The Disunited State of Sri Lanka: are leading players really seeking new avenues in America?

When he composed his song Exodus, Bob Marley is more likely to have been linking Moses’ leading of the Israelites out of Egypt to the Rastafarian yearning for freedom rather than the fleeing of Sri Lankan cricketers to the United States, but it was the word that stood out in one of the strangest stories to emerge from the cricketing world in recent days.

A report in a Sri Lankan newspaper alleged that a significant number of players had become so disenchanted with conditions in their own country that they were about to depart, en masse, for the States where they would try to qualify for the US national team.

The report, in The Morning, could have been driven by an earlier one that suggested that elite players were to have their salaries cut by up to 40 per cent following their disastrous display in the two-Test series against England – possibly not how they envisaged performance-related pay working when it was mooted recently by the sports minister, Namal Rajapaska.

Add in to the mix the retirement of Shehan Jayasuriya, a 29-year-old left-handed batsmen who had played 12 ODIs and 18 T20Is, to move his family to the US and you have a conspiracy that might have a little more behind it than any QAnon fabrication.

“A lot of players will soon go to America,” The Morning quoted an unnamed source as saying. “It will happen in two categories – emerging players and then national. Around 15 more will follow them by March.”

The unnamed source, one of those emerging players it later transpired, added: “After the cricket board’s recent proposal to reduce money and not to extend our annual contracts, many players are planning to go. They are paid a minimum of $50,000 in the US and the US is presently hiring players from various Test countries to form a good national side.

“There will be a major player exodus happening; there is no strong future that is assured for us here in Sri Lanka.”

Upul Tharanga, Malinda Pushpakumara and Dushmantha Chameera were among those named as already having their baggage packed if not their feet on the Colombo airport tarmac. Tharanga, a left-handed opener, is the most experienced of the three having played 31 Tests – the last in 2017- and 265 ODIs but, at 36, his best days are probably behind him.

Pushpakumara, a left-arm spinner whose international career was held back by the consistency of Rangana Herath, has not played since England’s tour in 2018 and now finds himself behind Lasith Embuldeniya – not so much the next cab off the rank as loitering at the back of the queue.

Paceman Chameera, recognised as the quickest bowler in the country when he was 23, has failed to turn potential into achievement, playing only nine Tests since his debut and averaging a little over 41 in both Tests and ODIs. At 29 now, his halcyon days, too, may have gone.

All men, then, who might have reason to seek alternative opportunities and more secure employment. However, the three went quickly on the defensive in the wake of the report, issuing a statement lambasting it as “completely false”.

But if they were trying to strangle the story at birth, Pushpakumura’s teasing coda that he had received an offer to represent the US last year but turned it down will ensure that not every reporter will be happy leaving it in repose in the chapel of rest.

If the story does have a ring of truth about it – if not perhaps in the numbers implied – it’s probably because the United States Cricket Association (USCA) appears to have been casting its net wide as it looks to speed up its integration into the world game. In December, its chief executive insinuated in an interview with Cricinfo that it was keen to accelerate the process of qualifying for World Cups and World T20s on its way to the ultimate goal of becoming an ICC full member by 2030.

In an ideal world, said Iain Higgins, the squad would be made up of “people who had been born in the US, learnt their cricket in the US, had got into the junior pathways, represented the US at age group cricket, graduated…” However, he admitted that “sometimes, those will be people who have come through the US and sometimes those will be people that come into the team because they have a passport or have qualified on residency grounds”.

Already there have been reports that Liam Plunkett, the former England bowler whose wife is American, could be approached while plans for Major League Cricket are advancing with the capture of the likes of former New Zealand all-rounder Corey Anderson on a three-year contract.

Only last week the West Indies Players’ Association was forced to deny on his behalf that Chandrapaul Hemraj, the Guyana opener, had been targeted, while five other players were listed on the USCA’s social media site as being included in training camps, camps that were abandoned when the US was forced to pull out of a series of games in Oman in World Cricket League 2.

Officially, the ICC has a requirement that any player wishing to switch allegiance must wait four years if they have previously played for another country at Test, ODI, T20 or even Under-19 level. But exemptions are made, especially it seems if that player is moving from a full member nation to an associate or vice versa.

Of course The Morning’s story may have been a deliberate plant – not just an opening salvo in a dispute over money, it enabled the unnamed source to also get off his chest the perennial cricketer’s whine about selectorial favouritism – but if there is more to it than that it might be worth keeping an eye on the airport arrivals when West Indies take on Sri Lanka in a multi-format series next month.

Beyond that – having lost Chaminda Vaas who has had an immediate about-turn after being appointed bowling coach – Tom Moody will want guarantees that the cupboard is not entirely bare if he agrees to take up the position of Sri Lanka’s director of cricket.

A case of No Players, No Cry perhaps.