By Shehan Daniel
There were no trophies presented for coaches at last week’s Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) Annual Awards Ceremony but you could not fault Sampath Perera if he still felt like a winner.
Two of the country’s emerging cricketers are after all, players that came through his coaching system and once made history as part of Perera’s quadruple winning Trinity College Under-19 Cricket Team.
One of them, Ron Chandraguptha, is yet to break into the National Team but his performances at domestic level earned him the Emerging Player of the Year (domestic) Award, an accolade that ought to bring a recipient to the attention of the national selectors.
The other player is Niroshan Dickwella who has lit up international cricket in the last two years and is the fourth highest run-getter for the National Team across all three formats since February 2016.
Dickwella was named as the Emerging Cricketer of the Year and given his aggressiveness and attitude – which reveals as much about the coach who nurtured him as it does about himself – it could be the first of many awards and achievements yet to come in his promising career.
It’s a fact that the player acknowledges, having once said, “If not for Sampath Perera there will be no Niroshan Dickwella.” And it’s a fact that Dickwella, or Chandraguptha for that matter, have not forgotten, often calling Perera when the chips are down and asking for help to tweak their batting techniques.
An ACB Level 3 High Performance Accredited coach, Perera is not only vastly qualified but also experienced in coaching at both club and school level.
His coaching career began where his playing career started at D. S. Senanayake College, the school he captained in 1993 and 1994.
Despite being selected during his playing days for Under-19 tours, he never got to represent the country at that or any higher level.
He joined Bloomfield soon after leaving school and featured in a team full of cricketing heroes in Roshan Mahanama, Sanath Jayasuriya, Kumar Dharmasena, Ruwan Kalpage and Pubudu Dassanayaka.
After a year in Australia, he returned for a playing stint at Moors SC, which coincided with the start of his coaching at D. S. Senanayake College.
After taking up coaching full time, Perera also took up head coaching assignments with the SSC and NCC, and it was there that he met Kumar Sangakkara, who recommended him to take over coaching at Trinity College.
When he took over, he found that only one of the players in the squad knew how to play a proper forward defensive – a test of Perera’s abilities and credentials as a coach followed. It would take him only three years to shape this team into a champion side, and a further year to accomplish unprecedented success.
“Only one player played a proper forward defensive, and to fix that it took me almost a year. If we want to win we need to score at least 250, and for that we need a proper technique,” Perera recalled.
Through his tactical nous Perera was able to ike out seven outright wins and a Central Province championship that first season.
The next season they finished as League runners-up, before going one better to complete a double the following season.
In his fourth season, under the leadership of Dickwella, Trinity College achieved its sweetest success on the cricketing field.
It’s impossible to write about this coaching success without mentioning Dickwella.
Two weeks into his stint at Trinity College, Perera discovered Dickwella at a cricket ground in Negombo representing the school in an Under 15 match.
“I went to Kadirana grounds because there was an Under-15 quarter-final match between St. Anthony’s College and Trinity College. I saw him and I thought he would be a good player. Not just him, there were two three players,” Perera recalled.
Perera was so convinced by Dickwella’s talent that he promptly promoted the youngster into the Under-19 Team, ahead of two other senior wicket-keeper batsmen.
Dickwella didn’t repay the faith of his coach in his first Under-19 game, getting out for zero.
“There were lots of emails going around saying ‘this coach is not good’, ‘this coach is bulls***’”
An unimpressive run continued that year, which led to him being dropped from the team before an innings of 140 against Vidyartha College helped him earn a place in his first Big Match against traditional rivals St. Anthony’s College Katugastota, at the age of 15.
Dickwella would go on to play four Big Matches, before bookending his school cricket career with an achievement that is impossible to beat. He led Trinity College to 12 outright wins that crowned them Under-19 two-day League Tournament champions before winning both the limited over tournaments.
He added to this treble by ending a 26-year drought for Trinity College by winning the Big Match that year. Indicidentally, in this team was also a young Chandragupta.
“I am very proud of that record. That’s something that cannot be broken and [can] only [be] equalled. If someone is going to break that record, they need to introduce a new format to the game,” a smug Dickwella once said when asked about winning the school cricket treble.
His leadership skills would see him leave school with the suggestions of possible national captaincy, and earned his first Test cap in a home Test against South Africa in 2014.
He has since become a regualr in the national team in all three formats, and a livewire behind the stumps.
Perera chalks all the success that Dickwella has had to his aggression and self-belief.
“His success is in his aggressiveness. He believes in himself. Whatever he wants to do, he will be successful. Even if he starts a business after giving up cricket he will be successful, because he will never give up,” Perera added.
“[He runs] His mouth. If you tell him something, he will always mumble something back that you can’t hear. But he’s a nice guy,” Perera joked, describing Dickwella’s fighting spirit.
Being a product of Trinity College, comparisons to the great Kumar Sangakkara are inevitable, and while Perera equates the latter with patience and being well-measured, skills that are vital in the game of cricket, he believes Dickwella’s tenacity and aggressiveness could see him beat the great one.
“If Niroshan continues doing things the right way, developing the right way, stays on the correct track, I feel he will beat Sanagakkara. When you look at the strike rate for example, he’s higher than Sangakakra. Sanga knew how to handle situations with his maturity. If Niroshan also develops that, if he learns that, I think they will be equal or Niroshan will better him,” Perera claimed.
Dickwella’s aggressiveness comes as a byproduct of Perera’s cricketing mantra – batsmen should always dominate the bowlers.
“Whereever I coach, I don’t like to see players digging the ball. My target is to get them into the next level, so what I feel is that they need to have a strike rate of more than 80 or 90 percent. So all the time, we teach them to handle situations, play a lot of sweeps, coming out and hitting, clear the 30 yard circle, along the ground, and over the top. Dominate the bowler. I don’t like my batsmen to be dominated by the bowler,” Perera emphasized.
Perera’s coaching methods however include one that has garnered a lot of criticism in school cricketing circles – poaching players from other schools.
But while some see it as buying success or denying chances to students who have come up a school’s cricketing ranks, Perera sees it as an opportunity to infuse healthy competition.
“Every school imports players, but a lot of people have alleged that I win matches because I import players. What I have observed in the schools that I have coached, is that there are talented players but they are not playing, either because they have been the victims of a wrong selection criteria or influences on team selection.
Because of the investments that schools make today towards cricket, they demand success. If there were good enough players then there would be no reason to import players, but it becomes a requirement if you want to win tournaments and produce players.”
He recruits only if necessary and only at the start of a coaching tenure, he claimed.
“My policy is that I recruit based on what’s lacking in the team – a particular skill or a particular type of character that our team does not have. I also believe that unless you make cricket competitive for the players in your team, they will not perform to the best of their ability,” Perera claimed.
“Imports are not bad but you have to do it in a way that is not unfair to players who have been playing from a young age. And I think you can do that, by giving every player the same opportunities and the same level of coaching. It helps to build a strong bench, which is necessary to win championships.
After two, three seasons, people see that it was a good thing to do. Maximum two players are recruited wherever I coach and that too at under 17 level and at the start of my tenure.”
Perera left Trinity College for a coaching stint in the United Arab Emirates, but returned after a year to take up the coaching role at St. Anthony’s College Katugastota.
He has been a vocal critic of the current school cricket structure, calling for the tournament to be revamped to ensure that it produces quality cricketers. He was recently brought in by the Ministry of Education along with a group of influential past cricketers, like Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardena and Sidath Wettimuny to formulate a plan to restructure school cricket and recommend how to invest a Rs. 250 million budgetary allocation for this purpose.
“The committee is preparing a paper, and it has covered every area. It will take time but Mahela [Jayawardena] has done a good job, and the committee knows what has to be done. The school cricket association is run by masters, some of whom have not played cricket, so some of the decisions they take are just not practical. What they want is to just play the school tournament and finish it off [not worrying about quality of cricket or players produced],” Perera said.
“I would not say that school cricket is in a bad state at the moment, but I would say it has slightly declined because of the tournament structure. There has been some improvement in that over the last two years, because we said there is no point just picking 16 schools and playing. We suggested that they give us the fixtures, so that way we can’t manipulate the tournament. When you do that, the best eight teams make the quarterfinals,” a concerned Perera said.
The lack of a clear pathway through the various stages of the game has resulted in a lack of quality players. Perera has on more than one occasion touted a possible solution.
“The standard is good, but after that they don’t have a path. My suggestion is to get 80 cricketers – the best 20 batsmen, 20 spinners, 20 fast bowlers and 20 all-rounders – and train them. From there if we can at least find four or five players to promote though the system, it will benefit the national team. Those 80 players need to play quality cricket and for that you need provincial cricket,” he stated.
“I don’t think the current provincial system is successful right now, because within 10 days the tournament is over. There is no proper selection process for the Provincial Tournament – the selection matches are played haphazardly and there are no grounds to play the matches sometimes. If you are selecting for a provincial tournament, you have to play five or six trial games. Good players are omitted after being given only a couple of games, if they fail, and ultimately the best talent misses out,” he said.
“[When the National Team struggles] People blame the school coaches which is not fair. A lot of [the best] coaches are with the national teams. By having coaches at provincial level, they are being picked at a national level, and they can have a bigger impact than the school coaches. When you look at Sri Lanka cricket you can see our players are not as skilled as players from India or Pakistan. So what you can gather from that is that our coaching system is poor. Maybe it’s because coaches aren’t given the freedom to coach, or the right coaches are not at the right positions. I think if the right coaches are brought in, then we can get improve the standards of players, that much faster,” Perera claimed.
A bigger issue than school cricket is club cricket, Perera believes, and the gap between domestic and international level cricket is what is seeing the national team lack quality players.
“Our (school coaches) duty is to get them is to get them into the Premier Level, when they leave school. If the national team is not doing well then we need to look at the previous level, which is club cricket. They blame the school system saying they are not producing players, but the clubs don’t nurture them. The gap is between Sri Lanka Cricket and club cricket,” Perera said.
Despite being well qualified Perera has twice been overlooked for the coach’s position of the Under-19 National Team and said that under the current criteria he may never be considered good enough for the role.
“With the kind of selection criteria that they have for National coaches, I don’t think I will get a chance.
They mostly select under the playing profile, not the coaching profile,” he said, meaning a former player who had just 93 first class caps over eight years and no international playing experience is seen as a less attractive candidate.
While he would gladly take on the position if offered to him, he believes there are some things he can be satisfied about.
“I have a satisfaction that at the end of the day, no matter whether I get those opportunities, that I have provided the players. At least one of my school players has been in the Under-19 National Team every year,” he said.
The calls he get from his former players is how he knows that his coaching career has been a success. “They get something from me, that is why they call me. And I think that is why I have been successful. A coach is only as good as the player he produces, and if my players are a success, then I am a success,” a content Perera said.