- What it means to be a champion
By Dimithri Wijesinghe
Sri Lanka won global glory recently when its national netball team bested Singapore at the 2022 Asian Netball Championships held in Singapore, winning our sixth title at the games and securing a spot at the 2023 Netball World Cup in Cape Town.
The Asian Netball Championship is held every two years with teams from across Asia competing and Sri Lanka has been the most successful team to compete at the games, defending the title they were awarded in 2018 with this year’s win.
Lankan netball is undoubtedly an incredible force in the international arena, currently ranked 19th in the world, with this year’s 12-woman squad consisting of Captain Gayanjali Amarawansa, Vice Captain Dulangi Wannithilake, newcomer Malmi Hettiarachchi, returning players Semini Alwis, Gayani Dissanayake, Hasitha Mendis, Deepika Darshani, Bhashini De Silva, Idusha Janani, Rashmi Diwyanjali, former Captain Chathurangi Jayasooriya, and star player Tharjini Sivalingam, who is currently playing league netball in Australia.
While Sri Lankan netball has performed incredibly well internationally, there’s much to be said about the support our athletes receive on the home front. Although they do not complain and the Netball Federation of Sri Lanka has done its utmost to ensure that the team is primed and ready to face competitions, The Sunday Morning Brunch couldn’t help but wonder about the possibilities, if they were given just a fraction more support.
It is a curious thing to be a national athlete in Sri Lanka, to succeed at the level that the netball team has done, and yet to have to apply for leave from their full-time employment in order to attend practices, to pay out-of-pocket for transport to and from training, and to bear numerous other expenses out of love for the country and the game; it is a path in life not everyone would be willing to take.
The Sunday Morning Brunch had an enlightening chat with Captain Gayanjali Amarawansa and National Coach Hyacinth Wijesinghe of the winning Sri Lankan national netball team, who shared with us their journey to becoming Asian champions.
Training to be champions
Coach Hyacinth shared that the team had started training in January of this year, and while they had originally trained at Torrington Grounds because they did not have the full court facilities, they had later begun to train at the Bandaragama Sports Complex.
She shared that the players commuted daily to Bandaragama and bore their own transport costs. Moreover, about two months prior to the departure to Singapore, which was scheduled for 30 August, they switched to residential training. Even then, three of the players who had children had to commute daily.
“We would schedule the training for 7 p.m., but we knew for a fact that this would not be possible, so we would try to somehow start around 7.30 p.m. or 8 p.m. However, during residential training, even though we had the opportunity to begin training sessions at 6 p.m. or 6.30 p.m., we would still wait for our daily commuters because we recognised the importance of the team performing together,” she said.
She added: “There was another challenge in Bandaragama, since power cuts never followed the daily schedule, so we could never create a schedule to work around the power cuts. We had to decide whether to play in the dark or wait for the power to come back. On some days it was pitch dark and we would use the torches on our mobile phones and train. I could tell when they started to struggle since it became impossible to play in the darkness and the players would tire and ask to stop.”
Hyacinth stressed that in over 12-13 years of service as the national coach, this year had been one of the most challenging, especially considering some of the administrative changes that the Federation had undergone.
She shared that much of the logistics were sorted amongst themselves. While the Sports Ministry would provide meals, when they moved the training to Bandaragama, the Ministry was unable to continue this, although there was a possibility of reimbursement. However, in reality, most of the costs were really borne by themselves, she noted.
She added that during the recent protests in the country, they would receive notice to cancel practice and not to travel, and so on. Hyacinth shared that she would become anxious whenever this message was conveyed, creating a tense environment. “During the protests, the Federation would say to stop practices. I got nervous when that happened because I know how difficult it is to miss even one single day of practice. Dealing with all of this, if we officially had six months to practise, we probably practised only for a solid four months.”
She said that the team had emerged victorious regardless of these many difficulties primarily due to their team spirit and the role played by each player in the team: “I had a superb Captain and Vice Captain duo who helped with every little detail. Players like Gayani and Chathurangi, who are senior players as well as our two defenders shouldered much of the burdens as their own and their support meant a great deal.”
To see these girls work as one was a beautiful thing to see, Hyacinth said, adding that she genuinely believed that this team spirit was the ultimate reason for their victory.
Hyacinth is known to be a tough coach on the court. However, off the court, she noted that she always kept in mind that the stresses must be kept to a minimum. It can be said that she too played an undeniable role as a coach in allowing the team’s winning spirit and togetherness to flourish.
Tested in competition
Gayanjali spoke of their experience leading up to the Championship, addressing their trial by fire: “We hadn’t played any international tournaments after the World Cup, so we were going straight into the competition without having had that exposure. However, we did manage to set up a practice match with Malaysia, and I believe that match was a great help for us, especially because we had not played against an opponent. Moreover, our senior player Tharjini joined us straight from her stint in Australia playing for her club. While we had no doubts that she would be returning after having strengthened her skills, this was the first opportunity we got to play together.”
Hyacinth also addressed this technical challenge, stating that she had originally planned for the team to play about 43 practice matches. However, they ended up playing only 13 of these matches. “To work out strategy, we played the top schools in the game and then moved on to play the Navy, Air Force, Police, and the boys’ matches,” she said.
She noted that while they were not given the opportunity to play against a true opponent, she was still able to see the team’s improvement, which further solidified her confidence in the eventual Championship. “I was sure of it,” Hyacinth said, stating that despite the hardships they had faced, the girls had been ready and they had the right attitude to lead them to their win.
Being a national athlete
While it is an incredible honour to represent one’s country on the world stage and to absolutely dominate the way that these ladies have done, it is still important to note that it is through personal sacrifice that they have brought Sri Lanka this recognition.
Although we might not have thought of the personal sacrifice that athletes make in order to bring glory to our country’s name, if Singaporeans and netball fans the world over recognise Sri Lanka, it is thanks to this national netball team which defended their Asian Championship title. However, after these players returned following their victory, they went right back to their lives of working full-time and training for the next game. They do not receive a salary and there is no corporate sponsorship awaiting them, allowing them to kick back and enjoy their success.
Speaking about what keeps her and her fellow teammates going, Gayanjali said: “It is really for the love of the game. I love netball, and like me, the other girls are also playing because they love the sport and they are passionate about doing something for Sri Lanka. That is why we do it.”
Addressing the team’s plans for the World Cup at the end of July 2023, Gayanjali said: “I am sure that the Federation has prepared a plan and the team is ready to give 200%.” She added: “We are currently the world No. 19. We also wish to play at the Commonwealth Games, for which we must be within the top 12 in the world, so we hope to climb up in the world rankings. It will not be easy, but we are ready to work towards it.”