x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Colombo, the nerve centre of Sri Lanka cricket

Any aspiring star from the island must pack their bags and head west. Paul Radley reports from the nation's commercial capital.

If anyone expects to make it in cricket in this country, they have to make the pilgrimage to Colombo.
If anyone expects to make it in cricket in this country, they have to make the pilgrimage to Colombo.

While the rest of the subcontinent gets ready for a fixture touted as the biggest cricket match in history in Mohali, here in Sri Lanka the two most parochial nations in the sport continue to prove that size is not everything.

New Zealand have comfortably the smallest pool of players to pick from out of any of cricket's leading nations, but even they have to defer to the minimalism of their hosts in tomorrow's World Cup semi-final.

Three clubs which provide the bulk of players for the Sri Lankan team are situated right next to each other on Maitland Place in the Colombo Seven district.

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Sinhalese Sports Club, which houses the headquarters of the Sri Lanka Cricket Board, and Nondescripts are separated by a fence, while on the other side of the road lies Colombo Cricket Club.

Another leading club, Sanath Jayasuriya's Bloomfield, is a three-minute drive away, and Colts, where Chaminda Vaas rose to prominence, is two minutes further on.

If anyone expects to make it in cricket in this country, they have to make the pilgrimage to Colombo.

Kumar Sangakkara, who originates from Kandy but moved to Colombo to play for Nondescripts, believes the centralisation of the game here is a crucial factor in allowing an island nation of 21 million people to punch above their weight on the international stage.

"We have had some great cricketers produced in Sri Lanka," Sangakkara, who followed in the footsteps of the likes of Aravinda de Silva and Hashan Tillekeratne as Nondescripts players to captain Sri Lanka, said. "We are proud of that heritage, and for us to be part of that legacy is very important.

"Another factor [in Sri Lanka's success] is that we are very small as a country, and everyone lives in and around Colombo.

"They all play their cricket around Colombo, no matter where they come from, so we see each other almost every day and we play each other on the weekends. That makes it easier for us to bond."

Avishka Gunawardene, the former national team opener, epitomises the insularity.

After starting his professional career at Nondescripts, he was persuaded to jump the fence and open the batting for Sinhalese by Arjuna Ranatunga, who was also a former pupil of the same school, Alanda. Now Gunawardene is the full-time coach of Sinhalese, yet he happily goes next door to his former club when Sangakkara, who he mentors, wants to work on his batting.

"Everything revolves around Colombo," Gunawardene said while overseeing his side's victory over Badureliya yesterday. "There is Kandy, Galle and Kurunegala which are the main places other than Colombo where players come from.

"If there are good players, we need to get them down to Colombo because everything is here - the facilities, the clubs, the competitions. Even if you are an outstation boy playing at an outstation school, everyone ends up at Colombo."

Upul Tharanga, one of the two centurions who crushed England in Saturday's quarter-final, is one such outstation boy.

He comes from Ambalangoda, on the south western coast, where his family home was washed away when the 2004 tsunami struck.

After showing promise in age-group cricket, he moved to Colombo, and stayed at Sangakkara's house and joined his club, Nondescripts.

Lasith Malinga, the fast bowler, also learnt the game on the southern beaches, before moving north to Sri Lanka's largest city in search of a profession in the game.

The urban drift is not solely down to the standard of cricket. The sport only supports relatively few professional players, and they have to find other ways to supplement their income.

Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, his vice-captain, both worked in banks while they were starting out in the game, and Thilan Samaraweera, the batsman, still does.

"I worked for a bank for 13 years of my life," Gunawardene said. "Cricket was not professional. We used to play club games and the clubs never used to pay anything for us. Petrol money and even the post match drinks, we had to buy.

"We had to have something to fall back on. If you weren't picked for the national side, you had to depend on your job.

"Now the players get paid for everything. If they play a club game, they get paid, and 100 players are contracted to the cricket board.

"A company will employ a cricketer obviously with the intention of letting them go for training. You hardly go to the office, but it provides prestige for the employers, too."

 

pradley@thenational.ae