LPL can only grow ‘bigger and better’ as Jaffna eyes cricket renaissance

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By The Line Judge

COLOMBO – The final of the inaugural Lanka Premier League (LPL) T20 cricket tournament may have fizzled out as a contest after the freak dismissal of Galle Gladiators star batsman Danushkha Gunatilleke but there was no denying sentimental favourites Jaffna Stallions the glory of being champions after winning the hearts and minds of a nation battered by a gruesome civil war that ended less than a decade ago. It is ironic that cricket fans rooted for a team from the North in a country still divided by race and religion, proving that cricket is a great leveller.

In fact, there were even players from down South representing the Northern team, the only franchise to have three home-grown youngsters.

There was no team from the Eastern Province, but Jaffna Stallions have shown that cricket is a unifying force and even a war-ravaged region could rise Phoenix-like through a sport neglected in the North.

The triumph of the Jaffna Stallions and the overwhelming support they have received from cricket fans in the South has given hope to the new generation of youngsters to dream of playing for Sri Lanka. The emergence of 19-year-old leg spinner Vijayakanth Viyaskanth from Jaffna who played three matches has opened the eyes of the establishment that cricket or any sport for that matter should not be confined to Colombo.

It is heartening to note that the co-owners of Jaffna Stallions are there for the long-haul and are committed to the development of cricket in the region. Whereas Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) only paid lip service to promoting the game in the North and East, announcing grandiose projects which have not seen the light of day, there is a dire need for infrastructure development particularly in these areas that were consumed by a bitter war lasting nearly three decades. Jaffna Stallions are committed to changing the landscape of cricket in Jaffna by setting up a small academy in Jaffna, with turf pitches.

“We’d like to get the academy going sometime in the next two months. 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,” their CEO Anandan Arnold, an old boy of St. John’s College, Jaffna, told ESPNcricinfo.

“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,” added Arnold.

Kudos should also go to SLC and Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa for the bold decisions taken to make the much-maligned LPL a reality during a raging COVId-19 second wave in the country. Naysayers also questioned the financial feasibility of staging an event during difficult economic times while the International Cricket Council (ICC) was probing alleged match-fixing attempts on the eve of the newest T20 league.

The LPL was also hit by the withdrawal of stars like West Indian Chris Gayle and Sri Lanka’s own T20 star Lasith Malinga, and two players tested positive for the coronavirus making it even more challenging for the medical staff and health authorities who had approved the tournament to be conducted in a bio-secure environment in a single location at Hambantota.

However, the LPL weathered all these storms and several postponements to attract millions of viewers across the world with the classic North-South finale estimated to have been watched by over 150 million cricket fans. Although the final petered out into a tame one-sided affair with Stallions thumping Gladiators by 53 runs, there was no shortage of drama.

Thisara Perera’s magnificent 39 off 14 balls in the death overs had revived Jaffna Stallions to reach 188/6, while Pakistan veteran Shoaib Malik stole the show with a fine all-round performance. His 46 and 2/13 proved to be the difference.

Gladiators got off to a horrible start being reduced to 7/3 compounded by the bizarre run out of the highest scorer in the tournament, Gunatilleke, in the eighth ball of the innings after a collision with bowler Suranga Lakmal. Gladiators captain Bhanuka Rajapaksa blasted 40 off 17 balls to keep their hopes alive while burly Azam Khan struck some big blows before Gladiators surrendered meekly.

“I really enjoyed the tournament. Sometimes you are successful, sometimes you are not, you got to back yourself. The trophy is the biggest thing, that’s a big satisfaction. Happy with the performance,” said man of the match Malik.

Sri Lanka’s most promising leg spinner Wanindu Hasaranga was adjudged the Most Valuable Player of the LPL. The 23-year-old was the highest wicket taker snaring 17 scalps and bowling an incredible 99 dot balls in LPL 2020.

The perennial question is whether the franchise owners who shelled out sums ranging from U$ 1m to US$ 1.5m to own and manage teams would get returns on investment from the LPL.

Jaffna Stallions say they were driven by passion for the game and a keen interest to develop it in the Jaffna region.

“Commencing an inaugural tournament during the global uncertainty of a pandemic is a feat in itself,” said Arnold. “Our consortium is optimistic for the future as travel opens, fans walk through the gates of stadiums and normalcy slowly returns. Our outlook is long term, and goals are not purely business as we want to elevate cricket in North and rural parts of Sri Lanka.”

CEO of the Event Rights holder Dubai-based IPG Group Anil Mohan said: “It’s a big opportunity given to us by the government of Sri Lanka, and we are extremely grateful to the Minister of Sports Namal Rajapaksa and Shammi Silva President Sri Lanka Cricket for providing us this opportunity to showcase an event like this to the entire world. We hope that as the years go by, the LPL will grow better and bigger, with more international cricketing stars joining the league.”

-ENCL

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