Hathu’s Departure: A Cricketing Tragedy

Samat, in Sunday Leader, 12 dec 2010

FRANKLY, Chandika Hathurusinghe’s appointment as Shadow Coach over a year ago was an oddity. With Trevor Bayliss and fellow Australian Stuart Law doing the job of head coach and assistant respectively, Hathurusingha’s inclusion seemed  one too many. As well, the SLC’s coaching staff had personnel in charge of the batting, bowling, fielding and fitness departments.  So, there seemed something superficial about his appointment. Not so, responded the decision-makers of the SLC. Hathurusinghe, the SLC declared publicly, would be an understudy to Bayliss and Law – in other words, serving a period of apprenticeship before being considered for the job of head coach, long in the hands of overseas coaches. It was an admirably brave decision, given that it were the foreigners who unarguably had taken our cricket to new heights; to tamper with that proven system would be unwise.
But with D.S. de Silva assuming powers as SLC chief, an attempt to usher a local coach to the top job was to be half-expected.  De Silva, during his days as a successful coach, held the view that a qualified local can be just as good a coach as a foreigner.  And after he successfully took our under 19 outfit to the final of the 2000 Junior World Cup, he didn’t disguise his confidence in the ability to do as good a job with the National team, if given the opportunity.
That opportunity, however, didn’t come de Silva’s way. So the appointment of Hathurusinghe no sooner than he had taken cricket’s highchair could be interpreted as a way to fulfilling his own unrealised dream through the shadow coach.  Against that backdrop, it was excusable to think that Hathurusinghe, under de Silva’s guardianship, was poised to take the reins of head coach, if not at the end of Bayliss’s term, then surely after the term of whoever succeeds the present incumbent – i.e. next year  or in 2013.

It is poignant irony that when Bayliss returns to his native Sydney, Australia, next April he might well bump into Hathurusinghe in some neighbouring suburb, coaching an anonymous club side – a  far cry from the glamorous world inhabited by only the coaches of Test nations, a job he clearly was being prepared for only a year ago.
Obviously, it is a move he would rather have not made.  His love and devotion to Sri Lanka cricket was just too great to let go and leave – the virtues of which we’ll speak about in later lines. Said simply, he was forced into migration to Australia, not so much over his disappointment of being thrown out of his  job as the hopelessness of keeping his job in a politically-driven system.  “I never expected it (termination) because I still don’t think I have done anything wrong,” said a distraught Hathurusinghe, a Level 3 qualified coach in England and Australia.
Not true, say the SLC: he “deserted’’ post by returning home before the completion of the  National team’s tour of Zimbabwe last August.  The question at issue is: was permission granted for his early return or not. The SLC say it wasn’t, and by no less than D.S. de Silva, the interim committee chairman. Hathurusinghe says the tour manager, Anura Tennekoon, and National Coach, Bayliss, had no objection to his departure before the final match, and for good measure, he also had obtained verbal permission from Board Secretary, Nishantha Ranatunga, who reportedly retracted as the controversy ballooned.
Hathurusinghe admits he had verbal discussions with de Silva – discussions in which, de Silva claims, he had asked the shadow coach to return with the team.  The Chairman was never going to back down from his version, which meant a possible reprieve for the shadow coach wasn’t a prospect. So it was: he was handed a two-year suspension, termination in effect, given that his two-years would run out after the 2011 World Cup.
Hathurusinghe, however, wasn’t going to take it lying down. He exercised his right to appeal against the suspension – and Retired Supreme Court judge, Justice Jagath Balapatabendi was appointed to inquire into the incident. His concluding remark:  “In view of his (Hathurusinghe’s) exemplary coaching record treat him with leniency.’’  To put it differently: the punishment is severer than the crime.
Rather than react to Justice Balapatabendi’s remark, one way or the other, the SLC acted as if an inquiry was never held at all: it just tossed aside the inquiry report and kept mum. The public were kept in the dark. The upshot: the two-year suspension remained; Justice Balapatabendi’s recommendation for leniency  ignored.
All this smacks of crude arrogance, which you might expect from some government-appointed bureaucrat tasked with a job he knows little about. D.S. de Silva is no such bureaucrat; as a cricketer he was a hardnosed pro, who scrapped it out in the tough and uncompromising world of minor county cricket in England. As a Sri Lanka Test cricketer, his commitment was absolute, best exemplified by his refusal to withdraw from a Test match in New Zealand, in 1983 – despite his  foot being run over by a car on the day before the match. He painfully hobbled through the game.
If anything, with his long experience as Test cricketer and later as coach, you’d expect him to sympathize with Hathurusinghe in this crisis. Okay, even if the shadow coach had infringed the rules, he did so for a worthy cause: he returned from the Zimbabwe tour a few days earlier so that he could make preparation to attend a specialised coaching course in Australia.  But de Silva, sadly, acted like some obstinate bureaucrat here, insisting on punishment for an offence that, at worst, can be described,  as misdemeanour.  A past cricketer and a coach, de Silva wasn’t here.
Hathurusinghe so flew out to Sydney last Friday, and for awhile his loss to Sri Lanka cricket will be lamented – in the months and years ahead, though, only those who knew him closely will recall his many virtues as cricketer, coach and man.
No one knew him quite as well as S. Skandakumar, his captain and mentor during his playing years in Tamil Union. In a farewell tribute to Hathurusinghe at the Tamil Union last week, he spoke of the many odds Hathurusinghe had overcome to become a Test cricketer and latterly  a successful coach. Sri Lanka skipper Kumar Sangakkara acknowledged that the departing shadow coach was pretty much indispensable and pleaded for his reinstatement.  In his appeal to SLC, the skipper said: “I want to be a part of a team that is coached by the best. I firmly believe that after the 2011 World Cup, Chandika has the capability to ably head the coaching of the National team. The whole squad of National players respect him and admire him for the work done.’’
What is it about Hathurusinghe that should prompt the skipper to come out so boldly in support of the coach over an issue that clearly had political over tones?  Said Skandakumar: “He’s obviously too damn good to lose. From what I know of him, he takes his job very, very seriously – not purely out of his love for cricket.  There are deeper reasons. His background is not one of affluence. Since his early education at  Veluwana in Dematagoda, he has had to fight for life’s gains, and the childhood  experience of coping with endless difficulties,  I think is what drove him to where he got to.’’
Skandakumar cites two lovely anecdotes that explains Hathurusinghe’s extraordinary resolve: 1/  “ His school coach, Tom Dep, once told me that Chandika did 15 minutes of bat drill regularly after dinner, standing in front of a mirror, and would then tuck his bat under his pillow and go to sleep.
2/ “ To improve his chances at cricket, Chandika moved (from little known Veluwana in Dematagoda)  to Ananda College in 1984, but failed to find a place in the first eleven team. Yet, in 1986, he fought his way into Sri Lanka schoolboys team  that toured England, creating an unprecedented record where a school boy represented his country before he did his alma mater. ‘’
These reflect his passion for the game at a very early age, and the kind of dreams he had in his adolescent years – passion and dreams that remained undiminished when he decided to make coaching a career.
Hathurusinghe had all the makings of being Bayliss’s successor – yet, the administration rather shop around the world for another.  This is a tragedy.

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