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Avishka on Sri Lanka Under-19 prospects



by Reemus Fernando

Sri Lanka Under 19 squad comprising 26 players concluded a three weeks long training camp on Wednesday. It was the first training opportunity for junior cricketers after the Covid 19 pandemic hampered sports for more than a year.

Sri Lanka Under-19 will meet their Bangladesh counterparts this month before encountering England in November. The squad of 26 players will continue to train for the ICC Youth World Cup which will be held early next year.

The Island interviewed the Under 19 head coach Avishka Gunawardene after the training camp conducted in a biosecure bubble concluded. Here are the excerpts.

Unlike many previous Under-19 coaches you had only a month to train the team for a series against Bangladesh and will get only a couple of months to prepare them for the ICC Youth World Cup. How do you see the challenge at hand and how has the training gone so far? 

“I am very happy with the way the team improved during the last couple of weeks and everyone was happy about the way the camp was held. It is a big challenge. Because the players haven’t played any cricket for some time. The Under-19 boys are playing international cricket at least after 18 months. It is challenging because we had only a month to prepare and we have to get the combinations right. We are playing (Bangladesh) to win the series but that is where we will be trying two or three combinations to get them right. For the World Cup, there may be around 100 days to prepare. There is another Under-19 tour planned for November which is England. Asia Cup is in December but it is not confirmed. If that does not happen we will have to get the combinations right during the England tour before the World Cup. That is the only chance we have to get it right.”

When an Under-19 coach is selected he has a general idea of the talent pool that will come under his supervision. But with no schools tournaments conducted due to Covid 19 pandemic, you may not have had an idea about the players before you started to work with them. Can you explain how you cope up with that? 

“I have experience in the system. I have been in the system for a very long time. I first went on a tour as a schoolboy in 1992. Since then I have not left the system and I have not left cricket. During my previous tenure, when I was with SLC, I was with the Under-19 team in 2015 and 2016 and we made it to the semi-finals in the World Cup. It is not new to me. But because of the pandemic, there is a challenge. By the time I took over the Under 19, there was a pool of 26 picked by the national selectors. The selectors had a camp in Kandy for 75 players. They had played matches and I am sure the national selectors would have seen them. During the last month, we had a camp and it was a good opportunity for me to get to know how talented they are. And I think that I have a good idea about the players now and what their capabilities are. The challenge I have now is to get the players to play together and jell together because they have not been playing together.

The selectors had included several players from new Division I team Devapathiraja College Rathgama who generally play on matting wickets and Malsha Tharupathi a player from Division III school- Madampa Central. What are your thoughts on them? 

The most exciting was the 16-year-old spinner(Tharupathi). This is the first time that he actually bowled on a turf wicket. What I saw in the last few weeks is how he improved, how confident he is. I am very excited to see him. He can play in another World Cup. You don’t find 16-year-old right-arm leg spinners very often. I am pretty excited about him and there is Jeewaka Shasheen (from Devapathiraja) who looks very good. He has a lovely technique and a nice temperament. He is another guy who I will keep an eye on for the future.

How did the young boys got accustomed to living in a biosecure bubble for more than three weeks? 

“It was the first time that I too went into a bubble after I took over. It was all about keeping the players occupied, keeping their minds free, letting them enjoy each other’s company. If you don’t do that it is very difficult to survive in a bubble. It is important to keep them together, keep their friendship going, keep them entertained. We had programmes arranged in the evenings like quiz programmes and in-house games and stuff like that. I am very happy how the training camp went and they adjusted pretty well.”

You will get only limited-overs matches during both the Bangladesh and England series. Isn’t it a concern as the players will not be able to compete in the innings format? 

“I firmly believe that younger players should play the longer version of cricket more to improve their skills. But at this point, they haven’t had any cricket to play. Since there had been no cricket in the country and since there is a World Cup in less than 100 days I think it is relevant (that we play limited-overs cricket). Basically, the players will have only ten matches before they go for the World Cup. In terms of preparation for the World Cup, it is important to play white-ball cricket.

Not many fast bowlers who excel at the junior level have not gone on to represent Sri Lanka at the senior level. But in Matheesha Pathirana, you have a speedster who has experience playing franchise cricket before even making it to the senior national level. How do you see his future prospects?

“It is interesting. Although he has played one franchise tournament and played in the last World Cup, he has played very little cricket during the last six to seven months. It is important for him to keep his rhythm. He is unorthodox and is an exciting talent. He can bowl fast. With all that he needs to have match practice. That is the most important thing that we are looking at. He has been improving from the time we started the camp. I hope he will show more improvement as we get closer to the World Cup and he will be a good asset there.

The fast bowling department has been the weak link of many junior teams when Youth World Cups were played in conditions supporting quick bowlers. How confident are you of your fast bowling department?

“I am very happy with the fast bowling unit we have in the Under-19 squad. One of the plus points is that there are two or three fast bowlers who can bat well. They are not only giving fast bowling options but add value to the team by coming down the order and adding runs. I hope we can peak them at the right time and go on to play the next level.

 Since the team is likely to play only in local conditions before the World Cup how are you going to prepare the team for the challenges in West Indies? 

“I have been to the Caribbean a few times. The last time was in 2018. When I was the head coach of the ‘A’ team we went there. From my experience, it is not very different from Sri Lankan conditions. The weather is pretty much similar. And wickets are also quite similar to Sri Lankan conditions. It might actually help spinners from my experience. But they might prepare better wickets since it is a World Cup and an ICC event. I am not, too much worried about West Indies’ conditions.

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Nine year old Mazel Alegado has Olympic dream in sight




Mazel Alegado, aged nine, qualified for the women's park final at the 2023 Asian Games (pic BBC)

At nine years old, skateboarder Mazel Alegado has the world at her feet.

The youngest member of the Philippines team at the Asian Games – and thought to be the youngest competitor at the entire event – finished seventh in the women’s park final in Hangzhou, China.

Now the United States resident has her eyes set on reaching the Olympic Games. 

“I’m really proud that I got here. My dream is to be a pro skater. I would love to go to the Olympics,” she told Japan Today. “I was so excited you know, because I was able to skate Asian Games. It was so fun,” she added.

She was inspired to take up the sport after watching her brother. “We were at my cousin’s house and I saw my brother skateboarding and I was like, ‘Can I try? Can I try?’ I got on the board and just loved it,” she said.

Alegado’s best score in the final came in her first run, when she posted 52.85.

Japanese skateboarder Hinano Kusaki, 15, claimed gold while China bagged silver and bronze with, respectively, 20-year-old Li Yujuan and Mao Jiasi, 15, finishing on the podium.

Skateboarding has attracted some of sport’s youngest athletes. Britain’s Sky Brown turned 13 shortly before claiming bronze at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics while silver medallist Kokona Hiraki was 12.


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Gymnastics Ireland ‘deeply sorry’ to Black girl ignored at medal ceremony




US seven-time Olympic medallist Simone Biles said the video 'broke my heart' (pic Aljazeera)

Ireland’s gymnastics federation has apologised for the allegedly racist treatment of a young Black gymnast who was skipped by an official handing out medals to a row of girls last year.

Footage posted on social media last week of an event in Dublin in 2022 showed the official appearing to snub the girl, the only Black gymnast in the lineup, who looked bewildered.

“We would like to unreservedly apologise to the gymnast and her family for the upset that has been caused by the incident,”  Gymnastics Ireland (GI) said in a statement posted on its website on Monday.

“What happened on the day should not have happened and for that we are deeply sorry,” said the statement.  “We would like to make it absolutely clear that [GI] condemns any form of racism whatsoever,” it added.

The video posted on Friday soon went viral and drew widespread condemnation of the girl’s treatment, including from star United States gymnast Simone Biles, who said she sent the girl a private video message of support.

“It broke my heart to see the video. There is no room for racism in any sport or at all,” Biles, a seven-time Olympic medalist, said Saturday on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

Biles’s US teammate Jordan Chiles described the incident as “beyond hurtful on so many levels”.

In an earlier statement, GI defended the official who it said had made an “honest error” but acknowledged it received a complaint from the parents of the girl alleging racist behaviour in March 2022.

GI said an independent mediation had led to a “resolution agreed by both parties in August 2023”, that the official had written an apology and that the girl had received her medal after the ceremony.

However, the Irish Independent on Sunday anonymously quoted the girl’s mother as saying GI had failed to publicly apologise and that she would take the issue to the Gymnastics Ethics Foundation in Switzerland.


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How home teams are thriving in ICC Men’s Cricket World Cups



MS Dhoni hit the winning six in the final against Sri Lanka.

Pressure or advantage? The conundrum that faces the hosts of each ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup.

If the last three editions are anything to go by, it is an advantage to be playing at home.

But, up until the 2011 edition, only one team had ever won as hosts, and that was Sri Lanka in 1996 when they co-hosted with India and Pakistan.

Even then, they only played two games at home, winning the final in Lahore.

Since 2011, a home team has triumphed every time with India setting the trend which Australia and, most recently, England followed.

Each team had unique challenges to face en route to the trophy, but what worked for the home teams?


India’s legends lead them home

Legends were made, celebrated, and inspired at the ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup 2011.

The final on 2 April was the most memorable day for the great Sachin Tendulkar as he was finally part of a World Cup-winning squad.

He made only 18 runs in the showpiece, but he had stewarded India there with a Player-of-the-Match- performance in the semi-final against Pakistan.

Yuvraj Singh had also done his job, winning Player of the Tournament after piling up 362 runs and 15 wickets, doing so without knowing he was suffering from cancer.

Each player was facing a personal Everest as well as the collective one of attempting to win a World Cup under what felt like insurmountable pressure.

To prepare, they spoke with Mike Horn, an adventurer who became the first person to solo circumnavigate the Equator, who put into perspective the challenge ahead of them.

The first challenge they faced was opening the tournament against Bangladesh, Virender Sehwag began with a boundary and that is how the tournament ended – MS Dhoni hit the winning six in the final against Sri Lanka.

The captain had moved himself above usual No.5 Singh, the change paying off as he then compiled 91 runs from 79 balls to see India to a second title and send the nation into ecstasy.

Doing so, the pressure was released and the curse of the hosts winning on home soil was broken.


Australia surge to fifth trophy

The most successful team in the competition’s history, Australia were never going to be able to fly under the radar, and their performances in 2015 certainly caught the eye.

The World Cup started on a positive note when they beat their old rivals England by 111 runs at the MCG.

But spirits were dampened by a washout against Bangladesh before New Zealand took a low-scoring thriller at Eden Park, winning by just one wicket.

And hell hath no fury like an Aussie team beaten.

Michael Clarke’s men responded by putting on the highest score at a World Cup, crashing 417 against Afghanistan in a 275-run win.

Comfortable defeats of Sri Lanka and Scotland followed before Australia brushed aside Pakistan and India in the knockouts.

The latter became the sixth team to be bowled out by Australia in the tournament as they were reduced to 233 runs, 96 short of their target.

The same fate befell New Zealand in the final in Melbourne as they were all out for 183 which Australia chased down with 101 balls to spare.

The experience of previous wins outweighed the pressure of home expectations, not something England could say four years later.


Four years in the making

England had never won the ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup before and had been burned by a disastrous campaign in 2015.

But from the ashes grew new life, as captain Eoin Morgan led a rebuild with one aim, to win the World Cup on home soil.

There was time for beauty amid the ruthlessness, Ben Stokes’ stunning catch in the opener against South Africa firing up the tournament.

Morgan broke records as he blasted the most sixes in an innings against Afghanistan before Australia were blown away in the semi-finals.

The final at Lord’s was not about beauty or ruthlessness but as England attempted to do what had previously been impossible for them, they simply just needed to be in the contest.

The game ebbed and flowed as any good one-day match should before reaching a crescendo with a Super Over.

It almost had to be like this, the team who had set out to revolutionize the game, winning the World Cup in a way it had never been won before.

Now the tournament returns to the place where the trend started, and with India acting as solo hosts for the first time, all eyes will truly be on them.

But as 2011 showed, that is how they like it.

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