GAYANJALI, ‘KANDY LAMISSI’ WHO LED SL TO THE 2022 ASIAN NETBALL TITLE

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The island nation has been economically and politically unstable for a couple of months now, with the general public having to undergo great hardship. We hardly saw smiles on the faces of the people, but on Sunday, 11 September, the netball and the cricket teams made it a memorable day for the country. The netballers won the Asian Netball Championship in the evening, while the cricketers won the Asia Cup in the night.

The girls claimed their 6th Asian Championship Trophy while the boys claimed their 6th Asian Cup. It was indeed a happy day for the sports fraternity of the country since the Sri Lanka Legends cricket team also won against the Australian Legends team. The islanders were dancing in the aisles momentarily forgetting all their sorrows and problems for an hour or two. This is what sports can do: it not only unites people, but also acts as a source of happiness.

The 12th edition of the Asian Netball championship was held from 3 to 11 September in Singapore. Sri Lanka were the defending champs and slotted in group ‘A’ with India and Philippines. They first took on giant neighbour India on the 3rd, and cut them down to size with a stunning 102–14 victory. Two days later, Philippines faced the same fate as the Lankan girls thrashed them 99-37, but were unfortunate to miss the century by a point.

The first game of the 2nd round turned out to be a thriller. The Malaysian girls with their never-say-die attitude, fought till the last second, but agonisingly fell short by 2 points as the Lankans won 55-53. The impressive Lankan ladies then won over Singapore (67-49) and Hong Kong (62-51).

The ladies faced Hong Kong once again in the semi-finals on the 10th and romped home 67-43 to book their spot in the final. In the other semi, Singapore beat Malaysia 54-41. In the final on the 11th, Sri Lanka once again prevailed over Singapore 63-53 to be crowned Asian Netball champs. 

A grand felicitation was organised to welcome the champions (netball and cricket) with crowds lining up along the roads with the National flag from the Airport to Torrington to cheer them on.

The ladies were led by an inspirational leader, Gayanjali Amarawansha, who initially missed getting into the junior team, but with hard work and dedication, made sure the same year she found a place in the senior team.

Born on 20 December 1995 in Katugastota, Kandy, she is the 2nd child of Kamani and Heckshan. Gayanjali was lucky to have an elder sister to shower her with unconditional love and warmth, and was instrumental in influencing Gayanjali to take up netball.

The two sisters attended two of the best schools in the hill country – Hillwood and Girls High School. Gaya opted for Girls High School while sister Heshani became a Hillwoodian. As a kid, Gaya first showed interest in athletics, but when her mother took her to watch her sister play netball, it was love at first sight occurred. Yes, that happened with Gayanjali, and the kid decided that it is netball that can take her places.

In 2003, when she was in Grade three, while engaging in athletics and basketball she also decided to take up netball. She participated at John Tarbat athletic meets and also basketball tournaments, but never distanced herself from netball.

From Under-12 to 18, she participated in Sri Lanka Schools Milo netball championship. In the under-14 age category in 2008, Girls High School was 2nd, and in 2012 they won 3rd place in the under-18 category. In both age categories Gaya was a major force. This was evident when she was adjudged best player of the tournament in 2008.

Her leadership qualities were identified at young age, and she was made the Vice-Captain of the Sri Lanka Schools team that travelled to Australia in 2012.

“I was fortunate that I was able to represent the national netball team without representing the junior team. In 2013 I attended selections for the junior team, but unfortunately, I could not participate in the final selections because I was down with dengue. I missed travelling to Brunei with the team to take part in the 2013 Youth Asian Netball Championship. The same year (in December) the Nation Cup was held. This was a senior championship and I was privileged to make my debut at this championship.” Gayanjali remembered the good old memories of how she first got into the national team.

Thereafter, there was no stopping of this dedicated and courageous lady. Getting into the national team at the age of 18, she participated in almost all the tournaments held. After she bid farewell to school, she was selected to the Sri Lanka 2015 World Cup pool, and the same year she found employment at the HNB bank. To date she is employed there and plays for the HNB team. She was selected to participate in the 2015 World Cup. She then travelled to Hong Kong to play in the 2015 Youth Asian Championship and the team emerged champions. In 2016 she took part in the Asian Cup where we became the runner-up. She was also a member of the 2018 Asian Championship team who became champions and then took part in the 2019 World Cup before captaining the ladies to victory in the 2022 Asia Cup. She was making her debut as a captain and the girl delivered the goods.

When she got selected to the national team, attending practices in Colombo from Kandy was a challenge. The teenager was in the national pool from 2013 and this was her last year at school, with her A/L exams round the corner. Gaya was the only schoolgirl in the national team at that time.

The national netball team pool was provided with accommodation in the sports hostel during the latter stages of training. She had no option other than to sacrifice her school work. The true definition of friendship was proved when one of her friends Bhashni Yoshtha decided to provide accommodation to her friend at her house and Bhashni’s parents took care of Gayanjali as their own.

Bhashni is also a netball player who was in the 2022 squad under the captaincy of her friend Gayanjali. When Gayanjali missed participating in the junior Asian championship in 2013 due to dengue, Bhashni was in the junior team. Though Gayanjali missed the 2013 junior tour she got the opportunity to get into the national team the same year, while Bhashni had to wait till 2022 to wear the national jersey.

“Sports helped me a lot to become who I am today. Our school became a place where personalities were built. The teachers and everyone around us helped to balance our sports and studies. I believe that it’s sports that can build a personality, because we always go forward with the game and it teaches us a lot of lessons in life which will stick with us forever. Sports teach us the joy of victory and the sorrow of a loss. It helped me to get to know people, associate with them and understand who they are, and how we should associate and behave with different types of people. Without a doubt, sports make you a complete human.” Gayanjali spoke about how sports helped build her personality.

Gayanjali was able to balance her sports and studies. Since she was in the national pool a year before her Advanced Levels she did miss a lot of schooling and preparing for the exams, but her friends helped her a lot, wrote notes for her and supported her the best they could. Gayanjali was also a house captain.

Gayanjali did not forget to thank her parents for giving her the much-needed freedom. “My parents never pressured me. When my marks went down my mother never made my engagement in sports a reason for it. She never told me to stop playing netball and concentrate on studies, I received their backing, motivation and they always gave me confidence. My advice to kids is to always be dedicated and be true to yourself. How hard your training is, never cheat, always listen to your coaches and do what they tell you. If you try to cheat while practising you will be cheating yourself. There are no shortcuts to success, only hard work, dedication, sacrifices and being true to yourself will take you to your ultimate goals. Always be disciplined and understand what your priority is. Parents, you should never pressurise your kid; allow them to do what they love and provide them with the much-needed support and backing.” This was Gaya’s advice to kids and parents.

During different stages in her life, Gayanjali had been a different role model. First, she looked up to her sister, but then when their playing positions and roles changed, Gayanjali decided she should look up to someone who plays in her position, attacking well. Few of her senior school mates became her role model, and later while playing at international level, she opted to make New Zealand legendary player Laura Langman as her role model.

Gaya, the 27-year-old dedicated netballer, is employed at HNB Borella branch. She is grateful to all staff members, parents, sister, teachers, friends and everyone else who have helped her to reach this level. She did not also forget to thank Sri Lanka Cricket for deciding to provide each player with Rs 2 million, and also the Sri Lankans living in Singapore for supporting them and motivating them.

By Vimukthi Adithya