Rumesh Ratnayake backs the UAE to be the best of the non-Test nations

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Rumesh Ratnayake knows how it feels to play for an unheralded cricket nation at the golden moment when it breaks into international prominence.

He is working to help the UAE and other nations in the region experience the same breakthrough.

Ratnayake, a little-known pace bowler for Sri Lanka at the 1985 World Championship of Cricket, helped put the island nation on the cricket map by hitting two West Indies batsmen on the head and knocking a few teeth out of the mouth of a third in a attention-grabbing display of hostile bowling against a world power.

A quarter of a century on, Ratnayake is a development officer for the Asian Cricket Council, and he recently spent a week in the UAE working with cricket coaches and teachers.

He believes the UAE could regain the position of being the top non-Test cricket nation in the region.

“One of my ambitions is to see UAE return to the glory days of being No 1,” he said. “If not, a close two to Afghanistan. There might be small things they need to do to fine-tune things. But I am confident they can do it.”

Ratnayake, a cult figure among Sri Lanka fans, spent four days teaching in Abu Dhabi and three in Sharjah.

“With the way cricket is changing these days, Ratnayake’s workshop was really good for us,” Qazi Ayub, the coach of the Zayed Cricket Academy, said. “He worked on opening the minds of the coaches, making them think outside the box with practical illustrations.

“It will definitely be very helpful going forward and help improve the cricket.”

Ratnayake does not advocate gaining notoriety in the way he did as an obscure and wiry youngster in 1985, when his bowling against the mighty West Indies left batsmen Richie Richardson, Clive Lloyd and Larry Gomes shaken and Sri Lankan fans stirred.

“I would rather be remembered for the wickets I have taken than that one game,” Ratnayake, now 46, said. “But then, I don’t mind taking that.”

The West Indies survived the onslaught to win the game by eight wickets but two of their batsman had been forced to retire hurt. Despite a career blighted by two shoulder injuries, Ratnayake finished with an impressive record, including 73 wickets in 23 Tests – with a best return of six for 66 against Australia – and 76 wickets in 70 one-day internationals.

“I wanted to be a very good fast bowler,” he said after a workshop at the Sharjah Cricket Stadium. “But if I evaluate myself, I don’t think I became a super-quick fast bowler. But saying that, I have achieved it at times.”

The modest Ratnayake is clearly downplaying his ability and performance in that 1985 tournament in Australia. Writing about Ratnayake in International Lanka sports magazine, Frank Tyson, known as one of the fastest bowlers in the history of the game, said: “It would not be exaggerating to state that [Ratnayake] from time to time unleashed a ferocious bouncer which embarrassed even the most accomplished batsmen. Much of Sri Lanka’s future fast-bowling lies in his hands.”

His impact has been profound.

“He knows the players very well, knows the technique, knows how to correct a fast bowler,” Dilhara Fernando, a mainstay of the current Sri Lanka side, once said. “He told me my length was too short. He asked me to bowl up to the batsmen.”

The softly-spoken Ratnayake is far removed from the menacing 1980s figure who wore a John McEnroe-style headband to hold down his long curly hair. He is now a teacher and an ambassador for the game who can command the attention of a crowd.

“He keeps a tab on the region, visits all the countries at least twice a year,” Mazhar Khan, the general secretary of the Sharjah Cricket Council, said of Ratnayake’s role.

“This time when he came in, he either gets involved with the coaching for the juniors or, like this time, he took on the senior coaches for a ‘thinking out of the box’ workshop, a basic coaching course for the coaches as well as newcomers.”

Ratnayake stressed the importance of tailoring coaching methods to the strengths of the players, a process that made an impression on Dilawar Mani, the chief executive of the Abu Dhabi Cricket Council. “No two players are absolutely alike,” Mani said, “so there is nothing wrong in making sure people are getting the type of coaching that may even suit their personality and their particular style, but cover their deficiencies.”

Ayub added: “The focus was on not depending on the coaching manuals alone, but working differently with different individuals.

“There are many players who are better playing in their unorthodox style.”

He cited the examples of two Sri Lankan players, Lasith Malinga, the fast-bowler who came from tennis ball cricket, and Sanath Jayasuriya, a predominately bottom-handed batsman.

Ratnayake’s love for cricket was established at an early age. The only son among three siblings, he developed a fascination for cricket while playing with his parents, Roger and Maureen, at home.

“From the age of two, like any kid now, I was swinging a bat,” he said. “But that bat swinging became a serious persuasion. I wanted to play games.

“Now as a coach, what we do is make a player who is interested in cricket play a small game in his own zone. That helped a lot because I played with my father and mother. That is the nursery of things; you grow up afterwards.

“My father was a huge influence, the way in which he helped me. You can identify a few others who played with me, if they had the same backing they would have achieved a lot as well. I was the fortunate one.”

Ratnayake always wanted to be a cricketer, and a fast bowler specifically after watching Andy Roberts, the rhythmic fast bowler from the West Indies, in action in 1975.

His dream of playing international cricket was realised in 1982 when he was picked for the tour of India as an 18-year-old.

Three years later, he was celebrating Sri Lanka’s victory over India, their first Test win. He took a brilliant catch off his own bowling to dismiss Kapil Dev and seal the memorable triumph.

Ratnayake starred in Sri Lanka’s first win over Australia in one-day cricket and looks back fondly at his career. “Most of the time, I loved challenges,” he said. “I wanted to be the best. And when I knew I was playing with the best, you saw the best of me because I took that as a challenge.”

Ratnayake now hopes to help rising cricket nations enjoy the successes he did, and Mani believes the Sri Lankan coach made progress during his sessions in the UAE.

“You have a very highly experienced cricketer who is now a highly experienced coach and he is making sure our coaching methodology subscribes to that of world standards,” Mani said. “It is of immense benefit to the UAE, we can only gain and learn by it. It will substantially upgrade the quality of our coaching to the youth of UAE.”


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