‘That b … Warnaweera, knows whom to keep happy.’ – Anura Tennekoon
The iconic Galle Cricket Stadium could have been knocked out of the cricketing radar a few years ago but for the timely intervention by the venue’s caretaker Jayananda Warnaweera, who prevented it from cricketing isolation. Local officials were objecting to the new stand that was put up at the venue in 2010 as it was blocking the view of the Galle Fort, a World Heritage Site declared by UNESCO. The local bureaucrats declared the new stand illegal and they wouldn’t grant permission for holding international matches at the venue unless the stand was put down.
Warnaweera is a practical man. Overnight, he ensured a name board was put to the new stand. It was named after the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The problem was solved and no official came to find fault with the constructions of the Galle Stadium thereafter.
The Galle Stadium is a marvel no doubt. But it was Warnaweera who ensured that the venue was upgraded to meet international standards. The surroundings were beautified and spacious facilities for all stake holders, players, umpires, media and fans were put up at the venue so much so visiting teams looked forward to playing a Test match in Galle although most visiting teams struggled to compete here.
Warnaweera isn’t academically qualified, but is pragmatic. He would pick brains of company CEOs and ordinary folks alike on how he could raise the image of the Galle Stadium along with other leading cricket grounds in the world.
AFP Photographer, Ishara Kodikara, once, gifted some pictures of the Galle Stadium to be displayed in Warnaweera’s office room. Ishara had remarked, in passing that the buses that had been parked along the Galle Fort were ruining the beauty of the ground. Warnaweera soon got the point. He called up the DIG of the Galle District, demanding immediate action. To this date, when a Test match is played in Galle, parking is not allowed along the Galle Fort. Galle is now in the same league as Newlands in Cape Town and Queenstown in New Zealand where its natural beauty is concerned.
Just a common man, how would Warnaweera get things done with just one phone call to the DIG of the area? Hospitality is Warnaweera’s secret. When VVIPs enter his cricketing kingdom, he ensures that they are taken care of like royalty. In return, Warnaweera can get anything done by them with just one phone call.
In 2011, Sri Lanka were playing Essex in Chelmsford in a warm-up game. There were five Sri Lankan journalists covering the game. Team Manager Anura Tennekoon walked up to the press box to chat to the journos. Chelmsford is a half-an-hour drive from London. For a non-international cricket ground, its facilities are impressive. Tennekoon asked the journos what the best press box in the world was. Without any hesitation all five declared that it Galle. The team manager was a bit surprised. Among the journos were guys who had covered cricket at Lord’s, MCG, Wankhede, Gaddafi Stadium, Wanderers and Eden Gardens. ‘Why do you think it is Galle? What’s so special about the place?’ he asked. Then the journos explained that the Galle Stadium provided easy access from the road to the press box, impressive work space, and state of the art facilities. It was also the only ground in the world where the players came to the media for the press conferences. Everywhere else, media have to rush to where the players are. Having listened to them attentively, Tennekoon said, ‘That b …, Warnaweera, knows whom to keep happy.’
Apart from its steady rise as one of the leading cricket venues in the world, Galle and in particular Warnaweera was the kingmaker of Sri Lankan cricket. More than one President of SLC cut his teeth as President of the Galle Cricket Club before going onto taking up bigger responsibilities of heading the board. Some of the individuals were ineligible to stand for cricket elections as they had not played First Class cricket. But that is why they had turned up to Warnaweera – to make the impossible possible.
Warnaweera is a hard worker and meticulous planner. He also had the charisma while canvassing for cricket elections to convince voters which side they should vote for. Literally, it was essential for someone who wants to be at top of Sri Lanka Cricket to get the blessings and backing of Warnaweera. An off-spinner who represented Sri Lanka with moderate success, Warnaweera had bigger impact as an administrator.
He is a real charmer too. Once, a group of foreign journalists walked up to his office at the Galle Stadium on the first day of the match to express their displeasure at the state of the wicket. When the journalists entered his office, Warnaweera knew what was coming. So he greeted them, opened the cupboard, took out a bottle of Chivas Regal, kept it on the table and told them, ‘help yourself’. This was at 10 o’clock in the morning.
There have been allegations against Warnaweera, whose ostentatious lifestyle caused suspicion. In 2013, he was asked to appear before the ICC Anti- Corruption Unit as part of the ongoing investigation into corruption in cricket. He didn’t turn up for the meeting. The ICC suspended him for non-cooperation.
With Warnaweera gone, cricket in Galle took a turn for the worse. The Galle Cricket Club has faced many hardships over the years and soon will be forced into the cricketing wilderness.
SLC has held back payments due to the Galle CC to the tune of Rs. 12 million, accusing the club of not following procedures in electing office bearers. As a result, the club is unable to pay players and coaches and it is beginning to lose its aura. The club also has lost control of the ground these days. SLC has control over the ground and Galle CC has been denied an opportunity to train at their own facility.
Those running the Galle CC believe that there’s a witch hunt against them. During the last SLC AGM, they didn’t vote for those holding office at present, and as a result have to face the consequences. That is not the way to govern the game, though. Depriving funds to a leading cricket institution will eventually affect everyone who plays the game in the vicinity. Players from other southern towns such as Ambalangoda, Matara and Tangalle players come to represent the Galle CC to achieve their cricketing ambitions once they are done with school.
It’s time administrators set aside petty differences and developed the game. Apart from Colombo, Galle has produced the most number of Sri Lankan cricketers. It should not be allowed to disappear into cricketing wilderness.