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12th September, 2004  Volume 11, Issue  9

First with the news and free with its views                                     First with the news and free with its views                             First with the news and free with its views                                    

Sports

Atapattu's search for self-belief

By T.M.K. Samat 

BRING on the world: we're ready. Not quite in those very words, but that was pretty much the message from skipper Marvan Samson Atapattu as the Sri Lanka team set-off on their ICC Champions Trophy campaign in England.

His exact words: "We have the confidence and the spirit to face any side on any given day." Clearly, optimism is on a high, which is the ideal state of mind to be before the battles. Atapattu, of course, must know that "confidence" and ''spirit" alone won't win matches. But that's not for him to say at this point in time. Shrewdly, the 33-year-old pragmatist rather dwells on the tangible, which presently is his team's historic conquest of South Africa. It does make sense to squeeze out all that is there to take from the stunning achievements of a few days ago and keep confidence on high fire. After all, victory's confidence lasts only until the next battle has begun. 

A part of the Sri Lanka team since 1990, and doing duty under four different captains, the long experience has surely taught Atapattu that the chasm between promise and achievement isn't easy to bridge. He has seen more than once in the past pre-tour optimism dissolve into anguish - no better example than the 2002 tour of England. They went to battle with confidence brimming, from ten successive Test victories, but alas, that counted for nothing: The series was lost comprehensively, 0/2.

With that sort of history, it is excusable to think that Atapattu might have shot his mouth off. But his nature is not given to making empty boasts. He knows that there's every chance he might have to eat back his words, and if he has to, so be it. Because, the thinker he is, the intent of his words has to go beyond this two-week tournament. Since assuming overall leadership last April, the studious approach to his job is clearly visible. In the 14 years as a player, doubtlessly, he has formed ideas of his own on the dos and don'ts required to meld a winning unit. Obviously there's a heap of dos to take from Ranatunga's 1996 World champion team, which, though not one of the eleven, he was a member of that squad. As well, there's much good to derive from Jayasuriya's outfit that won a sequence of ten Tests.

In between those peaks, there were also times spent in the valleys - and so, surely he must've deduced reasons for those ups-and-downs. At the time of posting those ten Test wins, Jayasuriya's men spent some months in the second rung of the Test rankings. But a few months and a few series later, his team plummeted to below sixth. Of course, one of the reasons for the descent was the incapacity to cope with the differing conditions overseas. But then, even winning on home shores, too, became difficult, as happened last year. He has probably concluded that a lack of talent and ability had less to do with fortunes' vagary as state of mind.

So, apparently, was born the words: bring on the world, we're ready. He is intelligent to know that confidence and self-belief are two different things. Confidence born of success can easily be killed-off by a defeat that follows. Self-belief is sterner: it removes the definition of defeat from the mind; there's no easy surrender, no capitulation in the face of crisis. These distinctive features of self-belief haven't quite been the characteristics of Sri Lanka cricket.

Clearly, Atapattu wants to give his team a different profile by taking confidence, in this case accrued from successes against S. Africa, to the further point of self-belief. Evidence of that is plentiful. Let's take his one-day leadership. The Asia Cup triumph stands out, and that it was achieved with practically the same players of four-five years ago, bar Mahroof and Malinga, is an obvious reflection of Atapattu's ability to inspire his men - to believe in themselves. Another example: the one-day success in the Caribbean, 2/1 - two wins wrenched out from the jaws of defeat, achievements that might not have been but for self-belief.

When the Test captaincy was added on to his list of duties, Atapattu's influence on the team became even more profound. The whitewashing of Zimbabwe's second-stringers isn't much to trumpet about, but it did get Atapattu's leadership off to an auspicious start. The series against Australia, in Australia, might have been lost 1/0, but in performing far better than was expected, mind you without Muralidaran, Atapattu's captaincy perceptibly was directing his team to a different destination. Confirmation of which was provided by the outstanding gains obtained from the series against the South Africans.

It is nice to think the winning ways of Atapattu's men will continue in England. Recent statistics suggests it should: 15 of the last 16 matches have been won. But there are some hard facts that ought to temper high expectations, none more significant than the English conditions. Speak of them, and at once images of the sufferings and humiliations in 2002 leap to mind. In cold, damp conditions, Sri Lanka were thrashed out of sight in two Tests and the one-day triangular, including India.

The thought that then it was May and now it's September is comforting. Both, officially, are summer months, but May can so easily be yet the cold days of winter and autumn's chill can descend in a hurry in September. Just how Sept 14 (v. Zimbabwe) and 17th (v. England) turns out will be known on the day itself. The England match will be played closer to the north, where the winds can be most chilly. Atapattu's hope will be to have the sun on their backs. If not, Atapattu's motivating skills will be tested in trying to get his men to put mind over matter.

It's advantageous to be playing Zimbabwe before England, presently on the crest of a wave of success. Atapattu, of course, knows the perils of assumption, even against the lowly Zimbabweans. It's best to set a benchmark for Zimbabwe game - that is to try and overcome them by a better margin than what England did last Friday. And take that psychological advantage in to the make-or-break game of Sept. 17. A lot will ride here on how much our top six batsmen (Gunawardena/ Jayantha, Jayasuriya, Atapattu, Sangakkara, Jayewardene and Dilshan) will contribute. It would be wonderful if they can continue to prosper they way they did in the series against the South Africans. But that won't be easy on the seaming English pitches against the likes of Harmison, Gough and Flintoff.

Yet, there's no reason to think what England seamers can do, ours can't. Vaas, Zoysa, Mahroof/ Malinga/Fernando. All of them have experienced English conditions, and fortified with their newfound confidence, one hopes they'll be potent enough to cause anxiety in the English batting.

One-day cricket, though, is a game conceptually not far removed from snakes and ladders. So, just as much England can win Friday next, so can Sri Lanka. Of course, clinching the ICC Trophy will provide the ultimate joy. If, however, Atapattu's men return without it, but with self-belief stronger, then, that's what would be all right for the future.


Colombo launch pad of Asian under 14 series

SRI Lanka was chosen to kick-off the Asian Under 14 Series, a new development initiative for Asia by Australian Open, an arm of Tennis Australia, in association with the Asian Tennis Federation. 

Richie Gee, the Asia/Pacific Marketing Manager for Australian Open, said that the new series will be made up of eight tournaments to held in five regions in Asia, and the September 21-25 event on the SLTA courts, Green Path, would be the launch. ''The honour of opening the series went to Sri Lanka because its president, Suresh Subramaniam, was the first to bid for an event," said Gee, who was in Colombo last week to give the SLTA the organizational guidelines.

Sri Lanka is one of two tournaments allotted to South Asia by Australia Open; the other is New Delhi. Similarly, Beijing and Seoul are venues for the East Asia sector, with Bangkok and Manila playing host to S.E. Asia's countries. Qatar and Uzbekistan will host the West and Central Asian sectors respectively. Future events will be rotated among willing countries.

The Colombo event, as well as New Delhi's, will be open to players from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka. The boys and girls singles champions of each tournament will eventually play in the Asian Series final in January-February in the prestigious Melbourne Park, venue of the Australian Open Grand Slam. As well, they will be invited to compete the Australian Under 14 National championship in Sydney.

''The aim of the series basically is to develop tennis in the Asian region by giving more opportunities for the juniors. The Australia Open is offering the 16 winners (from the eight tournaments) an all-expenses tour of Australia to play in the Asian Series final. That's just one of the prizes," said Gee. "The more valuable one will be the access to the Australian Grand Slam, where they could likely share the same dining table with a Federer, Roddick or Agassi. There's a lot of inspiration a junior can get out of meeting their heroes."

The Australian Open Grand Slam event dates back to 1905. One of the reasons why Tennis Australia created the Australian Open in the late 1990s is to fulfill its responsibilities to countries in the Asian and Pacific region being the Grand Slam country of the region. ''We are one of only four countries in the world that have been given Grand Slam status. And the Australian Open is the Grand Slam for Asia/Pacific, and we realize we have to commit ourselves to development of the sport in the regions. The Asian under 14 series is one those responsibilities we are fulfilling," said Gee. 

Australia Open is also offering another incentive to the singles champion of the annual Asian Championship: a wild card to the main draw of the Australian Open Grand Slam. "We know a career in professional sport gets less priority than studies in this part of the world. By giving the Asian champion a wild card to the main draw of our Grand Slam, hopefully, will contribute to altering attitudes to professional tennis in Asia," said Gee.

The Colombo event next week will feature four events _ singles and doubles for boys and girls. The main draw for the singles will be 32 players and the doubles, sixteen.


A story in the way only Bertie can tell it  

A book on cricket by Bertie Wijesinha was long over due. He was the country's best cricket writer in the 1950s and 60s, as readers of the now defunct Ceylon Observer of those days will vouch. He was also Sri Lanka cricketer from 1948 to '56, and his playing days with the SSC prolonged into the early 1970s. He had, no doubt, many stories to tell from all those long years spent on the playing fields. So, it was only natural to look forward to a book from Bertie.

At long last that book arrived a fortnight ago: Love of a Lifetime (Publisher Sidath Wettimuny. Rs.500). Its' lateness makes it all the more welcome, especially to those of us who've long admired his writings.

Wijesinha, prior to the book's launch a fortnight ago, told me that his writing would trace the growth of game here from beginning to the present. The book at hand, it was a happy discovery that history doesn't preponderate the book. As I did suspect, much of the 194 pages is devoted to the era he knew and played in - of players of the 1940s and 50s and of the idiosyncrasies of those who he knew more intimately. 

One of them was Lucien Edward de Zoysa, his twin commentator on radio for decades. A chapter of eight pages is given de Zoysa, entitled Man for All Eventualities. And a delicious anecdote from the 1949 tour here by the West Indies speaks of one of those de Zoysa-eventualities. The West Indies of that year had Prior Jones and Trim who had struck fear in the hearts of batsmen the world over, as the likes of Hall, Griffiths, Marshall and Holding did in later years.

Let Bertie tell the story himself: The Ceylon team, selected in some hurry, (for the first game in Galle) had only one opening batsman!

''Lucien; get your pads on," came the command of the Skipper who knew Lucien well.

"Who? Me!" pleaded Lucien.. And so he went out to the 'slaughter' as he called it to face Jones and Trim. His partner, averred de Zoysa, played the 'dirty' on him by going to the safe end of the first vital over.

Matters looked worse when he noticed wicket-keeper Clyde Walcott standing half way to the fence!

The point of this interlude is that when it came to the (next) match in Colombo Lucien reverted to his rightful place - at number eleven.

Which in turn provoked Walcott to remark: ''Number one in Galle! Number eleven in Colombo? Mighty strong batting side!" 

That's Wijesinha's way of telling a story. And that's how he relates his stories of past greats Derek de Saram, M Sathasivam, Ben Navaratne, Sargo Jayawickrema, C I Gunasekera et al., replete with anecdotes.

Of course, to maintain the faade of beginning-to-now history, an omission of the Sri Lanka cricket's finest hour that day in 1996 would be a grave error. Wijesinha has a two-page text on it, in which he hands Arjuna Ranatunga a tremendous tribute. He writes: Ranatunga was the equal and would bear comparison in performance and influence for Sri Lanka cricket with C K Nayudu of India, Frank Worrel of the West Indies, Imran Khan of Pakistan and, perhaps, Sir Donald Bradman of Australia, all of whom shaped their countries' cricket destinies.

He describes Aravinda de Silva as a ''modern day wizard", and ranks him ''one of the leading batsmen in his generation in the World; Tendulkar, Azaruddin, Lara, Inzamam notwithstanding."

References to Ranatunga, de Silva and the first ever Lords Test, Sidath Wettimuny's Test really, are as expected not sparkling as those anecdote-filled stories of players of Wijesinha's era. 

It is unfortunate that Wijesinha, with his exceptional writing skills and knowledge acquired as player and coach, doesn't write on the game now. Had he, his comments would certainly have served modern cricket well. Cricket has many columnists these days, but few as admirable as the ones penned by Rohan Wijeyaratna. Cricket deserves another columnist of that kind; I can't think of anyone better than Wijesinha to fill the void. But then the call of the pen is less appealing than feel of bat and ball on palms. At 84, Wijesinha is yet a coach - at the SSC Junior Academy. Cricket is his love of a lifetime.


Motor racing brings Pannala alive

Small showers of blessings began to drop as the picturesque Pannala track began the countdown. for what was to be a spectacular motor racing event in the annals of the sport in Sri Lanka. And on cue, .sharp (just 2 mts to go) at 10 am on a balmy Sunday, 5 September, the President of the AMRC, Trevor Reckerman switched on the start lights that set off what will be an historic motor racing meet, in motion.

Race Director, Bri Ponnambalam took over from there and ran all of the 11 events (with concurrent events too) in his inimitable clockwork style. Not for a moment did the race organization falter, events after event, run to schedule, so much so, that motor sports veterans like Mr. T B Herath were heard to say 'looks like we have turned the corner'.

On the track, the excitement was surprisingly muted, but several events brought out the challenge in its classes. Rohan De Silva and Rizvi Farouk battled it out in the Formulas, conceding one each to the other, as did Dinesh Deheragoda and Riyaz Farook in the Super Cars. The final event indeed brought the curtain down with a flourish, when a downpour slowed the race down, and Dinesh cautious in the slippery conditions, gave way to Riyaz who dared to win in a fitting thriller. Richard De Zoysa, the starter aptly commented that it was the conditions that "separate the men from the boys." In between, Dinesh Jayawardane, got the better of Elly Gerson in the Group SL-N event, after a cat and mouse contest, when Gerson left the racing line and settled in the sandbags.

Off the track, the event organizers had rewritten the script The gates were more orderly, the paddocks more streamlined, and the centre island more out of the society pages. Sponsor marques were all neatly laid out with CCTV binging all section of the track to the guest, and slick catering providing a F&B service which would have done a five star proud.

The secretariat was run elegantly by the rose of the management team Ramani Ponnambalam, whose precise and clinical approach kept the race plan ticking. The media was well located and well supported with prompt results released by the stewards, except for two disputed events.

And thus SPEED 2004, went very smooth and very fast, but also in great fashion. Obviously, there were the touches of grandeur, not just from the drivers, but also those from the back office who know what they are doing. The Indian team of timers were greatly impressed "this is an eye opener" they said, promising to get an Indo-Sri Lanka meet on the cards soon.

For those who may dwell on the shortcomings, all one could say is there is infinitely more to look forward to when the SPEED 2005 Series gets going next year.


England - Australia favourites

 

England and Australia start as favourites to win the Champions' Trophy, or whatever the latest shindig is called. Not that anything can safely be predicted about a knockout tournament except that it will have more surprises than an episode of a soap opera. Each team plays two matches in a league whose winner advances to the semi-finals. Any team losing a  match might as well catch the next flight home. It will be all over in about the time it takes our beloved postal service to deliver a letter.

Within a month the entire thing will have been forgotten. No sane person can remember who won the last Champions' Trophy or even where it was played. Still every respectable team in the world will be playing - and a few dubious types- so the tournament will have a measure of credibility and the cricket ought to be fun provided the weather holds. But nothing of significance can be decided by a competition played in an English autumn. Australia has the strongest team and everyone knows it. They proved the point in March 2003. These issues cannot be revisited every five minutes.

England might take the trophy because it has home advantage and has been playing some fine cricket over the last few months. At present England is more convincing in the longer version of the game owing to a tendency to play jacks of all trades in these briefer encounters. Nevertheless Michael Vaughan has a spirited side at his disposal and can call upon an improving fast bowler in Steve Harmisson and the game's  hardest hitting batsman in Andrew Flintoff.

England has not won much in the last forty years, especially in cricket in which it cannot spend most of its time playing neighbours still recovering variously from the battle of Culloden, the potato famine and the closing of the mines. English sport is enjoying a revival largely due to the discovery of a few outstanding rugby players and the emergence in many sports of the sort of brilliant black athletes that  South Africans crave. "Daniel" Defoe is the latest example-he scored against Poland last week whereupon the players refused to talk to the benighted English press, a manoeuvre that ought to be encouraged.-

In the long run England will be the strongest cricket nation in the world because it can combine without complication or artificiality stoical anglo-saxons, a vibrant Indian community and committed black Africans. South Africa has the same opportunity but will first have to sack allits sports administrators and start again.

The Australians cannot be discounted in any competition. Collect a few blokes off Bondi Beach and they will put up a fight so long as they aren't drunken English tourists or Japanese visitors worrying about sharks. Despite lacking what they are pleased to call a " fair dinkum" all-rounder and missing a certain leg-spinner the Australians will be hard to beat provided they can overcome New Zealand in the first round.

A lot of nonsense is talked about the Aussies. The idea that they are constantly tossing youngsters into the pot is a fallacy spread by them and swallowed by rivals. In fact Australia sets a high store by experience. Apart from a few obvious candidates , most of the current crop.established themselves in their late twenties and in some cases in their thirties. Of course the Australians are right. As the Bard pointed out long ago the period between 14 and 24 is invariably unproductive owing to an obsession with wenching, drinking and music played by chaps evidently having a rotten time.

Anyone looking for a dark horse might consider a Kiwi team that is desperate to confirm its powers by winning an international competition. New Zealand and England might have challenged for the World Cup had they not indulged themselves in fatuous boycotts against danger and the monster Mugabe. Stephen Fleming's team contains most of the game's leading alrounders. After 30 years or one-day cricket it had been anticipated that every player would be able to bat and bowl. Instead the game has been reminded that it is difficult to master one craft let alone two.

A challenge can be expected from the subcontinental sides. Pakistan is ably led and coached and plays as a team which has not always been the case. India will miss its best batsman but can field Rahul Dravid and Irfan Pathan,  worthy winners of recent awards. Dravid was the right choice as Player of the Year.because he produced numerous towering operformances at crucial times. Pathan pipped Hasim at the post, two youngsters who play with spirit and skill.

Sri Lanka has been playing superbly at home but might not be as effective overseas. Vaas has been in fine form  and deserved his recent recognition. . Murali must not worry about his exclusion from the team chosen by the worthies.He has missed some matches and Warne did outbowl him when they pair met face to face. His record speaks foritself . South Africa and West Indies include some top-class performers but have been giving too much away in the field.

Of course five or six teams have a chance.  Yet it is a truth not universally acknowledged that even minor fifty over tournamants are usually won by the strongest and best prepared team. Australia is the strongest, and England is the best prepared.


Singer Pavilion inauguration 

Singer (Sri Lanka) Ltd, the largest retailer in the country will be pledging their support to the sport of rugby yet again amidst the Singer Sri Lankan Rugby Sevens being played in Kandy this weekend. This milestone is the inauguration of the Singer Pavilion at the Kandy Sports Club grounds in Nittewela today.

With the Singer Sri Lankan Airlines Rugby Sevens which is the IRB World Cup qualifier being played at Nittewela the organizing committee was left with the task of upgrading the venue to IRB requirements.

Singer Sri Lanka who has been the proud sponsor of the Kandy Sports Club champion rugby team for the past four years came forward in pledging their support to the game by donating funds for the construction of a pavilion at the Nittawela grounds.

Hemaka Amarasuriya, Chairman Singer, Sri Lanka will be inaugurating the pavilion amongst a distinguished gathering of International Ruby Board officials who will be down for the World Cup qualifier, Kandy Sports Club Patron Malik Samarawickrama and club. officials, the international media covering the tournament and rugby fans from across the country  will be present for the final day play of the Singer Sri Lankan Airlines Rugby Sevens.



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