The Associate coach who changes fortunes
As the sun begins to set on a cool November day in Los Angeles, USA's players are peeling off from their celebrations after beating Oman in the World Cricket League Division Four final to carry out a very American sports tradition: giving the coach a Gatorade shower.
First popularised by the New York Giants during their playoff run to Super Bowl XXI after the 1986 season, it was a ploy to get their famously intense head coach Bill Parcells to cool off, both literally and figuratively.
USA's cricket team has never done it after winning a tournament, but the call to action on this day is a sign of their rapidly growing respect and adoration for coach Pubudu Dassanayake. While taller players are used as decoys to surround him, two squad members duck in and hoist a cooler full of ice and liquid over Dassanayake.
As he has been for every other scenario on field during the tournament, Dassanayake is prepared. As the cooler is overturned, he darts away. Not a single drop manages to get his hair or clothes wet. "I may be old, but I'm still quick!" he shouts, laughing. Another strategic victory on the day.
Few coaches in Associate cricket have had as much success over the last decade as 46-year-old Dassanayake. From 2007 to 2011, he helped Canada qualify for their third straight World Cup, while pushing forth the cases of a number of teenage prodigies who now form the core of the current squad. From 2011 to 2016, he led Nepal from Division Four of the World Cricket League into Division One, the WCL Championship, and to their first major ICC tournament, the 2014 World T20.
"I think I'm in the same situation I was in Nepal four years ago," Dassanayake says. "I see that interest in these players. I would say the only difference maybe is the time I have to spend with the players, but the challenges are there. It's nothing new to me. Canada was very similar. There's an opportunity that I can grow this team. It's an opportunity for me to be part of this system."
Like many modern cricketers, Dassanayake has had an itinerant lifestyle for much of his career. After playing 11 Tests and 16 ODIs for Sri Lanka from 1993 to 1994, he was beaten out for a spot in the 1996 World Cup squad by his close friend Romesh Kaluwitharana, who combined memorably with Sanath Jayasuriya at the top of the order, shutting the door on Dassanayake's chances of ever getting a recall.
By the turn of the millennium, he was spending his off seasons playing as an overseas club pro for Centurions CC in the Toronto suburb of Brampton. With Sri Lanka embroiled in a civil war, the Colombo native started to think about his family's future. He had a one-year-old son with his wife, a licensed veterinarian, who had work opportunities available in Canada. By 2001, he had packed his bags and left Sri Lanka for good.
"It's a totally different life, but I liked it," Dassanayake says. "In Sri Lanka it was the peak of the civil war. Every day we had a suicide bomber and Colombo was a mess at that time. So looking at all those things, that's why we thought about coming here. The situation we had at Colombo, we were very happy to be in Brampton."
When Dassanayake migrated, he never thought he'd still play "serious cricket". But his performances with Centurions CC caught the selectors' eye and he was rushed into the national side as soon as he met the four-year residency requirement. He made his debut at 34 in the 2005 ICC Trophy in Ireland, where he helped Canada qualify for the 2007 World Cup, but he never made it to that tournament, though, forced to give up playing in 2006 due to his full-time work commitments as a duty manager at the Toronto Cricket, Skating & Curling Club.
Dassanayake knew coaching was his best hope of remaining involved in cricket. At 36, he took over the Canada side after the 2007 World Cup, and prioritised a youth movement during his four years in charge.
"An Associate country like Canada, it's not about you just wanting to go and get a few runs against a Full Member country, it's about the whole development," Dassanayake says. "In the two or three World Cups they played before, John Davison was the one main man to get through the qualifiers and play in the World Cup. We all knew he was going to retire in the 2011 World Cup. So my position was to get at least our core players 20-25 ODIs behind them from 2009-13, and giving them that World Cup experience."
When the 2011 World Cup ended, Dassanayake's contract was up. Cricket Association of Nepal invited him to apply for their vacant position.
"I never heard about them," Dassanayake says, when asked what his first thoughts were about being solicited for the Nepal job. "Never thought about four to five years of coaching them. The initial thing they asked for was six months to coach at the Asian T20 Qualifier and then the global qualifier, if we got through. But I got stuck there," he finishes with a laugh.
Upon seeing the talent in front of him at the very first training session he conducted in Kathmandu, he was excited. "Once I had seen them, the first thing that came to my mind was that these guys need to be in Division One and I was surprised that they were not," Dassanayake says. "They were stuck in Division Four. After spending a couple months there, I couldn't believe it. The Canadian team, I couldn't get ten guys into a training session even for a couple of hours and these guys you have every day from morning to evening, they are available to train and they are willing to do it. It was the ideal situation. Any coach would dream to have that, especially at the Associate level."
It was more than a year before Dassanayake's first definitive success was achieved. Nepal swept to 6-0, including two wins over USA, to claim the 2012 WCL Division Four title in Malaysia that September and a promotion into Division Three. But he says the seeds of the team's eventual rise to their current standing in the WCL Championship were sown six months earlier, at the World T20 Qualifier in the UAE. Nepal entered the tournament ranked 14th on the Associate ladder, but finished seventh after going 3-4 in the group stage, followed by playoff wins over Kenya and Papua New Guinea.
"That was the first time I would say all these guys got confidence," Dassanayake says. "Okay, we can beat these big guys. Steve Tikolo and all these big names played in that [Kenya] game and we were able to beat them. That's where everything started, I would say. Then I think the players realised that we are capable of doing things."
Few players in Nepal benefitted more from Dassanayake's arrival than captain Paras Khadka, both on and off the field. At the time of his arrival as coach, Dassanayake says that the administration was looking to replace Khadka as captain. Dassanayake held firm that Khadka would lead the team or no one. His faith was rewarded time and again.
"Whatever we have achieved, he's the reason that Nepal made it to the World Cup," Khadka says of Dassanayake. "He came and gave us the plans for what to do and how to go about things. We were wandering in the jungle, but he came and showed us the right path.
"At that tournament we were playing at that level for the very first time against Division One teams. When we came seventh and beat Kenya, by the end of the tournament we sat down and talked. To make it to the 2014 T20 World Cup, for the next qualifiers we needed to push ourselves to be slightly better. We started believing in ourselves more, because we knew if we worked slightly harder and were slightly smarter, then we would eventually reach this, and it wound up happening for us."
Part of becoming "slightly smarter" was Dassanayake introducing video analysis, which significantly altered Nepal's preparation habits. Having come up through the Sri Lanka system at a time when they were making a transition from an Associate to a Full Member with World Cup dreams also helped him relate to Nepal's players. Describing himself as someone with more work ethic than talent, Dassanayake never felt the need to force style changes on players but focused on improving efficiency to get results.
"I was an average player and maybe it's a reason that I can do my coaching job pretty well, because I know what it takes," he says. "I was not a gifted guy who just walks into the field and is hitting the ball. Even in my playing days, I needed to work really hard to get things done. So I think that has maybe helped me in my coaching. I never thought that I will go in the Associate route this far, but it's a fantastic thing. Once you put a nation into the right path, it's a great feeling."
Nepal improved their seventh-place finish at the 2012 World T20 Qualifier to a third place in 2013, securing a berth at the main event in 2014.
They opened their World T20 campaign with a thumping 80-run win over Hong Kong, and followed it with a gritty effort on a stiflingly humid night in an eventual eight-wicket loss to Bangladesh, the tournament hosts. That was followed by a nine-run win over Afghanistan.
"Pubudu doesn't drink," Khadka says. "I told him, 'If we beat Afghanistan, I'm gonna make sure that you have a glass of beer.' So when we beat them in the World Cup and we went back to the hotel, we put down a glass of beer and asked him to gulp it down. He killed it."
During his first three years in Nepal, Dassanayake became a revered figure for the impact his leadership had in taking the team to new heights, but there were also lows to come. Dassanayake's contract initially ended with the 2014 World T20 and the Cricket Association of Nepal (CAN) made the curious call not to renew it. Dassanayake went back home to Canada and was only offered an extension when Khadka threatened to retire.
That situation was emblematic of some topsy-turvy times. Finishing in the top four of 2015 WCL Division Two in Namibia got Nepal into the WCL Championship. Later that summer, they bombed out in the group stage of the World T20 Qualifier in Ireland, a tour that had its share of distractions, including the team physio being arrested and charged with sexual assault. Once again, Dassanayake went back to Canada as CAN dealt with internal administrative turmoil; he travelled to Nepal sporadically at the request of the ICC before he decided it was time to come back to Canada for good in June 2016.
"The way I work, when I see that I cannot move forward with a team, I'm not a paycheck guy," Dassanayake said. "If I can't perform, I'm not just going to stay there and take my pay."
He had also grown weary of spending so much time away from his family. While he had been in Nepal, his wife and sons had remained in Canada. His wife was about to open up a new veterinary clinic near their home in Barrie, about 65 miles north of downtown Toronto, and he wanted to assist.
He had only been home less than three months when another email popped up in his inbox inviting him to apply for a fresh opportunity much closer to home.
As much as he wanted to help his wife look after central Ontario's pet population, Dassanayake says the short time away from cricket was enough to make him realise he was missing it.
"Coaching is always one thing that I love," he says. "Even though I have other things, family business, any time if it comes to coaching, that is my first preference. If there is a challenge, only then I will take it. If there is no environment to move forward, I would not have taken any job."
Contrary to previous men in the role who have parachuted in and out of tournaments acting more like paid chaperones, Dassanayake is arguably the first true coach USA have had in the modern era. Since taking over in September 2016, he has presided over a half-dozen national team camps. When the squad can't get together as a whole, he flies out to wherever groups of players are concentrated: New York, Washington, DC, Chicago, Houston, Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles.
The USA side was once in the top flight of Associate cricket, beating out Netherlands, Scotland and UAE among others to qualify for the 2004 Champions Trophy, achieved entirely as an amateur unit. In 2015, the ICC laid out its strategic plan for cricket in the USA. Dassanayake says there's no reason why USA can't be in Division One of Associate cricket once again, competing alongside the likes of Afghanistan and Ireland for a berth in the 2019 World Cup, a target set by the ICC.
"The games that Nepal played against USA were never easy for Nepal," Dassanayake says. "The pace was the main fear that Nepal had whenever they played USA. I'm confident that the team that we have has so much talent. Some of the things that we have, I don't think any [Associate has], maybe except for Afghanistan. I would say from the fast-bowling attack we are way ahead of most of those Associates and with CPL-experienced players, I'm confident of what we can do."
It's one thing to have talent but another to create an environment where that talent can thrive. USA's locker rooms of the past have sometimes been breeding grounds for distrust, with cliques forming along ethnic lines: South Asian players v West Indians, if not American geographic factions pitting New York-based players against those living elsewhere.
That mentality has started to dissipate under Dassanayake, with a unified approach symbolised by his insistence on a team song. Dassanayake says he never had one with Canada, but when he came to Nepal, the tradition of singing "Rato Ra Chandra Surya" (Red Sun and Moon), an ode to the Nepal flag, grew on him.
"We discussed it in meetings," says USA wicketkeeper Akeem Dodson. "Everybody was like, 'Ehhhh, maybe, maybe not. I don't know.'" Eventually the K'Naan song "Wavin' Flag", which came to popularity during the 2010 FIFA World Cup, was trialled. "We won the last game in the Auty Cup and tried it then. We didn't do it so loud. But once we came into Division Four and we got the first win and we sang it, it really motivated us to go do it the next time. Everyone has bought in now and we're all for it."
The harmony has left players feeling less stressed than in previous regimes and more relaxed to perform. Last November, on day three of the WCL Division Four in a pivotal showdown against Oman, legspinner Timil Patel took 5 for 22, his second five-for of the tournament, while Steven Taylor struck 124 not out off 95 balls in an eight-wicket win.
Timil says the team played so confidently in large part because of the atmosphere Dassanayake helped to cultivate. "The confidence the coach has given us, we are bonding as a team, the players, everybody is getting along, and I think it all comes from the dressing room. The coach is not only working on the cricketing aspect, but also the mental aspect. How we get along, what we eat, how we sleep. Everything is taken care of and it's actually a great thing."
Dassanayake's attention to detail also stands out. "He doesn't leave anything or neglect anything," says left-arm spinner Nosthush Kenjige, picked in April for his first tour with USA. "In the fielding department, just the small angles that need to be covered, small positions that need to be taken, he goes through all of them thoroughly. He works on those minute things that make a huge difference. I think that's something for which he has to be respected.
"I'm not sure about earlier coaches, but with him, it's just one team. Everybody knows what the goals are, everybody has just one vision. Just the amount of passion he has for the game to the amount of passion that he has for coaching, be it whatever on the field, outside the field, he's all in."
During USA's April preparation camp in Houston ahead of Division Three, the coach was decked out from head to toe in red, white and blue. The trousers, the jersey, the hat with "U-S-A" in block letters. Even Dassanayake's new red-framed Oakley sunglasses were stamped with a "TEAM USA" logo on the bottom corner of the left lens. To say he's all in, just as he had been with Nepal, is an understatement.
"He wants everybody on board," Dodson says. "Not only does he want everybody on board, but he's willing to jump on the boat with us."
With Dassanayake so committed, it's easy to see why USA's players are buying in too. Making the 2019 World Cup might be a far-fetched fantasy for some, and Dassanayake admits it would require "a perfect year": three top-two finishes at WCL Division Three, Division Two and the World Cup Qualifier scheduled for April 2018 in Bangladesh.
"Every tournament we need to move," Dassanayake says. "Even Nepal, when we played Division Two, Nepal barely missed out on the final and they ended in fourth place, but then still the top four was promoted to Division One.
"It doesn't matter how you do it, but at the end of the day it has to move forward. We have to get that system into USA also, because all these Associate countries, you miss one cycle, it's another two or three years you need to sit and wait. I don't think USA is in a position where you can afford any more of that."
After the Gatorade shower has gone awry, USA's players line up to receive their tournament winner's medals before posing for team photos with the WCL Division Four trophy. It caps a banner day of celebrations, including a surprise visit during the innings break from Mick Jagger for a snapshot.
The light is fading sharply as the sun disappears behind the Santa Monica Mountains that shape the south-west rim of the San Fernando Valley. The players pack their kit bags, ready to board the bus for the five-minute drive back to the team hotel in Van Nuys. After six games in eight days, everyone is drained, but the players are asked by tournament officials to gather on the outfield for one more set of photos.
The team lines up behind a three-dimensional "#WCL4" wooden display that was set up to promote the tournament on social media. Everyone follows instructions, a bit lethargically, to raise their index finger for when the official tournament photographer shouts out "Who's No. 1?"
After the photo is taken, the team begins to disperse when Dassanayake shouts out, "Hold on, we're not finished." He manoeuvres to the centre of the set-up, rips the "W" out of the display's moorings, and hoists it over his head. After a few laughs, everyone roars in unison. The players point emphatically at the "W" Dassanayake has raised in the air. They're all in, just like him, to rack up another W for USA, one of many on the path he's charting to get them back up the Associate ladder.
Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent. @PeterDellaPenna