Life, cricket and a Darwin evolution
Northern Territory Cricket coach Udara Weerasinghe has pushed past the myriad challenges that have come his way as he strives to fulfil his life's passion
On a routinely mild July morning in 2018, four men sit at the Buddhist Temple of Darwin, engrossed in discussion. They sit upon the dusty terracotta tiles just outside the preaching hall, forming a rough diamond. One is a monk on a pilgrimage from Sri Lanka. Two are Western Australian cricketers, Cameron Bancroft and Will Bosisto. The fourth is Udara Weerasinghe, a Sri Lankan-born Australian citizen and decade-long resident of the Northern Territory. It is shortly after 7am, and as they bond over a McDonald's breakfast – Weerasinghe's monthly offering to visiting monks – the four men form a spiritual connection. It is the monk who heads the conversation, which finds its root in fundamental Buddhist teachings and how they relate to life's daily challenges. All men are on unique journeys; of self-discovery and redemption and other matters beyond.
"The quote that sticks in my mind is 'giving without expectation of return'," Bancroft reflects. "It links to the principles of Buddhism in general, really. Udara's following that, as a coach and a person."
Weerasinghe's path has been a winding one. In his current life, he is a father, husband and cricket coach, but there was a time when he dreamed of touring this country as an off-spinner for Sri Lanka. He remembers childhood cricket matches with his four brothers – two older, two younger – on his family's half-acre plot in the village of Gomarakanda, around fifty kilometres south of Colombo, the island nation's capital. He revisits those days in his mind sometimes, and familiar tales of taped-up tennis balls and smashed windows spill forth.
As he grew, life quickly became more complicated.
When he was 11, Weerasinghe joined hundreds of other boys in trying out for his school's Under 13s cricket team in Kalutara on the west coast of Sri Lanka. The system there is such that all elite players come through school competitions, which means tryouts represent the first inklings of opportunity. A swathe of kids descended on the oval, each getting their shot at the determining test presented by the coach: three balls, one stump to aim at – hit once, and you're in the squad. Weerasinghe remembers being at the top of his mark with ball in hand, and the feeling of an entire school watching on as his fate came down to a ball and a stump.
"You're standing there thinking, this is life-changing," he laughs today.
Utilising the skills he had learned alongside his brothers at home, he bowled off-breaks and hit the lone stump with his first two deliveries. That season, he opened the batting and made a highest score of 14. The next year, with Tillakaratne Dilshan's brother, Sampath, in the side, Kalutara Vidyalaya National School were all-island champions.
Weerasinghe's mother, Lakshmi, insisted her boys began their days at 5.30am, reading books in their native Sinhalese, and also learning English. With their father, Nandasena, living and working as a truck driver in Kuwait and returning home only once every year or two, Lakshmi shouldered the parental load. The absence of a father figure ate away at Udara, and continued to do so as the years unfurled. There were other issues he dealt with as he moved into his teens, some apparent to him at the time, and others he only grasped the magnitude of as an adult.
"I felt I had lots of discrimination in my school," he says. "I'm pretty dark (skinned) compared to most Sri Lankans. Always in Sri Lanka and that part of the world they want to be fair-coloured – they want to be white.
"So that didn't help me, and I was a bit aggressive as a kid. That was a reaction to bullying; if I didn't think something was right, I stood up against it. I was only skinny, but I always had guts."
His life changed when he met Sunil Saluwadana, his first cricket coach and a man who has overseen the rise of five Test cricketers from Weerasinghe's area. As well as honing his talents as a batsman and off-spinner, Saluwadana developed a self-belief in his young charge, which in turn led to the evolution of a steely resolve that stays with him. Weerasinghe remembers the occasional clip around the ears as well; necessary discipline, he says, for a boy missing the influence of a father. Neither teacher nor pupil knew it at the time, but the seeds were being sown for Weerasinghe's life's work.
"After my mum, he's the best person I ever met," he says. "Everything he coached still applies now – cricket and life. He moulded me. I never had a mentor like that after I left school. He's the one who realised I had some sort of talent."
As cricket became the epicentre of his life, Weerasinghe spent more time with his coach than he did his own family. He hauled his kit on the bus ride to school, trained afterward until seven o'clock, then arrived home in darkness, five days a week. When he transitioned from school to representative cricket in his late teens, the work ethic that he had developed served him well.
"There were so many kids competing," he remembers. "You go into a big pool of talent and there's not much difference (between the players). A lot of it comes down to connections; if you know the person, you get prioritised."
Weerasinghe didn't have the contacts that many of the Colombo-based players did, however he forced his way through the system on ability and tenacity, and a week after his 20th birthday, he was lining up alongside World Cup winners Sanath Jayasuriya and Kumar Dharmasena for first-class team Bloomfield. In time, he found himself in the Sri Lanka A group, and the national spin squad, where he learned the value of repetition in his craft from Muthiah Muralitharan. Across the next five years however, he played just 23 first-class matches at two clubs, finding himself in and out of starting sides as he battled with issues of form and, he says, politics.
"I miss Sri Lanka in a way but I had so much frustration there when I was young," Weerasinghe says. "I'm a bit different, the way I think. I'm open and honest and I was criticised for being too aggressive – but I couldn't stand the bullshit.
"I was frustrated at the system, how things work over there. I believe you've got to earn respect, but there were people there who demanded respect without earning it. I had some blow-ups with national players. They took it personally. Most people wouldn't speak up – that's how they play for Sri Lanka; they're not honest to themselves."
Weerasinghe began looking beyond the obvious cricket path. In his mid-20s, he replied to an ad post from Cricket Victoria and soon found himself playing for small match payments in the Gippsland region, where he remembers receiving a proper education in 'Australian'.
"I learned English back home in Sri Lanka but it's not the same," he laughs. "People think they know Australia, but until you've lived in the country, mate, you don't really know.
"The best thing I did when I first came was I lived with the Australian country people. I embraced the lifestyle, and I had great people behind me. Not many people get that when they move to the cities, but I've been engaged in helping the community and coaching."
During one match, he was racially vilified by an English bowler who was playing as a visiting rep – just as Weerasinghe was. Both home and abroad, he had been subjected to abuse because of his skin colour. Yet he opted not to dwell on it; when the player was suspended, Weerasinghe was keen to let the matter rest.
"Discrimination is always there," he says. "But you meet a good group of people, they are happy to welcome you. It's all about getting to know someone."
Inspired by his schoolboy mentor and feeling in limbo over his playing future, Weerasinghe had also started coaching in Sri Lanka. It was another step on a revised life trajectory.
"I realised there were so many talented spinners in Sri Lanka," he says. "I was only one person, and I'd always had people putting negative ideas in my head.
"So I started coaching. I took a team and I really enjoyed it."
The yearning remained however, for greener pastures. They materialised in the red dirt of Darwin.
A long, light scar runs along Weerasinghe's left hand, ending just below his pinkie finger. It is only about a year old, the remnants of a fracture suffered in the Northern Territory's Strike League when, as player-coach of Northern Tide, he was on the receiving end of a particularly hostile spell from Tasmanian tearaway Aaron Summers.
Weerasinghe notes he saw his innings out to its conclusion some half hour later before being taken off for x-rays, the incident ultimately becoming just another anecdote of a Darwin existence that began in 2009. It was a coaching opportunity that took him there, and while those have been many and varied since, it has been the city itself that has enticed him to stay.
"As soon as I came here I saw a massive gap (from Sri Lanka)," he says. "About lifestyle, opportunities, and how free you are here."
He liked the proximity of things in Australia's least-populated capital city, as well as the weather and the laidback sense of living. Elements of it reminded of him of home, while it was foreign enough to feel fresh and exciting. He began playing cricket locally and soon earned a reputation around Darwin for his crafty spin bowling and aggressive batting. Within a couple of years, he was playing with a young dasher named D'Arcy Short for the Northern Territory in the National Country Championships. He was a standout for the Territorians, earning himself a place in the tournament's All-Star XI.
As much as he continued to revel in the playing (he has taken more than 600 wickets in various competitions since landing in Australia), Weerasinghe zeroed in on coaching as his path. Aided by his enthusiasm and gregariousness, he took whatever opportunities came his way through an increasing network of connections in Darwin. In 2015, and with a little help from some friends at the Top End Indoor Sports Centre, he established his own academy, with his goal to produce a local international player. By then, he was married to a Sri Lankan girl, Harshani, whom he had long known from Kalutara, and in the years since, they have had two little girls, three-year-old Akeesa and one-year-old Saveesa. Harshani runs a childcare centre where she can spend time with her own children through the day. All four Weerasinghes are Australian citizens.
"We worked hard for that," he says. "Nothing came on a plate. We had challenges, tough times, but we work well, me and Harshani. We earned respect."
Almost four years on, Weerasinghe is juggling his academy commitments with another coaching role as part of the statewide super pathways program with Northern Territory Cricket. He is also a residential supervisor at St John's Catholic College, where he teaches cricket to high school students, including those coming from remote Indigenous communities. In May, he was one of 21 cricket coaches from around the country invited by Cricket Australia to fulfil his Level III Coaching requirements at the National Cricket Centre in Brisbane. It was a reward, he believes, for his persistence.
"I couldn't get a gig for so long, but I was patient," he says. "It was a waiting game for me. Now where I'm at, all the time I've spent is worth it. I've got to coach the (NT Pathways) Under 17s and Under 19s, and now I've done the Level III (course).
"I'm always thinking, everything happens for a good reason. I never spend time on my frustration. The Buddhist teachings help me, and I talk to my mum a lot – she is good counsel.
"We talk about our lives, and she helps me understand what I'm doing, helps me get past the challenges."
Weerasinghe's coaching opportunities could well expand given the recent evolution of cricket in the Northern Territory. The T20 Strike League in Darwin is attracting elite-level players keen on finding or maintaining form in the Australian off-season; last year David Warner elevated its status considerably, alongside the likes of Bancroft and Bosisto. This weekend, Udara will line up against recovering Test quick Jhye Richardson in the competition, while Hobart Hurricanes will field a side for the next three years as part of a burgeoning relationship with NT Cricket. In coming years, administrators are looking at inviting teams from New Zealand and South-East Asia as they endeavour to make the competition a 'winter Big Bash' type event.
"We've got D'Arcy (Short, and South Australia pair) Jake Weatherald, Tom Andrews," Weerasinghe says of the recent export of talent. "There's been a boom here in the last few years.
"I tell every kid they have great opportunities, with the resources we've got. I tell them what they're exceptional at, what they can do. I want to be that (mentor) to the young kids, especially in Darwin, because it's similar to where I'm from. So I try to educate them, give them as much guidance as I can.
"There is still more structure needed but Neale Price (NT Cricket Head of Pathways) is working on that. The programs are becoming similar to other states now. Once we have worked out the structure, I want to be heavily involved in the coaching – it's what I love to do."
At St John's, Weerasinghe is exposed to a seldom-seen side of Australia via the Indigenous boarding students from speck-on-the-map settlements dotted across the remoteness of Australia's largely unspoiled north. Ironically, and for the first time, Weerasinghe feels his skin colour is an advantage as he looks to educate and gain trust from the students.
"Borroloola, Galiwinku, Kalumburu, Maningrida – most people probably have never heard of these places," he says. "It's a vast area and there are different cultural beliefs, and the relationships I have built are fantastic.
"I've been working more than six years so I have a deep connection now.
"When the kids come the first time to boarding school, they have no idea what's going on. They are still living their way, a lot of them don't have parents, and they haven't learnt any life skills.
"I've found it's about empowering them – listening to them, understanding their situation, giving them the lead and letting them share their stories."
It is exhausting, largely thankless work, and he relishes school holidays as it affords him precious time with his own children. He knows cricket, and cricket coaching, is such a focus that it occupies a greater portion of his life than it probably should. But it is also his passion. He knows too, that Harshani is the foundation around which their family is built, while he has perhaps landed somewhere between his own mother and father as he finds his feet as a parent. He still speaks to his mother on the phone most days, while he, Bancroft and Bosisto have a private Facebook group that keeps them connected.
"That connection with Udara was pretty special," Bancroft says. "We were able to share some pretty cool experiences in a short space of time.
"Every once in a while he'll throw a bit of Buddhist philosophy up (on their Facebook page), and we'll check in with each other and make sure we're going alright. It's nice."
As he continues to toil for his family, Weerasinghe has faith that his dream of working full-time in elite-level coaching is not far away. For him, it is a means of not only fulfilling a passion but earning respect in a country he feels indebted to.
"I want to spend time giving back to the community and Australian cricket," he says. "That's my main thing – I want to contribute as much as I can to this country, because it changed my life."