Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf
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In January 2018, Sri Lanka Cricket's then-president visited a large plot of vacant land near Sri Lanka's northern city of Jaffna, and pledged to build a cricket stadium there. Among the headline-grabbing proposals tossed into the sky at this media-whirlwind was the notion that Jaffna could be developed into a "sports city".
Jaffna is no stranger to grand pronouncements, of course. It was the largest urban centre to have been ensnared in Sri Lanka's civil war, and suffered untold privations through almost 30 years. Because of this history, it has more recently become fashionable to speak of it as a place that must be developed, if not quite appeased. SLC, which may be viewed as an offshoot of Sri Lanka's politics, has tended to treat the city as a good-PR factory, announcing various schemes to uplift cricket in the region while cameras are turned on, before largely forgetting the north exists when they are not. Ten years after the end of the war, SLC's sporadic bursts of attention have had little tangible benefit. There is only one ground with a turf pitch in the entire northern province. In a city whose zeal for cricket had survived a decades-long war and has a history stretching more than 100 years, many cricketers continue to play on inferior surfaces, with sub-standard equipment.
And yet, could there be an inkling of renewed optimism? Among the Lanka Premier League's pleasant surprises has been the Jaffna Stallions franchise's stated commitment to improving cricketing infrastructure in Jaffna. They have plans, they've said, not merely to throw money in or showcase Jaffna's talent by picking Jaffna's cricketers in their XI, but to get down to the longer-term administrative work to bring Jaffna cricket more fully into the Colombo-based cricket system's fold. Their CEO Anandan Arnold, who grew up in Jaffna and now runs an accounting firm largely based in the UK, said the franchise is initiating the process of setting up a small academy in Jaffna, with turf pitches, and at least one dedicated coach. An old-boy of St. John's College Jaffna, Arnold had previously been instrumental in the laying of a turf side net at his school.
"We've earmarked some land at very low rent, and we'd like to get the academy going sometime in the next two months," Arnold told ESPNcricinfo. "What we are also envisaging is to have equipment that we will buy and keep, so that kids from very poor schools can come and have a go. People in Jaffna are still playing cricket mainly with tennis or rubber balls. Not many have access to a leather ball. We will provide equipment so raw talents can come through."
Although details about where exactly the academy will be based have not been worked out - the franchise is on the lookout for land with longer-term potential - Stallions do have a Jaffna-based coach in mind for the project. Ganeshan "Harry" Vaheesan, who has level three qualifications from the ECB and has 14 years' experience as a coach in England, moved to Jaffna late last year, and is currently working as the Stallions' manager.
"The facilities in Jaffna now are very primitive - they are mostly playing on concrete wickets," Vaheesan said. "For batsmen especially, when you play on concrete wickets, the pace and the movement is different. If you're not familiar with turf wickets you might do alright on a dry pitch, but struggle on a wet pitch. And apart from that the actual equipment itself that they are using is unbelievably inferior to the Colombo boys or even the other boys."
These disparities were evident even during the Stallions' pre-tournament training camp, when the 'emerging' norther players who had been picked in the franchise, netted with domestic and international players from the south. "There were two players from the squad got to bat, and the No. 1 issue was the bat itself, which was of poor quality and even the gloves are poor quality," Vaheesan said. "One of the players didn't have a helmet, and I saw that he kept adjusting it. When I went closer, I could see it was too big and it was falling over his eyes. He had actually borrowed that helmet because he didn't have one."
Beyond the setting up of the academy, and provided the LPL sticks around for longer than a season, Stallions have laid out a roadmap for a more meaningful link to the country's cricket hub in Colombo than presently exists. Sri Lanka's domestic structure is club-based, and there is no northern side whom promising cricketers can represent in the larger system.
"The next stage for us would be to apply to the Sri Lankan cricket board to have Jaffna Stallions Cricket Club accredited to the Sri Lankan national cricket league," Arnold said. "Whichever division they place us in, we will enter the pool and come through the ranks.
"And we would like SLC to give us some support. They already have cricket authorities in the northern province and in Jaffna, and they also have the Jaffna district coach. Hitherto their services have been hindered because of a lack of facilities. We will open our facilities up to them to collaborate with us and deliver their services as best they can. We have also asked our franchise head coach Thilina Kandamby, and he is saying he's committed to going to Jaffna at least once a month to give his expertise. That's also why we chose a Sri Lankan head coach."
Broader even than Stallions' cricketing ambitions, are those being pushed by co-founder Rahul Sood - the highest-profile member of the consortium that owns the franchise. Sood is an influential figure in the US tech world, as the General Manager and Creator of Microsoft Ventures. He joined the Stallions' ownership after learning of the franchise through a business associate of Arnold's.
"Once I heard the vision that Arnold had, I was on board straightaway," Sood said. "Using sport for reconciliation in a post-war setting, and giving young kids who literally grew up in a war to play at a high level - who wouldn't want to get involved?"
Sood has been following his team's fortunes intently, waking up at 2am to catch Stallions' afternoon matches, and has been impressed with the talent on show. With plans now afoot for US tech investors with roots in South Asia to become involved in Major League Cricket (the US' own T20 league), Sood sees a future in which Stallions' cricketers gain opportunities further afield than the LPL. "To have a kid from Jaffna playing in the US league - that would be amazing."
Like so many promises to Jaffna, however, Stallions' plans remain unfulfilled, for now. Although the first edition of the LPL has largely been successful so far, it is some distance from becoming a fixture on Sri Lanka's cricket calendar, and the scale of Stallions' broader work is likely contingent on the league's success. But in outlining a workable mission (at odds with the kinds of grand proclamations Jaffna has previously attracted), and in fielding the Jaffna-bred teenager Vijayakanth Viyaskanth during the league stage, Stallions have indicated a seriousness to their intentions.