They say no player's cricketing education is complete without a tour of England. If one cannot make it to the national team for a tour to England, the next best thing is to get a contract to one of the 18 English counties and play out a season, or perhaps even half a season.
For Malinga Bandara, the 25-year-old right-arm legspinner, the two-month stint with Gloucestershire was the next-best thing to representing his country at the highest level. "The experience I went through and the things I learnt during that time is something that you cannot place a value on," said Bandara, who returned to Sri Lanka on Saturday. He will be turning out for Ragama CC in the upcoming domestic cricket season.
For the record, Bandara represented Gloucestershire in eight first-class matches and took 45 wickets at an average of 24.15 to top the county's bowling averages for the season. For his excellent bowling efforts Bandara was first named Player of the Month for August - he took 30 first-class wickets in five matches during the month - and then Player of the Year for his outstanding contribution with the ball during the season.
Despite his untiring efforts - he sent down 352.4 overs for 1087 runs and 45 wickets - Gloucestershire failed to make an impact and were relegated to division two for next season. The chief cause of the county's failure in a season in which they had only one win and suffered ten losses in 16 matches was due to their batting, which was not consistent throughout the season despite having the services of West Indies batsman Ramnaresh Sarwan.
What was most rewarding for Bandara during his spell with Gloucestershire was meeting Pakistan's legendary legspinner Mushtaq Ahmed, who was playing for Sussex. "Mushaq taught me a few things which I tried out during the match and was successful in capturing eight wickets," said Bandara. Bandara said that Mushtaq had taught him to try out as many variations as he could in one over so as to confuse the batsmen and get him caught in two minds. "Most bowlers are afraid to try out variations in a match because they are afraid of getting hit, Mushtaq said.
"Mushtaq also told me what Shane Warne had taught him, how to confuse the batsman into a false sense of security by bowling over the wicket for a couple of overs and then changing the line by coming round the wicket but maintaining the same field. This way, he said, the batsman would get tied down and be forced to make an error."
Bandara bowls the legspinner and the googly and has added another delivery to his armoury - the slider, which is a faster delivery which doesn't turn and often traps batsmen in front of the stumps.
Bandara said he experienced a big difference between playing club cricket in Sri Lanka and county cricket in England. "No one thinks negatively at any stage of the match," said Bandara. "Even if we lose badly or perform badly the coach would always encourage us to do well in the next match. This way no player is put under any kind of pressure. The players are always kept on top and the pressure is taken completely off him.
"What I've learnt from Gloucestershire is professionalism. Every player has a role to play and it is his duty to go out and perform. If he is struggling for form he is expected to work himself out of the rut with help from the coach and players."
Bandara said that playing for Gloucestershire has opened up a whole new chapter in his budding cricket career. "Luck plays a big role in cricket. Without luck you cannot great the breaks. I was lucky to get a break and play for Gloucestershire." Bandara replaced another legspinner from Sri Lanka, Upul Chandana, who had to return home for national duty.
An agent referred Bandara to the county, but with only one Test appearance against his name he was a virtual unknown to Gloucestershire, who was trying to recruit him. Fortunately for Bandara, Alex Gidman and John Lewis, two members of the club, were touring Sri Lanka with the England A team. At the time when the county was in search of a replacement for Chandana, Bandara turned in a magnificent spell of legspin bowling, returning career-best figures of 8 for 49 runs and subjecting England A to defeat in the second unofficial Test at the NCC grounds.
Bandara received high recommendations from Gidman and Lewis and he did not disappoint them and the county. He made a memorable start to his county career by bowling Gloucestershire to a 130-run win over Bangladesh A at Bristol with figures of 5 for 45 off 17.3 overs, and has not looked back since. His best performance was against Middlesex at Bristol where he took five wickets and scored 70 off 89 balls.
Bandara said that the although the county was interested in signing him up for another season, they were keeping their options open as they reckoned Bandara might be on national duty when Sri Lanka tour England next summer. Bandara's performances with the ball have not gone unnoticed by the Sri Lankan selectors, who have included him in a 20-member pool for the tour of India later this year.