was also involved with their ladies’ team, taking them to four European Cups and two World Cups. I then spent a year in Ireland, and then two years in South Africa before going to Bangladesh for a year. And then I came back to Sri Lanka and carried on, also focussing on my charity work.

Q: What was it like playing for Sri Lanka at that time? And do you see parallels between the game now and the game then?

I think the only thing we lacked was the Test status which we should have got about 10-15 years before. We had some excellent cricketers. I don’t think even Arjuna Ranatunga was good enough to get into the team when we were playing, although he was a good cricketer. That side was tremendous. We beat teams; we beat India in the World Cup, we lost to Australia by 18 runs, with Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee.

If I was to look at today’s cricket and the cricket we played I think we played top cricketers. The quality was such that teams had depth in quality. Everybody could bat or bowl. Today you have to find ‘a’ batsman or ‘a’ bowler. That was not the case when we played. I used to go in at seven or eight, and get fifties.

I also think T20 cricket is more circus cricket than actually cricket. It’s great to pull in crowds and to entertain them, but don’t take that as cricket. With T20 and 50 over cricket, Test cricket died, which I am sad about. (When I played) Test cricket was where the quality of cricket was but today it’s not as popular.
Whenever we played, we played hard, and we had a battle between bat and ball. But after the game we’re best of friends. That friendship through sportsmanship was there, which is not so evident today. That’s poor. You play the game in the middle, but away from the pitch we’re just friends.

Q: About that tour to South Africa in 1983, the rebel tour, you were painted as a key figure in planning that tour. What was your involvement with it?

I can only say that I am partly responsible, but it was not Tony Opatha alone. There was a committee, like Duleep Mendis was the main man selecting the team, Roy Dias, Lalith Kalluperuma and they selected the team, because I was not in the country, I was in Holland. Of course I arranged the team and the tour and they gave me the backing — they told me to — and we went to South Africa.

Everything came on me, while all these other people were also involved, and they thought I did all the damage which is not true. I got contracts of these guys who signed to go to South Africa and they signed the contracts before they went on the tour to India, where Duleep got two hundreds after getting zeroes, and when they came back he was offered the captaincy over Bandula Warnapura and they (Mendis and Dias) crossed over. Even before the tour of India they had signed contracts. But they got the whole team signed and confirmed and later put the blame on me. That was my reason to retire.

There was an incident before the first test, they had a trial, and in this trial I got the first four wickets and I was 47* and they stopped me from batting. After that when they selected the team I was not in the 25. So I was a bit sad, and when this South Africa tour came up, with the backing of my other friends, I thought (I would take it). There was no cricket at that time, because of the war, and hardly any teams came to Sri Lanka, so we were getting just old and there was no money with us, so when this opportunity came we went to South Africa. I feel sorry, because it was the wrong decision I made. (Actually) With two days to go, I refused to go, but the team mates said since I was partly responsible not to back out. I was 29 at the time, so I wasn’t young, and I took that decision because there was no cricket. That was the reason for me to do that.

Q: Did you regret undertaking that tour?

When I saw the apartheid there and how the poor people were treated, I understood the gravity of it and I wondered why I went on that tour. But we all make mistakes, and I apologized for that. They made me look like the biggest mafia murderer, and I didn’t do anything like that. I just went and sold my talent and earned some money. And at that time the country was doing business with South Africa, so South Africa was good trade but not for cricket. The punishment — a 25 year ban — was too harsh. When I returned there were numerous death threats made to me and I was fortunate to have had police protection. It was sort of a political punishment rather than a cricket punishment, but I didn’t want to go into any type of argument. Even today the cricket board thinks I should be punished.

Q: You have always been outspoken about the national team. Where do you assess the team being at the moment?

If I take the Sri Lankan cricket team now, I think we’ve got a good cricket team. They lack experience and confidence, they lack physical fitness but in another couple of years our national team will be ready to face world cricket. We’ll still be at a handicap, where we are lacking good pace bowlers, a good spinner — we’ve got only Rangana Herath and now he’s on his way out. Then we have Angelo Mathews who has had loads of injuries who is not fit. We’ve also got aging cricketers, like Upul Tharanga. Have we got replacements for these players? No. What is the fault? It’s because the Sri Lankan cricket board is not looking into the youth enough. We should have an Under 21 tournament, to compliment the Under 23 tournament. This is our nursery. This is where we have to jump and get proper coaches, who will look for talent, take their names, put them into a squad, and from there we can build them — our future Test cricketers, future match-winners. We are lacking in that area. I urge the cricket board to open their eyes and not make this mistake, this very big mistake (of neglecting the youth) for Sri Lanka cricket.

Bringing Wasim Akram for a week is a joke. Bringing Allan Donald in for two months, is a joke. We have cricketers like Champaka Ramanayake, Chaminda Vaas, Pramodya (Wickremasinghe), and other good local coaches. If you’re bringing in these types of coaches from abroad, then (you’re saying that) these coaches are not good enough. I also believe that our selectors have been too quick in dropping players. How do you make a team when you do that? How are you going to build a team? If they are good, and are selected on merit, give them five or six chances. Fitness is also an area where we are lacking. Consistency, concentration, dedication, results — all that comes in through fitness. Players these days train in comfort, in Air Conditioned gyms and when you put them out in the sun, they can’t bowl more than five overs without getting tired.

Something else we do wrong – and this is a sad story – is that every new president who comes in, brings in all the people who supported him, who are not qualified enough, into important posts. There is a lack of professionalism. And it’s a fault of all the cricket boards than have come into power.

Q: Administration was one area where you were never involved. Was it something you actively avoided?

They took that South African tour so bitterly, and they still are. Honestly, they will never get people who are pushy and know the game. They know I am capable and that I can contribute to this cricket board, but they know that I will only get people who are capable. Our cricket administration style is wrong. There are wrong people at the positions that are important for development. They don’t have the experience or the knowledge and background to produce what is required.

Q: You played at a time when cricket was blessed with big characters and personalities. Any particular players you liked bowling to?

I always liked to bowl to good cricketers. It was a battle bowling to batsmen like Viv Richards, Clive Lloyd, Alvin Kallicharran, Roy Fredericks or Sunil Gavashkar. (I always said) Getting a good batsman is easy, getting a bad one is difficult. So I enjoyed every game I played because I liked to perform and give my team and country the best. I always said you play for your team and your country, and (so you need to) perform. I enjoyed my cricket, and I was a cocky man.

Q: You have been outspoken about coaching as well. Do you think teams have too many coaches involved in their set-up?

Today you have about 12 coaches, more than the players. You don’t need to be teaching players the basics at this level but that is what modern cricket has become. I’m not against this. (But in Sri Lanka) There is no place for our own players. Look at Mahela (Jayawardene) — he wasn’t given a place so he went to England. They didn’t utilise Kumar Sangakkara, so he also went to England. (Chandika) Hathurusinghe, they didn’t give him a place, he went to Bangladesh. Sri Lanka have had a complex problem (they don’t see local coaches as being good enough). They take the foreign coach’s word as gospel. That is a country, it’s in our culture. This is evident even recently, when they brought Wasim Akram and Allan Donald (demoralising local coaches).

Q: What defines a good coach, in your opinion?

A good coach produces results. Produces match-winning players. You’ve got to be in front of the players, not in between. As a coach you have to have to distance yourself from the players and have that respect. That is why the board made a mistake in making Marvan Atapattu the national coach. It was too early for him. Half of the team played with him. He’s a good coach but he was appointed at the wrong time.

Q: What was the experience of coaching in a country like the Netherlands where cricket was not as popular as Sri Lanka, like?

If you see, Holland played in three world cups and in my time there I produced about 18 national players, who I coached from a young age. It’s the way those guys work at it, and come for training. They are not fanatic cricketers, but when they play they are fanatic. Our cricketers are not fanatic enough, they’ve become easy going and lazy. The character of our players is a big problem. When we played, if you are lazy you’re starving (because you’re not getting paid). Today cricketers have everything, even if you don’t win matches you get your money.


One Response to “Fitness is key to success for Tony Opatha”

  1. Ranjit Wickremasinghe
    on May 18th, 2017 10:57 am

    I remembered Tony Opatha since my early teens at St. Peter’s College, Bambalapitiya. He was an honest guy. But in a country like Sri Lanka, honesty hardly prevail. Tony’s trip to South Africa is understandable considering the living standards at that time. Even though I wasn’t a cricketer, I planned to leave the country before that. That was the life at that time.
    Sri Lanka Cricket Board should listen to people like Tony. He doesn’t need any name-board carrying titles. He is a strong Peterite.

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