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Wasim: A Decade Goes By

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by Shanaka Amarasinge 

So far I’ve marched to Gotagogama twice. In very different circumstances. The first was a march from the Artists of the People. A gathering of musicians, actors, writers, artists, designers and everyone involved in creative pursuits. The march from Independence Square was riotous, but only in colour and flair. There was dancing, singing, chanting and rainbow of personalities, costumes and disciplines. It couldn’t have been more different than my second march on the 17th of May 2022 when friends and family of the late Wasim Thajudeen, commemorated his tenth death anniversary, by walking from St. Thomas’ Prep. School to Galle Face.

This was a somber walk. There was talking and camaraderie but very little to laugh about, as those of us who knew Wasim and even some who didn’t, remembered him and the metaphor he is to Sri Lankan society today. He was, as we are now – as a country, cut down in his prime. The immense potential which will never again be seen. Although it was not voiced, the similarity sat heavy on the shoulders of those gathered to remember a friend who lived his ‘best life’. A joy to be around, a reliable, charitable friend, and someone who was not shy of honing his immense talent with hard work. His good friend, Harinda Fonseka, who spoke at Gate Zero, reminded me of the 70m touch finders that boomed off his boot. Also recently, Wasim’s Sri Lanka team mate and long-time club opponent, Rizah Mubarak, reminded me that his ‘up and unders’ were a full back’s nightmare. In remembering what a great bloke we lost, we forget what an enormous rugby talent we also lost.

It was fitting that his old schools St. Thomas’ Preparatory School, and S. Thomas’ College Mt. Lavinia played an old boys’ game in his honour. Two editions were played in 2014 and 2015 but not since then.

Back, in August 2015, when Asfan Thajudeen ghosted languidly over for the try that gave Prep the lead that would not be assailed by Mount, there was something poetic about it. Both brothers, Wasim and Asfan, shared physical characteristics. Tall, handsome and long of limb, one wiry full back could easily have been mistaken for the other. On the field, they both had that same lazy air to their game that talented players have. They look like they could be trying harder, but they didn’t need to.

So after his forwards had done some good work and Asfan collected the pass well behind him, it took skill and presence of mind to pirouette, dummy the pass the defence thought was coming to the young Nishan Handunge and then saunter through the gaping hole for a beautifully taken try under the posts. Arjun Manoharan’s conversion and two penalties gave Prep the win 13-8 over a fancied Mount Lavinia side that scored through Chanditha Samarasinghe and Devin Jayasinghe’s penalty.

With Thomian rugby declining steadily, Wasim was one of the shining stars as he continued to play for his beloved Havelocks and also the Sri Lanka team alongside his College team-mate Namal Rajapaksa. Some years later Sudarshan Muthuthanthri and Anuruddha Wilwara from the school by the sea to take up the mantle.

Out of some unforgettable moments in my life, sadly three of them have to do with death. I will never forget the days that my mum told me my Uncle Billy Rowland had been shot on his estate. We never knew whether it was JVP, LTTE or anyone else. It didn’t really matter. I will also never forget my mum telling me about how my father’s Commanding Officer Brigadier Thevanayagam tragically met his end as the victim of a triple murder. It was devastating as my father was extremely close to Brigadier Thevanayagam and I looked up to Diresh as a senior in school. It was dumbfounding. For those not familiar with the incident in the early 90’s, it was an event fueled by years of pent up rage, and if looked at rationally with the hindsight of time, a lesson to all parents that they can sometimes push children too far, with disastrous consequences. Today’s government will have to realise that people pushed to the extreme, may do unthinkable things. The other unforgettable moment was the death of Wasim. On 17th May 2012, I was on my way to swimming at the SSC when Uncle Mike Anthonisz the JKH swimming coach called me at about 6.30am. I thought he was calling me to give me the schedule saying he was late or to cancel swimming. His parents lived on Park Road and he was standing opposite the car when he called. He was distraught. “Shanaka, you know our boy Wasim?! He’s no more.” I had just driven past the smouldering car with no idea who was in it just hours before.

The disbelief was not only mine. Nobody who heard the news that day could believe it. Uncle Mike knew Wasim because just as he was a fantastic rugby player he was also a talented cricketer, excellent footballer and better than average swimmer. Uncle Mike had a favourite drill called the Windmill Arms that he forced us to do in order to maximise the push through on our freestyles and Wasim was always the demonstrator because his natural freestyle had a windmill action to it. With his cheeky smile and knee length swimmers he always made the girls look twice. He was a Sri Lanka rugby player, but he was never too good not to show up for swimming practice. That’s how humble and unassuming he was, instantly becoming a crowd favourite.

Uncle Mike’s grief that day was spontaneous. Despite only having known Wasim for a few years. For those who knew him well, who’d watched him grow from cheeky teenager into a popular figure, the grief was unfathomable.

Driving past the thronging policemen that fateful morning, gazing at the car that was covered in a tarp, it was hard not to shed a tear. My only hope at that moment was that I hoped he was dead when the car caught fire. As subsequent investigations have revealed, that was not a certainty.

By evening Murugan Place was a sea of people. Wasim’s body was still being examined and the family trying to ensure religious rites were observed within 24 hours. The entire lane was flooded by people whose lives Wasim had touched at some point. And they came from all walks of life, entirely united by their friendship with Wasim. They say that if you’ve ever stood for something you’ve made enemies somewhere along the way, and that much is obvious. But judging by the amount of friends Wasim had made even before he hit 30 he had stood for the right things.

Our paths crossed many times, and not once would they leave me without a smile. My first rugby memory of the lad is him missing a sitter under the posts, handing the momentum to Kaluaratchi’s Royalists in 2001. The obvious kick early on would have put STC in the lead. Captain Jivan Goonetilleka didn’t even see the kick miss. He was walking back to halfway when Wasim ran by him smiling apologetically saying ‘miss una, bung miss una’. The Thomians would lose that game with an unexpected scoreline. The 16 year old, however, only got better. I remember yelling at him once after a Thora game for getting yellow carded so often. ‘What to do Shanaka, they’re hitting no’, was his response. If there was one guy that made you want to tear your hair out and hold your sides laughing at the same time, it was him. He was never ever one to back down from a fight, and although his boyish arrogance gave way to mature aggression later in the piece, this quality may just have been his undoing. I shudder to think of his final moments, knowing that he would not have gone quietly.

Wasim had a strong sense of what was right and wrong. I tried many times to lure him to CR from Havies at a time the Park Club was struggling and his performances were not catching the eye. That prodigious boot I told him, would be better served at Longdon Place. Every time I tried, he would listen, consider and then say ‘This is my Club, machan. How to leave it and come?’. I respected him immensely for that. Loyalty is not something you can even buy at the supermarket anymore. Especially not from his generation. But the values of his family and his breeding were obvious.

Wasim started swimming again after he had his knee operated. The only time I’d seen him not smile was when we compared notes about our surgeries and recuperation. We both had tremendous trouble recovering from ACL surgery – myself a little before him – and he would often seek counsel on the best rehab. He desperately wanted to get back to his beloved rugby and was fretting impatiently for the troublesome knee to recover. And he would have, as he was well on the way back to full fitness. Equally destructive with the ball in hand, as he was with it at his feet, he could play anywhere in the back three or the centres. It was a tragic loss for Sri Lanka, his Club, his friends and his family.

For those who thought that he was all play and no work, that is a massive understatement. He was the travel coordinator for one of our firm’s largest clients and his efficiency was excellent. He was thoroughly professional and also incredibly generous. The Wasim Thajudeen foundation which Asfan has founded in his brother’s wake continues the charities that Wasim contributed to without any fanfare. He truly embodied the Islamic attitude to charity, where good deeds need not be advertised.

It was a good two years after his death that I deleted Wasim’s number from my phone. There’s a part of you that wants to believe he’s still around. To flash that million dollar smile. Although his body was exhumed a few days after his old Prep school won the match in his honour, we all knew that those charred remains mean nothing. He lives on in the memories he made, and the sheer joy of living he exuded. A joy that is conspicuously absent from Sri Lankan lives at the moment.

In the weeks leading up to the Thajudeen Trophy game in 2015 disbelief has turned to anger, just as it is now, for different reasons. Whether that anger, fueled by new information about the manner of Wasim’s death, is founded or not we may never know. And as much as a part of us screams for justice, that is not nearly as important as it is to remember is how Wasim lived. Not think about how he died. Justice is important for the system, for the country, yes. But for his friends and family justice will never bring back that gangly package of positive energy.

 The best thing we can do for those who leave us too early is to continue living as they would have wanted us to. The Pride of Origin game in 2015 was exactly that, just like the walk last Tuesday. A time for friends,for family and to remember the good times. Good times, which will, most likely, elude us for some years.

Maybe Uncle Mike was mistaken that day when he said Wasim is ‘no more’. He is. And that photogenic smile will live on in our hearts. Ten years after his death, his memory is still strong and will continue to inspire us who knew him and also those who never had the pleasure.



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Yupun heads to Oregon as the third-fastest sprinter in Asia  

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by Reemus Fernando   

Sprinter Yupyn Abeykoon, who is one of the three Sri Lankan athletes to have secured their passage to the upcoming World Championships in Oregon, finished fourth in the 100 metres at the final Wanda Diamond League meeting in Stockholm’s historic Olympic Stadium on Thursday.

Sri Lanka’s only athlete to have competed at a Diamond League meet, Abeykoon clocked 10.21 seconds for his fourth-place finish. In a social media post after the race, he said that the slow start and the negative wind he encountered in the race would provide stimulation for his next race.

With his post, he has given something for the track and field fans to look forward to when he ends a long wait to see a Sri Lankan sprinter at a World Championship.

It was his second appearance in a Diamond League where only the top-notch athletes compete. Only the names of three Asians, namely, Olympian Abeykoon, India’s Olympic javelin champion Neeraj Chopra and Japanese Olympian Ryuji Miura were to be seen in the results of the Stockholm Diamond League meeting published by World Athletics.

Despite the mere participation being an achievement, Abeykoon has not given reasons to be content. In his post, he said that he was not prepared to rest until he achieves the goals he has set.

“I’m never going to put my head down until I’m satisfied with the goal I want to achieve in my career. No matter how bad a condition could affect me, or no matter how authorities disrespect and undervalue my sacrifices and my ability to do better I will always do it for myself,” Abeykoon said in his post.

Abeykoon came almost close to achieving the tough World Championship qualifying mark of 10.05 seconds this season. His legal best was 10.06 seconds to a headwind of -0.2 though he had a wind-assisted (+2.3) feat of 10.04 seconds in May in Italy where he is based.

His appearance in the men’s 100 metres at the World Championships in two weeks’ time in Oregon ends more than a decade-old drought. After Shehan Ambepitiya competed at the Berlin World Championships in 2009 no Sri Lankan sprinter has taken part in the track and field’s biennial event during the past five editions.

Former national 100 metres record holder Chinthaka de Zoysa appeared in three consecutive championships from 1995 during the period which was widely considered the golden era of athletics in Sri Lanka. There was no one to continue his legacy until Ambepitiya emerged as a true contender following his World Junior Championship heroics (appearing in the final).

Like all track and field events, the men’s 100 metres has seen a dramatic improvement during the last decade. Ambepitiya who had to struggle due to injuries had a best of 10.46 in the year he represented the country at the World Championships. He was the fastest in South Asia but in the Asian region, there were dozens of others who were faster than him. Japan’s Masashi Eriguchi, who featured in both the World Championship and Olympic finals was Asia’s best that year but had only a personal best of 10.07 (+1.9).

This year, when Abeykoon features in the World Championships he is the third fastest in Asia behind Japan’s Ryuichiro Sakai (10.02secs) and Abdul Hakim Sani Brown (10.04 secs) and will carry huge expectations. He secured his ticket to the World Championships by virtue of his ranking (42) in the World Athletics’ Road to Oregon list. Not many would bet on him to feature in the final but a sub 10 seconds feat would be within his reach. It would probably be one of his set goals and there wouldn‘t be a better place than a World Championship to accomplish that.

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Warne was ahead of his time – Arjuna

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Bitter rivals on the field, Arjuna Ranatunga was present to pay tribute to Shane Warne as Sri Lanka Cricket remembered the late leg-spinner during the first Test against Australia in Galle on Wednesday.

Rex Clementine in Galle

Their on field battles were spicy while their off field outbursts targeting each other were legendary. Both Arjuna Ranatunga and Shane Warne minced no words when it came to the other’s game or conduct. Yet, there was mutual respect between the two that was rarely noticed. When Warne wrote a book discussing the 50 greatest players he had played with or against, he had chosen Arjuna high in the pecking order. The World Cup winning Sri Lankan captain also revealed that Warne had wished him when he had become a Minister in 2015. In the public eye, they were sworn enemies. But off the field, their discussions ranged from field placings, fried chicken to kids.

Ranatunga showed up at the Galle International Stadium on Wednesday as Sri Lanka Cricket paid tribute to the leg-spinner who passed away in Thailand in March. The press were quick to catch up with him.

“Everybody knows about the run ins we had on the field but off the field we moved on well. Sri Lankans weren’t big fans of Warne, but soon after the tsunami when he came over to help, people started appreciating him as he touched their hearts,” Ranatunga told reporters.

“His death was devastating and our fans were sad. It’s a huge loss for the game as he was a brilliant student and ahead of his time. As some say, he was the best captain that Australia never had, elaborated Ranatunga.

“During our time, leg-spin was sort of a dying art. Except for Anil Kumble, Mushtaq Ahmed and Warney there weren’t many leg-spinners around. You have spinners with smooth actions and it’s good to watch. But a spinner has to turn the ball. That’s the main thing. Warney was able to do that and that was an indication that this was someone who is going to be special.”

Even to this day, for those who are engaged with the game, Arjuna emphasizes on dressing up smart as they are ambassadors of the game. One of the players he had captained is a prominent official these days and in Galle he had got an earful from the ex-captain for failing to iron his shirt. However, in Australia, a country where he has few friends, Arjuna is seen as someone who played the game ugly and even bent the rules for the advantage of his team.

“That’s something that we learned from Australia. When you go to Australia they are very tough, play the game hard and always want to win. We borrowed it from them and then used it on them. In order to compete with Australia, you have got to match their aggression and you may not be the most popular guy,” remarked Arjuna.

The legend of Warne was born at the SSC in 1992 when Sri Lanka snatched victory from the jaws of defeat losing the game by 16 runs having dominated the match for the most part. Warne cleaned up the tail picking up three wickets for no runs.

“Warne was picked at the right time. He was lucky that he had a clever captain in Allan Border. In that SSC Test, we knew that if he had bowled well in the second innings we would struggle. Still disappointed to lose that Test by the narrowest of margins as that would have been our first Test win against Australia. But that’s how the game goes. We knew from the start that Warne was special.”

“Our plan with Warney was to attack him. We knew that if we played defensively, it was just a matter of time before he got us out. Overall I would like to think that our strategy against him worked but we had bad days as well. He was too good a bowler not to come up with something to counter us. During the initial stages, I thought he wasn’t very comfortable when we attacked him. But then he developed and towards the tail end of my career he was a different bowler.”

The series between Australia and Sri Lanka has been named ‘Warne – Murali Trophy’. Which of the two spinners is the greatest?

“They were great bowlers who played for teams with different outlooks. For example, Warney played in a side that had guys like McGrath, Lee and Gillespie. Those guys had taken about three or four wickets by the time he had come and bowl. In the case of Murali, apart from Vaasy who takes a wicket or two, he had a tough ask. He had to come to bowl earlier on. Sometimes he had to take from wicket number one to last man. That’s not easy. One had a lot of time and opportunities to take wickets. The other had to share his wickets with other bowlers. Australia is a team that had so many great players. In Sri Lanka, Murali was a loner. Their rivalry was great to watch. Murali is a competitive guy and he wanted to take at least one wicket more than Warney. I thought that Murali gave his best when he played the Aussies.”

“I liked listening to Warne in commentaries. He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind out. He was outspoken and forthright, which is rare among cricket commentators these days. His cricket brain was ahead of his time.”

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Sri Lanka suffer heavy defeat in Galle after dramatic collapse

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Travis Head had never claimed a Test wicket in his career and yesterday in Galle in just 17 deliveries he accounted for four wickets as Sri Lanka collapsed in dramatic style to lose the first Test by ten wickets

Rex Clementine in Galle

After an impressive ODI series win, the national cricket team is back to square one as they suffered a heavy ten wicket defeat in the first Test in the most embarrassing way inside three days here in Galle. Sri Lanka were shot out for 113 runs in their second innings in 22.5 overs as it took Australia less than a session to run through the opposition with spinners sharing all ten wickets. It’s Sri Lanka’s second lowest total ever in Galle.

Trailing by 109 runs in the first innings, Sri Lanka started off well as the openers added 37 runs for the first  wicket. Mitchell Starc’s first over had gone for 17 runs including four boundaries. That was the end of seam as Pat Cummins reverted to an all spin attack and the trio of Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Swepson and Travis Head ensured that Australia were home before lunch.

The Australian batters had used the sweep shot to great effect and Sri Lankans took a leaf out of them trying to bat themselves out of trouble with the high risk stroke. But there was a significant difference. Sri Lanka’s bowling was wayward and all over the place while the Australians were on the money and it was just a matter of time before the batsman perished.

Dimuth Karunarante and Pathum Nissanka fell in successive overs and then Kusal Mendis and Oshada Fernando departed in the space of seven deliveries as Sri Lanka were reduced to 63 for four.

A 32 run stand followed between Dinesh Chandimal and Dhananjaya de Silva for the fifth wicket and Pat Cummins figured that Swepson had become predictable. Then he threw the ball to part-timer Travis Head, who had never taken a Test wicket in his career. Soon, he became lethal polishing the lower order as he picked up four wickets in 17 deliveries.

Head claimed his maiden Test wicket with his second delivery as Chandimal was bowled neck and crop. The batsman was standing in disbelief after the ball had spun sharply and went through the gate. Three deliveries later, Dhananjaya de Silva was trapped leg before wicket to leave Sri Lanka with the tail. There was not much resistance as the last six wickets fell for 13 runs as Australia wrapped the Test match inside three days. Australia needed just five runs for victory and Warner leveled the scores with a reverse sweep for four off Ramesh Mendis in the third ball of the innings. The next ball he launched for a six to win the game in style before lunch.

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