South Asia

Scouting Sri Lanka cricket talent in post-war north

Edward Edin batting
Image caption Promising batsman Edward Edin is looking to put the war behind him

In a large green field, its grass finely cropped, young cricketers are training in the late afternoon sun.

The youngest form a circle in one corner doing fielding practice while, in the middle, about 25 older boys get expert coaching in batting and bowling.

This ground has come a long way from its previous incarnation.

Here at the former headquarters of the Tamil Tigers, their leader, Prabhakaran, used to deliver his annual war speech on what was called Heroes' Day.

Today an altogether gentler figure, former Sri Lankan national team fast bowler, Ravindra Pushpakumara, gets rapt attention from the budding sportsmen as he demonstrates his skills.

After the civil war ended in 2009, the national cricket board chairman invited various coaches to work in the north but many declined, thinking it too far from Colombo. But Ravindra accepted.

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Media captionAspiring Tamil batsman Edin on the difference the coaching has made

"I thought it's better to go and help these people because they need not only cricket, but other things," he said.

"These boys - we need to give them a chance. We finished the 30-year civil war and this land and these people suffered a lot. They also missed a lot of the sports side. They only went to school and home, they didn't balance their life."

Freedom to play

Ravindra's job involves not just coaching but scouting for talent - which he is finding in abundance.

He believes that being deprived of modern conveniences in the war decades has made northern Sri Lankans fit. Many walk or cycle five or 10 kilometres to school.

"We need stamina to play cricket, and natural talent is there," he says.

He also says that back in the 1950s and 60s, northern Sri Lanka produced very good cricketers including fast-bowlers.

"Especially in fast bowling, tradition is still there, these children are carrying it."

Image caption Spin-bowler Ponnuchchamy Pangujan says he wants to play for the national squad one day

The boys love it and Ravindra has already taken some to Colombo to play with club sides or trial matches with the national Under-19 team.

One of the most promising is batsman Edward Edin.

The 19-year-old comes from Kilinochchi and, like everyone else from here, had to flee his home with his family and went through severe deprivation and horrors in the war zone in 2008-09.

"We didn't really know whether we would live or die," he says during a quick break from training.

"Now we look back on it and it just seems like a nightmare because now we can enjoy ourselves. Now we feel we can travel all over the country to play cricket."

Spin-bowler Ponnuchchamy Pangujan, 18, now captains the Under-19 side for the Northern Province. He pays tribute to Ravindra and Lakshita Herath, who is working as district and schools coach in Jaffna further north.

"We practise daily and improve our skills day by day.

"[War] was very hard, we were not going to other places for practice matches because the war and the routes were closed. But this time we go to other places and we practise."

It is notable that, apart from the recently retired legendary spin-bowler, Muttiah Muralitharan, there have been very few ethnic Tamils at the top of the sport in Sri Lanka for years.

Ravindra's coaching programme will spread a net over the talent the country has at its disposal. As the north is almost entirely Tamil-populated, it will also advance the chances of Tamil cricketers - although he does not like to see it in ethnic terms but in talent terms.

I ask Pangujan what his ambition is - knowing the answer.

"I want to play in the Sri Lanka team," he says in English. "Soon - next year."

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