Chucking umpiring for coaching

Nuwan Zoysa… “I can’t stand out there for hours in the sun anymore. I might be too old for cricket, but I am young enough to be a coach.”-V.V. SUBRAHMANYAM

“I am determined to achieve my first objective of guiding Goa to the knock-out phase of the Ranji Trophy, if not this season at least in the next,” says Nuwan Zoysa in a chat with V.V. Subrahmanyam.

Nuwan Zoysa seems to be enjoying his new role as the coach of the Goa Ranji team. “I had to give up the umpiring job, which I did for a while, to become a coach. Obviously, I can’t stand out there for hours in the sun anymore. I might be too old for cricket, but I am young enough to be a coach,” says the 6-foot 4-inch former Sri Lankan Test cricketer.

Considering his body language and the way he has been conducting himself as Goa’s coach, Zoysa appears to be completely at home with the team. “I love the ambience here in Goa, which is so similar to Sri Lanka — the beaches, the people, the culture... You tend to feel at home,” says the 35-year-old Sri Lankan.

Zoysa says it is a huge challenge to coach any side, be it a Group C or B or A team, in any national championship. “You always have a task on hand once you accept a challenge. I am determined to achieve my first objective of guiding Goa to the knock-out phase (of the Ranji Trophy), if not this season at least in the next,” he explains.

Zoysa has a two-year contract with Goa.

Talking of the one big change he wants to make to the current Goa team, Zoysa says, “They need to be more serious. You can always enjoy the game, but there is something beyond that to grow big in the world of cricket. I want to bring a lot more seriousness in Goa’s approach and I believe that I have achieved 80 per cent of that. Still I have a long way to go.

“The change is evident in players such as Amogh Desai, Harshad Gadekar and Keenan Vaz who have performed well so far. It is important for the batsmen to stay long at the crease and for the bowlers to aim for bigger hauls than be content with bits and pieces showing.”

The former Sri Lankan fast bowler is not sure whether this stint is part of the bigger plans to be the coach of his national team one day. “I never know how things will shape up, but I am keen to give back something to the game. However, one thing I can say is that Sri Lankan cricket prospered because of some wonderful coaches over the years. I was lucky myself to have played under a couple of them. So, I pick the best from them in my new role as coach,” says Zoysa.

How does he look at the future of Sri Lankan cricket?

“Well, it should be a matter of concern when the two greats, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, bid good bye. There will be a huge void; we will then feel the absence of their experience. We need to find someone really good to fill in those slots,” says Zoysa, a player of 30 Tests (64 wickets) and 95 ODIs (108 wickets) between 1997 and 2004.

“Angelo (Mathews) and Chamara (De Silva) are good, but it takes time to get that kind of experience (as Sangakkara and Jayawardene),” he adds.

With regard to Sri Lanka’s bowling, Zoysa is of the view that they need to find a quality spinner, in the calibre of the great Muttiah Muralitharan. “We need bowlers who can take 20 wickets in a Test match. Players are respected more for the way they perform in a Test, which is the ultimate for any cricketer,” he says.

“Right now, off-break bowler P. H. T. Kaushal looks the best bet. Even Murali is pretty impressed with him,” Zoysa adds.

For Zoysa, the most memorable experience in Test cricket is his unique hat-trick. He performed the feat with the first three balls he bowled in a Test (not on debut though, but in his eighth Test) against Zimbabwe in Harare, his victims being Trevor Gripper, Murray Goodwin and Neil Johnson.

“I am glad that a Sri Lankan holds that record even now, and the most satisfying of the three dismissals was that of Neil Johnson. I wanted to hit the off-stump line and bring the ball back to knock the middle-stump. It happened exactly that way. My joy then knew no bounds, as he was the best batsman after Andy Flower in that line-up. It was a great feeling,” reminisces the Sri Lankan. “I should say that I was lucky to get that hat-trick, for before that game I was down with malaria and lost eight kilos. But Sanath (Jayasuriya), who was leading on his first overseas tour, insisted that I play. I thank him for the faith he had in me,” Zoysa says modestly.

According to Zoysa, he was lucky to have played when Sri Lanka was passing through the most difficult, transition phase. He had also seen how Muralitharan was subjected to a lot of scrutiny and “often abuse”, especially in Australia. “Yes, those were hard times. Full credit to the then captain Arjuna Ranatunga for the way he handled the situation and also to the SLCC for the way it backed the players. Definitely a turbulent phase with lots of emotions — on and off the field,” he recalls.

What were the high points of his career?

“To be a member of the Sri Lankan team that won the Asia Cup and the Champions Trophy and beating Australia in Sri Lanka in a Test match. Moments which I love to keep remembering,” says Zoysa. As the topic veers round to Sachin Tendulkar, his face lights up with a smile. “Who was not happy in this world on getting his wicket? He was always my favourite batsman, class writ all over and a champion in all three formats,” says Zoysa, a big admirer of the batting great from India.

“The best part of it all was that Sachin knew the right time to quit and did exactly that. It was unfair on the part of some experts to even remotely suggest to this great cricketer when to retire. Wish him great days in his retired life too,” says Zoysa before joining his wards at a rigorous training session.