Ambalangoda: Sri Lanka’s Talent Mine
Many famous personalities, including current cricket captains Chandimal (Test) and Tharanga (ODI & T20), have come out of this coastal town
Can you imagine just how high-decibel the hype would be if India’s Test and limited-overscaptainscamefromone school? Can you begin to think how famous a coach would be if he was the one who helped two of India’s biggest cricketers reach the peak, having taken them under wing when neither’s age was in double digits?
Such things are almost impossible to understand given the pedestal cricket is put on in India, and given how much traction young players get in newspapers, in cricket circles, on social media and God knows elsewhere.
But, in Sri Lanka, Dinesh Chandimal, the Test captain, and Upul Tharanga, the limitedovers captain, can come from one school, the Dharmasoka College, be coached by one man in all the years that matter, Asoka Kumara, and attract almost no attention.
When India’s cricketers left Galle on Monday, they would have had their smart travel kit on and headphones properly plugged in after a night or two celebrating the win in the first Test. By the time their bus, led by a pilot motorcycle and protective jeep cordon, hit the expressway, many might have dozed off. What they would have missed, is the turn off to Ambalangoda, which appears inconspicuously about half an hour into the Galle-Colombo expressway.
Ambalangoda is not actually on that road, but on the picturesque old Colombo-Galle road, which admittedly took five hours or more to drive through. Ambalangoda would have been impossible to miss. At last official census, the population of Ambalangoda was less than 60,000. A large residential complex in Gurugram or Powai would house more people.
And yet, Ambalangoda has given Sri Lanka not just its two current cricket captains, but also Sarath Fonseka, the commander of the forces that won Sri Lanka’s civil war, Rohana Wijeweera, once a presidential candidate and founder of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the extreme communist party at the head of the 1971 and 1987-89 armed insurrections. DS de Silva, the former Test captain, Rasika Prabhath, the national basketball players, the Karunaratne brothers, table-tennis players all, one of who is an Olympian, and several swimmers are all from the region. More peacefully, Ambalangoda is best known for its ancient devil masks, carved out of soft wood, and devil dancers, who perform exorcisms when called to. While Sri Lanka is full of tourist traps, from surfing beaches to Buddhist temples, from rock carvings to leopard sanctuaries, Ambalangoda is one of those paddy field preserves, bordered by kaduru (akin to balsa wood) trees.
The one cricket ground at the Dharmasoka College is in a state of disrepair. “Our team is playing in Division 1 in schools cricket, we have produced so many national players, and we have three teams competing now,” Asoka Kumara, head coach at the school at the forefront of cricket in region, told the Economic Times. “I don’t know what more we have to do to get more funds for out school. At the moment it is very difficult to manage, but we do what we can.” Chandimal and Tharanga have another thread that binds them, having both faced the destructive fury of the 2004 tsunami. Chandimal was at home and saw the giant wave heading his way before fleeing from his home. Both households suffered serious losses of property and livelihood but have since fought back in typically Sri Lankan fashion
Kumara, now 57 years old, a former first class cricketer and an out-and-out Ambalangoda native, remembers the time his most famous wards turned up. “It was in 1996 that Tharanga came to me, as a nine-year-old. He had played soft-ball cricket and the talent was obvious, but nobody knew he would go so far,” said Kumara. In the first innings of the first Test againstIndia, Tharanga was easily the most impressive batsman, cracking along at a good pace before he gave his wicket away. “That was the year Sri LankawontheWorldCup,andsoonafterDinesh also joined me, in my academy and school.”
Chandimal, who missed the first Test through illness, has long been touted as the future of Sri Lankan cricket, and India will remember just how destructive he can be, his unbeaten 162 in Galle in the previous series turning a lost cause into a win for Sri Lanka.
“The thing is, we are on the beach so the boys are always swimming, playing football and staying active even when they are not playing cricket,” Kumara says of why his youngsters are so much stronger than many of the rest. What he does not say, but other Ambalangoda faithful are less bashful of revealing, is the other big secret to the region’s success.
Off the coast of Ambalangoda, the prized catch is a fish locally called bala malu, which, roughly translated, means the fish which gives strength. This is a fish that looks like tuna, has the same texture, but tastes different, local experts say. However, the nutritive value of this fish is what it is most known for.
While India’s cricketers seek out sushi restaurants in Colombo and savour their crustaceans in the famed Ministry of Crab, Sri Lanka’s strongmen from Ambalangoda are making the most of their own superfood.
Upul Tharanga Dinesh Chandimal