Among other things, the Youth World Cup is perhaps the first place where young cricketers have their first real brush with the media. It prepares future stars for lesser innocent times when cameras and microphones will be thrust into their faces and an inquisition will begin. At this stage, however, the press too ceases to be cynical. The chit-chats are friendlier; journalists look genuinely interested in the back-story of their subjects. And they are ready to hype up the good and play down the bad. Which is, in most cases, the opposite of what usually happens at the senior level.
Even so, unaccustomed to the spotlight, the chirpiest of souls here have discovered that the cat got their tongue once the camera started rolling. At best, they mutter some jargon such as “stick to the basics”, “back your game”, “it’s a process”, et al that they have picked up from their coaches or television. And most of them look relieved when they walk back after these interactions. Their stage fright is understandable though, for they are just teenagers. However, if there are apples, there are a few oranges too in this assorted basket that is the Under-19 World Cup. Some, like Sarfaraz Khan and Charith Asalanka, don’t freeze in the limelight, they revel in it. We know Sarfaraz, but Asalanka who?
The Sri Lankan Under-19 captain is quite a character. His stocky frame is a bundle of energy and could be seen bobbing around during the warm-up football game at the Sher-e-Bangla Stadium’s practice ground at Mirpur. This despite their coach Roger Wijesuriya being a hard taskmaster. After their final group match against Pakistan, which the Sri Lankans lost, Wijesuriya made his wards sit on the ground while he lectured them for 20 minutes — the gist of which was, “Avishka (Gunawardene, the batting coach) is not going to come and bat for you.” A few minutes after the class was over, Asalanka was back to his usual outgoing self.
“The coach was angry,” he told the media with a sheepish smile. “We didn’t bat well.” That was a rare off day for the left-handed Asalanka, Sri Lanka’s School Cricketer of the Year in 2015. Before that match, he had hit two consecutive half-centuries. In fact, against Afghanistan, he dug the team out of hole with a 71-run knock, before taking two wickets with his handy right-arm off-spin.
He is as fluent with bat as he is eloquent with his gestures. Even though he struggles a bit with English, the lad from Galle is completely at ease with this minor handicap. In fact, it, along with his radiant smile and expressive eyes, adds to his persona.
“In Sri Lanka, I have more senior guys talk to me. (Uhh) Aravinda de Silva, Kumar Dharmasena and (uhh) Sanath Jayasuirya… they are very senior guys! They told before coming here, how to play matches, how to handle pressure and… (uhh) how to be a hero, they told,” he says, using a lot of ‘umm’ and ‘uhh’ interjections.
And how is it that you become a hero? “(Smiles) I think hero is… (uhh) they can handling any pressure. Who the player scores runs in pressure (uhh) is the hero, I think,” he says.
Asalanka is unlike how captains in Sri Lanka have been. He is a leader, all right, but not as authoritative as Arjuna Ranatunga — he remains one among the boys. Asalanka is media savvy but not refined like Kumar Sangakkara or Angelo Mathews, and he isn’t soft-spoken like Mahela Jayawardene. He would be, if you have to draw a parallel with a Sri Lankan cricketer, more like Muttiah Muralitharan — affably mischievous. Though at 18, Murali was nowhere near as confident in front of the camera as Asalanka is. You ask him where he has picked this up.
“(Uhh) because I’ve captained for two years now. I am more experience now, and I have to look confident,” he says and laughs an infectious laughter.
At the Under-19 level, you would say a captain has a very limited role to play in the team, but Asalanka would have you believe that he is the one pulling the strings on the field. In the quarterfinal against England, for example, he says he made his spinners bowl 40 overs, while underbowling his pacers. He explained the strategy.
“I have so many things (uhh) bowling changes, field changes. You know because (uhh) this is sub-continent country and (uhh) not much of support in pitch to pacers, so spinners have role…really (uhh) much part in bowling. So I tell to pacers (uhh) do the basics, and (uhh) give us to basic things and (umm) bowl more economically, and I tell to spinners (uhh) try to take wickets and put some pressure for batsmen (uhh) because there’s support from pitch,” he says, on the eve of the semifinal against India.
If he tells his players all things, what does Wijesuriya tell them?
He laughs. “(Umm) First coach tell to me (a long pause here) and after that I tell to others.” Laughter rings out in the press conference hall, and even Wijesuriya smiles. You feel like the headmaster has picked the most mischievous boy in the class and made him the monitor.
Tuesday will be a big game, then. India have big names in the squad, some of them have become stars after the IPL auction. Their coach is a legend. And Asalanka’s team lost to them in the tri-series at home.
Yet, all that doesn’t so much as create a dent in his confidence.
“(Uhh) It doesn’t matter who came, what’s the name, we don’t… (looks for the right word)… what’s the name, what’s the man, we just face the ball and we just play another big game for us. And it will be good match because it’s (uhh) semifinal. And doesn’t matter, who came, who come, we play just (umm) our cricket,” says Asalanka, who loves his fish and Hindi music — especially from ‘RabNeBanaye (uhh) Jodi’. He doesn’t know what it means, but after you translate it for him — “Matches are made in heaven” – he confides that he has got a girlfriend.
So, what are his dreams apart from cricket?
“I have good family — father, mother, three sisters and one brother. I have to protect them, and I have to protect my team too. My ambition is to be a national cricketer as fast as possible and a best batsman in world.” He says it in one breath, without pausing for the uhhs and umms this time. “And I will marry my girlfriend.”