The practice nets at the Max Cricket Academy are a veil of green mesh, one intertwined with the other, shrouding them from the world outside, as if a highly mysterious project is brewing. The only un-webbed stretch is the bowlers’ runway, where a cluster of young men is restlessly scattered around the two nets while some are sitting on the roller sipping Gatorade.
It’s difficult to differentiate between pacers and spinners, for the nets look so closely bunched from the side that you feel the bowlers will collide into each other in their run-up. Just then, Chamidhu, lithe and swift, glides in rhythmically, before with a last-second blur of arms, legs and back contortions, he slings the ball with his left arm at an absurdly low angle to the ground. The thump of his left foot into the turf is so heavy that you wonder if he has ankles of rubber. It takes some getting used to — even his club coaches found it difficult to comprehend — to lay it down to an unorthodox action than an optical illusion.
His friends call him “slinga”. In Sri Lanka, just one man goes by that name — Lasith Malinga. Now, a more original counterfeit of Malinga, sans his permed curls and maybe a couple of inches taller, bursts in. As he approaches the creases, his upper body arches back, bends almost like an arc, then with a twisty jerk of the body flings the ball in, the right arm fully horizontal to the ground, like the big needles of a clock when it touches 12’o clock.
He is Nuwan Thushara, widely talked about as the next Malinga and who turned a few heads in last year’s U-19 World Cup. But like Chamidhu, he’s a scattershot, tends to be a little erratic. It is an action that invites inaccuracy, unless you’ve mastered it like Malinga.
At the adjoining nets, Avindu Theekshana is twirling the ball in his fingers, ready to strum in. He grips the ball like a seam bowler in the tip of his fingers, runs in quickly and bowls at a quickish pace, then without wrapping his fingers over the ball, just flicks it with the index finger, like a mirror reflection of Ajantha Mendis. Even the index finger of his non-bowling hand, his right hand, points skywards like Mendis during the delivery stride. Not yet out of college, several big Colombo clubs are queuing up for the signature of the boy from Galle.
Around them is a retinue of coaches, incessantly barking out instructions or mumbling something in their ears, as well as carefully enshrouding them from the outsider’s gaze. Both the coaches and players divulge little about what’s happening there or even engage in a casual chat with strangers or are willing to identify themselves. You pick the familiar faces, like former Sri Lankan pacer Nuwan Zoysa, or spin bowling coach Ajith Ekanayage, or international discards or fringe players like Seekkuge Prasanna or Suraj Randiv, he of the Virender Sehwag no-ball fame, or young off-spinner with an unorthodox action, Akila Dananjaya.
So treasured they seem to be that shooting videos by outsiders is prohibited. Even the camera is viewed with a touch of suspicion — as if they want the mystery to remain well within green meshes of the academy nets, far removed from the prying (spying too) eyes of the outsider.
Thank god, they are far away from the snooping IPL scouts too, for mystery is a quotient so valued by them, a reason even little-known chinaman bowlers like Shivil Kaushik are gleefully lapped up by franchises shelling out eye-catching sums. But here, the coaches clearly seem to keep them away from probing eyes.
The session fits straight into the grand Sri Lankan romance of mystique twirlers and slingers, each out-marvelling the other with their oeuvre of fancy tricks. Then there are some who weren’t in the camp like the ambidextrous spinner Kamindu Mendis. If you think Muttiah Muralitharan and Malinga were just aberrations, the trainees of the cricket academy convince you that it’s a rule rather than an exception.
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It’s the “freakishness” of the country’s talent that tugged a chord in Simon Willis’ heart. It’s ironic, in a sense, that the breeding centre of these mystery men in Sri Lanka is helmed by an Englishman. For English coaches, stereotypically fastidious, get caught up in technique — that there is either a right way or a wrong way, with no shades of grey.
But for Willis, a former Kent wicketkeeper-batsman, the country’s unorthodoxy enamoured him. “What I liked about the country was the sheer variety and uniqueness of the talent here, what you call freaks. It’s their strength, and I’m here to maximise their strengths,” he says.
His philosophy is simple. “If the methods are safe and effective, there’s no reason to meddle with those. It’s dangerous for coaches to dive in and make the changes just because it’s unusual or it’s in the coaching manual. It’s the charm and identity of this place, and they should be groomed like they’re, unless of course there are other bigger issues involved like the risk of injuries,” Willis says.
Asking a bowler to change his action is dealt delicately at the academy, he says: “You need to understand the character of the player and get into his mind before you tell him to bowl differently. The most important part is the mental aspect and you’ve to be very patient and supportive, also put him in different conditions.”
But he emphasised that drastic action-tweaks don’t happen at the academy. “We just try to focus on finer points and work within the framework of their action, give them exposure to different conditions at a young age. That’s why our developmental squads have toured a lot of places like South Africa, Australia and England,” Willis points out.
He though, insists, Sri Lankan cricket should be patient for tangible results. “It would take five to 10 years, before the system starts producing the desired results,” he says. He echoes their chief selectors’ plea, rather than observation, that transitions don’t always happen overnight. “Look at India, they’re the number one side because they have a wonderful structure and it took several years for them to achieve the results,” he says. Whether the cricket-watching Sri Lankans have the patience remains to be seen.
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“Look at Graeme Swann, he got all the wickets without a doosra,” he says, twirling his fingers. Willis is referring to the off-spinners’ predilection with the variations, as a result of which they tend to flex their elbow beyond the prescribed limit (15 degree). “They say you can’t bowl the doosra without flexing the elbow by more than 15 degrees. What I’m saying is why do they need to bowl the doosra, they can bowl the arm ball or the slider,” he says.
Several of the mystery bowlers they have produced have been reported for suspect actions. Like off-spinner Sachithra Senanayake, long touted as Muralitharan’s heir, or his tribesman Tharindu Kaushal, who the selectors at one point believed to be better than Ranganna Herath, or medium pacer Shaminda Eranga. Even in the junior World Cups, several Sri Lankan spinners have been reported for suspect actions.
They’re all brought at the academy before their action is dissected threadbare and remedial measures suggested and implemented. It’s a strenuous process as you’re changing a bowler’s natural action, something which he has been doing since childhood. “They may not be the same afterwards,” Willis sighs.
Moreover, there’s hardly anybody who has remedied his action and found the same cutting edge. Also, there is the lurking tendency to relapse.
“The problem is when you try to bowl faster if you’re a fast bowler or if you’re spinner when you try the variations, there’s a tendency for the mistakes creeping in again. So as a bowler, you have to be mentally aware of the mistakes and find some confidence with this new action,” he says.
Willis points out the case of Eranga, who was reported for a suspect action in the second Test against England at Chester-le-Street in 2016. “But he worked really hard and was cleared by the ICC in June.
Now he’s bowling confidently,” he says. The same, though, hasn’t been the case with Kaushal and Senanayake, whose careers have tapered off.
The malaise, he feels, is wider and has to be rectified at the grassroots.
“You should look how and where the problem begins. It happens when you’re a kid bowling on a normal pitch. You may not be strong enough to land the ball at the other end. So you begin flexing your elbow. Then it slowly becomes a habit. So I always tell the junior coaches to keep an eye on the size of the pitch the young boys are bowling on,” Willis says.
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It’s about 1 pm. The players are warming down. Zoysa and his fellow coaches are bantering around. A group of spinners is wishing Akila Dananjaya, who was picked for the limited-overs series. There is a genuine warmth and camaraderie among them. There are warm smiles all over and not a speck of mystery about them. That is until they get the ball in their hands. It wouldn’t be more ironic if an Englishman can shape the next generation of Sri Lanka’s mystery wave.