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Pathum Nissanka story brings tears to your eyes

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by Rex Clementine 

There have been very few positives to write about our cricket team in recent times, but watching the first Test in Antigua was fully worth burning the midnight oil as young Pathum Nissanka became the fourth Sri Lankan to score a hundred on debut. This is a guy who has averaged 67 in First Class cricket over the last three years. Okay, we know records in our First Class cricket aren’t much to boast about, but such stats were worthy of earning someone a maiden Test cap because our stars aren’t exactly covering themselves in glory.

After being snubbed for the ICC Under-19 World Cup despite being a prolific run-getter, Pathum Nissanka Silva kept pursuing his dream by piling up hundred after hundred for NCC before finally being drafted into the senior side ahead of the tour of the West Indies. If his on-field exploits have been stirring, his off-the-field story is even more heart touching. 

Sunil Silva, Pathum’s father, was the ground boy of Kalutara Esplanade, the cricket ground in the heart of the town. The ground is not visible from the road, but if you happened to travel to Galle or Matara by train, you cannot miss this ground. Having a bit of cricket knowledge made Sunil his son’s first cricket coach. They lived in abject poverty and to make ends meet, Pathum’s mother sold flowers near the Kalutara bodiya (temple) to devotees.

Colombo schools are constantly on the lookout for fresh faces, asking District Coaches to keep them in the loop if there’s any bright talent around. Pathum was making big runs for Kalutara Vidyalaya and quite a few schools including S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia were interested in him. But it was Isipatana that got to him first. It was quite a struggle.

Sunil Saluwadana, the brilliant cricket coach of Kalutara Vidyalaya, reluctantly agreed to let him go so that he could make progress in Colombo, but convincing his parents turned out to be not so easy. Not that they didn’t like the move to Colombo. It was just that locating their tiny house turned out to be a nightmare for the visiting party. 

Isipatana Coach Pradeep Nishantha had travelled with one of his friends, Nilantha Amarasinghe, whose son captained Isipatana recently. As they were struggling to locate the house, Pradeep asked Pathum’s parents to come to Kalutara bodiya. It was at the bodiya that Pathum’s admission papers to Isipatana were signed. That both his parents didn’t have even basic education is a different story. “Not too sure whether any other child has signed his admission papers at Kalutara bodiya. This is the greatest blessing you can get. You will have a bright future,” Pradeep recalls telling young Pathum five years ago.

To reach Pathum’s house, you have to turn left from Kalutara junction and go some six kilometers along the Palathota road. He lives in one of the government-built houses for people affected by the tsunami.

Colombo life is hectic and expensive too. Pathum needed some assistance to make ends meet. While Isipatana College’s Junior Old Boys’ Union did chip in, that wasn’t enough to meet costs. So his coach turned to his friend Nilantha Amarasinghe. Nilantha is employed at Jayaratne Florists, and apprised his bosses of this bright prospect. The premier florists helped him with a monthly allowance. They were the happiest to know that young Pathum had been picked for the tour of West Indies and gifted him Rs. 250,000 as pocket money during his visit to the Caribbean. 

Arjuna Ranatunga played with a bat that promoted his friend’s chicken shop – Sam’s. Mahela Jayawardene played with a bat that promoted Thilanga’s newspaper – Lakbima. Pathum may well use a logo for the bat that says, ‘The best undertakers in town – Jayaratne’.

After finishing up at Isipatana, Pathum went back to Kalutara and represented Badureliya CC.  Then, former Test captain Hashan Tillekeratne persuaded him to make a shift back to Colombo to play for NCC.

Not just asking Pathum to make the move, Hashan made sure he looked after the boy, treating him like one of his own sons. NCC has a reputation for looking after young talent from outstation. Another tradition at NCC is to treat everyone as an equal – seniors and juniors all get paid the same amount. It helped that he had some very good seniors in the club like Upul Tharanga, Dinesh Chandimal and Angelo Perera.  There were good mentors at the club as well like Ranjit Fernando, Malan Ranasinghe, Duminda Perera and Leslie Hewage.

There were temptations, of course. There is this notion that you have a better chance of representing Sri Lanka if you cross the road from NCC. More recently, another neighbouring club of NCC has got more political clout, with one of our former Test captains calling the shots at the Sports Ministry. So the done thing these days is to jump over the fence of NCC and not cross the road. But Pathum remained loyal to NCC, and has been richly rewarded.

Often, when things go well, we tend to forget that there are issues which need to be addressed. Here’s one of them. Pathum has been a top-order batsman all his life. Why Sri Lanka played him at number six is beyond comprehension.

There was similar hope when Kusal Mendis came on to the scene in 2015. A son of a three-wheeler driver, Kusal’s was a case of sheer hard work being able to take you places, irrespective of your social status. But Kusal’s father has turned out to be such a social menace that he is not only influencing senior police officers but is alleged to be threatening victims as well after his notorious son’s infamous hit-and-run last year.

It is very important that when young players earn millions on a monthly basis, they are properly guided. Most agents who are managing players only bother about promoting their images on social media. Values mean nothing to them. Hence, we are left with incorrigible youngsters like Kusal Mendis. Let’s hope Pathum’s story will be different. Sri Lankan cricket needs it to be different, badly.



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Sri Lanka back pace for Bangladesh Tests

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by Rex Clementine

Having conducted the England Test series so well in a ‘bio-secure bubble’ in Galle, Sri Lanka Cricket has decided to move the Bangladesh series to Pallekele. Did any technical reasons prompt SLC to move from the coastal town to the hill capital?  Not really. The move is a tactical one. The Sri Lankans would be thinking that spin is Bangladesh’s strength so the best way to beat them is through pace. Hence, the shift to Kandy where seamers get much more purchase and value for money for their efforts.

The move may look somewhat defensive. Given the England experience where the Somerset duo of Dom Bess and Jack Leach made a mockery of Sri Lanka’s top and middle order, the hosts seem to be not wanting to play into Bangladesh’s hands whose spinners have been quite formidable in recent years.

Hence having shifted base to Kandy, Sri Lanka could go all out with a  pace heavy attack when the Test series gets underway next week. Wanindu Hasaranga could be the only spinner in the side with Dhananjaya de Silva’s part time off-spin as back up.

Lahiru Kumara has returned to the squad having missed the West Indies tour after being tested positive for COVID-19. There was a lot of excitement that Sri Lanka would be able to see two of their quickest bowlers in action in the same match but Dushmantha Chameera, has pulled out from the series due to personal reasons.

Suranga Lakmal, who was named Player of the Series in the Caribbean after his impressive performance, will spearhead the attack. Vishwa Fernando will add variety with his left arm bowling and it remains to be seen how well he does in helpful conditions having fared well in South Africa early this year.

There are a few issues with the spin department after Lasith Embuldeniya was ruled out with injury. Duvindu Tillekeratne is also down with injury while Prabath Jayasuriya, who had shown la ot of promise was almost picked for the series but he became ineligible for selection after failing the skin fold test marginally. That opened up a slot for rookie Praveen Jayawickrama who is thin on experience having played just a handful of First Class matches

Bangaldesh will be handicapped as Shakib Al Hasan their biggest match winner is in India playing the IPL. They will also miss the services of Mustafizur Rahman, the spearhead of the attack.

Still, the tourists have some solid players. Off-spinner Mehidy Hasan recently became the fastest Bangladeshi to claim 100 Test wickets and at the age of 23 a  lot is expected of him.  He is more than a  handy bat having already posted a hundred and three half-centuries in Test match cricket.

Tamim Iqbal, Mominul Haque and Mushfiqur Rahim are the mainstay of their batting. Mushfiqur has been ever present in the Bangladeshi side having made his Test debut 16 years ago at the age of 18.

Former captain Angelo Mathews is back in the side having returned home from the West Indies early. Which of the seven batters will miss out to accommodate Mathews remains to be seen.

Sri Lanka have won 16 of the 20 Tests against Bangladesh and lost just one game. However, most of those wins were in the early days and in recent years Bangladesh have done well competing and drawing games. 

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Sebs’ cricket stalwart Cooray retires after more than three decades of service

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by Reemus Fernando

Franklyn Cooray, the former Sri Lanka Schools Cricket Association official, retired as the Master in Charge of Cricket of St. Sebastian’s College, Moratuwa after completing more than three and half decades of yeoman service recently. Franklyn Cooray who was popular in cricket circles as Frank Cooray, was the longest serving team official at the time of his retirement. During his 37 year association with schools cricket, Cooray witnessed the evolution of First XI cricket from mere Traditional matches to present day tournaments of varying divisions and was involved in St. Sebastian’s cricket as a coach and Master in Charge guiding the destiny of many future national cricketers.

Cooray played First XI cricket for St. Sebastian’s from 1962 to 1966 and was among the very few Sebs cricketers of his era to have tasted Big Match success. He captained all age group teams of St. Sebastian’s. After leaving school he worked at the Irrigation Department as a Senior Technical Officer and played in the Government Services ‘A’ Division Cricket tournament until making a premature retirement in 1983.

He was entrusted with the responsibility of training cricketers of St. Sebastian’s in 1984 by Rev. Bro. Nimal Gurusinghe, when coaching was voluntary. Three years later Cooray was included in the tutorial staff by Rev. Bro. Granville Perera. He was the coach cum Master in Charge of St. Sebastian’s from 1987 to 1994 and held the latter position until his retirement this year.

During his tenure as a coach, Cooray provided guidance at different levels to several Sebs who later became household names. Of them Dulip Mendis, Roger Wijesuriya, Susil Fernando, Romesh Kaluwitharana and Sajeewa de Silva went on to play Test cricket. “Kaluwitharana was coached by Brother Gurusinghe before he came under my supervision at senior level,” Cooray recalled in an interview with The Island.

Cooray was the Master in Charge of Cricket when the likes of Prasanna Jayawardena, Dinusha Fernando, Vishwa Fernando, Amila Aponso, Avishka Fernando and Oshada Fernando learnt their ABC of cricket at St. Sebastian’s.

While being the MIC, Cooray was also entrusted with the responsibility of the curator after a turf wicket was laid at the St. Sebastian’s ground in 1990.

He was selected to SLSCA Executive Committee in 1988 and a year later became the Under-19 tournament secretary, a position he held until 2006. He was among the leading officials of SLSCA who were instrumental in introducing the two-day league tournament and the Under-19 tournament structure with three Divisions. As of late it has undergone many changes.

However he was against introducing the points system that determined winners on first innings points. “That system would promote the culture of playing for trophies. I never encouraged the point system for first innings wins. We gave points only for outright victories. During our time we hardly batted after tea. We would try to score as much as possible in the morning and declared and get the opposition to bat in the afternoon. That way we would try to win outright. That was lost after the points system was introduced,” opined Cooray.

Cooray also lamented the absence of natural stroke play among present day cricketers. “Players going for their natural strokes is something that we are missing greatly these days. You must encourage batsmen to go for their natural strokes,” said Cooray.

He was the Under-19 tournament secretary of the SLSCA at a time when computers were yet be utilized for calculation of points and to make points tables of the league tournaments. Yet as schools cricket reporters would recall he was readily available with a near accurate points table of the tournament at the end of every week during the schools cricket season.

Apart from holding the Under-19 tournament secretary position, Cooray also held the junior national coach position briefly. He was the coach of the Sri Lanka Under-15 side that toured England for the Under-15 Lombard World Challenge.

His contribution to cricket was recognized by the International Cricket Council in 2009 when he was presented with a medal during its Centenary Medals Presentation for Volunteers.

As he steps in to retirement with loads of fond memories from cricket, Cooray thanked former administrators of St. Sebastian’s Rev. Bro. Nimal Gurusinghe and Rev. Bro. Granville Perera, late Rev. Fr. Bonnie Fernandopulle who made it possible for him to take up coaching and cricket administration and coaches including Kanishka Perera who helped during his tenure.

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Mendis and Babar; careers that have taken different routes

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by Rex Clementine

During the 2018 Asia Cup in Abu Dhabi, a group of us Sri Lankan journalists were discussing how good Babar Azam was. Former Pakistan captain Waqar Younis, who was one of the commentators was behind us. He heard the conversation and interrupted us. ‘You guys have no idea what talent is. If you want to look at real talent and pure class just take a look at that guy,’ he said so pointing his finger at the Sri Lankan team. They were warming up and Kusal Mendis was getting some throw downs.  

Both Kusal and Babar are 26. But the Pakistani has gone places. He is Pakistan’s captain in all three formats. In official ICC Rankings, he is world’s number one ranked batsman in ODI cricket. In Tests, he is in exalted company alongside the likes of Virat Kohli, Joe Root, Steve Smith, Kane Williamson and Marnus Labuschagne at number six while in T-20 cricket he is ranked third.

Just two days ago Babar produced a stunning batting display at Centurion, one of the quickest wickets in the world, as Pakistan chased down a stiff target of 204 with two overs to spare. Babar’s 122 came off just 59 balls at a stunning Strike Rate of 206.

Where is Mendis while all these happened? Axed from the side after his four ducks in a row in January, he has been overlooked for the home series against Bangladesh as he has not done anything significant to merit a place.

From humble beginnings, Mendis became a celebrated sportsman overnight after his stunning 176 against a quality Australian attack spearheaded by Mitchell Starc. But soon anger and frustration replaced that admiration following his hit and run at Moratuwa that killed an innocent man on his way to work.

Mendis’ family and his agent did all within their means to bury the truth. That Mendis was driving on the wrong direction, did not care to take the injured to the hospital and surrendered to Police several hours after the incident were all hushed up. Police ensured that Mendis got bail in less hours than the time it takes Bandula Gunawardene to reverse a gazette.

The media kept the pressure up asking Mendis to behave. At this point, Mendis’ family reached out to the press telling us that young Kusal regretted his actions and has promised to build the family of the deceased a home and look after his child’s education. Later, it emerged that Mendis had not only taken the Police and the law for a ride but even the gullible press. He broke a gentleman’s agreement.

Sri Lanka Cricket handled the issue poorly. Well, what can you expect of them. Rienzie Wijetilleke a former Board Chairman put his foot down when a similar thing happened in 2001 and sacked the leg-spinner who was involved in a hit and run.

In Mendis’ case, SLC CEO said that this was a personal matter and closed the case. Well, a contracted player and the captain in waiting killing someone on the road and fleeing the incident did not deserve such leniency. Mendis’ CCC connections prompted SLC to turn a blind eye, perhaps. No wonder the CEO was exposed well and truly at the COPE hearing.  Ashley de Silva has committed too many blunders and the handling of Kusal Mendis is one such.

Everybody gets dropped from the side. Even the great Aravinda de Silva got the axed, rather unkindly. But not Kusal Mendis. Clearly, he was struggling in South Africa having picked up three ducks in a row. He didn’t want the burdens of Test cricket and probably was better off sorting out his game at RPS with the Batting Coaches and not against James Anderson. But pointing out some bizarre reasons SLC retained him, waited till he completed a fourth duck in a row before axing him.

Young players need good mentors. They get so much of good counseling when they are young by coaches and well wishers. But suddenly when they graduate into the senior side, they fall prey to ruthless player agents who themselves have little values. As some of our finest captains are getting together to restructure the game, they need to look at the role of player agents seriously. Sadly, some of them are under the thumb of crooked player agents themselves having shown more loyalty to Perera Gardens than Maitland Place and there will be not much done to address this issue.

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