Pavilion Parade by M V Muhsin
October 7th, 2012 by Admin

Sampath Perera – Cricket Coach Par Excellence

In Sampath Perera’s dictionary the word ‘Cricket’ starts with a capital ‘D’—whatever way one may spell or pronounce it. And D –stands for Discipline. Two incidents bring this to life.

Sampath was coaching a school team—Trinity in this case– and dress code and demeanor were aspects that he drilled into the youngsters. But the guy with the pony-tail would not relent: the youngster believed it was ‘cool’ and had pleaded that his parents too were ‘cool’ with it! Not long afterwards as the team sat in a circle on the grass doing their stretches, Sampath comes over and clips off the pony tail using grass clippers! Message delivered; end of story!!

The Asgiriya pavilion’s frontage opens out to the picturesque grounds from where one can see the verdant hills of Kandy. Anyone entering the pavilion could be seen and be ushered into an appointed place. But at the rear end of the pavilion is a door that leads into the dressing rooms of players from either side. Self appointed cricket pundits and parents would make their way in through the rear door and dispense homilies, often to a sickening degree, to the players. A cricket fan who frequently used this pathway to get access to the teams once found that the door was locked during a match. On inquiry he was told that coach Sampath had ordered the closure and a by-stander who overheard the conversation quipped “ah! that’s Sampath’s success”; that’s how he keeps the wolves away!

Sampath Perera does not entertain interference. He minds his business and does not allow others to make their business his business! He follows a strict and structured regime in the way he prepares, chooses his squads and selects teams. If this smacks of arrogance to some parents it’s only because of his desire to give a fair and transparent chance to all interested players. It is commonplace in school cricket in any part of the country that some parents, especially those with influence, would try their best to make a case for the inclusion of their kids in teams: ‘ Aney!Mage putha hari hondai’ ( my son is very good) is the usual refrain as coaches are hounded.

Sampath works through a team: led by himself, the assistant coaches, the master in charge and the captain and vice captain. They collectively make decisions which stick. While this seems a ‘no-brainer’ and an obvious thing to do, it’s not as simple as it seems. The pressures on coaches and school authorities are intense and sometimes laced with veiled threats and subtleties. With the terrific success, high profile and lucrative nature that cricket in Sri Lanka has attained, these intrusions have gained momentum. And it needs a person with confidence, knowledge of his vocation, and guts to hold his own.

In Sampath’s case he follows his ‘system’ religiously and his decisions are totally defensible. As Sampath himself once put it so colorfully, in home grown Sinhala “ Eheng Meheng Panela team ekakata ringanda baheh” (they cannot use devious ways to work their way into the team)!

While parents are kept at bay, the system that coach Sampath uses also helps the players to know where they stand. All players are required to maintain a record of what they did at practices; what they learnt; what they did well and the areas for improvement. These logs and self assessments are then reviewed and discussed with individual the players, and sometimes in group and peer review sessions, which turn out to be mutually reinforcing.

Players are also measured against targets set for the season –for batting (run rate), bowling (economy rates) and fielding. These targets influence whether a player is kept in the side or dropped. Targets are motivational, performance is tracked, monitored and rewarded, and decisions are made on merit.

There is a science in the art of his coaching. One player stated that coach Sampath helps us to recognize the possibilities. One should add to this that, as a tactician, he weighs the probabilities in each match and helps the team to work around the options. Another player spoke of the way he builds a wholesome cricketer: he teaches us how a cricketer should not only bat, bowl or field, but also to walk and talk. Sampath bonded exceptionally well with the players while alternating between the roles of task master, mentor, coach, friend and confidant—attributes that helped him to earn trust and deep respect.

No wonder then that this year Sampath Perera, who set his eyes in 2008 to build a winning team in 2012, was able as Trinity’s coach to help win the Triple Crown:

League (two day) champs; 50 over champs and T20 champs!

Yet such trappings did not make him toot his own horn. Rather, in his typical understated way: “weday karala, mung nikkan paththta wela hitiya”— did my job and just waited on the side! Instead, he creates the space for his teams to take a bow!

But the story and achievements of Sampath Perera as a cricketer and a coach transcends the whole spectrum of Sri Lanka cricket –school, club and national. A product of D.S. Senanayake MV, he captained the school team in the 1993-94 during which time he notched 1220 runs which included three centuries and eight half centuries. A right hand bat with a strike rate of 130, he was, upon leaving school, snapped up by the BRC and later by the Bloomfield Cricket Club . At Bloomfield he was in the company of Ruwan Kalpage, Roshan Mahanama, Kumar Dharmsena, and Sanath Jayasuriya.

In the 1994 Sampath joined Seylan Bank and the 258 run partnership that he put up with Lanka de Silva in the encounter against ANZ Grindlays made the clubs take note of him—he scored 141 while de Silva scored 158.

Giving back something to his old school D.S. Senanayake, Sampath took on the challenge of coaching in 1999-2008 and helped his school to emerge U 17 All-Island Champions.

Exposure to cricket overseas came in 1999 when Sampath won a six month contract with Purwood Cricket Club in Melbourne, Australia. He was in no small measure responsible for enabling Purwood to enter the league finals after 12 years. During his stay there Sampath scored over 850 runs which included three centuries and six half centuries.

It took only a short time for Sampath’s talents to come to the fore and while working for Seylan Bank and representing them in the Mercantile A division, he took on the mantle of coaching. A list of names of those who benefitted from Sampath’s coaching and mentoring reads like an extract from a ‘Golden Rolodex of Sri Lanka’s

finest cricketers’ : first at the SSC where Mahela Jayawardene, Nuwan Soysa, Mavan Atapattu, Aviska Gunawardene and Thilan Samaraweera played and then at the NCC where as Head Coach he had under his mentorship a battery of Sri Lanka’s best : Kumar Sangakkara, Upul Chandana, Upul Tharanga, Russel Arnold, Hashan Tillekeratne, Suraj Randiv, Farveez Maharoof, Thilina Thushara and Lasith Malinga.

At Seylan where he played and then coached as well, he played in the company of Chaminda Vaas, Upul Tharanga, Kaushlaya Weeraratne, Nuwan Kulasekera, Lanka de Silva, Thilan Samaraweera, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara when Seylan emerged as A Division Champions in 2001.

With characteristic modesty, Sampath insists that he only helped to bring to the fore the inherent talent of all these players and many other coaches—such as Ruwan Kalpage and Roshan Mahanama– should get credit. Sampath’s main focus at the national level was on team building and bringing out the best in players– individually and collectively.

While these trappings are clearly impressive, if not unique, Sampath keeps a cool head and does not allow the heady whiffs of power derived by association with the best of Sri Lanka’s cricketers to swell his head. When Kumar Sangakkara, who heads a Cricket Foundation for Trinity, invited Sampath to take on the challenge of coaching and move to Kandy, many of Sampath’s associates felt that moving to Kandy was a negative career move as Colombo was the ‘happening place’! Sampath proved that he is a risk taker and one who loves an out-of-the-box challenge…. and emerge unscathed, more than equal to the task!

This has been the story of his life. Now at 37 and with many more years of cricket coaching at possibly the highest levels in the country at his beck and call, Sampath’s first challenge came when his father Wilson Perera who was the captain of the Spartans Football Club in Maligawatte and his mother Sheila posed the question: football or cricket. He wisely chose Cricket and today, supported by his wife Erasha, Sampath devotes his entire energy to pursue his passion to coach cricket. And he is one of the finest in that vocation in Sri Lanka.

To contact Mohamed Muhsin: e mail