When you consider the fact that Colombo has three Test grounds that are active international venues – the R Premadasa Stadium, the Sinhalese Sports Club and the P Saravanamuttu Oval – it’s perhaps a bit unusual that the opening match of the ICC World Twenty20 2012 was played at Hambantota. If you saw the kind of support Sri Lanka enjoyed at the Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium, however, you would have recognised the intentions behind Sri Lanka playing the first game of their competition at the venue.
With Colombo being the spiritual centre of Sri Lankan cricket, and home to the offices of the cricket board, it’s understandable that a majority of cricketers in the national team come from the city. Indeed, even those who show early promise at other venues move to the city in search of a better future. The pedigree and history of the cricket grounds in the capital are well known, and, with the MRICS hosting international cricket from 2011, there’s every chance that more cricketers from the region will earn national honours in the years to come.
At the moment, though, the one international player a vociferous crowd can call a home boy, is not part of the action. Suranga Lakmal, the tall 25-year-old medium-fast bowler, is from Debrawewa, a mere 45 minutes from MRICS. Lakmal, who suffered an ankle injury that needed minor surgery, is well on the way to recovery and should be fit in time for Sri Lanka’s series against New Zealand in October.
Lakmal first caught the eye of Stanley Jayasinghe – who played for the country when it was still called Ceylon, before it was bestowed with official Test or ODI status, and also turned out for Leicestershire – but it was Champaka Ramanayake who took Lakmal forward. Ramanayake, who looks after fast bowlers at Sri Lanka Cricket’s academy, persuaded Lakmal to move to his alma mater, Richmond College in Galle, on full scholarship, and from there Lakmal has not looked back.
“When I saw him as an under-16 cricketer, Lakmal had many things going for him. He was tall, had natural pace and bowled a beautiful outswinger,” Ramanayake told Wisden India. “What I liked most about him was that even when he was young, he did not lack in confidence.”
While Lakmal seemed to have right attributes and attitude, the rigour of bowling fast over long spells began to take its toll and he repeatedly fell ill or broke down. “After he was absorbed into the academy, we had to work on improving his strength, his endurance and stamina,” said Ramanayake. Lakmal could not have hoped for a more apt coach, for Ramanayake was nothing if not a workhorse.
Despite not being the quickest about, Ramanayake played 18 Tests and 62 ODIs for Sri Lanka, and stories of him bowling tirelessly till the job was done are the norm on the Island. “That’s the beauty of Test cricket, no?” asks Ramanayake rhetorically. “Even when batsmen are doing well, you have all the time in the world to try and dismiss them. You have to keep at it, put the ball in the right areas repeatedly and force the mistake.”
Lakmal, who was pushing the 140 km/hr threshold before injuries wore him down, is on his way back to full fitness. “Once we saw that he had the pace, we needed to help him work on his skills,” says Ramanayake. “He had a natural outswinger, and got the ball to move away from the right-handers significantly. But, at the highest level, simply swinging the ball naturally is not enough. You need to be able to control how much it swings, and that is something Lakmal has developed. That, and accuracy.”
Lakmal is the latest hope in a long line of Sri Lankan quick men who have made it to the highest level but struggled to nail down a place and make a sustained impact. Chaminda Vaas, who played 111 Tests and 322 ODIs in an 18-year career, had little company, with everyone from Dilhara Fernando to Nuwan Zoysa to Thilan Thushara coming and going.
“That is the challenge for Lakmal and for some of the others, like Nuwan Kulasekara, Shaminda Eranga and Thisara Perera, to name a few,” says Ramanayake. “Till recently, it didn’t matter so much because Murali (Muttiah Muralitharan) would take one end in a Test, and we only had to worry about the other end. With Murali bowling 60-70 overs Test after Test, it was not such an issue that the fast bowlers didn’t have extended careers. Now, there’s a challenge at hand and somebody needs to step up and take the responsibility.”
The skinny boy from Debrawewa has already made rapid strides to get where he has, but the time to take his game to the next level is now before Lakmal.