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Playing spin; Sri Lanka’s Achilles’ heel

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by Rex Clementine

Time was when the poverty-ridden areas of the city were called as ‘Korea’.  Today, Sri Lankans are heading to South Korea in numbers seeking employment. Then take Bangladesh for example. In the South Asian region, they were one of the poorest countries. They have come a long way and today are wealthy enough to provide Sri Lanka a loan. And they have a cricket team that is giving the Sri Lankans a real hiding.

The 103 run defeat that Tamim Iqbal’s side handed the Sri Lankans on Tuesday was a bitter pill to swallow. One of the irritating things in losing to Bangladesh is that they go bonkers with their celebrations.  Not anymore. Nowadays it seems that they are so confident of beating Sri Lanka and there was not much of a celebration.

Bangladesh are in a different league now. They are heading the points table of the ICC World Cup Super League having replaced World Champions England. We Sri Lankans are on the brink of playing the World Cup qualifiers; our slide in the last five years has been so rapid. The Sri Lankans need to win 12 of the 18 games left in the qualifying period to earn automatic qualification. With our opponents down the line expected to be England, India and South Africa, there’s little hope of that happening.

The scary part is that there is even the possibility of Sri Lanka not qualifying for the 2023 World Cup.

Some have argued that Sri Lanka should have been at full strength as Bangladesh were one of the easier opponents. Well, spin has been this young team’s Achilles’ heel. The seniors weren’t covering themselves in glory when England were in town with little heard Dom Bess, claiming a five wicket haul on Test debut. Arjuna Ranatunga said that with two days of training Aravinda de Silva at the age of 55 could hit the off-spinner out of the park. So you doubt whether the seniors would have made a big difference.

One positive has been the fielding and energy on the field. But that will be of little use if the team is losing in this fashion without any fight.

The youth policy was good but some aspects of it are highly flawed.  Kusal Janith Perera is one of the nicest guys you will come across in cricket. But not sure whether he is a leader. The selectors have argued that he is one of the few guys who can hold onto his place. But that is very defensive thinking. England would have never won the Ashes in 1981 had they followed similar strategy. Ian Botham was the golden boy of British sport in the 1980s. England’s selectors were bold and ready to sack Botham which forced the all-rounder to quit paving the way for Mike Brearley, an average First Class cricketer to be appointed captain. The rest as they say is history.

For a selection committee that was bold enough to drop as many as six seniors to stick to KJP as leader is like Maithripala Sirisena declaring war on drugs and then appointing Pujith Jayasundara as IGP.

There was in fact contradiction from the selectors. At one point they say that the captain has to be a permanent fixture in the side and then they appoint a deputy who is making a comeback to the side having picked up four ducks in a row.

The selectors, however, need to be given all the backing for they took some unpopular decisions at a time when it was much needed. Not many teams would travel to Bangladesh these days to play ODI cricket and will come home with their heads held high.

There are four Bangladeshis who have played 200 ODIs. Kusal Janith Perera is Sri Lanka’s most experienced but he has played barely 100 games.

Playing spin has been a major issue for the Sri Lankan batters and questions will be asked on the contributions that Batting Coach Grant Flower has been making. There’s been spotlight on Flower for some time now. In Sri Lanka, anyway, after a series defeat you need a scapegoat and all blame seem to be going Flower’s way these days. Poor guy!

Too many Sri Lankan batsmen seem to be attempting to clear the boundary and are dismissed as was evident by the second ODI. That’s the easy way out.  You need to have the discipline to grind it out, rotate the strike and then find the boundary when the opportunity is presented. Mushfiqur Rahim has been so good to watch in that regard.

Inability to play spin is so strange because Sri Lankans are brought up on turning tracks. Maybe, the team composition is flawed. Niroshan Dickwella is your best player of spin and he should have played. He will now on Friday in the final ODI but that is like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.  

 One thing that is clearly can be seen is that batting cracks under pressure and the reason for that is that in your domestic cricket players are not exposed to tougher challenges. The gap, as we keep saying, in domestic cricket and international cricket is too big.

 

 



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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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Time to kick out optional training

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The Australians are pioneers in coaching. Having added science into coaching, they took the game to a new level in mid 1990s. Others followed suit. But it’s time to also kick out some of the old Aussie habits. Such as ‘optional training’.  

When Ricky Ponting’s side arrived in Colombo for a lengthy tour in 2004, their coach John Buchanan made training before a game optional. Matthew Hayden went fishing, Shane Warne rushed to the casino while Andrew Symonds was at the bar.

Buchanan was handling a bunch of professionals. Hayden’s training schedule is mind-boggling. The team hotel the Aussies were staying had  a modern gym. They open at 5 am but on Sundays, they open only at 6 am. When Hayden walked in at 5 am on a Sunday, he found the gym not operating. But by next Sunday it was fixed and since then it’s been opening at 5 am thanks to early bird Hayden.

If you ask a current Sri Lankan cricketer, he would not know what time the gym opens at Cinnamon Grand but he would be invariably aware what time Cheers pub closes.

As we reported yesterday, several young players who have just made it to the side skipped practices when it was made optional a few days ago.

Professional cricketers they maybe but their conduct is far from being professional. The Sri  Lankans have one of the youngest sides in the world and they also have world’s worst fielding team. Many are the areas where improvements can be made and it is earnestly hoped that this concept of optional training is thrown out of the window.

They have been taught a few harsh lessons such as being made to forego central contracts. While administrators can be a bit lenient on that and offer them central contracts, there should be no tolerance on concepts like optional training. Until they secure qualification for the World Cup at least ban optional training.

If you thought that the attitude of senior players and their lethargic attitude to training had left us in a mess, the youngsters who are yet to establish their places in the side are sending the wrong signals. This must be stopped. Soon.

They aren’t any professionals in our cricket. They are all cry babies who take to social media tilting at windmills.

They are expected to do two changes for today’s game leaving out Lakshan Sandakan and Kasun Rajitha. Ramesh Mendis and Lahiru Kumara are likely to replace them.

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Youth hurdlers reviving White’s legacy at Asian level  

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Waiting for the next Olympic hurdler – Part VII 

by Reemus Fernando  

Sri Lanka has excelled in sprint events at South Asian and Asian athletics events and the general belief is that the country’s strength is in sprints. But of all Olympic track and field disciplines sprint events were the least competed at Olympics by Sri Lankan athletes during the last four editions.  The 400 metres hurdles, the event in which Duncan White won the country its first Olympic medal in 1948, is the least discussed discipline with regard to medal prospects at the international level now. But quite conspicuously according to our analysis, the 400 metres hurdles has been the most medal producing track and field event for Sri Lanka at youth level in Asia.  

The last two pieces of this series discussed what became of two 400 metres hurdlers who excelled at the first Asian Youth Athletics Championship in 2015. Though the 2015 edition was the first Asian track event for youth athletes (Under-18), the Asian Youth Games, which was introduced as the Asian version of the Youth Olympics in 2009, also presented a valuable opportunity for youth in Asia to gain international exposure. 

In 2013 Sri Lanka won four medals in the Games held in Nanjing, China. Of them, two were from hurdles events. While Nirmali Madushika and Dilhani Fernando won the 400 metres and 800 metres bronze medals in the female category at the 2013 event, Akila Ravisanka and Anuradha Vidusanka won boys’ 110 metres and 400 metres hurdles events respectively. Sri Lanka certainly had an opportunity to build on this success had the next Games were held in Sri Lanka as scheduled. Hambantota had been awarded the 2017 edition of the Games but it did not see the light of day as it was later awarded to Jakarta before it was cancelled.  

At the 2015 Asian Youth Athletics Championships in Doha, when Yamani Dulanjali won gold in the girls’ 400 metres hurdles, the corresponding boys’ event final featured two Sri Lankan hurdlers. Both were in contention for medals but Uditha Chandrasena had to settle for fourth place. St. Sylvester’s College, Kandy hurdler Harshana Rajapaksha clinched silver with a time of 52.88 seconds.  

Two years later Navodya Sankalpa from Mahinda College, Galle won the bronze at the Asian Youth Championship with a time of 53.86 seconds.  

Meanwhile, at Asian Junior events, Kaushalya Madushani won a silver in the 400 metres hurdles with a 62.31 seconds feat in 2014. Both Navodya and Madushani were still engaged in athletics when the pandemic struck Sri Lanka in 2020. Madushani is among a very few female athletes to have continued in athletics after leaving school. She has two medals from the last two South Asian Games as well. 

The achievements of country’s youth athletes at Asian level can be largely attributed to the competition at the school level. Despite all hindrances including lack of hurdles and encouragement for the event, there are a number of schools that take up this discipline seriously. Thanks to their efforts there is quite a competition in hurdles events at the youth level. Hence medal success at the Asian Youth level. In general, all track and field events see a drop of standards when athletes reach junior (Under-20) level. There is a drastic drop in the number of participants in hurdles events in the Under-20 category. That further dwindles at the senior level. Results at an international level are quite predictable.  

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