Touring Aussies Play First Cricket Match in Former War Zone

The cricket loving folk of Killinochchi have been deprived of seeing foreign cricketers for a long time. Longer than the life span of any current Sri Lankan cricketer. Foreign cricketers last played in Northern Province, when cricket was only played in whites with red balls, helmets were in their infancy and cricket on television in Sri Lanka was a long distant dream. Sri Lanka playing Test cricket was still a dream.

Now through the will power of the Foundation of Goodness, the meticulous dedication to detail and duty of the Sri Lankan army and the buccaneering spirit of the u17 team of Melbourne’s Ferntree Gully District Cricket Association and Australian Hellenic Federation  whose visit was initiated by David Cruse, a giant step has been taken for cricket in northern Sri Lanka, with a 20 over game between the Australians and a combined North and East under 17 XI, that has hopefully opened the floodgates for more foreign teams and local teams for that matter, to experience the passion of a cricket mad public who have been deprived of the summer game for three long generations.

The game was hosted at the Killinochchi Central College ground, which was transformed from a rather drab expanse of grass into a vibrant cauldron of noise and passion, with covered seating for well over a thousand spectators, wall to wall music, dancers, a brass band and a moving ceremony in which 84 bikes were handed over to local school children as part of Sanga’s Bikes for Life campaign and the Australian cricketers gifting a bike each for the North/ East team in a moving gesture.

A lot of the credit for the days success has to go to the SF Commander Kilinochchi Major General Udaya Perera and Brigadier Suraj Bansa Jayah, who as well as proving themselves to be charming host’s with an admirable dedication to service, proved once again, after the success of last year’s Murali Cup, along with their equally amicable and hospitable officers and soldiers, that the Sri Lankan army can put on a cricketing event like few others. Work was going on till the dawn of the match day and come full light a stadium suitable for such an iconic match was ready.

After the national anthems were sung and the local dignitaries safely seated, the match commenced in nervy fashion. Both sides seem understandably a little overawed by the occasion, with the Australians having the better of the opening exchanges, bowling first with two tall quick’s making good use of the bouncy matting wicket and the Lankan’s failed to get a run in front of square till the fourth over. For a few anxious minutes it looked as if the northerners lack of hard ball match experience would be too much  of a hurdle to climb, but gradually the nerves ceased and slowly but surely they took control of the innings, getting the run rate up above 7 by the half way mark.

Young Nadeesha a left hander from Trincomalee looked the pick of the batsmen. Fluid of movement and strong through the off side, he was a young man who was as easy on the eye as the lovely army girls handing flowers upon arrival on the ground. Nadeesha had a tendency to get a bit carried away and charged the bowler as a matter of course, overplaying his hand, but when set at the crease and timing rather than smashing the ball, looked a young player of huge potential. Sri Lankan cricketing elder statesmen Michael Tissera, a guest of the Foundation of Goodness and intrigued watcher gave him a knowing nod of approval.

The constant gripe of the ever expanding number of qualified coaches working in the north has been the lack of competitive cricket, but chief coach ‘Pushy’ Pushpakumara former new ball bowler for the national side is increasingly optimistic that things are changing;

“The North and East Combined u23 XI are currently doing a tour of Colombo, playing the Nepalese national team amongst others. We have more and more players going down to Colombo to get match hardened (there is still no first class team in the north) and with events like Monday, my boys will only get better. The natural talent is in no doubt,” said Pushpakumara.

Add to this the planned opening of the Killinochchi Sports Centre, a multi-sport arena that will host international cricket with a capacity of around 12,000 and the steady stream of serious talent emerging and a lot of Sri Lankan dreams of having a truly representative national side draws ever closer.

The unstinting work of the Foundation of Goodness which has resulted in rebuilding the lives of 10,000 northerners in harmony with the army is also proving crucial in making things happen, where without perseverance they simply wouldn’t. FoG’s Three Musketeers were out in force.

Kushil Gunasekera, Founder and Chief Trustee, the visionary and big picture man, with the easy manner and beaming smile of a man content in his own skin. Kushil’s school days cricketing sidekick Anura de Silva runs the increasingly busy cricketing sides of things (18 matches in the next couple of months from visiting foreign teams at their Seenigama base), with a whimsical touch and a unquenched enthusiasm for the game and the good it can do. Finally the wonderfully vivacious ball of energy that is Fazana Ibrahim deals with the nuts and bolts and good natured ribbing of her colleagues, while leading the humanitarian effort in FoG’s quest to help rehabilitate northern villages. The warmth of the welcome she received from all and sundry is ample proof of the unstinting good work she does.

The Lankan’s made an imposing 173-6 of their twenty overs, helped by a heap of extra’s as the young Aussie struggled with the vagaries of the mat. Some of the wides on height were harsh, with spinners bouncing the ball head height from just short of a length.

The music never stopped and the crowd a nice mix of school children and adults got more and more into the contest as the Lankans took the field and showed tenacity and competitive spirit that will see them in good stead as their careers develop.

A fiery pace attack was backed up by superb fielding and catching on an outfield that was not pristine. The diminutive keeper Anjana Nilupul set the tone with a performance of the highest class after a slapdash start where the pace of the wicket caught him out, causing fingers to be snapped back and much grimacing. He overcame this though and showed himself to have wonderfully soft hands and nimble footwork, meaning he never needed to dive. He made what was something of a keepers nightmare look like an afternoon at the SSC. Some of his takes took the breath away. Once again Tissera looked impressed.

The Aussies started well with 12 off the first over, but lost wickets regularly and only some big hitting from the tail got them to 117, a commendable effort considering the occasion, their dearth of experience on the mat and the strong cross wind that enveloped the ground.

Nick Hatzogolu one of the Aussie coaches and organisers was fulsome in his praise:

“This is so much more than we were expecting. Talk about the wow factor. This is it. We have been made to feel so special, the hospitality has been superb and the people in the north have just been so lovely. I’m pretty sure all of us will remember this day for the rest of our lives,” said Hatzogloo.

The likable Aussie also paid tribute to the fighting spirit of the northern lads ‘you could really see it in their eyes’ as well as their abundant talent and expressed surprise at the lack of spinners they have faced and the quality of pace bowling throughout their island wide tour of the island.

All of this bodes so massively well for Sri Lankan cricket. The emerging talent, the work of the army and FoG, the coaching structures being put in place and the imminent arrival of an international stadium all suggest that Sri Lanka may be on a new dawn of cricketing achievement with a far larger catchment pool of players and fan base, that should in the near future go a long way towards ending Sri Lanka’s current unwanted reputation as being the perennial bridesmaids of world cricket.

Richie Browne (For the Sunday Leader, 07.07.13)

Ceylon today article: http://www.ceylontoday.lk/5-36982-news-detail-from-nightmares-to-dream-wares.html















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