International cricketers like Angelo Matthews have been groomed at the grassroots level by coaches at school level in Sri Lanka who are the real custodians of the game © Getty Images
International cricketers like Angelo Matthews have been groomed at the grassroots level by coaches at school level in Sri Lanka who are the real custodians of the game © Getty Images

 

By Sidhanta Patnaik

 

International cricket is just the tip of the iceberg as the sport in its entirety involves a widespread network of individuals with varied characters who play a definitive role in giving life to this glorious game. Grassroot-level cricket coaches are one such specimen. Each one of them has a story and it makes for intriguing content.

 

I met one such personality yesterday who is now in charge of the game in a reputed school of Negombo, a city that is an hour away from Colombo by road. There was something pleasing about his methodology, the way he spoke to his boys at the nets. His face carried a smile that only a man who is doing what he loves to do can reveal. I was greeted with a firm handshake. He looked straight into my eyes and then gave me a pat on my back. Impressed by his confidence, I was urged from within to speak to him and get a perspective of what it is to be a school cricket coach in a country where schools and clubs are the national team’s lifeline.

 

He was shy and unwilling to open up but then my friend cajoled him to speak since I had come from India and was keen to know more from him. The school nets had just got over, it was already dark and I had to head back to Colombo. He agreed to speak but on the basis of anonymity and all that I had was five minutes of his time. That moment it once again set upon me that the fear of words getting credited to a source remain a perennial issue in subcontinent’s cricket where factional politics and lobby votes continue to rule the roost.

 

As a premier-level cricketer he started his career as a wicket-keeper batsman, but when he quit in 1989 he was more of a bowling all-rounder – one of those innumerable journeyman utility cricketers who have served the game in a wholesome capacity across continents. It was an entirely different era in Sri Lankan cricket when the place in the national team was preserved for the students of the premier schools of Colombo.

 

From there he went on to become a district coach and remained so for a long time. It was a good life that took care of the bills but he quit to join a school as the head coach for a meagre pay. When quipped for the reason behind it the reply was something I was hoping not to hear, “too much of political interference.” Directionless governance and vested interest restricted him from doing the right things and building a strong district team. His aim was to set up a system through which his boys would graduate to be provincial cricketers and then, maybe, go on to represent the nation. But his work was marred by quota selections and other whims and fancies of the remote control holders. Though he was conversing with a grin on his face, yet it was not difficult to gauge how de-motivated he would have been then. In Sinhala he mumbled to my friend and all I could pick up were two words – “Maharoof” and “Matthews”. As it turned out to be, once upon a time he was a part of the grassroots coaching set up that played a key role in grooming both Farvez Maharoof and Angelo Matthews. Today, between them, they have an experience of 222 international matches. He was quick to mention that if you are writing about our interaction do not credit me for their growth.

 

Though his present job is not lucrative yet it is the love for the game that keeps him going. He is satisfied and is qualitatively engaged in grooming young individuals who would then go on to bring laurels for every team they represent. The current under-19 Sri Lanka school and national team captain Angelo Jayasinghe happens to be a product of the school where he is the coach.

 

With it the stipulated five minutes got over and I promised that I will interact with him more on a further date to get a larger account of the dynamics of Sri Lanka’s grassroots cricket. This interaction was a timely reminder that no matter how much of commotion seeps into the system through greedy power seekers and a handful of soul selling cricketers, the real custodians of the game are the grassroots coach since they put the casting mould of the finished product that the world sees. Thankfully they are clean, sincere, humble, dedicated, passionate and highly-committed to their cause.

 

It is another matter though that if they continue to be treated like doormats and not given their due credit then soon the entire fraternity might be grasping for breath. As I was about to leave the ground a group of kids with their cricket kit bags crossed my path and a thought crossed my mind – Every Sri Lankan cricketer must have started his journey under the watchful eyes of a coach in one of the many school grounds located across the island’s nine provinces.

 

(Sidhanta Patnaik is a sports marketing professional, public speaker and a part time writer. His twitter id is @sidhpat)