The rise of Shaminda Eranga
Shaminda Eranga's first over in international cricket sparked instant excitement. It was not just that he uprooted Brad Haddin's off stump with his third delivery, but that he did it with pace and swing - a combination few Sri Lankan bowlers have ever boasted of. Three overs later, he claimed an even bigger scalp. A slower ball misread by Ricky Ponting, that lobbed back, off the leading edge, was Eranga's proudest moment on the cricket field. That he had the gall to bowl the variation minutes after being visually abused mid-pitch by a furious Ponting glare is what assured his long-term bowling coach that he could thrive at the top level. Months later, having dismissed Shane Watson first ball on Test debut, Eranga became the first bowler ever to take a wicket in his first over in every format of the game.
He now heads into the Nagenahira Nagas' semi-final against Kandurata Warriors with the most wickets in the tournament and as a vital component to his side's championship hopes. That his only poor outings have been in the Nagas' two losses is no coincidence, nor is the energy in the field when Eranga is bearing down on batsmen at his most intense. He has made adaptability a hallmark of his campaign, often exploiting seam to beat both edges with the new ball, as well as using pace and bounce to rush Basnahira Cricket Dundee batsmen into imprudence on a fast Pallekele surface, and sneaking past startled Ruhuna Royals' prods by generating surprising speed off a low wicket. Whatever surface the Premadasa throws up on Wednesday night, Eranga can be confident he has the means to excel.
But although his impact has been almost immediate in internationals and season-defining for his side in the SLPL, the story behind Eranga's success has been both long and difficult. A native of Chilaw, a fishing town half-way up Sri Lanka's west coast, opportunities for Eranga to play competitive cricket during his youth were rare. He remembers bowling fast for his school team, but St. Mary's College was too small and too remote for her sportsmen to draw attention, no matter how talented. If a national pace competition had not come calling in 2006, he may never have had the chance to pursue cricket as a career.
"He had speed, that was the first thing I liked about him," Champaka Ramanayake, Sri Lanka's fast bowling development coach, who oversaw the competition, said. "He was an athletic guy with a busy action, and I could see he could become very good. He hit his lengths and came at the batsmen all the time, almost like a West Indian bowler. I sent him straight away to a club, to start playing matches."
Having landed sixth place in the competition and gaining entry to Sri Lanka's fast bowling academy, Eranga joined the Chilaw Marians club, based in Colombo. It had never produced an international cricketer, but it was the only one Eranga would play for. "I thought I needed to represent my town, because if I didn't do that, who would? As far as I know, there was no one from Chilaw who played for the Marians for long, " Eranga said. "It wasn't one of the big clubs, but I always felt I belonged there and I've never wanted to play for anyone else."
The next few years though, would be defined by toil. With training and matches in Colombo, Eranga would make the seven-hour round trip from Chilaw several times a week. Having lost his father at fourteen, he could barely afford the bus fare, let alone a place to board in Colombo. "With my mother being the only one with an income, things were very difficult for a long time. Some days I'd get home at 11 and have to leave again at 4am to return to Colombo the next day. Sometimes I didn't have the money to eat, but I thought when I get to play a few matches at least I'll get paid something, so I kept coming."
Despite the hardships, when Eranga came to train at the academy, he gave it everything he had. There he developed swing, realising as the best tearaways do, that by sacrificing speed for movement, you wind up the winner of the trade. The variations worked their way into his game too. It was two years before he would play his first first-class match for the Marians, "He was always very focused at training, never afraid to try new things," Ramanayake said. "Whenever he bowled he gave it everything. He learned how to seam the ball both ways, how to bowl a good bouncer and how to swing through the air as well. He had that attitude to learn."
As a kid, it was Glenn McGrath he idolised for his aggression and ability to take wickets with every spell, but now, Eranga is a convert of the Chaminda Vaas modus operandi. He attacks the stumps relentlessly, sometimes almost to a fault. In a recent SLPL match, Mahela Jayawardene found that if he moved towards off stump, he could routinely crash Eranga away through the leg side. That performance though, has been the only major glitch in an encouraging SLPL season through which he has earnt selection for the World Twenty20.
"I think I can really do well in the World Twenty20, because I've been bowling well even before the SLPL. My bowling in the shorter formats has been improving, so one day I would love to play in the in a World Cup. On an A team tour to England, I found out that I like playing on fast pitches, so I could do well in Australia in 2015, particularly with the cooler climate making bowling a lot easier."
Sri Lanka's most pressing need however, is in Tests. The pace attack has lacked penetration since Lasith Malinga called time on a stuttering career, and the men who have since had extended stints in the side have produced largely mediocre results. In Eranga though, Sri Lanka finally have that rare bowler who moves the ball in both directions. In his only Test so far, Eranga took 4 for 60 in the first innings on a placid SSC surface against Australia and ended with the best match figures on either side. His international career has since been frustrated by injury, but the promise he showed in that match, almost a year ago, has not been forgotten.
"At the moment, we really need someone like him who can swing the ball in all formats," Ramanayake said. "He has at least another 6 or 7 years ahead of him, maybe more because he is an athletic guy. If he can learn quickly and adapt, he could have a very successful career and boost the side. He has that potential and he has shown it since the first time I saw him."
Before Eranga returns to national duty, he must first ensure he does not disappoint a young Nagas attack that will lean on him for both wickets and leadership amid the pressure of knockout matches. With a talent for making big statements with the ball, and a track record of overcoming considerable adversity, Eranga may in time become the spearhead Sri Lanka sorely need. Perhaps leading a young attack to a national title is just the beginning he needs for that journey.
Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent in Sri Lanka