School cricket in Sri Lanka. ©Srian Obeyesekere

In a land where the bat-ball game— considered to be the domain of men— is like a religion to a 21-million cricket crazy populace, women’s cricket has a long way to go. The lack of adequate youth participation in national women’s cricket in the past, has been identified as a problem area. While school cricket has by and large been regarded as the cradle of the men’s game, girls’ cricket has only just started to pick up. The reason is that the women’s game was never really active in the past. 

Recently, that trend has changed. With the Sri Lanka men’s team currently unable to consistently perform at the highest level, the authorities have finally come to recognise the immense potential of women’s cricket. 

Women’s cricket’s growing global popularity and support from the International Cricket Council has seen the game develop rapidly in Sri Lanka. This, coupled with the emergence of several women’s players with the ability to challenge the best in the world, has slowly but steadily seen the stature of the women’s game rise. 

In addressing the issue of putting women’s cricket in the country on track, Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) has identified the grey areas that need to be plugged.  As a first step in that direction, a concentrated development drive to attract girls’ schools was launched in 2016. This initiative was undertaken by Thilanga Sumathipala, then President of SLC, and was aimed at decentralising women’s cricket. Since then, the country has seen an upswing in participation with more and more schoolgirls throwing their hats into the ring. 

The growing popularity of cricket among girls has given way to a cricket culture for the poorest of poor players in every nook and corner of Sri Lanka. SLC’s ambitious latent talent search that began with an awareness campaign for school principals, teachers and above all parents, was the stepping stone. The ‘Big Match’ concept, which is well rooted among the boy’s schools island-wide, has been sowed among the girl’s schools in propagating the game. It has paved the way for Under-23 district and provincial tournaments. 

Asanka Gurusinha, SLC’s Chief Cricket Operations Officer, under whose purview women’s cricket has been recently placed, believes that schoolgirls are the centre piece to further the development of women’s cricket in the country. “The Under-19 talent is the way forward. The schoolgirls are the future of national women’s cricket of Sri Lanka to bridge the existing gap on the international stage,” Gurusinha, one of Sri Lanka’s World Cup winning heroes of 1996, told Women’s CricZone. 

According to Gurusinha, the schools’ involvement has raised new hope with about half a dozen of the best talent earmarked to make it to the national team in the near future. The success reaped in just over two years is attributed particularly to helping rural schools put all infrastructural and other facilities in place with financial assistance as well as perks for top performers. This incentive has served in firing the imagination of the girls at large. The mindset of parents, who were reluctant in the past to release their children to play cricket, has changed with more and more opportunities provided tor girls to make their mark.

Gurusinha sounds out that the girls’ development plans would get into full swing after the boys Under-19 World Cup this year with a women’s domestic under-19 tournament to be introduced. “The results will be a further guideline to identifying some good players for the national emerging team and Under-23 teams and from there to the Sri Lanka Development Squad in the next few months under a four-year plan,” he said.

Some of the promising players already identified hail from a few Colombo schools with Anula Vidyalaya in the forefront as well as down south rural schools. 

Evidence of the early success of the initiative is in the increase in the number of participating schools. Since 2018 the number of girls’ schools playing matches has increased to 15. That year, 17 talented schoolgirls were handpicked by SLC and put on a 6-month contract with a monthly allowance of 15,000 Sri Lankan rupees and selected to the national development squad. The upswing of nurturing new blood from the school periphery to the national team has indeed begun to flourish.

By and large the game has found a spring in its step at the grassroots level with SLC currently busy setting in motion a more streamlined mechanism of administering women’s cricket. 

At the senior level, women’s cricket was previously confined to clubs among the four armed forces. However, this has now changed, with teams based broadly on the men’s elite clubs in the city metropolis. These include the Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC) which is where Arjuna Ranatunga, Sri Lanka’s famous world cup winning captain, launched his cricket career from, and the Nondescripts Cricket Club where Aravinda de Silva, the real hero of the 1996 World Cup final, played his cricket. 

The quest to improve the national team and make them a force good enough to challenge the very best on the international circuit is difficult. However, what matters is that the women are at long last focussed on the job ahead of not emulating the feats of their male counterparts, but creating their own legacy. This rise in popularity of the game among the younger generation will only spur the national team on to greater things.

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