Sri Lanka Under-19's one-day series victory over Australia Under-19 has been lauded by the chairman of Sri Lanka's junior cricket selection committee, Sunil Wikramanayake. "Going by their overall performance of the team they have performed well to win the five-match series 3-2," he said.
Wikramanayake attributed the success to the number of practice games the squad played in Sri Lanka. "The squad of 30, players from which the final 16 were selected, practised together ahead of the tour and they played a total of 20 practice matches, four of them against the Academy side whom they beat on three occasions. This continuous exposure we gave them is the reason for their success in Australia."
The Sri Lanka Under-19 team, led by Chathura Peiris, created history by becoming the first national side from Sri Lanka to win a series in Australia. The win was special, for not many teams from the sub-continent have been able to adapt well to Australian conditions. Whereas in the subcontinent the pitches are slow and tend to assist spin, Australian pitches are fast and bouncy, and touring sides have often found it difficult to adjust to the change.
The players benefited hugely having Aravinda de Silva as the team consultant and batting coach. He helped fine tune their skills and offered the players useful tips that paid dividends. De Silva has also experienced success against Australia, particularly on the 1989-90 tour, where he scored his country's first Test hundred against them - a memorable 167 at Brisbane, followed by 75 and 72 at Hobart.
In addition, the team had a new coach, former Sri Lanka international cricketer Naveed Nawaz, who's had short stints, first with SSC - guiding them to a rare treble in 2007-08 in his first season as coach (Premier League, Premier Limited-overs and Under 23) and then with the national women's cricket team.
The team also had the services of former legspinner Upul Chandana in the role of fielding coach. Chandana was an outstanding fielder, and represented Sri Lanka as a leg-spinning allrounder in 16 Tests and 147 ODIs. The bowling was handled by Sri Lanka Cricket's fast bowling coaches Anusha Samaranayake and Prabath Nissanka, and spin coaches Piyal Wijetunga and Oshadee Weerasinghe.
Wikramanayake, however, warned that although the Under-19 cricketers had performed well in Australia, the victory was not a reflection of the state of school cricket in the country. "School standards have certainly dropped from what it was during our time," he said. "But there is definitely an improvement in our Under-19 standards, the players have developed to the extent that they have come to understand how to handle different kinds of situations on their own and take on more responsibilities." Wikramanayake has had extensive experience at the first-class level himself, captaining St Sebastian's College in 1973 and playing Division I cricket as an all-rounder for CCC, Colts, Sebastianites, Kandy CC and Central Province till 1993.
Wikramanayake credited the improvement in standards to the Under-15, 17 and 19 district and provincial tournaments and the appointment of full-time provincial coaches who have been able to identify the talent and bring them to Colombo. He pointed out that the Under-19 squad selected for the successful Australian tour comprised six players from the outstations - Matale, Kandy, Galle and Matara, the rest being made up from schools from Colombo and the suburbs.
The seven-member junior selection committee headed by Wikramanayake has been given the task of handling different sections of the country's cricket. The committee comprises Ruchira Palliyaguru, R.A.N. (Percy) Perera, Duminda Wickremasinghe, Nishantha Perera as well as Sisira Weerasinghe and Dilshan de Silva (both representatives from the Sri Lanka Schools Cricket Association). Wikramanayake, who looks after Central Province, proudly admitted that the province emerged champions in all three age groups - Under-15, 17 and 19 - this year, under coaches Sunil Fernando and Bernard Perera.
"There is definitely a lot of improvement in all the provinces," said Wikramanayake, who is into his second year as junior national selection after his appointment in September 2008.
The next assignment for the Sri Lanka's Under-19 cricketers, as they prepare for the Under-19 World Cup in New Zealand next January, is one-day triangular series with Pakistan and Bangladesh at home in November. They then play another series in South Africa involving the hosts and India, before the final squad of 15 is selected for the World Cup.
"We have about 30 players in our Under-19 World Cup squad, 16 of them went to Australia. We may give exposure to maybe another three to four players from the remaining 14 in the next two series before finalising the 15 for the World Cup," Wikramanayake said.