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Catch the cricketers young, if one wants the best off them - Premasara Epasinghe

SCHOOL CRICKET: Among the many eligible people who talk on the subject of school cricket in Sri Lanka, renowned commentator Premasara Epasinghe undoubtedly is one of the top most qualified people in the field to comment. He represented his school Nalanda at cricket, thereafter the University, and back at his Alma Mater Nalanda as a teacher, Master-in-Charge cricket, he held various responsible administrative posts in the Sri Lanka Schools Cricket Association and Sri Lanka Cricket.

Epasinghe's 45-year-old experience as a radio cricket commentator who has seen many emerging cricketers, expressed his views on the present day school cricket set up which cannot be classed on the same level as what it was some years ago.

In an exclusive interview with the Sunday Observer he reflects on cricket then and now. Premasara is best known for his cricket commentaries in the Sinhala language in the pre-TV era and his booming voice and appropriate description and coin words kept the listeners spellbound. He had led the way for others to follow.

Excerpts of the Interview:

Q: Once upon a time, Sri Lanka school cricket was known as one of the best in the world due to their structure and meticulous coaching and planning which have produced top quality players even before the country was granted Test status. Can we class it the same today? If not, what are the remedies to bring it back to the standard what it was then?


Premasara Epasinghe - a leading cricket commentator now and a former cricketer.

A: I personally feel that you have to pay more emphasis to youth cricket. If you are thinking of the future of Sri Lanka cricket you will have to fetch them young.

The best age is by about 11 years you will have to catch them. In the good old days, may be in the 1980's we had these under 11 tournaments and the Masters-in-Charge and the Coach should instil discipline, fair play and guide them and show them how to play the game. What has happened today is in limited overs cricket they always adopt the negative approach by trying to stop scoring runs rather than taking wickets and trying to anyway win by hook or by crook. This should be stopped. It should be the top priority and hunt for the talent in the outstation.

For an example, the Australia Cricket Academy in Canberra which I visited I saw children walking down early in the morning. The guy who was in charge of them was an Olympic gold medallist. I asked him 'what are these children doing here early morning?', the reply he gave was "these are our future Olympic gold medallists".

Q: While catching them young isn't it important to maintain their natural ability and talent?

A: I am the one who spotted the late Anura Ranasinghe who was a fighting cricketer. He was playing cricket at the Kirulapone Park, batting while I was going to the 'pola' on a Sunday. He had the natural instinct. I didn't know that he was attending the same school Nalanda where I was teaching. I got him down and trained him. His natural talent was amazing and I did not want to correct his batting style. Then I consulted my coach the late Mr. Gerry Gooneratne to have a look at this boy. He said: 'Epa', this is a future champion and one advice I could give you is do not try to meddle with this boy's natural ability. Do not try to coach him, instead try to build his natural talent.

Q: What is the parents' role in guiding the youngsters?.

A: Lot of parents are mad over cricket. They always want to see their son to be a Arjuna Ranatunga, Sanath Jayasuriya, Marvan Atapattu or a Romesh Kaluvitharana: Why , because of money, nothing else. But there are certain things lacking, things like character building.

As a teacher I know how important character building is. My main focus was building one's character. During our time we use to read a lot and collect cricket pictures etc. This sort of thing is lacking in schools today. This coupled with cricketing aspects helped me to build a champion under 13 side for three consecutive years at Nalanda College in 1980. Parents should also not interfere during practices.

Q: In 1969 a Sri Lanka Under 19 team probably one of the best junior teams to leave our shores, went on tour to India under Anandian Mithra Wettimuny and fared extremely well, winning the unofficial Test series and impressed everyone. You were a member of the Selection Committee at that time, what was the selection process for the tour to be a highly successful one?

A: In that particular year I was a selector, and the others were P.M. Jayatilleke (Chairman, Thurstan), Edmond Dissanayake (Wesley), Orville Abeynaike (S. Thomas'), Angelo Rayer (St. Jopseph's), A.D. Karunananda (Ananda) and John de Saram (Royal, Colombo). The selectors did an excellent job in finding the right combination. In fact that was a tour which provided the base for Sri Lanka gaining full Test status. It was an amazing tour for the youngsters which produced the first two Test captains Bandula Warnapura and Duleep Mendis.

The selection was done in Ratmalana at P.M. Jayatilleke's home. There was no favouritism, I suggested only the names of Bandula Warnapura and Leslie Narangoda.

There were other players too from Nalanda, like Lalith Kaluperuma who captained Nalanda that year and Jayantha Seneviratne.

We had to encounter a problem as it was a two-month tour we were looking to include a left-arm leg-spinner. When I was going through the statistics I came across a name call G.R.A. de Silva from Dharmasoka, Ambalangoda who had a reasonable average. When I came across this name I proposed it at the expense of one of my boys. But opinions deferred with another selector and he opposed this name and said "Epa they do not play good cricket' then I said that there is nothing call good and bad cricket and I was adamant to have him in the side and ultimately Ajith de Silva became the best left-arm spinner that Sri Lanka had ever produced.

The other members of the team if my memory serves me correct, are: Mithra Wettimuny (Captain, Ananda), Asitha Jayaweera (Royal - V. Captain). Ananda Jayatilleke (Ananda), Jagath Fernando (Royal), L. Thalaysingham (Royal), Bandula Warnapura and Leslie Narangoda (Nalanda), Rory Inman (St.Peter's), Wendel Kelaart, Manik de S. Wijeratne (St. Joseph's), Duleep Mendis (St. Sebastian's), Ajith de Silva (Dharmasoka), Priyantha Jayasekera (Prince of Wales) Diyanesh Rajaratnam (Thurstan) and Ajith Mendis.

Q: What should be done to improve the standard of school cricket which is not the same as it was in the past?

A: Number one is proper, systematic planning. The schools should give more priority for junior cricket. I have been a cricket commentator for the past 45 years in all forms of the game including school matches and through my experience I would say by watching a school cricketer in action that some day this lad will play for Sri Lanka. When I was commentating in the Richmond- Mahinda match in Galle, I saw Athula Samarasekera scoring about 25 to 30 runs and in my commentary I mentioned that he was a future Sri Lankan player.

For example, Nalanda has produced dozens of cricketers because it had a good base, especially junior cricket where they have been champions throughout.

But today, I feel sorry as a Nalandian, because I very rarely see a boy coming through from Nalanda. What is the reason? Another thing is too much of coaching.

If you step onto any ground today, every Dick, Tom and Harry have become coaches,and it has become a massive business. What they do is to teach them to bat up and down and curb their shots. Mahela Jayawardene came from the last string of cricketers from Nalanda to represent the country. He was extraordinary talented. Prior to that it was Roshan Mahanama and Asanka Gurusinha.

Players like Arjuna Ranatunga who won the World Cup in 1996 was coached by people like Lionel and Nelson Mendis. They were top class coaches and strict disciplinarians. You must get the children to enjoy cricket and not to win trophies alone. Winning trophies is not a bad idea, but good habits and the true spirit of the game should be inculcated in the players' minds.

Q: What do you think of the Sri Lanka Under 19 team's performance at the on going Under 19 World Cup played in Australia?

A: I have not been following it too closely, but what I feel is the whole cause for the failure should be analyzed. The root cause is, one must be systematic, plan your cricket and catch them young and get them to play their natural game and discipline the boys. These are the two main factors for success. We can't blame the selectors. They are doing a very difficult job. Because when the team win matches the selectors become heroes and when you lose, they are treated as villains. So, that policy is all wrong. The School Cricket Association is doing a marvelous job. But there should be something wrong somewhere. They should rectify that. The Sports Ministry should get the best people and get advice from them. There are people like Bertie Wijesinha and other top class coaches available.

Q: What are your views on Twenty20 cricket?

A: It is entertaining and the people who want to have a good outing it's an ideal one. But Test cricket is number one and limited overs cricket number two. The T20 format should not be played at school level because from the beginning they will spoil their technique. With one's natural instincts, a player should have technique as well. Take batsmen like Roy Dias, Ranjan Madugalle,

Michael Tissera, Anura Tennekoon, Sunil Wettimuny, Mithra Wettimuny, and Sidath Wettimuny, Marvan Atapattu all are batting artists.

If you take Arjuna Ranatunga and Anura Tennekoon they are two players with two different styles. So the school cricket authorities should get together and consult the top players and coaches like Bertie Wijesinha who is an asset to the country's cricket.

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