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Melbourne's Sri Lankan connection

Asanka Gurusinha and Ravi Ratnayeke might be the most famous of them, but there are more than a dozen other former Sri Lankan cricketers who now call the city home

Brydon Coverdale

December 24, 2012

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Lasith Malinga poses for a photo with Saliya Ahangama, Melbourne, 2012
Saliya Ahangama with club team-mate Lasith Malinga recently © Saliya Ahangama
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Boxing Day. The biggest event on the Australian cricket calendar. Two years ago 84,384 spectators packed the MCG to watch the first day of a critical Ashes battle. Last summer 70,068 turned up to watch the opening day of Australia's series with India. This year, for the first time since 1995, it is Sri Lanka's turn to share the stage with the Australians. There won't be a record crowd, but Melbourne's enormous Sri Lankan community should help ensure plenty of the stands are full.

According to last year's national census, roughly half of Australia's 86,415-strong Sri Lankan-born population lives in Victoria. Until last year, the state's governor was one of those: medical researcher David de Kretser, who was born in Colombo.

Asanka Gurusinha is another, and he is far from the only former Sri Lankan cricketer who now calls Melbourne home.

"We had a get-together when we went back and played in a six-a-side competition in Sri Lanka, and 16 of us were living in Melbourne," Saliya Ahangama, who played three Tests as a fast bowler in 1985, said.

Some are well known, Gurusinha and Ravi Ratnayeke, especially. Some had only brief moments in the spotlight, such as Manjula Munasinghe, Marlon Vonhagt, Susil Fernando, Kosala Kuruppuarachchi and Sanjeewa Weerasinghe. Others like Chamara Dunusinghe and Athula Samarasekara fall somewhere in between. Some remain heavily involved in the game through coaching, others have put cricket firmly behind them to pursue other careers.

Ravi Ratnayeke: the businessman
Ratnayeke is one of those whose cricket links have been all but severed. A bowling allrounder who played 22 Tests and 78 one-day internationals, Ratnayeke even captained Sri Lanka in an ODI in 1988. He would have played more but for his decision to retire relatively young - his final international appearance came on his 30th birthday. Ratnayeke is now 52 and has been living in Australia for 22 years, ever since his playing days finished.

"We were semi-professional, not fully professional," Ratnayeke said. "We had to work. A lot of the guys who played during my time gave it up during the peak of their careers. I gave it up when I had probably another three or four years left. I was very fit and had plenty of time but I gave it up because I needed a career and needed to be able to look after the family."

At first, Ratnayeke and his wife and two children lived in Perth, where he played some club cricket, but the family had cousins in Melbourne and decided it was the natural place to settle. He has made a career with a packaging company, Amcor, and since his knees convinced him to stop playing club cricket, he has had little involvement with the sport.

Coaching holds no interest for Ratnayeke - he says that had he stayed in Sri Lanka he might have pursued a career in cricket administration. He prefers competing himself and these days it's golf. Even as Channel 9 was replaying moments from Bellerive Oval's inaugural Test - also Ratnayeke's last, in 1989 - during the coverage of Australia's recent win over Sri Lanka in Hobart, Ratnayeke's focus was elsewhere. "I completely forgot about the Test match on day one and only heard the score on my way back home from work," he said.

That said, the Ratnayeke family typically makes the trip from their home in Rowville, in Melbourne's outer south-eastern suburbs, for the Boxing Day Test. Ratnayeke was at the infamous 1995 match when Muttiah Muralitharan was called for throwing, but he won't be at the ground this year - the family will be away over the holiday period.

Ratnayeke's children have little real connection with Sri Lanka these days, and he has no regrets about moving from his homeland, a move that was made with his family in mind. Melbourne is well and truly home now.

"We decided for the sake of the kids and what we wanted to do in the future that we would move to Australia," Ratnayeke said. "It was good for the kids. I have no regrets. Australians love sport and I love sport. And I love Australia for that. Now I'm an out-and-out Aussie - I don't even have a Sri Lankan citizenship anymore. I have to get a visa to go back."

Manjula Munasinghe: giving back to the community
Munasinghe has been back in recent years. Unlike Ratnayeke, his international career didn't last long - five ODIs in the mid-1990s. And unlike Ratnayeke, Munasinghe is heavily involved in coaching in Melbourne. When he first moved to Australia in 1999, Munasinghe found work with the Victorian Cricket Association in junior coaching and that led to him establishing the Aus-Lanka Cricket Academy six years ago.

 
 
"Over here a lot of Sri Lankan families push their kids to the educational side rather than sports. When they get to 16 they often give up cricket totally and focus on their studies. That's why I tried to get this academy going" Manjula Munasinghe
 

The programme provides coaching for children from ages seven to 17, and while the initial students were largely from the Sri Lankan community, it has expanded significantly. About 100 children are involved in Munasinghe's programme and he said the challenge was to keep them in cricket when they reached the last few years of their schooling.

"When I first started we didn't do any advertising, it was word of mouth," Munasinghe said. "The majority of the kids had Sri Lankan backgrounds. It became known around the Sri Lankan community. Now a lot of other nationalities have come too - Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Australians. It's a bit of a mix.

"Over here a lot of Sri Lankan families push their kids to the educational side rather than sports. That's the big disadvantage, when they get to 16 they often give up cricket totally and focus on their studies. That's why I tried to get this academy going and show the kids what sort of path they need to take to get to a higher level."

One the success stories from Munasinghe's Rowville-based academy is Nishal Perera, a young offspinner who this season has made his debut for Essendon in Melbourne's first-grade competition, where he has found himself playing with or against current and former state cricketers such as Cameron White, Glenn Maxwell, Ryan Carters and Bryce McGain.

Munasinghe estimates there are five or six students in his programme who have the potential to reach state level if they stick at the game - and that's the challenge. In past years he has taken teams from his academy on tours of Malaysia, India and Sri Lanka, but all of this is a side project for Munasinghe, who works full-time for the sports nutrition company Musashi. If he happens to help a young player reach the next level, his academy has done its job.

Saliya Ahangama: the holiday-maker who stayed
Coaching has also been the focus for Ahangama, who came with his wife to Melbourne in 2000 to visit his sister-in-law. It was a holiday that turned into a permanent move. Back in Sri Lanka, Ahangama had been coaching the SSC club, and when he was visiting Melbourne, he heard that the Prahran Cricket Club was looking for a coach. Ahangama got the job, was sponsored in his move by Tony Greig, with whom he had commentated in Sri Lanka, and the rest is history.

At Prahran, Ahangama had the pleasure of coaching David Hussey before he became a state cricketer. He also spent time as a bowling coach with Dandenong, where he worked with Peter Siddle, James Pattinson and Darren Pattinson.

"That was a great experience," Ahangama said. "I won't take the credit, though - they were great bowlers. Watching the work ethic and the way they went about their business, you could see they were going to get to the top, especially Peter Siddle."

For the past two years, he has been the bowling coach with Hawthorn-Monash University, another club in Melbourne's premier competition, and the team for whom Lasith Malinga played a one-off T20 earlier this month while he was preparing for the Big Bash League.

It was a combination of cricket and family that brought Ahangama to Melbourne - his sister-in-law had lived in the city since 1985, and her husband's family since the 1960s - and he has no plans to move back to Sri Lanka. "It's been a great experience," he said. "It's home for me now, there's no two ways about it."

Asanka Gurusinha: the sales manager
It was club cricket that brought Gurusinha to Melbourne as well. The North Melbourne Cricket Club offered him a three-year contract, and given that he had plenty of friends in the city, he was keen to make the move. He has been a Melburnian since 1996; like Ratnayeke, he moved at the age of 30.

"It's a very nice city, and with the big Sri Lankan community, you never feel isolated," Gurusinha said. "It's a good place for me and my family."


Ravi Ratnayeke bats against India, India v Sri Lanka, Rothmans Asia Cup, Sharjah, April 8, 1984
Ravi Ratnayeke in Sharjah in 1984 © Getty Images
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Gurusinha played six seasons of club cricket before he decided he wasn't enjoying the game like he should have been. Much like Ricky Ponting, who doubts he will play Sheffield Shield cricket after this season without the lure of earning higher honours, Gurusinha felt that he was not going to progress to state cricket, so there was little point playing on.

"My brain and my body were used to playing cricket to get to the next level, and the highest level," he said. "I knew whatever runs I scored for district cricket here I'd never get to the Victorian side, because Victoria still had the policy about not playing overseas players in their Sheffield Shield team and one-day side.

"There are only six state sides and 66 players are vying for 11 Australian places, so if they play overseas players, they are jeopardising that. So after a while I thought, 'I'll never play for Victoria, and I've played international cricket.' After six seasons I thought that's enough. It's a funny thing: I completely walked away from cricket."

Gurusinha is now 46 and has made his career as group sales manager for Trader Classifieds, a company that publishes magazines and websites around Australia. There's plenty of interstate travel involved in his work, and although he occasionally finds time to catch up with his former team-mates who also live in Melbourne, those meetings are few and far between.

"It's a funny thing. We don't catch up that often," he said. "If there is a Sri Lankan function and we see each other, we'll catch up. We're all busy and we're running around doing our own work. I do catch up a little bit with Ravi [Ratnayeke] and Sanath Kaluperuma. Those are two guys I keep in touch with."

There are plenty more out there. Some will be at the MCG on Boxing Day, others won't. But they all have one thing in common: they're among the 43,995 Sri Lankan-born people who now call Victoria home.

With inputs from Andrew Fernando

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

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Posted by carbandpunk on (December 25, 2012, 17:06 GMT)

I remember watching Saliya Ahangama bowling and his success against Mohammed Azharuddhin. Such an exciting bowler who influenced me to bowl after watching his raw talent and pure skill. One of the best fast bowlers Sri Lanka has ever produced. I'm glad he is getting this exposure and helping some Australian greats today

Posted by Sinhaya on (December 25, 2012, 12:09 GMT)

@cadis, I understand and thanks a lot for the explanation. Good stuff and that is a good decision by Australian immigration people.

Posted by Gilliana on (December 25, 2012, 10:53 GMT)

I don't mind Sri Lankans taking over Melbourne, but definitely not Cricinfo.

Posted by cadis on (December 25, 2012, 10:16 GMT)

@ Sinhaya- Playing to the Sri Lanka team and migration are two different. Though migrated Aravinda nor Roshan Mahanama never live in Australia. Another present cricketer owns a house in Australia from 2011 and willing to move later. Some of the cricketers' families who got the PR are living in Australia for kids schooling while guys remain in Sri Lanka.One reason when a sportsman represented his own country in International level eligible to apply for the PR under Distinguish Talents Visa category. For the Cricket one Test Match or One day International is enough. It has to be recommended by a cricketer in Australia. The Cricketer should indicate the willingness to contribute to Australian sports. Therefore it's easy to migrate people who are almost finished the career. In Australian POV those can contribute more rather than mature age players. Few other Sri Lankans who represented the country in different sports have also migrated.

Posted by Sinhaya on (December 25, 2012, 2:28 GMT)

@cadis, Thilan Samaraweera is still playing for Sri Lanka in tests. He has not migrated to Australia.

Posted by KingOwl on (December 24, 2012, 20:53 GMT)

I am surprised by Ravi Ratnayake not even remembering the Hobart test match. Bit of a shame, really. There are many who have left SL. I have been away from SL for 20 years. But the idea that I would forget a test match is unthinkable. May be Ravi is occupied with other things, fighting hard to stay on top of his new career. If so, it is understandable. If he has just lost interest in the very thing that gave him opportunities in Australia in the first place, then that would be rather sad.

Posted by   on (December 24, 2012, 20:36 GMT)

Beautiful article! Hope Sri Lanka will be able to inspire more good youngsters to take up professional cricket.

Posted by cadis on (December 24, 2012, 20:17 GMT)

This list of cricketers should update as many more in Australia. Legendary Aravinda De Silva, Dulip and Thilan Samaraweera, Dulip Liyanage, Jayantha Silva, Roshan Jurangpathy also migrated.

Posted by   on (December 24, 2012, 17:45 GMT)

this articles is similar to tony cozier's commentry, which is so much informative, cricket and beyond.

Posted by   on (December 24, 2012, 16:12 GMT)

I always knew the SL population was big in Melb, but I realized it fully during SL's last tour there, during the triangular matches in Melb. Especially the last group game. It was like the Premadasa! Unreal....

Posted by   on (December 24, 2012, 15:49 GMT)

That's a wonderful article. I always knew there was a huge Sri Lankan demographic in Aus, but only today I learned the real extent.

Posted by RohanMarkJay on (December 24, 2012, 15:28 GMT)

I was living in Sri Lanka for a couple of years back in the 1980s. He used to be a regular in the Sri Lankan team. I remember watching television once back then watching Sri Lanka play the then mighty west indies in Sharjah. I remember a top ball from Ravi Ratnayake a one ball in a thousand that clean bowled Viv Richards. Amazing to think he doesn't even follow cricket anymore.Also not surprised so many have moved to Melbourne. A very liveable western city with the largest Sri lankan community outside of Sri Lanka after probably London,UK. I lived in Melbourne for a few years too. So I know the city well However I find it a bit surprising Sri lankans love living in Melbourne so much.In my experience, while the weather in Melbourne in Summer time is excellent.Come winter, I found Melbourne as dreary and depressing as living in England. Whats never told is the truly awful rainy weather in Melbourne in the winter months.I found Melbourne in winter as grim as living in any city in the UK.

Posted by Sinhaya on (December 24, 2012, 10:01 GMT)

Many thanks for all Sri Lankan expats who will go in large numbers to support our boys and hope we do well. We managed to win at the Kingsmead in Durban this time last year in the presence of barely 50 Lankans. I know the wicket at MCG wont suit us but hope the crowd presence will help.

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Brydon CoverdaleClose
Brydon Coverdale Assistant Editor Possibly the only person to win a headline-writing award for a title with the word "heifers" in it, Brydon decided agricultural journalism wasn't for him when he took up his position with ESPNcricinfo in Melbourne. His cricketing career peaked with an unbeaten 85 in the seconds for a small team in rural Victoria on a day when they could not scrounge up 11 players and Brydon, tragically, ran out of partners to help him reach his century. He is also a compulsive TV game-show contestant and has appeared on half a dozen shows in Australia.

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