Romance beyond shelf life

Every player has a shelf life when they find their ability and body going well in tandem. That is the time when they do not need to dig deep into their reserve of capabilities and every movement, every stroke, every push works for them. And we say, he’s a natural athlete.

This is true in case of almost all competitive sports, where rarely do we see a player at their peak from beginning of their career to the time they hang up their boots and try to get a new career. However, we rarely realize that the same is true for others associated with sports, those who are not a physical presence on the competitive arena. The physiotherapists, the analysts (every sport team have them now), the masseurs, the psychological counselors, the managers and the Coaches. All of them do have a shelf life, just like a player has. And Pubudu Dassanayake – the Sri Lanka born Canadian national, who came to coach Nepal cricket team when it needed a leap to graduate from ‘promising’ to ‘performing’ – has a shelf life too. It another story that the shelf life has been curtailed by factors which ain’t just cricket. Yours Truly believes he had another year or a bit more in his Nepal shelf-life. We’re still not hundred percent sure if his association with Cricket Nepal has ended, but we can still celebrate his stay, at the same time fearing he might have taken his last flight from Kathmandu.

Pubudu Dassanayake with Nepal players at Kirtipur Cricket Ground. Photo: Somesh
Pubudu Dassanayake with Nepal players at Kirtipur Cricket Ground.
Photo: Somesh

Sports stories have beginnings that are fairytale like, because at the onset we dream the improbable, and often we see players punching above their weight to achieve what was considered impossible earlier. But that is when the analogy of fairytales with sports end. For most goodbye in sports aren’t fairytale like. In fact, fairytale ending of a sportsperson’s career is an illusion, a mirage – expectation of the swansong, the last hurrah, the cry of triumph – which the players and fans often seek, and rarely achieve. With coaches and support staff, it is the same though they’re not spoken in public, with the exception of modern day English Football where coaches are haunted more by media than the players. It is often a war of pragmatism over romance. Love affairs are not meant to be pragmatic. Love affairs are a product of youth, be it with the sports or the sportspeople, when we dream the improbable, the unachieved, the unobvious.

Romance rarely survives the fight with pragmatism. It is pragmatic for Roger Federer to be defensive, in order to extend his stay on the court. But that doesn’t look half as beautiful as his aggressive self, scoring those winners with that ‘liquid whip’, a combination of force and beauty nowhere else seen in the universe. It wasn’t romantic to see Sachin Tendulkar’s epic wait for his hundredth hundred. A player who, in his heydays would stand on his tiptoe – as if God had him by his collar – and caress the ball with the magic wand as it raced to the boundary, changing the ball’s course by 360 degrees. Forceful, yet devoid of brutality. Romance has a shelf life. Mills and Boon series used to be a rage among teenage girls, the wannabe ladies. Once they became lady proper, they became pragmatic. Moved on with life, shifted from Mills and Boon. That is when romance loses out, pragmatism sets in. The last pragmatic thing being great players calling it quits, not because they don’t dream, but because they hate seeing success coming at such low frequency. That’s when romance dies a slow death. Most romance stories, in sports and in literature, do not have a happy ending. Romance remain in memory. Memories, no matter how beautiful, are not present.

We are emotional beings and often associate, identify, deify and vilify the players with respect to the bonds they have been able to establish with us. And conveniently we forget that the beings who are not standing for us on the pedestal – the physiologists, the masseurs, the psychotherapists, the coaches – are also competing, just like the players, struggling with all their stamina, often pulling players out of their slumber and at the same time exhausting themselves, just like the players. And just like players, it is awfully hard for them to say Goodbye. It must have been hard for Pubudu too. To contemplate leaving a country that became his second home – Technically third, for he was born in Sri Lanka and adopted Canada as his home later on, and took his adopted home to World Cup – without fulfilling the goals he set for himself.

His goal, as he’d admitted right after landing in the dustbowl called Kathmandu, was to take Nepal to ‘World Cup’. Many would like to say here that Nepal reached World T20 under him. But yours truly begs to differ. Although Pubudu has been trained as performance coach, he is a product of Sri Lankan cricket of 1980s, not a T20 format. During his first stint as a player, Sri Lanka was yearning to be counted among the top team in One Day International format. So, for him, a World Cup would mean One Day Internationals are played among top cricketing nations.

Pubudu Dassanayake, wearing traditional Bhadgaule Top, in a program at Kathmandu. Photo: Somesh
Pubudu Dassanayake, wearing traditional Bhadgaule Topi, in a program at Kathmandu.
Photo: Somesh

I still remember when I met him first, the soft spoken former player said candidly, “Nepali players do not seem to be mentally strong.” And I agreed, having seen the team for just over a decade. Fast forward three years, Nepal had already played matches at World T20. Ask Paras Khadka, the biggest name Nepal Cricket has been able to throw up, the primary reason of Nepal flying high, he says, “Pubudu, without a doubt.”

For me, Pubudu’s success with Cricket Nepal should not only be counted in terms of silverware, though there have been several in numbers to account for. Under him, Nepal took the title of ICC World Cricket League Division 4 and 3, became joint winner of ACC Trophy 2012 (for the first time), became semi-finalist of ACC T20 2011, reached the final of ACC T20 2013 (both for the first time), and to top it all, Nepal qualified for the World T20. That’s quite a number, if you have been following Nepali cricket for a while.

When Team Nepal was playing in the world T20, many journalists across the cricket playing nations were fascinated seeing the tiny Himalayan nation playing at the top level. They would ask Paras Khadka, the captain, and he would calmly reply, “We’re here to introduce Nepal to the world.”

No frills, no promises, no tall talks. Humble, yet intense, very statesmanlike. Anyone who has seen Paras closely would know, he is anything but soft. Many know him as an aggressive player and a captain, bordering on being arrogant (his talks to Nepali media could be taken as reference). Many journalists called him their favorite, for carrying a young cricket nation so well on his shoulders.

If Pubudu continues further with Nepali cricket, I would wait before judging him for his ‘shelf-life’. If he doesn’t, I would say the manner in which Nepali team carried itself at the World T20 was his biggest contribution for us. Nepal played aggressively at the World T20, winning two out of three matches it could get. Yet the team carried itself well, never giving an impression that it did not belong to the stage.

If that is being mentally tough – and I don’t know what else is – Pubudu has been able to fulfill one desire of mine, of seeing a team that does not shy away from a challenge. And for that, he deserves accolades. Romance – even if in memories – is still beautiful. It has a shelf life that goes beyond one’s playing, or working tenure.

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