Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC), one of the oldest clubs playing in the Premier domestic cricket competition, achieved a unique treble when they won the 2007-08 Premier League Tier A championship last weekend by drawing their final match of the season against defending champions Colombo Cricket Club (CCC).
The title was their third for the season, having bagged the Premier limited-overs and the Under-23 competitions earlier in the season. The 2007-08 performance surpassed SSC's previous best of winning the Premier league and limited-over titles during the captaincy of Mahinda Halangoda in the early nineties.
The success of SSC in the championship was largely due to their batting where six of the top order batsmen scored a dozen hundreds, which included two double centuries and three scores of over 150. Tharanga Paranavitana, Thilina Kandamby and Thilan Samaraweera made three hundreds apiece. The other centuries were scored by Jeevan Mendis, Kaushal Silva and Shalika Karunanayake.
Stating this fact, Naveed Nawaz, the SSC coach, said that in virtually every match the club had run up big totals which enabled their bowling to attack the opposition. In fact, SSC won six of their nine matches and drew three to top the standings with 129.99 points, a clear 28 points ahead of second-placed Moors SC.
During the season, SSC was captained by three players. Avishka Gunawardene, the appointed captain for the season, led the side in only two matches before going over to join the rebel Indian Cricket League (ICL). Samaraweera then took over the reins and captained the side until he was called up for the Test series in the West Indies.
The captaincy was then passed onto the 25-year-old left-handed opener Paranavitana, who had the distinction of leading the club on its final lap to win the championship. Paranavitana did it in grand style, scoring 177 in the penultimate match of the season against Bloomfield and then followed it up with a career-best 236 against CCC the following weekend which brought them the title after a one-year lapse. SSC last tasted success in 2005-06 and overall have won it outright on six occasions since 1988-89, when the Sri Lankan board recognised the tournament as first-class.
This achievement, Nawaz concedes, is his finest as a coach since he qualified at Level II in Australia after he quit playing cricket with NCC in 2004-05. Last season, he was in charge of Moors SC. His 11-year first-class career as a top order batsman from 1993-94 saw him score 6892 runs at 36.27 with 12 hundreds for NCC and Bloomfield and also appear briefly for his country in one Test and 3 ODIs.
"Taking on the SSC job was a new challenge for me," Nawaz said. "The atmosphere was different and the work ethics also. The facilities were excellent and I came into contact with different types of players, all of whom helped improve my role as a coach.
"There were a few things we had to put right at the beginning. Discipline was one area. Players turned up for practice at different times and once it was made known to them that there was a fixed time for practice they gradually fell in line.
"What we tried to do was to try and change the existing club structure and bring in more intensity to practices and at matches on similar lines as the national team. This was one factor why SSC performed exceptionally well this season."
One player who benefited the most coming over to SSC was Kandamby, the former Ananda College and Bloomfield cricketer. As long as he was at Bloomfield, Kandamby never blossomed out to his full potential as a middle-order batsman. But at SSC in his first season, the transformation was stunning. He ended up with the second-highest aggregate of the season, scoring 822 runs at an average of 68.50 including three centuries and as many half-centuries and a career best 202.
Paranavitana was the leading run-getter for the season with 893 runs at 74.41, also with three hundreds that included a career best 236 in the final game against CCC. Samaraweera topped the batting for the season with an average of 86.14, accumulating 603 runs from six matches.
The batting was very well backed up by a bowling unit that had a lot of variety and penetration to take 20 wickets in a match. Spearheading SSC's campaign was the 23-year-old offspinner Sachithra Senanayake who had an outstanding season with 50 wickets at a cost of 14.92 from nine matches. That Senanayake narrowly missed selection for the Sri Lankan one-day squad to the West Indies is itself a plus mark, given that he had been under consideration in the national selectors' short list.
The disappointment of being overlooked did not deter Senanayake as it only made him more determined. Against Bloomfield he was in terrific form with the ball, making it talk in the first innings with figures of 4-1-4-3. He followed it up with career-best innings figures of 7 for 81 in the second innings to reduce Bloomfield to a three-day defeat. It was also the first time in his career that Senanayake had taken ten-for in a match.
Nawaz said Senanayake is one of the best offspinners going in domestic cricket today and added: "Sachithra may not have as much variety as Ajantha Mendis, but he uses his six foot height to advantage. He has tremendous control, is very accurate and bowls a good floater. He's had a great season having been the top wicket-taker in the U-23 tournament with 46 wickets at avg. 11.41."
No other SSC bowler came close to his 50 wickets, the next highest being 29 by the left-arm fast bowler Thilan Thushara, who earned a recall to the national Test side after five years for the ongoing West Indies tour, performing impressively in the first Test in Guyana.