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Pushpakumara: an unsung hero

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A decade of steeplechase dominance 

by Reemus Fernando   

Dominating any sport for a long time is not an easy task. It takes commitment and a deep devotion to the sport to perform continuously at the top level specially when rewards for achievements are hard to come by. Rajapaksha Mudiyanselage Samantha Pushpakumara, lovingly called ‘Blackiya’ by fellow athletes, is one of the rare performers who demonstrated such commitment and determination to dominate one of track and field’s more demanding disciplines, the 3,000 metres steeplechase for almost ten years.  

From 2011 he was the undisputed champion in his pet event, the 3000 metres steeplechase, which is still to attract the recognition it richly deserves in Sri Lanka and the South Asian region. Pushpakumara clocked 9:05.45 seconds to win his maiden national title in 2011 reached his peak six years later when he clocked a notable 8:52.19 seconds at the National Championship in 2017. That personal best performance powered him to the 30th position in Asian rankings behind a host of Japanese and African born athletes. That was the third fastest performance in the South Asian region that year.  

The absence of this endurance discipline at the South Asian Games has prevented the likes of Pushpakumara from hogging limelight at the regional event and testing their true potentials by competing against tough opposition. However, despite such drawbacks and even the absence of the event at the National Sports Festival, Pushpakumara has persevered in this discipline for more than a decade now.  

Though, Sri Lanka started this discipline only after a synthetic track was first laid at the Sugathadasa Stadium in 1989, it has a long history in Asia with both the Asian Games (1951) and the Asian Athletics Championships (1973) featuring the event from the very inception.   

Of the steeplechase races conducted at the National Championships since 1989, Pushpakumara has accounted for nearly one third of the titles, an achievement that needs to be applauded. Apart from the National titles, Pushpakumara has accounted for many Sri Lanka Army Athletics titles, Defence Services Championship titles and bagged numerous trial meet victories.   

For an athlete who has dominated the discipline for so many years, the national record was probably the only achievement that he could not accomplish. According to Sri Lanka Athletics Recorder Saman Kumara, Pushpakumara is ranked third in the country’s all-time best performers’ list in the steeplechase.  

 Only the national record holder Shantha Mendis and former national champion Upendra Indika Bandara have run faster than Pushpakumara in the history of this discipline.   

Apart from steeplechase, Pushpakumara also found success in the 5,000 metres and the Cross Country winning titles including the National Sports Festival title on more than one occasion.   

Pushpakumara’s commitment for steeplechase and long-distance events was rewarded by Sri Lanka Athletics when he was selected for a few international events including the Asian Cross Country Championships and the Vietnam Open Athletics Championships. In 2017 he was the winner of both the steeplechase and the 1500 metres at the Vietnam Open Athletics Championships. 

He was picked for the South Asian Games teams solely on merit of his 5000 metres performances as his pet event was yet to debut at the regional event.  

  With no big achievements to his credit at school level, Pushpakumara honed his ability to run distance events after joining the Army. But it took several years after joining the Artillery Regiment, for him to carve a niche for himself as a formidable steeplechaser at national level. 

The only child in the family, Pushpakumara had “won village Avurudu races” but “had no big victories at school level” as a student of Mellawagedara MV, Divulapitiya. His first notable achievement whilst in the Army came in 2008 when he was placed third in the 5,000 metres at the Army Athletics Championship. That was after he came under the supervision of Brigadier Parry Liyanage who was a mentor to many leading distance runners including Chaminda Wijekoon and Anurada Indrajith Cooray who later went on to establish Sri Lanka records in the men’s 1500 metres and the marathon respectively.  

After dominating the steeplechase for nearly a decade, Pushpakumara has decided to shift his focus to distance road events. He won the 5000 metres at the last National Athletics Championship hheld in December but had to be content with the runner up title in the 3,000 metres steeplechase. It was the first time in ten years that the title eluded him.  

He will probably make one last attempt to regain the title at the next National Championships under the guidance of Upali Wickramasinghe, who has been training him for a long time now. The result of the men’s steeplechase at the next nationals will be of little interest to Pushpakumara’s fans as he has already left a lasting impression in their hearts.    

 

Profile

Name: Rajapaksha Mudiyanselage
Samantha Pushpakumara   

Date of birth:

16th March 1983  

Club:

Sri Lanka Army 

Personal Bests: 

1,500m:

3:53.59 secs 

3,000m Steeplechase:

8:52.19secs 

5,000m:

14:26.68 secs 

Coaches:

Parry Liyanage,

Upali Wickramasinghe  

 



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Antigua; good, bad and the ugly

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By Rex Clementine

Antigua is one of the finest tourist attractions in the world with some 300 beaches to boast about. Although the Europeans pick Barbados as their favourite Caribbean destination, Antigua is equally good and slightly less expensive. Barbados only has a population of 250,000. Antigua is even less – 90,000 people. Barbados has produced the finest players from the Caribbean, from the Three Ws, Sir Garry Sobers, Joel Garner, Malcolm Marshall and all the other stars. Antigua is less charming when it comes to cricketing talent but not bad when you consider Sir Viv Richards, Richie Richardson, Andy Roberts and Curtly Ambrose all emerged from this tiny island.

The Sri Lankan Cricket team is putting up at Pineapple Resort in Antigua not very far from Swetes where one Mrs. Hillie Ambrose ran out of the house and rang the street bells every time her son took a wicket in Test match cricket. The Sri Lankans played their inaugural Test match in the Caribbean in 1997 in Antigua. Mrs. Ambrose was a busy woman as she rang the bell eight times. This was fast bowling at its very best and Ambrose was named Man of the Match after finishing with eight wickets. The Sri Lankans had to put up with another menacing quick in Courtney Walsh, who left Hashan Tillekeratne with a broken arm.

That was at the old cricket ground – Recreation Ground at Antigua. It was a venue much loved by locals as some of the finest moments of their sporting history had come there. Located at the heart of the capital in St. John’s, the venue witnessed Brian Lara’s 375 and 400 not out, ten years apart. Only one thing didn’t change – the opposition. The West Indies used to love England attacks.

For the 2007 World Cup, cricket moved out of Recreation ground. The officials were saying that they were looking for a cricket only venue as at the old ground football and other sports had been played. But in reality, they seemed to be more worried about financial benefits a shift would bring.

The new ground has been named after Antigua’s famous sporting son – Sir Viv Richards.  The Sri Lankans will be based in Antigua for their entire stay in the Caribbean. While the ODIs and Tests will be played in Sir Viv Richards Stadium, the T-20 series will take place at Alan Stanford Stadium.

Alan Stanford at one point was a godsend to cricket. He signed a multimillion dollar deal with England and Wales Cricket Board for a series of T-20 games. ECB in 2008 thought Stanford was the best way to take on India’s IPL which had just started off.  In a publicity stunt, Stanford even flew to Lord’s in his private helicopter to sign the deal with England cricket bosses.

Stanford was based in Antigua but most of his businesses were in US. A few months after signing the ECB deal, he was charged by the FBI for financial fraud and currently he is serving a 110 year jail term. 

Some men who duped cricket’s guardians are in jail. Stanford is a case in point while others like Vijay Mallaya are having a hard time facing lengthy legal battles. Some others are still at large, particularly a few who frequent Colombo-7.  Their excesses are set to be exposed soon when COPE meets.

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Thewin, Pawan help Trinity as Gishan bags eight wickets  

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Under-19 cricket

by Reemus Fernando

 A laboured 44 runs by Thewin Amarasinghe in the first innings and an unbeaten 76 by Pawan Pathiraja helped Trinity avert defeat in the traditional Under-19 cricket encounter dominated by Royal at Reid Avenue on Friday. 

Royal declared their innings on the overnight score of 403 for two and spinner Gishan Balasooriya picked up five wickets to rattle the Trinity batting line up.  A painstaking 44 runs by Thewin Amarasinghe (in 155 balls) was the only highlight in Trinity’s first innings. 

Following on Pawan Pathiraja scored an unbeaten 76 (in 105 balls, 11x4s) as they reached 115 for six wickets when bad light forced an early end.  

Balasooriya was the pick of the bowlers as he collected a match bag of eight wickets. 

The match will be remebered for the record breaking partnership between Royal captain Ahan Wickramasinghe (210n.o.) and Sadeesha Rajapaksha (152n.o.). They broke the Royal record for the highest partnership held by Sumithra Waranakulasuriya and Ajith Dewasurendra when they put on an unbroken 362 runs stand for the third wicket against Trinity in 1981 which was won by Royal by an innings and 62 runs.   

Scores: 

Royal 403 for 2 in 98 overs

(Ahan Wickramasinghe 210n.o.,  Ashen Gamage 22, Sadeesha Rajapaksha 152n.o.)  

Trinity 133 all out in 62.3 overs

(Thewin Amarasinghe 44, Matheesha Pathirana 16, Ranuda Somaratne 16; Gishan Balasooriya 5/41, Kavindu Pathirathna 2/18) and 115 for 6 in 32 overs (Pawan Pathiraja 76n.o.; Prashan Kalhara 2/29, Gishan Balasooriya 3/44) 

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Dhananjaya returns for West Indies Tests  

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By Rex Clementine

Stylish Dhananjaya de Silva’s calm presence in the middle order had brought so much assurance to the Sri Lankan batting in recent times but he has been out of cricket for almost three months now after pulling a thigh muscle during the Boxing Day Test against South Africa at Centurion. De Silva was cruising on 79 when he attempted a run and pulled the muscle ruling him out of the series and the subsequent home Tests against England. His absence resulted in Sri Lanka struggling to balance the side.

The 29-year-old has been named in the 17 member squad that also includes Lahiru Thirimanne, who tested positive for COVID-19. Roshen Silva, Vishwa Fernando and Lasith Embuldeniya also have been named in the Test squad. All five players will fly to Antigua on Sunday via Doha and New York.

The selectors were contemplating of retaining an 18th player for the two match series. Lahiru Kumara had been named in the squad but he had to be withdrawn after testing positive for COVID. Sources said that either Nuwan Pradeep or Dilshan Maudhsanka could be retained as the additional player. However, no final decision had been made yet.

The players will have to go through 72 hours of quarantine in Antigua before being allowed to resume training.

All-rounder Dasun Shanaka will also travel to the Caribbean on Sunday but he will be taking an entirely different route – literally four flights. He will travel to Dubai from Colombo and will get connecting flights to Paris and St. Martin before reaching Antigua.

Shanaka was unable to get a US visa in time and was not able to be present in Antigua to lead the side. The all-rounder had lost his passport containing a valid US visa and the US High Commission in Colombo was investigating whether his previous visa had been used by someone else.

Sri Lanka will play three ODIs in Antigua prior to the two match Test series. All five games will be played at Sir Viv Richards Stadium. The T-20 series is being played at Alan Stanford Stadium, named after the Antiguan businessman who is currently serving a 110 year jail term in the United States for financial fraud.

Sri Lanka squad for West Indies Tests:

Dimuth Karunaratne (Captain), Niroshan Dickwella,  Angelo Mathews, Wanindu Hasaranga, Dinesh Chandimal, Dasun Shanaka, Dushmantha Chameera, Asitha Fernando, Ramesh Mendis, Pathum Nissanka, Oshada Fernando, Lahiru Thirimanne, Dhananjaya de Silva, Lasith Embuldeniya, Vishwa Fernando, Roshen Silva and Suranga Lakmal.

 

 

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