Hemal Mendis could never play Test cricket. That remains the biggest regret of his life.
The 62-year-old is, however, happy that many cricketers he has worked with as youngsters went on to play for Sri Lanka. “Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene, Dilhara Fernando, Upul Chandana and Avishka Gunawardene, Thilan Samaraweera, and Ravindra Pushpakumara have all played under me when I was the coach of the Sri Lankan Under-19 and Under-23 sides,” Mendis told Sportstar here on Tuesday.
“Over 30 of my wards have graduated to the senior national squad.”
He came here to a conduct a camp for the wards at the newly formed Go-Getters Sports Academy. “I am glad that I accepted the invitation of the academy’s managing director A.K. Nizar,” he said.
“I have enjoyed working with the kids at the academy; I see a lot of promise in them, but they need to be groomed properly.”
He, of course, knows a thing or two about grooming young talents. He has been working with the Sri Lanka Cricket Board for the last 27 years. He is now the manager in charge of district and provincial coaching. He works with over 50 coaches from across Sri Lanka.
“It is those coaches who work with our schools who shape the future stars of Sri Lankan cricket,” he said.
“The school cricket is the backbone back home; our First Class cricket is not that strong. All our best cricketers have come through the school system. But, we need to improve the standard of the domestic cricket.”
Mendis used to score heavily in domestic matches as an attacking one-drop batsman in his younger days and had come close to earning a Lanka cap on quite a few occasions.
“In a trail match for the selection of the Lankan team against the touring Australians in 1983, I had scored 88, against a bowling attack that contained Rumesh Ratnayake, Ashantha de Mel, Vinothen John and I was asked to retire; I thought the selectors had seen enough of me and that I was picked,” he said.
“But, I later found out that I wasn’t selected and was devastated.”And that was the time when Sri Lanka, which had only recently got the Test status, used to play very few international matches, unlike the present day when it meets India almost every other week.
“Yes, the opportunities were limited, still I was perplexed why I wasn’t selected when inferior players were,” he said. “Once I played a match shortly after my four-month old son died. My wife poured kerosene on my cricket kid and set it on fire.”
Mendis’s passion for the sport though wasn’t doused even by that incident. “I enjoy coaching,” he said. “And I would love to be back in Kerala; the people here are wonderful.”
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