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From cricket to contract bridge

Ashantha de Mel, former Sri Lankan cricketer who now plays bridge for his country, speaks about his passion for both games.

IMRAN KHAN'S memorable words came to mind during the chat with Ashantha de Mel, the former Sri Lankan fast bowler who was in the city last week as part of the Emerald Isle's bridge team that played a friendship series against Tamil Nadu.

The legendary Pakistan cricketer wrote in his autobiography, "Allround View," — "the problem is that being involved in a professional sport at the highest level is like being in a love affair. You can't get over it until you fall in love again, and that is the key. It is not simply a question of finding another profession, it is about finding another involvement... "

Most professional sportsmen are invariably on the horns of dilemma at the end of their careers with regard as to what to do next. Many continue to be involved with the game in other capacities, for it is obviously tough to stay away from something that has been an integral part of one's life for so long. Some develop other passions. Imran's was the cancer hospital.

De Mel turned to bridge when his injury-filled cricketing career came to a close after the Reliance World Cup 1987. He played in 17 Tests, claiming 59 wickets, and in 57 One-Day Internationals, collecting 59 wickets, apart from being a useful lower-order batsman.

He went on to become a double international, so to say, representing his country at various international bridge competitions since 1993, including the Commonwealth Games. "I was in two minds, really, whether to pursue golf or bridge. I opted for bridge on various counts. As you know, I had damaged my knee pretty badly and that made playing active sport difficult. Then, the time factor. Golf asks for long practice hours at day time, and being in the clothing business it is a touch difficult for me."

But why bridge? "Well, my father has always been a pretty enthusiastic bridge player. In fact, many of my family members play bridge. During my cricketing days, I hardly knew bridge. But now I'm a great follower of the game. You know, bridge hooks you. It's fascinating, stimulating too, and keeps you alert. But it is also time-consuming. My two daughters are eternally complaining that I don't spend enough time with them." De Mel said his best performance internationally was a third place in the Middle East Asia Championship in Jordan in 1995. He sounded thrilled about the renewal of bridge contacts between his country and Tamil Nadu. "We are close culturally. I have fond memories of the annual Gopalan Trophy cricket series. It was fun. The first Test between the two countries was also in Chennai. I got five wickets in the second innings and seven in all in the drawn game."

The topic moved to his cricketing days, and his country's inaugural Test against England at the P. Saravanamuttu Stadium in 1981-82. "But my best moment on the cricket field, by far, is our maiden Test victory, also at the P. Sara, in 1985-86. For at that point, we were not considered finishers. And it was a formidable Indian side that we beat, with the likes of Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, Amarnath and Vengsarkar."

So who is the best batsman you have bowled to? "Viv Richards, beyond doubt. But Gavaskar was the most difficult to dislodge. No two ways about that."

De Mel has served on the interim committee of the Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka, has been a national selector and manager of the under-19 team. He feels Sri Lankan cricket is moving in the right direction. "Professionalism has set in and I think Jayasuriya's boys stand a good chance in the 2003 World Cup, as does India."

Any regrets? "Wish I could have played cricket longer, but then the injuries. Life has been good to me otherwise," he concluded.


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