A journey of a thousand miles - The change cricket made in a rural village

2017-10-27 01:21:37

By Shehan Daniel 

Five and a half thousand miles separate the Home of Cricket from the coastal village of Seenigama, but the impact the sport has had on this rural community is profound. 

It can be seen in the photographs in the foyer of the MCC Centre of Excellence where, in the aftermath of the worst natural disaster to sweep the shores of Sri Lanka, Sir Ian Botham, Shane Warne, Steve Waugh and Muttiah Muralitharan were among celebrated cricketers who engaged in relief efforts in Seenigama. It can be seen in the cricket facilities that have since been built in the area, helping the development of national level talent. 

One of the many villages and towns devastated by the 2004 tsunami that took over 40,000 Sri Lankan lives, Seenigama has become a model of community development thanks to the benevolence of donors from all over the world, shaped into tangible, visible results through the drive and commitment of Kushil Gunasekera and his Foundation of Goodness.

As the post-tsunami rebuilding process began, the Marylebone Cricket Club, based in the iconic Lord’s Cricket Ground – the Home of Cricket – sponsored the MCC Centre of Excellence, a village empowerment centre, which now caters to skills development programmes and provides free medical care, for women, children and youth in 25 villages in the Seenigama region. Gunasekera gave up his ancestral home, which was damaged but not destroyed in the tsunami, for the centre to become a reality. 

The MCC also partnered with the foundation to build a cricket ground at Sri Sumangala College in nearby Hikkaduwa which, at the time, was the only pavilion in the country to have indoor nets. It also offers scholarships to budding cricketers through the Foundation of Goodness, the current list which includes one of Sri Lanka’s most exciting fast bowling youth prospects. 

Venture less than a kilometre down the road from the MCC Centre of Excellence and you’ll come to the Seenigama Oval, built with funds donated by the Surrey County Cricket Club.

Having pledged a part of the proceeds from a charity match at the London Oval to redevelop a playground adjoining the Seenigama Sri Wimalabuddhi Maha Vidyalaya into a fully-fledged cricket grounds, the oval looks almost out of place in rural Sri Lanka. With further contributions, including 75,000 sterling pounds from Canadian singer Bryan Adams, the Seenigama Oval was turned in to what is now a veritable sports centre, inclusive of a swimming pool, gymnasium, volleyball court and outdoor nets. 

The Laureus Sports Foundation meanwhile has worked closely with Gunasekera to conduct coaching programmes with their ambassadors. Having partnered with the foundation on the insistence of Sir Ian Botham, an ambassador himself, Laureus sent Olympic Gold medal winning swimmer Missy Franklin to Seenigama, to interact and inspire underprivileged children two years ago.  

Occasionally the foundation has had foreign coaches share their expertise with the academy. Sometimes this happens through a happy coincidence. Like when the coach of the Tamil Nadu State Women’s Team Hemaamalini Kuttiappan travelled to the foundation with a group of young Rotaracters on a leadership, philanthropic and team-building programme where she offered to coach the women cricketers.

Kuttiappan, who was a professional coach for 16 years and mentored young talent like Veda Krishnamurthy, has mentored many young players since turning to coaching in 2010, and said that she was impressed with the facilities at the Seenigama Sports Academy.

“It was an eye-opener seeing the facilities here at the academy, and being involved with coaching and player development, if I introduce even 30% or 40% on a massive scale I know it will help the development of my players,” she said.

Gunasekera admits it’s this sports aspect of the Foundation of Goodness that has thrust it into the limelight and the attention and interest of donors, even though the work of the foundation goes far beyond the sports field and started well before the tsunami. Having four former cricketers Muralitharan, Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Russell Arnold serving as trustees – along with Ashan Malalasekara, Rohan Iriyagolle, Pradeep Karunagaran and Gunasekera – has also helped.  

“The element of sports in our organisation is the catalyst that has taken us to the world stage. Sports has this power to unite people, to bring them together in terms of goodwill, unity, harmony, teamwork and to learn how to overcome challenges, like competition. Having guys like Murali, Kumar, Mahela, and Russel Arnold just talking about the foundation, through social media helps, because that reaches a few million people,”

Gunasekera said, adding, “People talking about the character of the project is what is most important.”

The foundation sees 60 cricket teams, mainly from England and Australia, coming to play at the Seenigama Oval every year which brings in some form of sustainable income generation, while also encouraging the visiting cricketers to get involved in a charity project in the area. Recently, a group of students from the Harrow School in England not only raised funds but also cleared the land and laid the concrete bricks to build a library at the Centre of Excellence. 

The Seenigama Sports Academy has produced national level sports men and women – four national cricketers, a triathlete and an Under 19 netball captain. 

The most notable of them is Tharindu Kaushal who played seven Tests for Sri Lanka, before a ban on his doosra by the International Cricket Council meant that the right-arm spinner required a re-modelling of his action, but is tipped to return to the national team. 

Pulina Tharanga was left orphaned by the tsunami but through the Seenigama Academy found himself playing at an Under 19 World Cup. Yasoda Mendis, who was a part of the Seenigama Ladies team, now opens the batting for the national team. 

That Seenigama Ladies Cricket team is now playing in the top flight of the national domestic tournament – quite an achievement for a group of teenagers – and five of the girls are in the Under 23 national squad that is currently away on tour. Coach Anjula Mendis who has been with the foundation since its inception in 2007 is tasked with coaching the academy team, the women’s team and also coaches the Sri Sumangala team, and he says there are “five or six inquires every year” from bigger clubs to take on some of these young girls. 

Gunasekera has also found that cricket can play an important role in post-war reconciliation.

The Foundation of Goodness has taken cricket to the North to heal the fractured ethnic relationship and give the youth of that part of the country more exposure. 

“One way [the Murali Cup has impacted the North] is that it has promoted and encouraged reconciliation between the North and the South; for people to visit the North, play cricket and interact in a way their preferences and prejudices are put away, and build bridges of friendship,” Gunasekera said.   

“We also wanted to create the kind of infrastructure to fast track cricket from the North and give them the kind of opportunities they didn’t have before.”

Together with Tokyo Cement and the then regime of Sri Lanka Cricket, the Foundation of Goodness built 30 concrete wickets in the region. 

Gunasekera recalls how easily the youth blurred the ethnic divide and forgot the years of hate of the previous generation through the Murali Cup. 

“I remember at the first Murali Cup, one of the team’s that were from the North were supporting St. Peter’s College in the final, because they were sharing a dormitory with them and had become good friends,” he said. 

Unfortunately, due to a lack of sponsorships, the Murali Cup was shelved this year, but Gunasekera says it’s an opportunity to learn how to improve it and do it better next year. 

“It’s a huge cost to accommodate, transport and provide meals for almost 400 children over seven days in the north. But it’s become very prestigious. We probably have not done something right this year and we’ll see how best we can get there,” Gunasekera said confidently. 

Muralitharan however, has offered to sponsor in full a smaller tournament for eight selected rural Under 15 teams next month, with the matches played in Colombo and Seenigama. 
Sangakkara and Jayawardene have also thrown their support behind this tournament year in and year out, and have used their influence to speak about the foundation at various forums as a means of awareness and generating funding. 

“Kumar and Mahela joined after the tsunami because they saw the kind of work we were doing and more importantly with Murali in the forefront with me, driving the foundation, they believed we were doing something good. They have contributed in numerous ways. During their playing days, they were virtual ambassadors. So when they go and speak, people listen. They have gone out at different banquets, they have spoken very passionately about what we are doing,” Gunasekera says. 

Each have also made other contributions, with Sangakkara having donated over 4,000 bikes to children of the North to attend school, through his Bikes for Life campaign, while Jayawardene has donated his own money for pure drinking water for the chronic kidney disease areas in the north central region.

“They have definitely done their part,” Gunasekera gratefully accepts. 

Gunasekera is not one to go behind personal accolades, but he has still found them coming his way, in particular through his relationship with the MCC. In recognition of his good work through the MCC sponsored Centre of Excellence and for transforming lives of those affected by the tsunami, Gunasekera was awarded an honourary life membership by the MCC in 2011, the 11th Sri Lankan to receive that honour. He was also asked to ring the iconic five-minute bell at Lord’s that same year, becoming just the third non-test cricketer to do so. 

“The MCC surprised me by giving me that honorary MCC Life membership. Those are things you don’t ask for,” Gunasekera says, before adding, “When you sincerely think of others and do something this is a way it comes back to you.”

Earlier this year, Gunasekera was also invited as a guest to a charity dinner organised by the Tim Henman Foundation, where he was introduced to the former British tennis star, current world number three Andy Murray and Australian Nick Kyrgios. 

Gunasekera hopes that connections like this translate into visits by stars such as these to Sri Lanka. 

“It would be great if we could get one of them to come to Sri Lanka, because then they in turn will tell the (Rafael) Nadals, or the (Roger) Federers about what’s happening here in Sri Lanka,” Gunasekera says optimistically. 

When the tsunami struck on December 26 2004, Gunasekera was handing out scholarships to children -- one of the Foundation of Goodness’ first projects that gave space for English and Computer classes, and a maternity clinic. 

Originating from Seenigama but given an education at Ananda College in Colombo, Gunasekera witnessed how the lack of opportunity was denying children and youth more talented than him, from progressing in life.

“What I found was the disparity between the urban and rural sectors are huge, and I always wanted to make sure they made similar progress and bring equality to their lives as well. So I thought I’ll make a difference of my own, and come back to my village one day and plant a seed that was going to make a definite change,” Gunasekera, who is an example of how influence can be used to do good things, recalls.

The foundation has come a long way since then, having opened eight Village Heartbeat centres, emulating the Centre of Excellence albeit at a smaller scale, and has counted over 300,000 beneficiaries in 200 villages, through its 30 empowerment sectors. 

“I’ve given up everything to drive my passion of empowering the rural communities because I see a lot of talent out there. Sri Lanka will never be prosperous to the extent they wish to be unless they address the needs of the rural people,” Gunasekera said. 

Despite seeing his foundation becoming more than he envisioned when he started it in 1999, Gunasekera still has a few more things he wants to achieve – to increase the number of Village Heartbeat Centres to 25 while making the entire operation self-sufficient, so it would not have to rely on donations. 

“Hopefully, if we can have 25 Village Heartbeat centres around the country and also make the entire project 100 per cent self-sustainable in terms of sustainable income – right now we are at 35 per cent – by 2020, then I am ready to hand this over to Ashan for him to run thereafter,” he said adding, “I don’t know what the future holds for me after that.”

  Comments - 1

  • milton de silva Monday, 30 October 2017 08:18

    Kudos to Kushil Gunasekara, the unsung hero, for a great achievement! Your effort has borne fruits, setting an example to many others.Note: Kushil had a great inborn leadership ability from the time he left school and started his first professional carrier.I wish him god-speed in all his future endeavours.Milton de Silva

    Reply : 0       0

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