Kanihskaa Balachandran in ESPNcricinfo,
Shortly after Raki Weerasundara‘s third birthday, his family called time in Colombo and started a new life in Wellington. The year was 1998, and with Sri Lanka plunged in civil war, the political and security situation had compelled several of its citizens to relocate to countries with friendly immigration laws. There had been mass emigration in the 1980s, when the ethnic conflict boiled over, and relocation gathered pace again in the late ’90s, to places like New Zealand, England and Switzerland.
“You couldn’t really feel safe over there. You couldn’t be sure what was going to happen,” Weerasundara says of his parents’ decision to move countries. “They also wanted a better lifestyle.”
He has spent the last 15 years in his adopted country. If you spoke to him on the phone, you would not guess his country of origin. His place in New Zealand’s Under-19 squad is also unique because there aren’t many players of Sri Lankan origin representing other countries. UAE teams have had Sri Lankan migrants, going back to the 1996 World Cup and their current U-19 side has one in Waruna Perera. The Asian names associated with New Zealand cricket, from Dipak Patel to Ish Sodhi, hail from India but given the number of Sri Lankans in New Zealand, you would expect larger representation.
Weerasundara has only known life in New Zealand. He says his parents must have found adjusting to their new lives difficult but in a couple of years, “they were like other Kiwis”. His parents had been banking professionals at Hatton National Bank in Colombo and his father let go of his top position to venture into the unknown in New Zealand, where they got jobs at rival organisations: his father at National Bank and mother at Bank of New Zealand.
He has already taken his cricket a step further than his father, Asoka, who played for Nalanda College in Colombo. He quit his job at the bank and committed himself to the game, managing the Wellington School of Cricket. Asoka, his wife and daughter have flown to UAE to watch him play.
Weerasundara, who has a family home in the Colombo suburb of Dehiwala, has only visited his Sri Lanka three times, most recently in 2011 with the Willows Cricket Club. He humbly admitted he doesn’t speak Sinhalese but can understand a bit of the language. Has he heard the odd sledge? “It was funny in the Sri Lanka game (in Sharjah) I could understand their tactics and they thought I didn’t!” he recalls with a laugh.
Most of the Asian-origin cricketers playing top-level domestic cricket in New Zealand happen to be spinners, including Arnie Yugaraja, who was picked for the last U-19 World Cup. Weerasundara is different: he is an opening batsman and a part-time offspinner.
“I like to see myself as an aggressive opener, who can make the most of the first ten overs of the Powerplay,” he said.
Weerasundara made starts in all the group games, with scores of 33, 33 and 41. He wants to model his batting on Mahela Jayawardene, not just because he is his hero, but also because he is his friend. He was introduced to Jayawardene by his father when he was around six years old, during one of Sri Lanka’s visits to New Zealand. The Nalanda connection brought the families together and they stay in touch.
“More recently, since I’ve been into serious cricket he has been more like a mentor, sending me text messages,” Weerasundara said. “I was invited to his house for coffee. It’s so cool to be able to associate with someone at such a high level. He is so easy on the eye, elegant to watch and he remains calm, I want to be like that.”
Weerasundara is pursuing his Bachelor of Business Studies part-time, given his cricket commitments, and plans to play in the UK next April for a season. He is yet to play top-level domestic cricket and the World Cup is a stepping stone. If he can get a few rungs higher, Weerasundara could put Sri Lanka on the New Zealand cricket map.
Kanishkaa Balachandran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo