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Indian cricket has become a formidable force  

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by Rex Clementine

In cricket we have had some teams that set the benchmark in the sport. First it was ‘The Invincibles’ of Don Bradman, who went through a tour of England where they played 32 matches and were never defeated.

Then there was Clive Lloyd’s champion outfit in 1980s. His fast bowlers instilled fear among opposition batsmen while his carefree batsmen threw caution to the wind. After several series of total domination of England, the lexicon had a new word thanks to West Indies; ‘blackwash’.

Steve Waugh’s Aussies at the start of the new millennium took the sport to a new level encouraging ambidextrous players and targeting 400 runs on day one of a Test match. They ended up winning 16 Test matches in a row, a record that will be hard to match.

Are we seeing the sport’s next best team in India? Well, they have not won the series in England as yet but they played out of their skins at Lord’s earlier this week and you tend to get the feeling that you are seeing something special. India under Virat Kohli have been truly remarkable.

Early this year, they did something even special; winning a series in Australia; that too after being bowled out for 36 runs in Adelaide. It was a remarkable achievement to lift the spirits from such lows. Mind you they sealed the series of all places at the Gabba in the final Test.  Brisbane is a venue where Australia had been unbeaten for 30 years.  It was the first time an Asian team won at the Gabba after 16 attempts.

So, what have the Indians been doing right in recent times? Quite a few actually. They are fortunate to have a good leader of men in Kohli. This throw down coach that India lifted from Sri Lankas Nuwan Seneviratne better known as Bawwa to most, was Kohli’s idea.

India were to play Australia in 2018 and Kohli knew Mitchell Starc was going to create problems. So he insisted on having Bawwa on board. Bawwa is left-handed and can give you a torrid time at the nets while doing throw downs. So, torrid that apparently apart from Kusal Mendis and Niroshan Dickwella no Sri Lankan padded up to him.

Kohli is a different beast. After a couple of deliveries struck on his ribcage, Bawwa lowered the intensity only to be called up by the Indian captain who gave him an earful and wanted him to go high intensity. Small things matter. Then of course there is Kohli’s insane gym work and stuff to be the best player he can be. It is he who is calling the shots when it comes to fitness standards in India and although there is a hue and cry made in our part of the world about the two kilometer run, the Indian standard is supposed to be more intense than ours.

The options are simple. Fall in line or get lost. Over here, players who fail fitness tests go to the social media and blast the coaches. Then they find themselves recalled to the team! This Pramodaya Wickramasinghe is truly setting new standards. With friends like him, Kumar Sangakkara doesn’t need any enemies.

Going back to India, apart from Kohli, there is of course Ravi Shastri. The former Indian captain has little coaching experience. Since retiring, he has been a broadcaster for nearly three decades. The Indian board realized that coaching at this level was more managing players than helping with any technical brilliance. So they took Shastri out of the commentary box and put him in charge of the team. Shastri-Kohli combination is a match made by the cricketing gods in a bid to bring Aussies and Poms to their knees.

The IPL obviously has been a godsend to Indian cricket. Time was when India played just one seamer and included a seamer all-rounder to share the new ball and depended on spin to cover up their bowling. But what IPL has done is that young Indian quicks get a chance to spend time with world’s leading fast bowlers and coaches picking their brains. As a result, India is able to put up a formidable four-pronged pace attack. The consequence of that is someone like Ravichandran Ashwin, who has 400 Test wickets at an average of 24, is unable to get into the team.

So, there is Shastri factor, Kohli factor and the IPL factor that has contributed to India’s success. There is one more factor that has put cricket in India back on track; the intervention of Indian Supreme Court.

In the year 2015, the Indian Supreme Court appointed a retired judge to give recommendations as to how cricket in India could be improved. The court appointed someone with stature – Rajendra Lodha, the 41st Chief Justice of India. He presented to court in what is known as Lodha Committee report several recommendations.

Some of the prominent recommendations of the Lodha committee report are term limits for office bearers, limiting the number of votes at the BCCI AGM and an independent governing body for IPL. These recommendations were implemented resulting in the CEO having greater control over the matters and hence more responsibility. That has certainly been a welcome move. Indian cricket is nowadays run like a business.

In Sri Lanka too, several past administrators and former players got together and moved the Court to bring constitutional changes to our cricket. The learned judges’ observations remain to be seen.



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Royal-Thomian continues uninterrupted

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142nd Battle of the Blues

by Reemus Fernando 

The fact that the historic Battle of the Blues had been played uninterruptedly even during the two World Wars and local insurgencies is something that ‘Royal-Thomian’ enthusiasts cherish so dearly. That uninterrupted status of the annual encounter will be intact when S. Thomas’ under the captaincy of Shalin de Mel and Royal skippered by the former Sri Lanka Under-19 player Ahan Wickramasinghe enter the SSC ground for the 142nd edition of the Big Match today.

After the inaugural match was played in 1880, it is the first time the match is played in October as the organizers had to postpone the event twice (May and September) this year due to the Covid 19 pandemic. Except the Royal-Thomian only one other Big Match had been played this year.

With no match exposure during recent months, and some players barely having played matches of innings format, analysts believe that only a special batting effort could make the encounter last for three days if the weather permits. Except the three Sri Lanka Under-19 players who were involved in the just concluded series against Bangladesh, other players have not taken part in matches during recent months due to lockdowns and pandemic related restrictions.

Even the Sri Lanka Under-19 players, namely Ryan Fernando and Yasiru Rodrigo from S. Thomas’ and Sadisha Rajapaksha from Royal competed only in two to three Limited Overs matches during the series concluded on Monday. However, nearly a month-long training camp where they also played practice games is going to stand in good stead for the trio. Both teams played a few traditional matches early this year but those statistics will not make it easy assessing the true strengths of the two teams.

The Thomians are fielding one of the youngest teams in recent history. There are as many as seven freshers lining up with the four colursmen against a team that have as many as six players from the last Big Match and three others who played First XI cricket last season. According to S. Thomas’ coach Dinesh Kumarasinghe, “the present Thomian outfit is the youngest team since 1999.” Some of them have played only in an Under-15 tournament. That too in the year 2019.

The Thomians will heavily rely on skipper De Mel, Sri Lanka Under 19 duo Fernando and Rodrigo, and Caniston Gunarathnam who all played in the last Big Match. Apart from them batting opener Anuk Palihawadana was the only batsman who was among runs during the few traditional matches they played early this year.

Left armer Rodrigo will spearhead the bowling attack with Caniston Gunarathnam with Nethan Caldera providing additional pace options. Offies Palihawadena and Thenuka Liyanage and leg spinner Rajindu Tilakaratne will brace the spin department.

On paper, Royal are the formidable team with the entire batting line up having played First XI cricket for more than two seasons. Skipper Wickramasinghe maintained an average over 85 runs during their traditional matches early this year. Kavindu Pathiratne, Isiwara Dissanayake, Sadisha Rajapaksha and Dasis Manchanayake who excelled at the last Big Match are reliable batsmen.

Kavindu Pathiratne will lead the bowling attack with fellow pacemen Dan Poddiwela and Sonal Amarasekara, while left arm spinner Balasuriya will be joined by Prashan Silva to make strong the spin department.

The match will be played behind closed doors. Organisers said in a statement yesterday that only the sponsor’s media arm will be permitted to cover the match. (Pix by Kamal Wanniarachchi)

Teams

Royal:

Ahan Wickramsinghe (Captain), Kavindu Pathiratne (V. Capt.), Prashan Silva, Isiwara Dissanayake, Gishan Balasuriya, Sadisha Rajapaksha, Dasis Manchanayake, Sonal Amarasekara, Sehan Herath, Sineth Jayawardena, Dan Poddiwela.  

S. Thomas’:

Shalin De Mel (Captain), Ryan Fernando (V. Capt.), Yasiru Rodrigo, Caniston Gunarathnam, Anuk Palihawadena, Romesh Mendis, Nathan Caldera, Thenuka Liyanage, Mahith Perera, Rajindu Tilakaratne, Senesh Hettiarachchi.  

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Can Gollings reverse Sri Lanka’s rugby fortunes?

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by a special sports correspondent

Sri Lanka’s rugby players and fans received inspiring news days ago with the sport’s governing body Sri Lanka Rugby (SLR) appointing England rugby union star Ben Gollings as Rugby Director to oversee preparations of the national men’s and women’s squads for the upcoming Asian Sevens Series.

Gollings perhaps knows too well that this cricket crazy nation also has a similar passion for rugby union; especially the abbreviated form of the sport.

Gollings is no stranger to the Sri Lanka rugby scene having had a coaching stint back in the island in 2012. The island’s rugby squads are often loaded with ‘steppers’ (fast runners) when the best players from all the clubs are drafted into the national pool. But this time around the players from Kandy SC and CR&FC will not be considered for selection because these two clubs decided to refrain from contesting the upcoming domestic sevens tournament; participation at the event serving as the criterion for players to be drafted into the national pool.

Strangely Sri Lanka doesn’t know where its priorities are and has been focusing on the 15-a-side version of the sport despite the little success in that form in the international rugby scene.

The rugby clubs that own the players are more focused on the marathon league tournament which absorbs much of the resources and the valuable time the players give to the sport. Speculation is rife that both Kandy SC and CR & FC didn’t see it wise to expose its players to international rugby unprepared and invite injuries to players. Sri Lanka needs an accomplished coach out there in the middle who can lift the islanders’ game to the next level and slowly take the players out of the Covid mentality they are trapped in. Even Gollings had mentioned at a press conference held on Monday that “as sports personalities you won’t forget how to play the game. My responsibility is to boost their confidence and give them the platform to express themselves and accelerate.”

SLR has released its calendar and plans to have two domestic sevens tournaments; the first in January (15-16) and the second in June (17-18).

SLR must stick to plans and drive forward because a sport like rugby union will always attract sponsors. Rugby in Sri Lanka was a little late to start compared to other disciplines. And a star in the calibre of Gollings landing in Sri Lanka goes on to suggest that there is potential for the sport to grow over here. That growth- in the long-run-is possible with a programme under the rugby controlling body; which has the supreme authority to select a side that can represent Sri Lanka in the international scene.

There were rugby officials in the past who tried to shift the focus from club rugby to national rugby, but often they ran into heavy opposition. Clubs in Sri Lanka only cooperate with SLR if events in the calendar are spaced out and players have enough time to recover.

Many years ago, this writer read an article in a foreign magazine which gave a strong message on sport and its people. It was stated there that if one studies a national team in attendance and finds the players disorganised and neglected then most likely the same situation exists with the country’s government and how the latter treats its people.

Right now, the focus is on rugby sevens and on the upcoming ‘Warriors Sevens’ tournament which will serve as the trial to select the men’s national team for the Asian Sevens Series. And given the way rugby was struggling to get its activities off the ground, one noticed the sport’s controlling body being detached from the sports minster or the Minister of Sports distancing himself from rugby officials despite the sports minister himself being a former national rugby player.

In this fiercely personalised era where everyone takes care of himself or herself whether in sport or other form of employment SLR must seriously think of player remuneration during training for national assignments. In the past the state didn’t have that professional thinking nor the clout to turn the players into national assets. Even now the players remain properties of private clubs; just like some of the best players in the world out there. But the difference is that players in other countries have that deeper understanding about representing the country and the notion of taking responsibility is embedded into their psyche from a young age. This is not the case in Sri Lanka. Just rewind the clock and see how many Sri Lankan sportsmen and officials decamped on their return from overseas after a tournament concluded. Luckily, we haven’t seen that in the annals of Sri Lanka rugby as yet.

Coming back to the players, Minister Namal Rajapaksa has the clout and the connections to get the players to think of a national assignment if that be the need of the hour. SLR President Rizly Illyas is a person who has grown old in the sport and is perhaps the ideal person to be in charge of rugby over here because a personality of that vintage is absolutely necessary when ambitious youngsters demand too much too soon and need to be put in their places. It’s a commonly asked question whether the sports minister and the SLR ‘big boss’ are at loggerheads and find it hard to map out a way ‘to agree to disagree’ and move on with the sport.

Rugby produces some of the fiercest battles out there on the pitch and the sport teaches you how to cherish the moments in the game and nurture friendships when you socialize after a match. This lesson must never be forgotten!

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Asalanka wants to win more games for Sri Lanka

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Rex Clementine in Dubai

Sri Lanka are enjoying a brilliant wave of success having won five games in a row now in the ICC T-20 World Cup. While their bowling has looked formidable, batting has been brittle and it needed a stunning unbeaten 80 from Charith Asalanka for them to overcome Bangladesh. Asalanka, a two time Schoolboy Cricketer of the Year and a former Sri Lanka Under-19 captain has been earmarked for great things and the first signs of a star in the making were on show on Sunday during his stunning knock.

The country is not short of cricketing talent. Kusal Mendis has been the brightest young talent to emerge in recent times but unfortunately young players lose track. Asalanka is someone who has got a good head above his shoulders and there are signs that he is a captain in the making.

“Very pleased that I was able to win a game for Sri Lanka and I am looking forward to win lot more. I was not in the best of form during the home South Africa series and missed the warm-up games here. I was able to mentally prepare for the game during that time and worked with the coaches a lot and there was lot of input from Mahela as well,” Asalanka told journalists.

Providing him good support was Bhanuka Rajapaksa with whom he added 86 runs for the fifth wicket after the top order had collapsed.

“We all know that Bhanuka is an attacking batsman. No matter what the situation of the game is, he will attack. There was a short boundary on one side of the wicket so we wanted to target that and it worked,” Asalanka explained.

“We had done a lot of analysis as to which bowler to target and stuff. The other thing is that in all venues one side of the boundary is short so there was no harm in taking on even their best bowler.”

Sri Lanka will take on Australia today in Dubai and Asalanka said that a lot of planning has gone in ahead of the game. “We have a plan for each of the 11 Australian players. We kept out one day and did the planning against them. Australia is completely different from Bangladesh. Their strength is pace. We have done a lot of training accordingly and looking forward to it,” Asalanka explained.

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