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A battle of flare and resilience

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by Aravinthan Arunthavanathan

It was a glorious summer evening down under in 2014 December. The Australians breathed a sigh of relief, while the Indian counterparts were left gasping for breath. The stand in skipper had committed the unthinkable. Pulling a long hop straight into the hands of deep midwicket, in the fourth innings of a high-profile Test. That shot could have cost the leadership and may be even the place of the player concerned in the past, but in this case it did not. In fact, it turned out to be a moment which defined the brand of cricket India pledged to play under the leadership of Virat Kohli.

As Kohli walked off the ground distraught, he had lost the battle, but India under Kohli were preparing to win the war. Under Kohli they would not settle for anything less than a victory. The prince waiting in the wings to take over from M.S. Dhoni had walked the talk that day.

Since the turn of 2015, India became an embodiment of excellence driven by aggression. It is no surprise they topped the tables at the end of the World Test Championship cycle. They are an invincible force in their backyard which alone would have guaranteed this place at the start of the cycle. Having seen the way they came back from behind to win the Test series down under in 2020/21, which in fact was rated by ICC as the best Test series ever to have taken place, no one would doubt whether they deserve to be in the finals.

India’s opponents on the contrary are a personification of calmness and values of highest order. If there was a niceness index for overall demeanor, the scale will fail to measure the true value of the Kiwis. But despite being warm in nature, when considering the desire to win they are second to none. Kane Williamson has taken Brendon McCullum’s philosophy forward in his own way.

This was visible in the first Test against England in the recently concluded series. A proactive declaration on the final day with the aim of forcing a result demonstrated what New Zealand cricket is all about. The path of New Zealand to the summit is not as comprehensive as their counterpart’s journey. The highlight is undoubtedly the 2-0 win over India. The series however was closer than what the results suggest.

Mastery of home conditions leading to comprehensive wins against visitors during this period formed the foundation in Kiwis reaching the summit. Two deserved teams with an insatiable desire to win promises, a tantalizing duel in Southampton starting Friday provided a dreaded bubble breach or the English weather do not make an unwelcome entry.

On paper, India should be the favorites on the back of an impressive season, dominated by a great win down under. However, a little bit of reflection will reveal the intricate complexities that can influence the result of this contest.

Both teams are not short of arsenal at their disposal. They are faced with the problem of plenty, especially in the bowling department. The conditions in Southampton will probably provide a perfect balance between bat and ball. With the track routinely having pace and bounce to begin with followed by some degree of wear and tear towards the end combined with fluctuating overhead conditions Southampton promises to be an ideal setting for a high-profile balanced encounter. The swinging ball together with seam has been India’s nemesis. Despite conquering the pace and bounce, India have been exposed in the past when the ball has swung.

The debacle in New Zealand at the start of 2020 is a prime example. How much they have progressed since then is yet to be seen. However at least for the balance of odds India’s coveted line-up is not as strong in England as it is elsewhere.

The Kiwis led by Trent Boult and Tim Southee are masters of swing and seam. Backed by Kylie Jamison and Colin De Grandhomme the Kiwi line-up is well equipped to exploit this weakness in the Indian line up. This duel will be a significant factor in the outcome of this contest.

The Kiwis will be faced with the tough choice of choosing a spinner over most probably Neil Wagner or playing an all-out seam attack. Given the history of the venue and the magnitude of the game, the Kiwis may opt to leave out Wagner and select Ajaz Patel adding the spinning dimension to the attack.

The Kiwi batting line-up in contrast is not the most attractive or celebrated. But there is no doubt regarding their effectiveness. It is a line-up which thrives on resilience than flare. Tom Latham at the top has been consistent across conditions and has been a standout opener in recent times. Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor have struggled in English conditions. With Taylor having an overt deficiency against the incoming delivery, and Williamson not having a good record in England, the Indian seamers would be fancying their chances against the Kiwi batting unit.

The presence of three left-handers in the top order is sure make Ravi Ashwin a trump card. India will not even consider the option of leaving Ashwin out. An inexplicable practice employed in the past to play an additional seamer.

India would look to play Jasprit Bumrah and Ishant Sharma as their lead bowlers. The third seamer’s place will be a toss-up between Mohammed Shami and Mohammed Siraj. While Shami’s experience is invaluable, Siraj has forced into contention with a rapid ascent in stature on the tour down under. Either choice would not have a significant impact as both are extremely efficient.

The threat of Ravindra Jadeja and Ashwin would be a massive threat for the Kiwis. The duo is sure to add value by lengthening the Indian batting line-up too. It is too close to call who has the advantage. The Indian greatness in batting can disintegrate in the face of skillful swing bowling by the Kiwis.

Trent Boult versus Kohli and Rohit Sharma will be riveting duels. Both batsmen would be eager to make amends for their failures in the World Cup semi-final against the same opposition at Old Trafford.

How India’s newest sensations Shubman Gill and Rishabh Pant face their baptism of fire beside the rock solid shielding of Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara, promises enthralling entertainment. The resilient Kiwi batting can find the high-quality Indian attack too difficult to handle. Ross Taylor overcoming his technical glitch and leading the Kiwis to a world title, first in more than two decades would be a fairy tale ending to one of New Zealand’s modern greats.

Kane Williamson would be more than eager to set his record straight in England and there can not be a better platform than a World Test Championship final. It could go either way. There is absolutely nothing to distinctly differentiate both the teams. Only time would reveal who emerges victorious. India since their 2011 triumph, have experienced a trophy drought despite showing remarkable dominance across formats. The desire for an ICC trophy is on the verge turning into despair.

Kiwis deserve to win at least for the criminal injustice they encountered in the 2019 World Cup final. However, the cricketing world would know the impact of an Indian win in a newly introduced tournament. One need not look beyond the 2007 World T20 see the commercial upside, such a prospect holds. Irrespective of who holds the title at the end of the game, the common fan could be assured that it has all the ingredients to be a battle for the ages.

(The writer’s blog can be found at “Cricketing perspectives” on facebook)



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Meet Harijan, the 400 metres hurdler at Sydney Olympics  

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Waiting for the next Olympic hurdler – Part VIII 

by Reemus Fernando  

The last Sri Lankan man to run 400 metres hurdles at an Olympics is Harijan Ratnayake. That was 21 years ago. He will be in Tokyo next month. Ratnayake who holds the national record of the discipline will not be running hurdles there. Instead he is accompanying his charge Kumudu Priyanga for the Paralympics. Asian Para Games medallist Priyanga is not a hurdler. She will compete in the 100 metres and the long jump in the T47 category.  

“I do not have hurdlers training under me,” says Harijan who alongside Asian medallist Asoka Jayasundara are the only men to know how it feels like to have run the event under 50 seconds.  

Rajitha Niranjan Rajakaruna who won the bronze medal in the 400 metres flat event at the last National Championship is trained by Harijan. He clocked 47.21 seconds at the nationals. According to Harijan athletes willing to take up the 400 metres hurdles and ready to work hard are in short supply. “When Rajakaruna came to me he was running 400 metres in 57 seconds or somewhere around that. To become a 400 metres hurdler you have to be a good 400 metres sprinter as well. When the base is prepared he could be trained for 400 metres hurdles.” 

“I see many future prospects. But I can train only if they come to me,” says Harijan who earmarks Asian Junior Championship (2018) medallist Pasindu Kodikara as one.  

Harijan too was not a hurdler initially. He reached the pinnacle of his athletics career, established records and went on to represent Sri Lanka at Sydney Olympics when he trained under S.M.G. Banda, who was among the best in the business then. Harijan was introduced to Banda by incumbent president of Sri Lanka Athletics Palitha Fernando, who had been in the athletics administration since 1979. Things have change dramatically within the last two decades as athletes have continued to remain with their school coaches even after reaching senior level.   

After Duncan White won silver in the 400 metres hurdles in 1948 Olympics it took Sri Lanka more than five decades to qualify an athlete for the 400 metres hurdles. A clue to the question why had it taken so many years to unearth someone like Ratnayake might lie in a stack of books in an iron cupboard in the department of sports at the Ministry of Education. The event results of all athletics disciplines of the All Island Schools Games are carefully stored according to their year in a steel cupboard at Isurupaya. Our search for the 400 metres hurdles results of all Schools Games found that the event had been only introduced in early 90s. According to Sri Lanka Athletics statistician the Public Schools meet which was the forerunner to the All Island Schools Games had only the 300 metres hurdles.  

Had Ratnayake competed in 400 metres hurdles in his last year, the All Island Schools Games results of mid 90s should have had his performances. The name Ratnayake is not there in the final of any meet in that period. However in one particular meet heats performances shows an athlete from Dharmadutha Vidyalaya, Badulla being placed third in a heat. “When the championship was held in Anuradhapura I went to see the ruins after the heats. I did not even see the final.”   

However it took only five years for him to be Sri Lanka’s number one hurdler and win medals at Asian level and represent Sri Lanka at Olympics. The right athlete training under the right coach can bring the best out of both.

 

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Time to kick out optional training

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The Australians are pioneers in coaching. Having added science into coaching, they took the game to a new level in mid 1990s. Others followed suit. But it’s time to also kick out some of the old Aussie habits. Such as ‘optional training’.  

When Ricky Ponting’s side arrived in Colombo for a lengthy tour in 2004, their coach John Buchanan made training before a game optional. Matthew Hayden went fishing, Shane Warne rushed to the casino while Andrew Symonds was at the bar.

Buchanan was handling a bunch of professionals. Hayden’s training schedule is mind-boggling. The team hotel the Aussies were staying had  a modern gym. They open at 5 am but on Sundays, they open only at 6 am. When Hayden walked in at 5 am on a Sunday, he found the gym not operating. But by next Sunday it was fixed and since then it’s been opening at 5 am thanks to early bird Hayden.

If you ask a current Sri Lankan cricketer, he would not know what time the gym opens at Cinnamon Grand but he would be invariably aware what time Cheers pub closes.

As we reported yesterday, several young players who have just made it to the side skipped practices when it was made optional a few days ago.

Professional cricketers they maybe but their conduct is far from being professional. The Sri  Lankans have one of the youngest sides in the world and they also have world’s worst fielding team. Many are the areas where improvements can be made and it is earnestly hoped that this concept of optional training is thrown out of the window.

They have been taught a few harsh lessons such as being made to forego central contracts. While administrators can be a bit lenient on that and offer them central contracts, there should be no tolerance on concepts like optional training. Until they secure qualification for the World Cup at least ban optional training.

If you thought that the attitude of senior players and their lethargic attitude to training had left us in a mess, the youngsters who are yet to establish their places in the side are sending the wrong signals. This must be stopped. Soon.

They aren’t any professionals in our cricket. They are all cry babies who take to social media tilting at windmills.

They are expected to do two changes for today’s game leaving out Lakshan Sandakan and Kasun Rajitha. Ramesh Mendis and Lahiru Kumara are likely to replace them.

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Youth hurdlers reviving White’s legacy at Asian level  

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Waiting for the next Olympic hurdler – Part VII 

by Reemus Fernando  

Sri Lanka has excelled in sprint events at South Asian and Asian athletics events and the general belief is that the country’s strength is in sprints. But of all Olympic track and field disciplines sprint events were the least competed at Olympics by Sri Lankan athletes during the last four editions.  The 400 metres hurdles, the event in which Duncan White won the country its first Olympic medal in 1948, is the least discussed discipline with regard to medal prospects at the international level now. But quite conspicuously according to our analysis, the 400 metres hurdles has been the most medal producing track and field event for Sri Lanka at youth level in Asia.  

The last two pieces of this series discussed what became of two 400 metres hurdlers who excelled at the first Asian Youth Athletics Championship in 2015. Though the 2015 edition was the first Asian track event for youth athletes (Under-18), the Asian Youth Games, which was introduced as the Asian version of the Youth Olympics in 2009, also presented a valuable opportunity for youth in Asia to gain international exposure. 

In 2013 Sri Lanka won four medals in the Games held in Nanjing, China. Of them, two were from hurdles events. While Nirmali Madushika and Dilhani Fernando won the 400 metres and 800 metres bronze medals in the female category at the 2013 event, Akila Ravisanka and Anuradha Vidusanka won boys’ 110 metres and 400 metres hurdles events respectively. Sri Lanka certainly had an opportunity to build on this success had the next Games were held in Sri Lanka as scheduled. Hambantota had been awarded the 2017 edition of the Games but it did not see the light of day as it was later awarded to Jakarta before it was cancelled.  

At the 2015 Asian Youth Athletics Championships in Doha, when Yamani Dulanjali won gold in the girls’ 400 metres hurdles, the corresponding boys’ event final featured two Sri Lankan hurdlers. Both were in contention for medals but Uditha Chandrasena had to settle for fourth place. St. Sylvester’s College, Kandy hurdler Harshana Rajapaksha clinched silver with a time of 52.88 seconds.  

Two years later Navodya Sankalpa from Mahinda College, Galle won the bronze at the Asian Youth Championship with a time of 53.86 seconds.  

Meanwhile, at Asian Junior events, Kaushalya Madushani won a silver in the 400 metres hurdles with a 62.31 seconds feat in 2014. Both Navodya and Madushani were still engaged in athletics when the pandemic struck Sri Lanka in 2020. Madushani is among a very few female athletes to have continued in athletics after leaving school. She has two medals from the last two South Asian Games as well. 

The achievements of country’s youth athletes at Asian level can be largely attributed to the competition at the school level. Despite all hindrances including lack of hurdles and encouragement for the event, there are a number of schools that take up this discipline seriously. Thanks to their efforts there is quite a competition in hurdles events at the youth level. Hence medal success at the Asian Youth level. In general, all track and field events see a drop of standards when athletes reach junior (Under-20) level. There is a drastic drop in the number of participants in hurdles events in the Under-20 category. That further dwindles at the senior level. Results at an international level are quite predictable.  

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