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Neil’s books on rugby bring back nostalgic memories

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By A Special Sports Correspondent

These are days where sportsmen and women can review their lives and careers. Some would say it’s a must do during these times where there are travel restrictions. We all experience such a period some time during our lives when we are made inactive. From a rugby perspective there is so much literature to read up. Innovative people can do a documentary on rugby or short film clip and post on social media and youtube. This writer remembers the two books penned on rugby by one time recorder of Sri Lanka Rugby Neil Wijeratne.

These are great days to read his two books ‘Rugby Across the Straits’ and our very own ‘Sevens Saga’-which caps the rugby sevens history of the island.

Wijeratne is still the person to go to when a writer wants information for a sports article. He is a serious historian and takes great pain in collecting his facts and figures for his compilations. He has been generous in parting with whatever statistics he has when budding writers and journalists tap him as a source.

He was pushed to keeping sports records on pen and paper because destiny didn’t afford him the opportunity to be a sportsman. Many feel that sport was richly rewarded because this brought the writer out in Wijeratne.

Wijeratne showed his prowess in writing as a schoolboy and penned his first novel ‘Mihiduma Atharin’ in 1968. That pen kept flowing and he produced many gems in writing; his compilations coming out in English and Sinhala languages.

He is one person who saw rugby’s changing face from being an amateur sport to its professional status. Those who speak with him will vouch that his cherished memories were when players played for the love of the game and remained as amateurs.

His writings highlight those achievements by ‘amateur’ rugby players. He mentions of players like Apisai Nagata, Sari de Sylva, Nalin de Silva, Didacus de Almeida, Michael Jayasekare and Nalaka Weerakkody in a note of acknowledgement in his book Sevens Saga. He leaves out two great names that of Hisham Abdeen and Priyantha Ekanayake in that list. But who are we scribes to challenge his thoughts as a writer? May be a writer like Wijeratne sees subtle intriguing qualities and more interesting traits in these players he has mentioned because that total package makes their presence on the field so much interesting.

Wijeratne picked up those bits of information which the spectator might have missed out on and brings them out in his writings. He also never forgot about to write on lesser known sports personalities and people who contributed to sport from behind the scenes.

We Sri Lankans have often caught the attention of overseas crowds when contesting international sevens tournaments. This could be one reason why he dedicated effort and time to pen the early history of the island’s sevens rugby.

According to him it had all happened in 1931 on a February 1st in Ratnapura when the Police team took on a planters combined outfit that marked the first rugby sevens game in Sri Lanka. The writer in his book goes on to find out the exact population in Ratnapura (8497) which adds flavour to the article and brings back nostalgic memories of the past. According to Wijeratne the person credited for introducing rugby sevens to this nation is Welshman K.F Jenkins who was stationed here as a probationary Assistant Superintendent of Police.

As rugby progressed and more clubs came into being Wijeratne simply expanded his horizons. From rugby sevens tournaments in Colombo’s Longden Place and Race Course he has captured the action in tournaments like Sabaragamuwa Sevens, Kurunegala Sevens, Ruhunu Sevens, Uva Sevens, Dimbula Sevens travelling the length and breadth of Sri Lanka. He also writes about Sri Lanka hosting its first international rugby tournament -the Cargills International Sevens-which was won by Fiji Islanders’. The team comprised all Fijian players, who played domestic rugby here, except for Chandrishan Perera, who was probably included here to keep the interest of the local crowd in the tournament till the end. The old style of playing rugby is captured by Wijeratne in his punchy style of writing English. In the article titled ‘Some days are diamond days’ dedicated to Sri Lanka’s Bowl Championship win at the 1994 Fiji Sevens he writes ‘Sri Lanka was very much famous in Fiji not because of any rugby prowess of theirs, but as a country where the Fijians are looking ahead to make lucrative playing careers. Wijeratne brings out the best of Sri Lanka rugby when the islanders are on top and dazzling and still can keep the reader glued to the page with his descriptive writing when the ‘Tuskers’ are struggling with defeat staring in the face.

Still for Wijeratne, he can’t help but find space for two legends like Abdeen and Priyantha Ekanayake in the book ‘Sevens Saga’. He writes extensively on Sri Lanka’s 1984 Bowl Championship win where Abdeen led from the front as skipper. The author underscores the leadership skills and rise to fame of Ekanayake in selected sections of the book. When one begins to think that the book is not complete without the mention of two rugby stalwarts who gave so much opportunities for rugby players one finds the names of Kishin Butani and Malik Samarawickreme and some of their contributions to sevens rugby.

During these lockdown days where rugby activity is absent Wijeratne’s books are ideal to do more than pass the time; they are educative as well.

In his characteristic way of saying it Wijeratne’s rugby books ‘offer a nostalgic pilgrimage to recapture everlasting moments in rugby seen in this island’.



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Sri Lanka’s contingent prior to the opening ceremony

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by Reemus Fernando 

When Sri Lanka’s Olympic contingent were entering the stadium for the Opening Ceremony of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo yesterday, Nimali Liyanarachchi who could have easily become the country’s flag bearer was taking a seat in the business class for the first time in a long career to take wing from Colombo to Tokyo. On the same flight, Sujith Abeysekara who identified the talent at a very young age and helped her blossom into one of the country’s most successful middle distance runners was seated in the economy class.

It was not long ago that Nimali and fellow track and field athletes slept on the floor during transit on their way to the last pre Olympic competition. The country’s sports authorities have decided to provide five star facilities to Olympic bound athletes and that paved the way for NImali to travel in business class for the first time.

A winner of multiple disciplines at National Level, NImali has represented the country at numerous international competitions. No other athlete in the Sri Lankan contingent in Tokyo has excelled at regional events like the athlete from Sooriyawewa. A gold medalist at the Asian Athletics Championships and South Asian Games, the 32-year-old received a wildcard to the Olympics after Nilani Ratnayake, who was in contention for qualification slid in the world rankings. Before the lack of competitions pulled her down in world rankings Nimali was one of the top three Asians in her discipline.  Though Nimali is a wildcard entrant at the Olympics her fellow track and field athlete at the Olympics, Yupun Abeykoon is not. Abeykoon qualified through world rankings and could be the only athlete who could go beyond the first round. Abeykoon, South Asia’s fastest man and badminton player Niluka Karunaratne are probably the only Sri Lankan athletes who are competition ready as Nimali’s preparation too was hampered due to quarantine procedures following their return from India’s Interstate Championship.

Athletics fraternity was curious yesterday as to why the honour of carrying the country’s flag had not been give to track and field athletes. At the time this story was filed, rooky gymnast Milka Gehani and judoka Chamara Nuwan Dharmawardena were scheduled to carry the flag at the Opening Ceremony.

Nearly one third of the countries that took part in the opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics had handed their country’s flag to track and field athletes. Some of them were legends of the sport. Many time Olympic medallist Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce was scheduled to carry the flag of Jamaica at the time this edition went to press. For the first time countries could be represented by two flag bearers at the Olympic Games. Sri Lanka, a country that has won its only Olympic medals in track and field had a gymnast and judoka doing the duty.

Twenty years after Sri Lanka won its last Olympic medal has athletics lost its place as the premier Olympic sport of the country or has other sports come to prominence surpassing track and field as prospective medal winning Olympic sports? It is the first time a gymnast is representing Sri Lanka. She was ranked 114th at the 2019 World Championships but according to NOC, she has received a continental quota spot due to cancellation of the Asian Gymnastic Championship.

Now take a look at Sri Lanka’s track and field athletes. Forget about the two track and field athletes in Tokyo. There are more than half a dozen track and field athletes who were among the top 100 athletes in the world in their respective disciplines including one who produced the 15th best performance of the world this year. They could not improve their rankings due to lack of opportunities to take part in top ranked Championships.

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Sri Lanka on course for consolation win 

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Avishka Fernando anchored the Sri Lankan innings after the hosts were set a target of 227 to win the third and final ODI against India at RPS yesterday.

 

By Rex Clementine

Sri Lanka looked on course for a consolation win the third and final ODI against India at RPS yesterday as they reached 92 for one at the end of 15 overs chasing a target of 227.  Avishka Fernando gave the hosts a solid start in the dead rubber and was unbeaten on 46 when this edition went to print.

Fernando played some exciting strokes and his pulled six off Navdeep Saini was the shot of the day. It reminded of the power hitting of another Moratuwaite – L.R.D. Mendis.

Bhanuka Rajapaksa was unbeaten on 28.

Spinner Praveen Jayawickrama and Akila Dananjaya came up with outstanding performances picking six wickets between them as India were bowled out for 225 after being 157 for three at one stage. 

Sri Lanka did three changes to the side that lost the second ODI while India came in with six changes handing debuts for five players, virtually playing a third string team.

Sri Lanka’s fielding that was a huge let down during the previous game showed some improvement as they backed up the bowlers to reduce India to 225 in 43.1 overs. 

Dananjaya started off poorly conceding three boundaries in his first three balls on his return to limited overs cricket and exhausted a review too in his very first over. Sri Lanka had indicated that they were going to consider the off-spinner only for T-20 cricket but were forced to bring him back following injury to Wanindu Hasaranga.

Jayawickrama, who had claimed 11 wickets on his Test debut against Bangladesh in May, bowled superbly as he claimed the wickets of three middle order batsmen in his second ODI. With the left-arm spinner striking at regular intervals, India never got any momentum in their innings.

Dananjaya dismissed Suryakumar Yadav when he trapped him leg before wicket and claimed two more wickets towards the tail end of the Indian innings.

Skipper Dasun Shanaka, who had got his act woefully wrong in the previous game, had things very much under control yesterday with some clever bowling changes. He himself sent down eight overs and claimed the key wicket of Prithvi Shaw for 49.

Rain had stopped play for 100 minutes during the Indian innings and the game was reduced to 47 overs.

A win is crucial for Sri Lanka as they would gain ten points in the ICC World Cup Super League.

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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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