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Avishka on Sri Lanka Under-19 prospects

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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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West Indies campaign in disarray after back to back defeats

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Aiden Markram top scored for South Africa with an unbeaten 51 as the Proteas beat West Indies by eight wickets in Dubai yesterday.(Pic by Sameera Pieris). 

Rex Clementine in Dubai

Lack of genuine pace in their bowling department hurt defending champions West Indies as they suffered a heavy eight wicket defeat at the hands of South Africa in the ICC T-20 World Cup in Dubai yesterday.

The Windies may have lot of experience at their disposal possessing plenty of globetrotters who play franchise cricket but their bowling lacked penetration and a target of 144 proved to be too little to defend as South Africa won with ten deliveries to spare.

Both teams had lost their opening encounters earlier in the competition and badly needed a win and South Africa will be pleased with their effort. As for West Indies, two time World Champions, a semi-final spot seems to be slipping away from them. But you cannot completely write off the Caribbean kings, who have a remarkable record in the shortest format of the game. For that to happen, their batting needs to fire.

Batting was a flop yesterday as they managed only 143 runs and looked to be some 20 runs short.

Opening batsman Evin Lewis laid the foundation for West Indies top scoring with 56 off 35 balls with three fours and six sixes. West Indies had got off to a good start with Lewis and Lendl Simmons adding 73 runs for the first wicket.

Despite possessing some of the finest big hitters in the game, West Indies innings did not get the impetus it needed during the death overs and 143 did not look a safe score.

Anrich Nortje showed why pace matters finishing with figures of one for 14 in his four overs and was named Man of the Match.

During the run chase, South Africa captain Temba Bavuma tested Andre Russell’s arm hurrying for a quick single having pushed one to mid-on and was run out.

Reeza Hendricks and Rassie van der Dussen then added 60 runs for the second wicket to set the platform for the run chase. After Hendricks was well caught by Shimron Hetmyer in the deep, Aiden Markram joined van der Dussen and sealed the deal for South Africa.

South Africa’s number three van der Dussen looked to be playing through the innings while Markram was the aggressor finishing with 51 off 26 deliveries with two fours and four sixes while van der Dussen needed 51 deliveries for his 43.

Markram brought up his half-century by pulling Andre Russell for six and in the next ball brought up South Africa’s victory with a single to mid-wicket.

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Shan: Legend to most; simple brother to me  

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Ironically my first association with Shan was not as a teammate but as an opponent in 1983.

Called in by Kandy Sports Club at the end of the school season to take on newly crowned A Division Champions CH in the knockout tournament at Nittawela, whereas a naive schoolboy I was told my task was partly to “take care” of Shan Perera head on, in order to not provide him any space, not realizing there weren’t many takers at Kandy who wanted that job. I can’t remember how many times I “took him on” that wet muddy evening but Kandy ended CH’s campaign that evening for the double.

Not too long after that, I found myself playing in between Simon Hunter and Shan Perera at CH; a baptism into the big league that young rookie players could only dream of. The opportunity although not fully appreciated at the time because it was “normalized” and not seen as me playing with legends, without doubt, accelerated my progress as a player and shaped me into the player I went on to be.

Shan from thereon was an integral part of my life as a fellow teammate, mentor, and big brother; a friendship that went into its fourth decade at the time of his passing.

The last few years of his life were hard on Shan, and to us his band of brothers it was difficult to watch this colossus of a man reduced to the condition his illness had taken him; but Shan fought it without complaint, with his usual inimitable nonchalant style which reflects on the man he was.

But his final years are not what I will remember of Shan. It will only ever be over a decade of watching his prowess on the field at Maitland Crescent, the years playing for our country, and the simple human being he was, irrespective of his superstar status. I saw all of this from the best seat in the house literally right next to him on the field.

It might not be known that Shan originally never picked CH as the default team to play for on his return from the UK in the very late 70s. When looking for a club to play for he was directed to Havelocks, and by a simple twist of fate the cab driver on being asked to take him to the park club mistakenly dropped him off at the steps of the crescent club. And as they say, the rest is history.

Shan went on to become a legend of the game but his talent was not limited to his abilities with the oval-shaped ball. Shan opened the bowling in first-class cricket for a few seasons as well in Sri Lanka and without a day’s proper athletic training turned up for the nationals and came second in the 100 meters losing only to the national sprint record holder at the time. Shan was never ambitious for himself be it anything he did in his life. If he was I am certain he could well have been a triple international for Sri Lanka with the uncanny talent he possessed.

Shan was also not conventional. his legendary “nikan inna bari exercises”; NIBX which he aptly went on to call them were an integral part of the psyche of the CH team during the golden years at the club. How can one forget that in the huddle before the team ran out to battle he would call for a thumb bending exercise drill or call a highly charged testosterone tongue exercise drill which brought out the best “imaginary fantasies” of the youthful boys in the team. To most, they were fun and games but Shan had the ability to relax and bring together the boys and focus us as ONE with these unconventional Shan centric mind games. I never failed a wry smile many moons later when I saw him working as a professional trainer when I passed the club and saw him take many through their paces in the scorching hot sun.

Shan was also a gentle giant. I don’t think I have ever seen Shan lose his temper or get excessively agitated on the field let alone off it. If a teammate irritated him or took the mickey out of him his most irate response would be “umbe amma kalu da“. An irony not lost by the fact, that to the boys at CH he was our “kalu sudda“. Not many understood him in the team and that I would more often than not have to interpret what he said to some of the boys especially to the front five ones. How many times would I have heard him say “A BEE” which he called me all through our association “tell those idiot props” what I said.

A gentle giant story I learned the hard way was when we took on Havelocks in a President’s trophy game. After an altercation I had with Salu Salu he chased me around the park to knock my head in. Shan being the strongest and best physical specimen in the team I ran next to him with the assurance he would protect me; but Shan in his laid back way whistled and said “A BEE just keep running” ……it did not end well for me .

There are many stories about Shan. They are countless and go far beyond the legend he was to all who loved and supported him for the player he was. To us, at the Club he was a big brother and to me, he was literally that, notwithstanding that to many who did not know better thought we were brothers, as they saw an uncanny resemblance in our appearance.

Shan will live forever among his band of brothers at CH. He is one of the greatest who ever walked the hallowed rugby fields of Sri Lanka but to us he is far more than that. He is one of the nicest and most simple guys you would ever meet and know. He was a good friend. He was a brother.

To plagiarize Pepper Potts words to Tony Stark in Marvels End Game.

“Shan; you can rest now”.

  Rohan Abeykoon 

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With legal battle over, hockey’s glory days are set to return

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A Senior Superintendent of Police, Kamal Pushpakumara has a few tricks up his sleeve in order to make Sri Lanka a force to be reckoned with in the region in hockey.

With senior police officer Kamal Pushpakumara overcoming a legal battle that challenged his eligibility to head Sri Lanka Hockey Federation, the glory days of Hockey are set to return as he is free to contest the upcoming AGM for the post of President.

Pushpakumara, a multi-talented sportsman, has got plenty in his plate as a senior police officer, but that doesn’t prevent him from dedicating time for the sport he loves as he is confident of turning things around for a sport that has lost its glamour over the years.

Some may say that it is wishful thinking to make Sri Lanka the best hockey playing nation in the Asian region above India, Pakistan, South Korea and Malaysia but that is going to be the vision of Pushpakumara.

A Senior Superintendent of Police, Pushpakumara has a few tricks up his sleeve in order to make Sri Lanka a force to be reckoned with in the region in hockey.

Pushpakumara represented Police in both cricket and hockey and made several tours overseas. Sri Lanka won the Police Cricket World Cup in Worcestershire in England under his captaincy.

One of his main plans to improve the game of hockey is to increase the number of kids playing the game by reaching out to new schools to join the game and sustaining them in the sport without giving up halfway through.

Improving the infrastructure at grassroots levels, making the role of umpires and technical support professional are other areas that have been looked at in a bid to create interest and make improvements in the game. Virtually, this can be termed as the short-term goal.

There will be an Elite Pool established comprising 100 children from the age group of 16 to 19 to undergo a long-term training program targeting future international events.

The main fan base of Hockey is at Matale, Kandy, Colombo, Wennapuwa, Kalutara, Jaffna, Matara, Gampaha, Badulla and Galle. One of the main areas that have been looked at is to promote the game in the areas where the game is existing and to take the game to districts which do not play hockey.

Developing the game all around the island will not only help identify players with exceptional skill levels but it also increases awareness on healthy life styles. The player development will be focused on two areas – schools and districts.

The development efforts will be done by qualified coaches with the help from International Hockey Federation and Asian Hockey Federation.

He also intends to establish an IPL like domestic franchise-based tournament with the participation of foreign players and he believes that this will create lot of interest on the game. The help of Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa in this regard is highly valued.

Sri Lanka were ranked number four in Asia in the 1960s but currently the team has suffered huge setbacks to be ranked 11th. More recently, the sport has run into problems and a fresh face is needed to address the burning issues of the game. SSP Pushpakumara with a visionary attitude and a desire to work hard is the ideal person to do the job.

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