Right arm medium paceman (some identify him as a spinner) Ajantha Mendis has just taken wing to join Sri Lanka ODI squad in the West Indies, and his inclusion in the national squad is a major achievement for his club, Army SC. Agrees Major General V.R. Silva, Chairman Army Cricket.
“We are naturally happy and proud,” says Major General Silva. “Mendis has done really well to earn his place in the national squad. It also is a remarkable achievement for Sri Lanka Army. This marks the first occasion since 1970 that a soldier played for the national team.” In 1970 Brigadier (Retd) H.I.K. Fernando represented Ceylon against an English team captained by Tony Lewis.
Mendis, who bowls a mixture of googlies, offbreaks, top-spinners, flippers and legbreaks, has turned in an outstanding performance in this year’s Premier League tournament with a record haul of 68 wickets; that surely must have offered him a fast track to the top. Add to that his show in the Inter-Provincial tourney where he won the admiration of Sri Lanka Captain Mahela Jayawardene. However, Mendis is not the sole reason for Army’s jubilation this season. His feats have come on top of a superlative show by his team. Army SC has emerged Tier ‘B’ Premier League champions.
“We won nine matches this season,” contends Major General Silva. “Eight of those were outright victories and the only first innings win came as rain intervened. I think it must be a record.” Right throughout, Army SC captained by Lance Corporal Navantha Ratnayake, remained ‘invincible’ and their proud chairman thinks Army cricket has entered its ‘Golden Era’.
“It was during 2002/03 season that we started playing cricket seriously,” amiable General recalls. “Within five years we have come on top of our segment in the premier domestic tournament. We have also produced a national player – it bodes well for Army.
“All credit should go to these cricketers. They practise hard and always do their best.”
Army cricket has had its fair share of struggles as well. At first the soldiers didn’t have a proper ground to do their practices and play their home matches. They had to play on burrowed grounds in Colombo. “First we used the ground that belonged to Artillery Regiment in Panagoda. It was not a proper cricket venue,” the General remembers. “Finally we managed to develop this ground (also situated inside the Panagoda cantonment) into a proper cricket venue. We were helped by Sri Lanka Cricket in developing it.” Now, they practise and play their home matches at Muthukumaru ground (named after the first Sri Lankan Army chief after independence, Anton Muthukumaru).
The Army SC clinched the Sara Trophy in 2005/06 and got promoted to the Premier League. In 2006/07 they ended up Tier ‘B’ runners-up in the limited overs tournament. They also produced the best batsmen in their segment in the premier tournaments – Indika Karunaratne (limited overs) and Manjula Soyza (Premier). This season they lost their limited overs semi-final to BRC on a toss of a coin after rain played havoc.
In their march to the top Army SC has been helped by two coaches, Saman Hewawitharana and Neil Rajapakshe.
“One thing I should mention about this team is that most of the players are soldiers,” General Silva points out. “They have a lot of potential and there’s not doubt about their fighting spirit. In one match they were bowled out for 57 runs and then conceded a first innings lead of over 120 runs. Finally they fought back to win the match.”
Rajapakshe has joined Army SC for this season and he was overjoyed seeing his players’ perfect run in the league. “With our victory we should be promoted to Tier ‘A’,” Rajapakshe points out. “But from what I gather Sri Lanka Cricket is planning to overhaul the Premier structure. I don’t know where we’ll end up.”
Army SC’s performance in the Premier League tournament:
Beat Saracens SC by an innings and 41 runs at BRC ground (Jan. 18, 19, 20 2008) - Army 393; Saracens 188, 164
Beat BRC by 10 wickets at Army ground, Panagoda (Jan. 25, 26, 27) – BRC 232 and 202; Army 347 and 91 for no loss.
Beat Lankan CC by 3 wickets at Panagoda (Feb. 1, 2, 3) – Lankan CC 164 and 283; Army 206 and 243 for 7.
Beat Sebastianites C&AC by 8 wickets at St. Sebastian’s College ground (Feb. 15, 16, 17) – Sebastianites 162 and 165; Army 198 and 130 for 2.
Beat Singha SC by 43 runs at Panagoda (Feb. 22, 23, 24) – Army 57 and 255; Singha SC 177 and 92.
Beat Air Force by 4 wickets at Air Force ground (Feb. 29, Mar. 1, 2) – Air Force 209 and 92; Army 156 and 146 for 6.
Beat Police by 6 wickets at Panagoda (Mar. 7, 8, 9) – Police 103 and 111; Army 156 and 61 for 4.
Vs Panadura SC at Panadura Esplanade (Mar. 14, 15, 16) Match drawn (Army on first inngs) – Panadura SC 197; Army 218.