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

The Economic Times - - Sports: The Great Games - Anand Vasu,

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

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