More focus on under-19 cricket


by Rex Clementine

Since reaching the finals of ICC Under-19 World Cup in 2000, when Sri Lanka hosted the event, county’s junior cricketers have struggled to impress in the under-19 World Cups. Malintha Gajanayaka was the captain when Sri Lanka lost the finals to a strong Indian outfit that comprised Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif 14 years ago.

Since then, Sri Lanka have not even reached the semi-finals of the Under-19 World Cup and in the last edition in Australia even lost to Bangladesh. If that weren’t bad enough, last month during the Under-19 Asia Cup in United Arab Emirates they lost to Afghanistan! Quite alarming.

There’s an urgent need to focus on budding cricketers as teams like Bangladesh beat Sri Lanka frequently at age group levels.

Although people say that Sri Lanka’s junior cricket structure, with a highly competitive school cricket tournament, is the best in the world, country’s under-19 cricketers are struggling in the biannual event hosted by the International Cricket Council.

It’s no secret that the standard of cricket at school levels has gone down steeply. Sri Lanka’s first half-century in Test cricket was scored by a school kid. Arjuna Ranatunga is his name. Sudat Pasqual represented the country in the 1979 World Cup while still being a schoolboy. The likes of Aravinda de Silva, Sanath Jayasuriya and many others before them walked into the national side straight after school. Why that doesn’t happen any longer?

One of the finest cricket brains Aravinda de Silva, who has worked with under-19 team as a batting mentor, analyzing the trend came up with an interesting answer. He felt that when he was playing, the knowledge of coaches at schools was extremely good. However, the standards of coaches had gone down, he felt. He also stressed the need to seriously persuade a programme to coach the coaches. That was one way to make junior cricket stronger again.

Sanath Jayasuriya, who played in the first Under-19 World Cup, felt that the quality of cricket youngsters play has been diluted. He said that during his days at under-19 level a player had only 12-13 games and still managed to score 1000 runs in the calendar year. But currently the players are having around 20 games and the competitiveness is lacking. According to him there’s too much of cricket at school level.

Sanath is the current Chairman of Selectors and although he doesn’t have the powers to put right all the maladies at school level, he is attempting to correct at least some of the problems.

The under-19 pool currently is playing a series of matches at home in preparation for the under-19 World Cup in UAE in February. While they played a game on Friday at Colts against Sri Lanka Development Squad they had played another game on Tuesday at Panagoda. A few more practice matches are scheduled and the squad for the World Cup will be chosen after taking a closer look at the players.

"To be frank, selecting the under-19 team is a bigger challenge than selecting the national team," Sanath told Sunday Island.

"Mere talent alone won’t do. You’ve got to be able to handle pressure at the international level. There may be some extremely talented young cricketers, but we look beyond that," Sanath added.

Sanath says he wants the team to at least reach the semi-finals of the under-19 World Cup. SLC had allocated Rs. 30 million as expenses for the under-19 pool lead up to the tournament. Two selectors – Chaminda Mendis and Pramodaya Wickramasinghe have been assigned to closely work with the under-19 team lead up to the tournament.

There’s also a move to bring an ex-Sri Lankan cricketer now domiciled in Australia to work with the under-19 team as a consultant as he has one of the finest cricket brains.

The authorities are also contemplating to conduct a camp for the under-19 cricketers in Dambulla to give the players the ideal preparation for the event. It’s said wickets stimulating those found in UAE will be prepared at the camp.

SLC seems to be doing everything within their reach to have a successful outing during the under-19 World Cup, but there remains doubts about the actual age of Indian and Pakistan teams. Other teams fear that teams from India and Pakistan contain over aged players.

Irrespective of what Sri Lanka’s under-19 cricketers achieve in UAE in the upcoming tournament, one thing needs to be appreciated. There’s been never so much of planning for an under-19 event. That was one reason why the team came up with abysmal performances over the years. Perhaps the authorities can take a step further. For the event in 2016, they can streamline a process now itself. Early planning and sufficient exposure are vital things to develop age group teams.

The 16 nation tournament will get underway on St. Valentine’s day. Sri Lanka are drawn in Group ‘D’ alongside New Zealand, England and hosts UAE. India are the defending champions of the event. They are one of the favourites to retain the title after they beat Pakistan in the Asia Cup final a few days ago.

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