For two years Ambepitiya had the rare privilege of having sprint king Usain Bolt and his closest contender to world titles Yohan Blake as his training partners but what became of his long cherished ambitions after heavy loads of training in Jamaica is something that should be seriously studied by those who propose foreign training for Sri Lankan athletes. Shehan Ambepitiya flanked by Usain Bolt and Glean Mills.
Foreign training for local athletes
Story of a Lankan youth who trained alongside Bolt
by Reemus Fernando
Sprinter Shehan Ambepitiya had the privilege of being trained by probably the best sprint coach in Sri Lanka. He had bagged several coveted international medals by the time he turned 20. By 2010 he was just three milliseconds behind the Olympic qualifying mark for 100 metres (judging by the 2008 qualifying standards) when the highly excited National Olympic Committee provided him with an IOC scholarship to be trained by Glean Mills alongside world record holder Usain Bolt. For two years Ambepitiya had the rare privilege of having sprint king Usain Bolt and his closest contender to world titles Yohan Blake as his training partners but what became of his long cherished ambitions after heavy loads of training in Jamaica is something that should be seriously studied by those who fancy foreign training for Sri Lankan athletes.
There are many Sri Lankan track and field athletes who benefitted from foreign training and reached Olympic qualifying standards and international medal winning standards. Olympians from S. L. B. Rosa and Nagalingam Ethirveerasingam to Manjula Kumara, who had US University scholarships and from Olympic medalist Susanthika Jayasinghe to Asian Championship medalist Sachith Maduranga, high performance training overseas had a huge positive impact on their sporting careers.
But from sprinters Ambepitiya to Chandrika Subashini to long jumper Sampath Dissanayake it was a different story as they struggled to reach their personal best after undergoing training meant for track and field’s super stars. Current sprinter Himasha Eshan, who also had a training stint in Jamaica also had to face a similar predicament and remodel his training plans after returning from Jamaica.
“It was a good experience to train alongside the likes of Bolt and Blake but I never ran closer to my personal best after training in Jamaica,” said Shehan Ambepitiya in an interview with The Island on Monday.
“I was following the same training schedule Bolt and Blake was following. It was not an individualised training plan. Obviously, the focus during training was on Bolt.”
By 2008, Ambepitiya had burst like a rocket into international scene under Sunil Gunawardena’s guidance. He had shown lot of promise at a very young age that he was looked up to as a future medal prospect at senior World level. That year he became the first Sri Lankan male athlete to feature in a final of a World Athletics event when he finished seventh in the 100 metres final at the U20 World Championships. The same year, the former Gateway College and President’s College, Rajagiriya, athlete won three gold medals at the Commonwealth Youth Games in India.
In 2010, Ambepitiya clocked his personal best of 10.31 seconds as he won gold to become South Asia’s fastest man. Athletics had unearthed a wonderful talent. Something had to be done.
Neither the NOC nor the authorities who influenced him to take up the IOC scholarship to be trained in Jamaica meant bad for Ambepitiya. But Sunil Gunawardena, the person who had the knowledge of the athlete was not consulted. Would it have made a difference if had they consulted Gunawardena?
Ambepitiya said: “Sir [Sunil} did not give his consent. At that time I also did not understand why he was not willing to send me for training in Jamaica.”
When he returned from Jamaica, Ambepitiya had a nagging hamstring injury to cope up with and those who were expecting miracles to happen wondered why he had not qualified for the 2012 London Olympics.
“Everything was different in Jamaica from food to training. Sunil Sir was yet to introduce me to lift heavy weights in training here. In Jamaica, I was introduced to them without any evaluation.
But when I returned I was far behind my personal best. It took years before I could run below 10.50 seconds again.”
Despite failing to improve his personal best, Ambepitiya continued training under Gunawardena with a lot of commitment for years and was a part of the team that established the current national record in the men’s 4×100 metres at the Commonwealth Games in 2018.
Asked for his views on foreign training for local athletes, Ambepitiya opined that he would not recommend it for track and field athletes.
Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa has highlighted the need to provide foreign training for country’s best athletes. It has been reported that the best athletes selected from this year’s competitions would be sent abroad for training. It is doubtful whether there would be competitions this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But when the competitions are held and future prospects emerge it would be advisable to weigh the pros and cons of overseas training carefully. Foreign training which is perfect for one may not be so for another as in the case of Ambepitiya.
Kandy, Galle, Puttalam Schools win combined schools hockey titles
Kandy Schools ‘Blues’ and Galle Schools ‘Golds’ were declared as boys’ joint winners and Puttalam Schools were the girls’ winner at the 55th Sri Lanka Combined Schools Under 20 boys and girls Hockey Nationals held from 27th to 30th June at the Torrington Astro Turf .
The boys’ final, between Kandy and Galle ended in a one-all draw; both goals scored in the first half, Kushan Ratnasuriya scoring for Galle and the equalizer by Bhanuka Ranasinghe for Kandy.
In the play off for the third and fourth places, Colombo beat Matale 1-Nil.
In the Semi Finals – Galle beat Colombo 4/3 on penalties and Kandy beat Matale 4/3 also on penalties.
Tharusha Pallewatte from Kandy ‘Blues’ was adjudged the best player and Anushka Maduwantha from Galle ‘Golds’ was picked as the best Goal Keeper.
In the girls’ final, Puttalam Schools beat Kandy Schools by two goals to nil. Both goals were scored in the second half via Madushika Fernando and Dinuli Nihansa.
In the play-off for the third and fourth places, Matale beat Colombo ‘Reds’ 1-nil.
Puttalam Schools were the girls’ winners.
In the Semi Finals – Kandy beat Colombo, 3-nil and Puttalam beat Matale, 4-nil.
Nipuni Ishara Fernando was adjudged as the best player and Neeliya Kaushini was picked as the best Goal Keeper (both from Puttalam).
The finals & the closing ceremony was attended by Athula Jayawardhana, Director of Sports, Central Province Education Department, (Chief Guest), Deva Ellepola, Vice Patron /Mercantile Hockey Association (Guest of Honour), Shashikala Senadheera (President), Anuruddha Herath Bandara (Secretary), Chandrakanthi Karunanayake, ( Deputy President), Wasantha Kumara (Vice President), Indrawansa Herath (Vice President) – All from Sri Lanka Schools Hockey Association.
More barriers ahead for hurdler Dharshana
by Reemus Fernando
In the Under 20 age category, athletes of only four countries in Asia have run the men’s 400 metres hurdles under 52 seconds, this year. One of them is a Sri Lankan. Dhanuka Dharshana, who is only 18 years old, has been the hurdler to beat during the last two years in his age category in Sri Lanka. In April, the athlete trained by reputed coach Anura Bandara turned the tables on his senior counterparts to emerge the national champion in the men’s 400 metres hurdles at the Centenary National Athletics Championships.
One of the first Sri Lankan juniors to qualify for the World Junior Athletics Championships to be held in Cali, Colombia in August, Dharshana is the most consistent performer in the men’s category among the Sri Lankan juniors to qualify for the event. However, like the few junior athletes who showed potential to excel in the future in the pet event of Olympic Medalist Duncan White during the last two decades, will Dharshana find track and field not so exciting to pursue after leaving school?
“It is incumbent upon us to motivate our athletes to remain in the sport. But how can you do so when they do not get the opportunity they deserve. Participation in World Junior Championship is something that young athletes cherish. It is a huge learning opportunity for the up-and-coming athletes and will motivate them to remain in the sport,” said Dharshana’s coach Bandara.
Like Dharshana many others who reached qualifying standards for the World Junior event remain uncertain about the prospect of competing in Cali due to the financial constraints the country is currently facing though Sri Lanka Athletics has sent the names of seven out of the nine athletes who reached qualifying standards for the World event for the Sports Ministry approval and financial assistance. The Ministry has given only the approval and their participation will heavily depend on Sri Lanka Athletics’ ability to find much-needed funds for the costly trip.
Dharshana’s pet event, the 400 metres hurdles is the discipline that has won the highest number of medals for Sri Lanka at the junior Asian level during the last decade though a vast majority of the athletes who won those medals did not pursue track and field after leaving school. The most prominent female hurdler to emerge during the last one and half decades also came from Dharshana’s school, Ambagamuwa Central and was trained by Anura Bandara. Yamani Dulanjali won the first Asian Youth Championship hurdles gold medal in 2015, held the Under 20 Junior National Championship 400 m hurdles record until this year. With impressive performances as a junior, she was expected to excel at the senior level as well. Hailing from a not-so-well-to-do family she instead took up a teaching job.
Kaushalya Madushani, another 400 metres hurdler, who won junior Asian international medals, joined Sri Lanka Army, the final refuge for many a future prospect, after leaving school. She was yet to reach her full potential when she died a couple of months ago; it is alleged she took her own life.
Maris Stella College hurdler, Uditha Chandrasena, was yet another bright prospect to have excelled in the 400 metres hurdles at the junior level. He too gave up athletics after leaving school.
Although Sri Lanka has seen the emergence of hurdlers in the calibre of Dhanuka Dharshana at the junior level there had been no system to nurture them and make them stick to track and field.
Dharshana, who too is hailing from an ordinary family, has received the support of Olympian and Asian Games Gold Medalist Sugath Thilakaratne, the most famous product of his coach, Anura Bandara. He has also received the support of the school’s PTIs Indika Prasad and Amali Abeytunga and another benefactor whom he identified only as Nayana. But pursuing track and field as a senior athlete is an uphill task which requires more funding.
Ambagamuwa Central, where Dharshana learnt his ABC of athletics, has reaped the benefits of Bandara’s coaching with the school winning podium places at junior competitions every year. And, every year Bandara faces a dilemma as his trainees leaving the school have not found the right platform to launch a career in athletics.
With the junior athletes’ participation at the forthcoming World Junior Championships remaining uncertain to date, the coaches like Bandara will find it even harder to persuade athletes to remain in track and field.
Lyon set to become second most successful off-spinner in history
by Rex Clementine
Leg-spin legend Shane Warne retired from cricket in 2007 having achieved two key milestones; Australia had regained the Ashes and Warne had become the first man in history to take 700 wickets in Test match cricket. Since his retirement, Australia tried various spinners to fill his big shoes but with little success. Fellow leg-spinner Stuart MacGill was the natural successor to Warne, but he too threw in the towel 18 months after Warne’s retirement. Then Cricket Australia tried a host of finger spinners and some wrist spinners without much success. The wait ended in 2011 in Sri Lanka. For some reason, all good spin bowlers make their impact in our shores.
Australia arrived in Sri Lanka in 2011 with a new captain in Michael Clarke and their spin resources were untested. In fact, the team’s lead spinner was uncapped. His story was interesting. He had been a curator at Adelaide Oval and with his skill to bowl off-spin identified he was given a break in Sheffield Shield cricket. Seven months later, he was set to make his Test debut against the likes of Sangakkaras, Dilshans, Jayawardenes and Samaraweeras. That too in Galle, the Gabba of Sri Lankan cricket. There the legend of Nathan Lyon was born.
Lyon’s first ball in Test cricket was round the wicket to a left-hander. The ball pitched, turned and had bounce. The batsman was playing away from his body with an open face; the ball took the outside edge and was snapped up by Michael Clarke at slip. A wicket off first ball in Test cricket is just the dream stuff. It’s even more special when the batsman you have dismissed is Kumar Sangakkara, word’s number one ranked batsman at that point.
Lyon didn’t look back from thereon. He claimed a five wicket haul in the first innings as Australia secured a big win and went onto claim the series.
Ten years on, Lyon was quite handful again as he was the standout performer in the first Test in Galle. Sri Lanka’s spin was thin on experience and yet the hosts chose to prepare a track that would turn from day one and they ended up playing into Lyon’s hands as he finished with nine wickets.
Sri Lanka’s young spinners have much to learn from Lyon. He just figured out a length to bowl and kept pitching it there consistently and with batsmen taking too many risks with cross batted shots, it was just a matter of time before a wicket fell.
Lyon’s overall wicket tally is now 436 in 109 Tests and during the Galle game he went past several greats of the game like Kapil Dev (434), Rangana Herath (433) and Sir Richard Hadlee (431).
Lyon is currently among the top ten wicket takers in the world and if he takes seven wickets in Galle in the second Test starting on Friday, he will go onto become the second most successful off-spinner in the history of Test cricket. Muttiah Muralitharan leads the list with 800 and India’s Ravichandran Ashwin follows him as the second most successful offie with 442 wickets.
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