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Asanka Exclusive Resignation Interview

May 2, 2022

When the news broke that the National Head Coach and High-Performance Manager, Asanka Gurusinha had resigned due to health reasons, fans, players, and all lovers of cricket in Nigeria were thrown into a state of frenzy. On one hand, we worried about losing a man that had begun to lay the foundations of a professional level of cricket and on the other hand, we worried about his well-being. TheMiddleStump got a chance to speak to Asanka for an hour during the week. We talked about his achievements, regrets, and plans for the future. He also had some advice for Nigeria. 

His tenure will be remembered for improvements to the composition of the backroom set-up, a focus on player well-being and fitness, a commitment to picking players based on form, and a willingness to give youngsters who showed promise a chance. 

Here are some of the highlights 

Talk to us about your injury

It’s a shoulder injury. It's not something that will stop me from doing a lot, although there is pain. Going back home to have the (medical) people I work with assess it.

When you are a cricketer and you have played some form of international cricket, it is not out of place to have some form of injury. Even the current professional players have one or two injuries they are managing. These are the things that will always be there with me, most probably for the rest of my life. I always need the support of a good physio I can talk to regularly and get things done. Back home it is easier to access and still keep doing my other work.

It's most probably one of the toughest decisions I have made talking to the president about my leaving.

 

As a world cup winner, former Sri Lanka High-Performance Manager, and well-respected coach and Administrator in Australia, we asked Asanka why and how he chose to take up the Nigeria job

I knew Nigeria played cricket but I didn’t know a lot about the standard of cricket. I really didn’t spend a lot of time looking at associate countries, not just Nigeria, and analyzing them because I only analyzed what we (Sri Lanka) needed at that time as well as Australia.

So, when I saw the job advertisement I thought a little bit about Nigerian cricket and then did some research and I realized that it is a place that I could add more value to and help them to improve the game, not just the national men’s team but with the whole set up. With my experience, hopefully, I can give that input and help them to grow.

There were a lot of similarities between Nigeria and Sri Lanka at the time I started, which was in the early 80s, no Sri Lanka cricketer was professional a cricketer, we all had jobs.

We went to work and then came in to train in the afternoon, we had fitness training early mornings at 6 o’clock. We went to training by bus, and public transport, nobody had cars, except a small percentage of senior players at that time.  I have gone through that, and some current players from test-playing nations, won’t know that. They have started with a lot of money and are professional cricketers.

At the time, we were not even semi-professionals, we only got money when we go on a tour, like a fee or an allowance. I realized that I had a similar kind of experience that Nigeria has and then when I went through the whole process as a player for Sri Lanka and end up winning a world cup, so I thought that I understand how to handle the player situations better than any player or coach who started late doing their job, so that is the reason I put my hand up for the Nigerian role.

 

Traditionally, we have measured progress just by how well we have done on the field and by ICC rankings. These are understandably reductionist so we asked Asanka his thoughts on where we are now in terms of development?

About the rankings, you have to understand that from 2019 to September 2021, there was not much cricket played by Nigeria so the ICC went with the same ranking position they had in 2019. Other countries, who played and won more games went up the rankings, but for Nigeria so there were no games for a while and suddenly there was this huge amount of cricket played from the middle of last year to the end of the year, so that is probably one of the things that happened but I am not here to give excuses. When we played good teams and it was an eye-opener to where the Nigerian national team standard is when you compare to other African nations like Tanzania, Kenya, and Botswana, all were above us.

On the development side, I am very happy to see the way the players have grown. What I saw from the first time in Abuja and with the last trails a few days ago, there is a lot of improvement. What I saw in Abuja earlier, the fielding was so bad and I ended up saying, Oh my God, am I doing the right thing by coming here. The batting, bowling, and fielding were bad, every game, we were bowling 20 wides and more.

Now, even though we have 36 players, the wides are reduced to like five wides a game, Fielding has improved a lot, fitness has improved, we now have proper fitness standards and players game overall, their cricket has changed, but it’s a long road and seeing what the players have done and talking with them, it brings a lot of satisfaction.

 

Asanka clearly understated the influence he has had in unearthing and grooming fresh talent and getting old and waning international careers back on track.

Rilwan AbdulKareem was a little boy who loved to watch cricket. Then he started to join other little boys around TBS to toss the ball to themselves and chase around by the nets and sidelines. He eventually picked up the bat and with focus and determination, he started to shape himself into a cricketer of some sort. He caught the eye of some club scouts and was recruited into Ibeju Lekki. However, Asanka’s bold move to hand him an international call-up is not something you see often. The Guru trusted him and the little boy did not disappoint. Another inspiring story is that of Peter Aho who has written his name in light in the Guinness Book of World Records. Against Sierra Leone in October of 2021, Peter became the first bowler for Nigeria to take a five-wicket haul and a hat-trick in a T20I match. He took apart the batting lineup of the opposition when he took 6 wickets in 3.4 overs (which included a maiden) while conceding only 5 runs. These are the best ever bowling figures in the world T20. Asanka also understands the importance of having experienced players in the team and so he recalled veteran keepers Segun Olayinka and Ademola Onikoyi. Between them, the close to 40 years of experience is more than enough wealth of experience for the young squad to draw from.

His impact can also be seen in the composition of the backroom staff of all the national teams. Leke Oyede was brought in to help with the batting while Seye Olympio worked on the fitness and conditioning of the lads. He then brought in a physiotherapist that made a world of difference in the team. 

 

Every cricketer knows that you have to go in with a plan. We were curious to know what Asanka’s short and long term plans were and how he would rate his performance so far

After the first three months, I gave a strategic plan to the Nigerian board and the goal of that plan was not to improve rankings or win. The long-term goal was a three-year plan to consistently compete in the ICC qualifiers, that was one goal and the second was to be the best fielding side in Africa and the fittest in the continent as well.

These two are the important ones that we wanted to achieve. I realized that If I had achieved that, we will be on our way to our main goal of competing consistently in ICC qualifiers. Did I achieve that? No. Not the full amount, In fielding, I most probably have achieved 60 to 70 percent of that goal, probably another 35 percent to go.

The fitness issue has been there. When the players are with me in a camp or training programme, they do their fitness and are good but they never do their fitness on their own, so that has been a major issue for me. When they go back home and come back for camping, I actually start from scratch again.  

It really doesn’t help and that is the area that I have been communicating with the board since last year, saying there is no consistency and it is a process, it’s a goal. There is no switch like, you participate in qualifiers and then you win, there is nothing like that. My biggest issue is that when players go back to their base, they really didn’t do anything. The coaches in the state, I don’t blame them though, but they really don’t know much about how to get these players to a level, even though we have given them a programme to follow up.

Either way, it comes back to the players, they are responsible and accountable but they never really did it.

Even recently, when they came to Lagos, I realized that almost everyone was not fit and I was worried that when you play six games in five days, you can get injured and that was a major issue for us last year in Rwanda. Out of fourteen members, seven or eight were injured halfway through.

In the game against Tanzania in Rwanda, I had only eight fit players, So I played three players who were not fit, and who were carrying injuries. As a coach, it is not easy and before even the first ball was bowled, two of the senior players were injured and it was not through our training.

One guy landed at midnight and around two o’clock in the afternoon, we went around the hotel to do some stretching due to jetlag and all, but we found out that he couldn’t run and he had knee problems which he hid from us. Also, about five or fours before the first game, at 4:30 in the morning, I got a knock on my door, there was a physiotherapist standing in front and a player with him and he just told me, he can’t play and he is complaining of shoulder pain.

Before the first ball was bowled, I just had 12 players.

This is possible because players don’t follow their programme and unless I have full control every day, which is difficult.

Nigeria is a big country, players are everywhere; in Kaduna, Kwara, Benin, etc, so you can’t be at every place. That’s the sad part, even though we have worked very hard but the other goal is that of coach development. Coach and Player development go hand in hand, especially in associate countries, because if you don’t develop the coaches, you can’t develop the players.

And that is something am very sad about that the NCF never implemented. So, these are the things I wanted to be very upfront about, you can’t expect success at any level, not just the senior national team, the women’s team, and the U-19 team inclusive.

There are things in associate countries, you have to implement. Coach education has not been done, I understand that we are unprecedented times and people are getting used to it but that is important I mentioned to the president recently. The best thing now for NCF (to focus on) is the issue of coach development.

 

We asked about the biggest off-field challenges 

There are always challenges in an associate country because it is not like a test-playing nation where funds are available a lot more. For example, when I was head of High Performance and Chief Cricket Operations Officer of Sri Lanka, my high-performance budget was about three or four times what NCF gets from ICC. It was about two million dollars. So you can understand the difference. There you can plan ahead and implement things. You don’t need to waste time, you get things done and that is most probably a challenge here.

And it is a challenge when you are a high-performance manager you can’t get the players in, when you want and really start your programs because as a coach, you do programs to pick at the right time which is something I always focus on.

You can’t have breaks in between that program and expect still to achieve something so well and that was a major challenge and it will be a challenge to most associate countries, not just Nigeria. It is sometimes frustrating because you have planned everything and at the last minute things get canceled. I think that is one of the biggest challenges I had.

For example, last year in June, we stopped all our training due to various reasons. Then in September, with one-month training, we went to Uganda to play a tournament where Kenya and Uganda were training for three months before they came to play. While as a coach that can sometimes be frustrating, but I do understand because Nigeria and some other countries don’t have the luxury of funds to achieve that.

 

Fondest Memory of Nigeria

I don’t even have to think about it. It is the people of Nigeria. They are very friendly. My wife and I always talk about how the people of Nigeria welcomed us on our first day and until we leave I know, that is going to be there. That is something that will always be there and that is what we will always cherish.

To be honest, I really enjoyed working with the players, worked with the male senior teams, the women’s team, and the under 19 boys. I worked with the women’s team and I saw how enthusiastic these girls were and the under 19 boys as well.  Especially in the last few days, you hear some of the players talking about things they have never told me and that really brought some great memories and the messages I have received on social media were really emotional. This is something I am really going to miss a lot. The players have been really great. I have pushed them out of their comfort zone and they have complained to me but have still worked hard and that is the best memory I will take.

 

What are the prospects for the players?

There are so many talents and there are three players, I hope are leaving soon to South Africa for a 3month training camp. They are Isaac, Sylvester Okpe, and Sesan. One of the things is the programme that is going forward in the next three or four months-- how NCF will follow through and players getting involved, that’s one, another is if we don’t have a solid domestic structure, it is very difficult to produce good cricketers consistently playing and winning games for Nigeria.

After coming here, I did a kind of research about why Tanzania, Botswana, Uganda, and Kenya are better than us. From talking to a lot of people and I realized that one of the biggest things all four countries have done is that they changed their domestic structure and they are very competitive. Like Tanzania has got a very competitive tournament and they get overseas players playing in them. The same thing applies to Uganda and Kenya. All these countries have overseas players. When I say overseas players, they could be from anywhere like Asia, England, or even Africa.

Like in Uganda, there are about six Kenyans playing in their domestic tournament. In Tanzania, there are some really good Indians and Pakistanis playing. They are not eligible to play for Tanzania but they are playing these tournaments and the standard of cricket has gone up because these players play competitive cricket every weekend.

That is an area the NCF really needs to focus on; the domestic structure. My advice is to have a really good national tournament because state tournaments are not going to be that competitive. I know it is not going to be an easy swing. My thinking is that is to have three to four teams selected by the selectors playing tournaments like T20, for males, females, and under 19s.

They are very competitive. What we did the last few days is similar to what I am asking NCF to do. It is the competitiveness, we can’t relax, people who are getting runs in the CCC league don’t last two balls when they are facing a good bowler.

Like the games we just finished (in Lagos), having five to six good bowlers is great, you make one mistake as a batsman and you are gone.

The same thing for bowlers. You bowl the wrong ball and good players hit it out of the ground. That is what Nigeria needs to do consistently and without that, I should also say that the players can go out (abroad) and play. Absolutely, the players are very good to go abroad and play and that is something I will work with the NCF on even after leaving. I will try and get players to different places to play cricket and learn about life when you live on your own in a different country.

 

Difference experience between Lagos and Abuja

It is a very simple one. The majority of players are in and around Lagos and I have access to players pretty much every day if they are here. In Abuja, it had to be organized by NCF to get players down. Sometimes players from Kaduna will come down and that also needs to be organized by NCF. So, I felt I should be investing lots of time in Lagos and not Abuja because most national team players are not based in Abuja.

Coming to Lagos has been more productive for me as a coach because I had players to do things and I can watch games like the CCC league during the weekends and see what the players are up to. I can go to the league to see who is good and who I can work with. I also do sessions on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday afternoons with the players who come down to Lagos. So that was a good consistency for me.

 

What you find fascinating about the Nigerian culture

Everything is fascinating even though I have not tried many varieties of food, other than yam and a few little things. I also wished I have been able to pick up a few words in the local languages but there are different languages spoken in Nigeria. I have seen that at training, different people speak different languages.

The culture here can be a lot similar to that of Sri Lanka. The Nigerians are very close-knit families, that is something I realize. They are very close. Even though they look tough, they are very sensitive people.

Nigerians take things personally. If you criticize them for what they have done on the cricket side of things, they take it personally. It took me a while to understand that part and I know I offended a few people in the first four or five months because I know I am very straight with words. I don’t mince words and when I finish I could share a bottle of drink with you.

One of the players told me, I would address issues immediately if there is a problem, and the next minute, I don’t remember and I go forward. But it took four-five months to understand and I have to start thinking well before I say something.

 

What is your advice to the Cricket Federation with your departure?

I gave a detailed report to the president a few days ago with my recommendations, so I can’t talk much but I think my advice is to respect the players a lot more than we are doing now because those are the biggest assets that Nigerian cricket has.

When you take the players out, even the coaches and the board will not exist. The important thing is to understand and accept that they are the biggest asset, respect and support them, if you do that, it will build confidence and trust in them and that is why they talk to me a lot and that is an aspect, I would like Nigerian cricket to look at. If they do that, players can freely come and talk to you, I would advise NCF to open up on that.

 

What would your advice to the next coach be?

The important thing is to work closely with the NCF, the president, or GM. The coach has to be himself, open up to the players, and trust them—this is one thing I believe. It is the players who make the coach. The coach who is coming needs to keep the ego aside and come and get their hands dirty because that is what associate cricket is. You don’t have so many coaches around you at a very high-level helping you. That’s the advice I have for the new coach.

 

Advice to TheMiddleStump

My advice is to keep doing what you are doing but I think that you can get some players involved in it. Since you are trying to promote Nigerian cricket because they are the brand that you are marketing. Get them and ask them questions, either male or female. You got to build the brand that grassroots players can say I want to be like so and so.

And it's not talking about good things only. If there are things that are not happening, you got to highlight them too. Not in a critical way but so that it helps to improve cricket in the long run.

 

When are You leaving

I leaving soon but I will still work with Nigerian cricket from Australia and try to get their coach development programme up and running as well as their player development programme and player placement as well. Just like we have done with the three players going to South Africa. Whatever we can do to give some players opportunities to go play or train for six to nine months. I will be involved in that definitely


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