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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
Brydon Coverdale
Saliya Ahangama with club team-mate Lasith Malinga recently  •  Saliya Ahangama

Saliya Ahangama with club team-mate Lasith Malinga recently  •  Saliya Ahangama

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."
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