“We won’t be training on the pre-match day,” Harsha de Silva tells me a couple of days before the first one-dayer against India. “We have had a good five days of practice and will take the day off tomorrow.” It was quite the un-Asian strategy; remember the brouhaha when the Indian men’s team took a break after the limited-overs leg of their tour to England? Days off before games are something you might expect an Australian team to do. No surprise then, that de Silva spent his last five years coaching there.
De Silva has a modest First-Class record as a player but is well respected as the coach. Three weeks ago he returned to the Sri Lankan women’s team after having coached them in their most successful years, between 2010 to 2013. Yes, he was in charge when Sri Lanka pulled off their two most famous ODI wins: beating both England and India in the 2013 World Cup. The second of those knocked India out of the tournament and took Sri Lanka into the Super Six.
De Silva looks back to that time with a laugh and a story. “I remember the England game was to be played on the 14th of February (it was, in fact, the 1st of February), which was also our captain Shashikala (Siriwardene)’s birthday. (England captain) Charlotte Edwards was being asked all the questions, about how they’re going to retain the World Cup. There was only one question for Shashi: how do you feel being born on the 14th of February, Valentine’s day!?” De Silva describes how that made his team realise how world cricket viewed them. They were more than that, and they showed it by sneaking a one-wicket win past the defending champions.
In the game against India, his team was similarly goaded. “I was in the lobby, reading the paper on the day of the game. The paper quoted Mithali Raj saying it’s going to be an easy game, they were very confident that they would get to the Super Six. To this day I don’t know whether Mithali actually said this, but I kept the paper with me, and before the start of the game I got everyone together and read this article. ‘This is what the Indian captain thinks of you. What are you going to do about it’, I asked them.” This time the margin of victory was more convincing: 138 runs, their only win against India to date.
The team he is now in charge of has many of the same faces, but a declining graph. Between the 2009 and 2013 World Cups, Sri Lanka won 11 of their 27 ODIs. (yes, they played only 27 ODIs in a World Cup cycle, counting the ODIs in the 2013 World Cup, but that is a story for another day). But since 2013 until the 2017 World Cup, they won only seven of the 48 matches they played, and coaches, captains and players have churned in this period.
De Silva left for Australia shortly after the 2013 World Cup, taking up coaching opportunities in Brisbane on a ‘Distinguished Talent Visa’. He first coached the Wynnum Manly District Cricket Club men’s Premiere team for three years, and then the Valley’s District Cricket Club women’s team for another two. “But once you’ve been in this high-performance environment, after a while you start to miss it. That made me apply for this job and I was lucky enough to get it,” he said.
De Silva holds a Level-3 coaching certificate from Australia but isn’t rushing to apply western templates to his home team. “The same hat doesn’t fit everyone,” he explains. “You have to modify what you learn. The biggest thing for me from that place is the confidence levels. The subcontinent thinking is that girls should be at home, not on a cricket field, things like that. It is all about preparation and confidence.” His last stint was his first time coaching a women’s team, having mentored some male cricketers who have played for Sri Lanka before. Now, with more experience in general and with women’s teams in particular, he feels better prepared and confident he can turn things around.
“I feel the players’ skill levels and maturity is a lot more than when I left. It’s just that it has not been backed up with good team performances for some reason.” Challenges with the batting are de Silva’s primary concern.
“My assessment was that we lack in our batting and also our fielding.” Both these disciplines are closely linked to fitness, and there too SLC is laying down the rules. “We had to leave three girls out because they didn’t pass the Yo-Yo test cut off.” The cut-off mark of 16.1 is the same that the Indian men’s team uses.
“My goal is to create a culture to see these players performing and winning games.” But cultures don’t change quickly. On the pre-match day, de Silva sat on the steps of the Galle Cricket Club grinning, as his players opted to turn up for a light session.
Watch Harsha de Silva in conversation with Snehal Pradhan: