By Ishan Samaraweera
Sri Lanka is a country that thrives on spin bowling. Despite the abundance of spinners, only a few have been successful at the international level.
One of the major reasons for the decline in the quality of spinners is that several Sri Lankan bowlers have been suspended for illegal actions in the recent past. Once their bowling actions have been remodelled, they lose their wicket-taking ability and eventually decide to bid farewell to their career prematurely.
Sachithra Senanayake is an example of a promising bowling all-rounder whose career was affected due the consequences of his remodelled action.
Having fallen in love with cricket at an early age, his passion and enthusiasm grew since he had started playing softball cricket at Parakrama Maha Vidyalaya, Bandarawatta. Since the school did not have cricket, Senanayake did athletics as a sport.
After he moved to Ananda College, he attended cricket practices while going for athletics and came under the influence of P.W. Perera, learning the basics of the sport he loved. He first made his mark as an outstanding fielder.
“Many of my friends at school referred to me as ‘Jonty’ because of my fielding. I played my first game for Ananda College as a specialist fielder,” he recalled.
Senanayake began his cricket career as a fast bowler but with the guidance of his coach, he transformed himself into a spinner. After that, he was one of the consistent performers in all age groups from Under-13 and went on to be the vice-captain of the Under-17 team.
“My first coach P.W. Perera encouraged me to chase my dream of representing the National team. I also worked with several other coaches to enhance my cricketing skills. Without them I wouldn’t be able to achieve my dream,” Senanayake recalled with gratitude.
After his school career, he joined the Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC) as he wanted a challenge for himself. However, he had to wait for three years to make his first-class debut.
“I was on the bench for two seasons. Leading up to my first-class debut, I played in divisions two and three. I was the best bowler and that enabled me to play the last three matches in that season. From there onwards, I played for SSC for 14 years and when I look back at my time at the SSC it gives me great pleasure,” the former Sri Lanka all-rounder said on the challenges he had to face before making his first-class debut in 2006.
Senanayake made his international debut in 2012 against South Africa – a reward for his consistent performances for Sri Lanka ‘A’ team.
“I made my international debut under the captaincy of Thilakaratne Dilshan. I was not nervous as I have played with most of the national players. It was my dream to represent my country at the highest level of the sport. Faf du Plessis was my first international wicket,” he recalled.
SSC is considered to be a batting paradise, as spinners hardly get assistance from the pitch. This fact leaves the bowler to be tactful when he bowls on a flat pitch such as the SSC. However, the experience that he got from playing for the SSC helped him to understand the conditions in South Africa.
Senanayake became a regular in the national team for four years as a frontline bowling all-rounder from 2012 to 2015. However, 2014 was a year of mixed emotions for him, although he played crucial roles in Sri Lanka’s victorious Asia Cup and World T20 campaigns in Bangladesh.
“Leading up to the Asia Cup and the World T20 we had a clear plan and we started our preparations about two years before the tournament. We had a bilateral series in Bangladesh before the two major tournaments. So we had around three months to acclimatise ourselves to their conditions. I was the man of the series in the limited over series. The most important thing was that we believed in ourselves and as a result of that we were able to win the Asia Cup and at the same time we're able to break the ice in ICC tournaments and bring glory to our country after 18 years. It was an honour to be a part of history and it was a team effort,” he recalled with pride.
Soon after the T20 World Cup, it
was the tour of England and it is a series that Senanayake will remember for his entire life.
It was the decider of the five-match One-Day International series. England wicketkeeper Jos Buttler had scored a century in the previous game. However, the Sri Lankan team management had noticed something strange in the way that the Englishmen ran between the wickets. On the eve before the match, they had analysed the footages from the previous games and they had spotted the tactic that was used by the Englishmen.
“Just before I was called upon to bowl, I went into the dressing room and informed the team management and did it under the knowledge of them. Then I informed the umpire about the matter. I warned Buttler when he ran down from the bowling crease but he continued to run from the non-striker’s end and I had no option other than removing the bails. The whole team was behind me throughout the incident,” he explained.
However, soon after the victorious England tour, Senanayake was reported for an illegal bowling action. The suspension affected him mentally and he never felt the same after returning with a remodelled bowling action.
On hindsight, he feels a bowler needs to be looked after by the coaches after being reported for an illegal action. He underscored that the bowling actions should be closely monitored from school cricket. If it is not identified by the school coaches and at club level, coaches in Sri Lanka cricket should identify and make the required adjustments to their bowling action. Coaches must observe the faults in the bowling action as early as possible and assist them and not wait until the ICC reports them for an illegal action.
“A situation like this will ruin a player’s future and that’s exactly what happened to me. It was not easy for me to bounce back and nobody was there to assist me when I needed assistance. I was very disappointed when I lost my wicket-taking ability and it was a very difficult time period for me,” he lamented.
When he was first reported by the ICC he was among the top three in the ICC rankings. According to him, it would take a while for a bowler to get used to his remodelled action and that is the time where the bowling coaches play a major role in guiding the bowler on the right path.
After remodelling his action he made a comeback to the team but his wicket-taking ability had diminished and was not considered after the T20 series against Australia in 2016.
In 2018 he was the player of the tournament with 450 runs and at the same time, he was the highest wicket-taker. Despite being consistent he was not considered for the 2019 World Cup in England, forcing him to abruptly announce his retirement from international cricket in February.
“I honestly thought that I deserved a place in the 2019 World Cup since I was performing well in the domestic tournaments. But I was very disappointed since all my sacrifices were wasted. So I decided to retire from international cricket,” he said aggrieved that the selectors had ignored him despite his consistent performances at the domestic level.
“Throughout my career, I wanted to win matches for my country. I always played with passion and the game has given me everything in my life and I think it was the right time to leave,” said Senanayake who represented the country in all three formats during his eight years career as an international cricketer.