Monday, 22 April 2024
The Foundation of Goodness cricket ground in Seenigama © Foundation of Goodness The Foundation of Goodness cricket ground in Seenigama © Foundation of Goodness

How cricket has helped heal Sri Lanka's south

When it came to saying goodbye and signing the visitors' book at the MCC Centre of Excellence in Seenigama, I found myself writing something idealistic for posterity. It was along the lines of: "To dive into the pure, warm waters of Seenigama is to swim contentedly in an atmosphere of goodness."

Not the sort of words that often spill from the pens of hard-bitten, ageing journalists? The Foundation of Goodness gets you like that. A few hours in the company of Kushil Gunasekera, the foundation's founder and chief trustee, and honorary life member of MCC, declutters the most troubled mind. Life is inspiring here.

In its sponsorship of talented cricketers from poor rural areas on Sri Lanka's west coast, its continued presence in the MCC Centre of Excellence - an educational and life-skills centre has been developed on the site of Gunasekera's one-time ancestral home - and in its support for the MCC cricket ground a few miles away at Sri Sumangala College, the MCC remains allied to one of Sri Lanka's great charitable success stories, one that has cricket at its core.

Since the relationship began in the wake of the 2004 tsunami, which brought so much misery to Sri Lanka's shores, nearly every MCC president has made the journey to the Seenigama centre, about half an hour north of Galle, and one can surmise they must have felt all the better for it. The MCC has long taken pride in defending the values and the ethics of the game, and at a time when these are increasingly under challenge, support for the Foundation of Goodness could not have a clearer moral purpose.

The Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 is seared on my memory, too. My involvement in a travel company specialising in holidays in Sri Lanka meant I received an early morning call in the UK as the extent of the horror unfolded. Red Dot Tours had about 200 holidaymakers in Sri Lanka, many of them on the beaches. Over the next week, they were slowly ticked off as survivors. Some were found in hospitals, some had been saved in heart-wrenching fashion. One box was never ticked.

Kushil Gunasekera (far left): "Goodness is the one investment that never fails" © AFP

Nearly 200,000 are estimated to have died, 35,000 in Sri Lanka; much of the worst devastation was around Seenigama. To return to the Foundation of Goodness after nearly ten years is to marvel at the progress made.

First stop, the cricket ground. Head inland from the beach, cross the single-track railway and turn right just after Hikkaduwa post office and you will find the MCC cricket ground alongside Sri Sumangala college. To English eyes, it is a modest affair: three turf wickets, a bare clay area for a matting wicket and a motorised roller glinting in the sunshine. The simple pavilion also houses two concrete indoor nets, lit by rudimentary ceiling lights.

Then the context dawns. Beyond the NCC ground in Colombo, no indoor net facilities exist in Sri Lanka. At the time of writing, plans to provide them at the Premadasa Stadium, and in Pallekele and Dambulla, had been suspended after elections, pending further analysis. The MCC's show of faith at times of hardship continues to play a central role in the development of young cricketers.

Anura de Silva, my guide, said: "It's always been a hotbed for cricket in this area. A few come from Kandy, like the Sangas and the Muralis, but most of the feeding into Colombo clubs comes from the southern coastal belt."

Alongside Surrey's non-turf ground in the Seenigama complex, the MCC ground contributes to the staging of around 60 matches involving overseas clubs, which bring in vital revenue and publicity. This coastal strip has always been a hotbed of raw cricketing talent and the MCC ground is giving the most committed a chance to break through.

MCC gives cricketing scholarships to 12 cricketers every year through the sports academy, the most famous of them being Tharindu Kaushal, now 23, who has represented Sri Lanka in Tests and ODIs. An offbreak bowler, his career had a blip last year when his doosra was ruled as illegal, but he retains ambitions to play a Test at Lord's. Many have imagined that, but the dream is stronger for those who have grown up in Seenigama. To help him afford to live and play cricket in Colombo, Kaushal has a room at the FoG offices in Colombo.

Ramesh Mendis, from the nearby coastal village of Ambalangoda, is another young cricketer to benefit from MCC sponsorship.

The Foundation of Goodness has donated school supplies to over 25,000 children in need © Foundation of Goodness

Two years ago he was runner-up as Sri Lanka's schoolboy cricketer of the year and now, at 20, plays for SSC in Colombo, a prestigious club at which life without support can be socially unnerving for any young cricketer fresh from the rural areas. Ramesh jokes he is the only offspinner not to be suspected of throwing. The rest of his comments came via a translator:

"There was no good ground on the west coast until you reached Galle. It is really important to the cricketers in the villages that there is a place to play and practise. People in Colombo have the advantages of grounds to practise on, but the MCC ground gives villagers a chance to compete.

"You play two or three matches and realise you don't have to feel bad about yourself because you are not one of the premier schools. You know you can beat them and make friends with them.

"It was unexpected that the MCC would come into a small village like Seenigama and show interest in us. The MCC is helping to make big changes to our lives. It would be the experience of a lifetime to play one day at Lord's."

Time moves on. The tenth anniversary of the tsunami has been and gone. Memories of the devastation wreaked will slowly fade. After the end of the war, rebuilding and reconciliation in the north has also become a priority, and the Foundation of Goodness' shift of emphasis has enabled the MCC to be involved with commitments here too, such as the Bikes for Life campaign championed by Kumar Sangakkara.

During the fourth year of the Murali Harmony Cup - a tournament that brings young cricketers from north and south together - Sangakkara distributed 20 bikes to impoverished rural kids in Kilinochchi, who have no means to travel to school, as part of his Sanga's Bikes for Life Campaign. With Foundation of Goodness support, close to 4000 bikes have been distributed in the north and east. There are plans for a cricket ground in Jaffna too, with Murali championing the efforts. Much good has been done in Sri Lankan cricket by the likes of Murali, Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, all of whom are FoG trustees.

Charitable donations are only part of the story. The Foundation of Goodness, which was set up as a not-for-profit NGO in 1999, has plans to move towards self-sufficiency, recognising that, as the tsunami recedes into memory, donations alone cannot do the job. Already around 20% of its funds come from a profit-making company set up for that purpose, and the aim - an ambitious one - is for self-funding by 2020.

Dive Seenigama is one of the foundation's projects. It was begun to stop young boys diving for coral. Kaminda Lakisha and his five brothers were among them. The coral was burnt and made into lime. Many Hikkaduwa beach hotels were painted with lime made from the very coral that, if removed, could one day destroy their beaches. To the Foundation of Goodness, the need to act was clear.

The foundation, in association with Kumar Sangakkara's Bikes for Life campaign, has donated nearly 4000 bikes in the war-hit north and east © Foundation of Goodness

Now Dive Seenigama trains lifeguards and divers. Many have gained employment not just in Sri Lanka but further afield. Roshan Deepal, the master diver and instructor, says proudly: "Three of the boys who were trained by Foundation of Goodness were recently asked to do a dive job which most of the top divers around the world had refused - to dive as deep as 108m deep to open a sewer gate. Anything below 100m is high-tech, expert diving. Three guys from the Foundation of Goodness agreed to do it and they completed it extremely successfully."

Another sustainability project is the Sama Goodness Rhythm Dance Troupe, who will be performing during an interval at the Lord's Test between England and Sri Lanka in June.

The day I was in Seenigama, the dance troupe were getting ready to perform at a venue with somewhat lesser tradition, Coral Sands Hotel, to raise money for a hearing aid for Dimudu Malcam, a profoundly deaf Sri Lanka boy with considerable cricket promise. Jessica Gordon, a volunteer from New Zealand, was walking the beaches, selling tickets with her fiancé Jimmy, a cricket coach who had first spotted Malcam's deafness. It was their last day and they were returning home happier for the experience.

One of my favourite stories of Seenigama's past pupils at the MCC Centre of Excellence concerns Lakruwan Wijesiri, who also benefited from an MCC scholarship. He was undertaking a life-saving course before the tsunami struck. He had ambitions to become a cricketer or a triathlete, and gradually the triathlon became his strength. Swimming in the Seenigama pool was his only formal practice. Cycling and running took place, like it still does for many children the world over, down village lanes.

Lakruwan won the first Sri Lanka national triathlon he entered, on an old village bike - no gears, no aero bars. Gunasekera found him financial support for a racing bike, but in his next race he only finished fifth. "I had not had time to practice how to use it," Lakruwan said. "The bike had many gears and the course was a little bit hilly. I used only one gear but the gear was too high. Then my coaches said, you should practise with a team, so I joined the Sri Lanka Navy team."

He won five out of six triathlons in his first national series and, with his ability evident, he soon had to contend with his first international competition, in Singapore. By then he was attuned to his racing bike but kit was an issue. He would habitually swim in a T-shirt and then swap to a dry shirt when he got out of the water for the running leg.

A swimming pool at the Foundation of Goodness, donated by Bryan Adams © Foundation of Goodness

In Singapore he discovered tri suits and realised that he would no longer have to change his shirts on the go. A tri-suit would also save him a good deal of discomfort. "I was using the swimming shorts and they did not have a cushion pad for the bike," he laughed. "It hurt too much. The others were also looking at my laces because they used special rubber ties. I don't know about that and I am using a zipper on my shoes because they were quicker than lace-ups."

His dream is now to represent Sri Lanka at the Olympics, but the Foundation of Goodness touches many of its graduates for life, and his desire is also to help them in their reconciliation work in the north.

The MCC Centre of Excellence was opened in 2007 as the central point for many of FoG's empowerment projects. It encompass a medical centre, business skills development centre, pre-school classes, Children's Goodness activity clubs, administration offices and accommodation for volunteers and visitors. The FoG has provided scholarships for more than 500 students and more than 4000 have graduated from various classes, all free of charge.

Rachel Dennis has been the FoG's Head of English Language Development, teaching eight-year-olds up to adults. "In terms of ability to get better jobs after A levels or go to university, where a lot of courses are taught in English, a report by the International Youth Foundation, who came here in 2010, said that limited English was the biggest inhibitor to getting a job. This is the MCC Centre of Excellence and we would not be able to achieve this without the MCC being involved. This is a unique project providing opportunities for young people in rural areas."

Emphasis on goodness begins at pre-school. Gunasekera, one of a handful of non-Test cricketers to ring the Lord's bell before play in a Test match, said: "Everything we do, we try to inculcate good values. Life skills are important but life values are mandatory. That is what we always want to promote. Goodness is the one investment that never fails."

Gunasekera's praise for MCC remains unstinting. "The MCC Centre of Excellence, created through the generosity and compassion of the MCC, provides amazing opportunities for rural disadvantaged children.

"The MCC-sponsored cricket venue at Sri Sumangala College in Hikkaduwa produces fine young cricketers. Some of these young players have been further supported by scholarships - again through the spirit of MCC benevolence - to reach higher levels. If it wasn't for the MCC this venue could never have been transformed into the facility that it is today."

This article was first published in the MCC magazine

- David Hopps