She came, she saw and she conquered — would be the simplest and fitting definition on how the celebrated netball coach Thilaka Jinadasa shaped up a winning Sri Lanka team in just eight months. But, right up to the pinnacle of winning the 11th Asian Netball Championship in Singapore a fortnight ago, the challenges and [...]


Thilaka’s netball mission


'It was totally a team effort, the girls need more inspiration' - Thilaka Jinadasa

She came, she saw and she conquered — would be the simplest and fitting definition on how the celebrated netball coach Thilaka Jinadasa shaped up a winning Sri Lanka team in just eight months. But, right up to the pinnacle of winning the 11th Asian Netball Championship in Singapore a fortnight ago, the challenges and obstacles were not solely about facing tough opposition and ending up unbeaten in the regional competition itself, according to the former double international athlete.

From the word go of her appointment and until Sri Lanka’s first match against Chinese Taipei, Jinadasa maintained true professionalism as a coach, not letting her players feel a single ounce of weight of what she was carrying on her shoulders.

Those burdens, however, were not related to the sport, but different forms of tug-o-wars among factions of the local netball fraternity targeted on demoralising Jinadasa and her set of young and aspiring players. From her bitter experience of the past as the national netball coach who guided the country’s last Asian title in 2009, Sri Lanka had to wait nine years to regain the title, despite almost reaching there once or twice. On those failed occasions, outside pressure had affected the coaching staffs and played a huge role into the teams’ efforts on the court. Knowing the background, the professional coach in Jinadasa, withstood all storms to prove them all wrong.

“Many were of the view that I simply parachuted, will not be able to deliver, not a good coach because I do not stand under the sun, will fail miserably and so on. If you want to become a good coach you shouldn’t necessarily stand under the sun or coach as many teams as possible, that does not take you anywhere as a coach. A good coach is someone who updates thyself with the changes and techniques of the sport and someone who can manage the players well in all aspects,” Jinadasa, who now has the last laugh, told the Sunday Times.

While the victorious Asian title winning Sri Lanka netball team is being praised and felicitated day in and day out, since their arrival to the country last week, only a handful knew the team’s struggles and woes en route to success. Jinadasa, the primary target of many naysayers, did all what they could, directly and indirectly, to possibly thwart another Asian title for yet another year. But, the former Olympian, who had nothing to prove of her credentials, simply took them and showed off over her shoulders, solely focusing on the players, the team and the Asian title, one of her few objectives.

“There were only two players — Tharjini and Dharshika who are known to me because they were part of the 2009 team. Others were all newcomers. But they all trusted in me and I must thank them for that. I gave them intense training, gym training thrice a week, and Nalaka Hewamadduma gave them mental strength with workshops and various sponsors supported the team the way they could. The players and their family members tolerated setbacks one after another. If you sum it up it’s a hard-earned championship, within a short time and the girls have proved that they deserve to be treated as role models,” Jinadasa added.

On March 15, coincidentally on her birthday, Jinadasa revealed of her refreshed objective to a short term goal of winning the Asian title again and a long term plan to conquer the world. Jinadasa initiated a national squad of 30 players after many trial runs. Initially the players were not in good physical shape but after training hard they have reached an overwhelming level in fitness according to Jinadasa, who claims is fit enough to compete at world stage.

On the day of her appointment, Jinadasa told the local journalists that the Sri Lanka team need at least three exposure series prior to the Asian Championship. As she wished the President of Sri Lanka Netball Federation (SLNF) Trixie Nanayakkara initiated in conducting a competition in Sri Lanka and a couple of pre-competitions against Singapore at home and Malawi, away.

“These were good and solid foundations for the success of our netball team”.

But nothing came on platters for the Sri Lanka netballers and the handful of motivators, who solely aimed on achieving the first objective of winning the Asian title. The tour to Malawi and the six games played there were simply an inspiring beginning for the young and motivated Sri Lankans. However the SLNF officials, Jinadasa and even the players had to utilize their personal contact in raising funds for the tour.

“We faced many obstacles when it came to logistic and monetary aspects. The players did beyond their roles to meet the ends. The Malawi tour was a great challenge in that aspect and a former national player, Iresha and her husband Tharanga, based there, helped us immensely by finding us sponsors and even helping us financially. The Minister of Sports too helped us.”

“We played six games there — two each against clubs, their youth team and the Malawi Queens — we lost them all but by close margins. Malawi Queens are ranked No.6 in the world and even they were surprised thin margins we lost to them. The last time Sri Lanka lost to Malawi was by 15-118. That maturity and experience helped Sri Lanka to play against top teams such as Hong Kong and Malaysia and go unbeaten throughout the Asian competition.”

Jinadasa prefers to term the success purely as a team effort while giving the noteworthy credit to the best netball player of the world, Tharjini Shivalingam, who was too comfortable in her own world above six feet, while others maintained the flow of making sure the ball reaches the six-footer.

“Tharjini stands out for her exceptional height. Of course other players contributed immensely. Tharjini will not be able to shoot if she is not given the ball perfectly. There were players who brilliantly worked out and passed the ball on to her many a time. Tharjini however took the toil and beating from opposition players to stand firm and delivered. I would rather call it a total team work than naming anyone out.”

In Sri Lanka’s first two games, where the winners reached scores of above 100 points, Jinadasa did not field the starting lineup. First game was won entirely with youngsters, but she gave the key players some court time in the second game because Sri Lanka had to play against Singapore in their third game. Winning became a habit for the Lankan lasses who eventually went on to book a berth in the Netball World Championship, which takes place in another eight months in Liverpool, England.

“I made sure to give all players equal responsibility as individuals. I treated them all equally, despite their level of talents. I made sure to give all equal court time and gave them the sense of responsibility. I told them to respect the weakness of others and our strength is our pride. They took everything positively. Presently the Sri Lanka team is a virtual youth side. If we nurture them as professionals, Sri Lanka could go a long way in the world ladder. I think the administration should understand the importance of players, that mentality was not there in the recent years. Now it is changing. If we give the players the due recognition, giving them the impression that they are role models the moment they reach the national team, all will fall in line.”

As hoped Sri Lanka will now play in the world stage and they are drafted in Group ‘A’ against Australia, Zimbabwe and Ireland. Australia is the world’s top ranked netball side, but the coach is confident that if the present trend continues Sri Lanka could give them the best scare and possibly win against Zimbabwe and Ireland. The coach’s ambition is to see Sri Lanka reach among the Top 10 nations of the world. Aiming that Jinadasa is presently putting her time and effort in drafting a plan for the Netball World Championship. But Jinadasa is uncertain of her future as national netball coach as her contract comes to an end on January 15, 2019. She has been given a verbal assurance by the higher authorities of a contract extension, but with what she went through after the Asian Championship triumph in 2009, Jinadasa practically does not rely much on such pledges. She was removed from the coach’s position for the Netball World Championship in 2011, after helping the team qualify in 2009.

“If I get an official extension of my contract, I will reveal my plan. Yet I will start working with the team targeting the World Championship until my last day. If I do not get an extension, I will simply focus on my future. I don’t think I deserve to reapply for the position. Even for my present appointment the former Minister of Sports, Mr. Dayasiri Jayasekara and SLNF President, Trixie Nanayakkara had to face so many obstacles. I wanted a two-year contract, yet I was given a one-year contract. In one year I don’t think there’s nothing much that can be done to develop a team with a long term vision. I took it up because I trusted the SLNF administration, who has been highly supportive throughout. Even the present Minister of Sports is very supportive. It’s not about getting an extension or whatever, my objective is to make people understand the value of the player and the sport. We have given all a hint by winning the Asian title and there’s much more to be done.”

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