“IT WAS a close shave,” is how Romesh Kaluwitharana describes the scene. Even for someone who thrived on close shaves with bat in hand throughout his career, the diminutive Sri Lankan seems to be underestimating the level of danger that faced him that day. There he was surrounded by six wild elephants at the Udawalawe National Park with his wife and 10-year-old son, Ramith, for company inside his car. But he couldn’t panic. He instead kept his calm, and got the herd to retreat with some madcap honking and thumping of the bonnet.
Kalu’s experience of wildlife and his several conversations with the trackers had taught him not to move during an elephant chase. “The escape route was narrow and I had very little chance to survive by pressing the accelerator. The elephants would have reacted. We had to wait until they calmed down. The whole thing was scary, a lot more frightful than facing deadly fast bowlers on a green-top,” he says during an interaction with The Indian Express at Pallekele. Five years on, he now recalls the incident with the ‘funny side up’ and reveals that the former kamikaze opener had developed a penchant for living life on the edge off the field as well.
“I had once been chased by an elephant earlier also. It was just one elephant. Second time, I made the mistake of going close to them during their mating season,” he says.
Kalu has aged gracefully. Now approaching 48, he has retained that boyish smile. Not surprisingly, the conversation soon turns towards the era-defining partnership he formed at the top of the order with Sanath Jayasuriya in the mid-1990s. And also about how he’s maintained that wild side beyond the cricket field.
“My batting style was natural. Maybe, it was like that because I have always been a fan of nature and wildlife,” Kalu says tongue firmly in cheek. “During my cricket tours also, I used to visit national parks whenever possible.” That he would be closely associated with wildlife post-retirement was almost an eventuality.
Kalu’s Hideaway is a luxury jungle retreat at Udawalawe in southern Sri Lanka that now has 14 rooms. It also has a small museum displaying his cricket memorabilia. But there’s a philanthropic side to Kalu’s wildlife love affair as well.
The Udawalawe Elephant Transit Home is the only proper elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka. The orphaned baby elephants are rehabilitated there. Kalu contributes by supplying milk for elephants, whenever there’s a scarcity. He helped the orphanage find some sponsors. He is “indirectly” associated to a few charities as well that look after the well-being of underprivileged children. He once took the late Tony Grieg – his ardent admirer, who gave him the nickname, Little Kalu – to such a programme in Jaffna.
The former cricketer is now into building awareness among people near wildlife sanctuaries not to buy, sell or eat game meat.
“We need to preserve our wildlife. I’m trying to contribute in a small way. I have strict orders for my jungle bungalow staff not to buy or cook game meat. I have fired people for disobeying the orders,” Kalu says. “Don’t highlight my contribution to wildlife preservation. It’s minuscule and I don’t do it for publicity,” he urges.
Since hanging up his gloves and pads in 2004, Kalu has constantly kept himself linked with cricket. In 2006, the Asian Cricket Council (ACC) included Kalu in a committee to evaluate the game’s potential in China. “It was a short trip to China and we targeted schools, their hockey players in particular because of their familiarity with the bat/hockey stick and ball. See, the Chinese like non-contact sport and cricket is a non-contact sport. But my assessment is that, for cricket to make inroads into China, it has to become an Olympic sport. Otherwise, they won’t care. It’s important for cricket to reach next (global game) level through Olympics participation,” he explains. Cricket Sri Lanka, by the way, is supporting the game’s inclusion in the 2024 Olympics. The ICC is waiting to hear from the BCCI.
Open to IPL offer
Kalu never played a T20 international during his 14 years in international cricket, which began in 1990. You wouldn’t have thought so, considering the way he batted. For, he always seemed to be in a hurry and to an extent ahead of his time.
Now a national selector, Kalu coached the Sri Lanka ‘A’ team for six-and-a-half years before falling out with the board. A Level 3 coach, Kalu oversaw the development of the likes of Dinesh Chandimal, Niroshan
Dickwella, Danushka Gunathilaka and some other current Sri Lankan national team players. But somehow a coaching offer has eluded him. Let alone the IPL, no other franchise-based T20 league has approached him yet. But he’s not giving up yet.
“Actually yes, I’m surprised. Also, I like to coach for short stints. I’m still keeping myself fit. If I have an opportunity, I would gladly take it in any capacity.”