By Champika Fernando
As a 12-year-old, Sri Lanka’s new national cricket coach would do 15 minutes of bat drill after dinner each day, standing in front of a mirror. He would then go to sleep with his bat under the pillow. Such was his dedication to the game. Chandika Hathurusingha signed up this week as head coach to the ailing Sri Lankan team.
He had two years left with his last employer—Bangladesh Cricket Board—under whom he achieved unprecedented success. Since taking over the mantle in May 2014, he transformed a team plagued by a defeatist mentality into fierce competitors across all formats of the game.
This was when he received a call from his home Board. After thorough analysis, he accepted the offer—on his own terms—to lead a side that now seems all but lost. Hathurusingha had discussed the offer with S Skandakumar, Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in Australia and a former Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) Secretary who has significantly influenced his rise from a committed teenage player to one of the world’s highest paid coaches.
“He kept me posted right along,” Mr Skandakumar, who was at Tamil Union when Hathurusingha joined the club as a schoolboy cricketer, told the Sunday Times via email. “I only gave advice when he sought my views, knowing that, by now, he had a strong mind of his own and would finally decide for himself.”
It was Hathurusingha’s school coach, Tom Dep, who told Mr Skandakumar about his charge’s nightly cricket ritual. The boy’s early challenges were no different to those of youngsters growing up in modest environments. He lived in Dematagoda. Hathurusingha’s early interaction with members of Tamil Union helped build his self-confidence. “By that time (early to mid-eighties), we were sponsoring cricketers from the South who came from similar backgrounds and who were gradually moving to reach their potential with the atmosphere that prevailed at the club, where everyone was treated equally and each one was made to feel wanted.”
From Veluwana Maha Vidyalaya, the young Hathurusingha moved in 1984 to Ananda College to further his cricketing skills. But he failed to clinch a place in the first eleven team. Two years later, he was picked to tour England with the Sri Lanka schoolboy team and became the first pupil to represent his country before his alma mater. The school did not nominate him to the squad for the schoolboy tour of UK, Skandakumar said.
“So we nominated him from the Tamil Union,” he said. “After some hastily-arranged sessions in the nets, he was dropped from the final squad to prune down the numbers. I had a word with national coach WAN Silva. I think I wrote to him, ‘While I am not saying that he is good enough to go to the UK, I certainly think he is good enough to be in a squad of 30’.” “WAN, the gentleman that he was, took a closer look at him in the nets, recognised his potential and included him,” Skandakumar recounted. “I then said to Chandika, ‘You are into the trials. Now it’s up to you’. Chandika did well in both and went on tour. The rest is history.”
The next challenge was…English. “He recalls how I would get him to read the morning papers and join me on my evening walks round the Oval, telling me in English what he had read,” he reminisced. “This had an impact on his self-confidence.”
Hathurusingha had made such an impression on tour that, in 1988, he was appointed Vice Captain of the first-ever Youth World Cup team to a tournament in Australia. But the biggest moment of his career was when he replaced injured Dammika Ranatunga during the Sri Lanka national team’s tour to New Zealand in 1991. On debut and under difficult conditions, he made a half century.
This was followed by two more half-centuries in his next two outings, including 66 against England at Lord’s. His subsequent career was not, however, without hurdles or obstacles. “While he shared his frustrations with me, I also saw him toughening (up) mentally to deal with them,” Skandakumar said.
In 1995, Hathurusingha went on tour to Pakistan and made four half-centuries in the three Test Match series. But he was subsequently dropped from the national team until he came back to the side as a member of the World Cup squad that toured England in 1999.Though he was selected, he never played a single match. With selector's policy on picking youngster's for future, he knew his playing career was coming to an end.
He then turned his cricketing brain to coaching and, in 2000, qualified as a level two coach in Australia. On his return, he found that the Moors Sports Club had been relegated from the Premier Division. He took up the challenge as captain cum coach to raise that club back into the major division. Moors made waves in local cricket by reentering the Premier division and winning the Premier title two years after being relegated.
But despite a stellar domestic season—he won the Player of the Tournament in the Premier League 2001/2001—he was not considered for national duty, not even for Sri Lanka A.
This made him more determined to pursue a career in coaching. Playing league cricket in England in 2003, he qualified as a level three coach—the highest standard in the UK at the time. Back in Sri Lanka, he joined Tamil Union as coach cum captain and led them to become joint champions of the 2004 Premier season. (Final was not played due to Tsunami which swept the island).
In 2005, he was became head coach of the United Arab Emirates team. His challenge was to ensure they secured a place in the 2008 Asia Cup tournament. To do this, UAE had to win the Asian Cricket Council tournament held in Malaysia in 2006. Under Hathurusingha, they did it in style—winning the title and securing a spot in Asia Cup.
Hathurusingha was then roped in by SLC as Sri Lanka A coach. There, he did remarkably well. Impressed by his work ethic, then Sri Lanka skipper Kumar Sangakkara and Muttiah Muralidaran requested SLC to hire Hathurusingha’s services for the national side. He performed commendably and was shaping up to become Sri Lanka’s head coach when SLC terminated him. A few days before his services were officially cut short, Sangakkara made a desperate attempt to retain the “talented and capable coach of proven ability”.
He wrote to the then SLC Interim Committee head DS de Silva saying, “My interest in regaining the services of Chandika is purely selfish. I want to be a part of team coached by the best and Chandika is without doubt a fine coach”. “His greatest influence had been in the way he conditions the team mentally to be prepared to meet and win any and all challenges and his input concerning overall strategy,” he said, describing Hathurusingha’s approach as “always positive and strong”.
“He accepts no softness or lack of commitment and discipline and he treats all players with an even and fair hand,” Sangakkara continued. “This has earned him the fullest respect of all the players. He is creative in his thinking and is always geared towards winning. This positive outlook has helped us view challenges as tests of skill to be enjoyed. His calm aura of control has helped at all times to keep calm an excitable dressing room so that decisions are made rationally.” To no avail.
SLC insisted that Hathurusingha has breached discipline after he decided to return home from Zimbabwe before the tour was over. He was given marching orders on August 10, 2010. The findings of an “inquiry” were never made public.
A few months later, he migrated to Australia to pursue his passion. “He was shattered by what happened in 2010 because there were mitigating circumstances attached to his return from that tour,” Skandakumar narrated.
“Fortunately, he already had some connections in Australia and I was happy to encourage him to follow that lead. It was not an easy decision going with a family of four but his steely determination to succeed and confidence in his coaching ability were his strengths.” NB: The article was compiled with inputs from a speech made by Mr. S Skandakumar on December 6, 2010