Among Sri Lanka’s squad of 12 at the Vitality Netball World Cup is a very special individual. You know those made for TV basketball movies? The ones where there are just seconds left on the clock and the good guys are just a point behind? You know the only way they’re going to win if they get the ball to the protagonist of the movie. Well, that’s how it is for all 60 minutes of a game when Tharjini Sivalingam is on court.
July 2011, Team Sri Lanka return to Colombo all smiles. Ranked 18th in the World, they’ve managed to scrape their way to 14th place at the 13th edition of the Netball World Cup. Adding to this, their shooter Tharjini Sivalingam has put Sri Lanka on the map, finishing the championships with the best shooting percentage overall – that’s right, she had a better success rate with shots at goal than every other player in the competition. Sri Lanka have also competed well throughout the tournament, losing only one game with a margin of more than 10 goals – that too against eventual Champions Australia. All is well.
August 2012, the Sugathadasa Stadium in Colombo is packed. Fans stream-in in numbers, to watch Sri Lanka lift the Asian Netball Championship trophy. They cheer every goal that swishes through, a majority of them coming from the hands of their Captain Tharjini Sivalingam, that girl from Jaffna. It is a significant moment, yet it isn’t, it’s never really been about race with Tharjini. The game goes down to the wire but ultimately, heartbreakingly, it is Singapore that finish ahead – 48-47. For Tharjini, it is a wound that festers – Captaining a team to the Asian Championship final at home and then losing by a single goal.
April 2015, primary selection trials for the Netball World Cup are being held at the Sports Ministry Grounds in Colombo and there’s one conspicuous absentee. Tharjini Sivalingam, Sri Lanka’s tallest player, Netball’s tallest player, is nowhere to be seen. Over the next couple of months, as the Netball Federation of Sri Lanka continue to prune the squad down to the final 12 who will take flight to Sydney, it becomes apparent that the poster-girl for Sri Lanka Netball is in fact not going to show up.
The Netball Federation of Sri Lanka (NFSL) …..
The SLNF is shaky at the best of times, but in the months leading up to the 2015 edition of the Netball World Cup, they are in shambles. The administration decide not to consider a few senior players for the World Cup squad, as they have not attended the trials held prior to the tournament. But that list includes 2 of their most experienced players – Sivalingam and the woman she had played much of her Netball alongside – Shashika Samarasinghe. Add to this, a head coach is appointed only after the squad is short-listed to 15 players and then, the Head Coach’s daughter is appointed skipper of the team.
Rumors suggest that the senior players are irked at being left out of a World Cup for which they had worked towards qualifying, having finished within the top 2 at the Asian Netball Championships in 2014. The players themselves are tight-lipped about the details but for all intents and purposes, Sivalingam’s career is done, her last international being the final of the 2014 Asian Championships, which Sri Lanka lost 41 -59 to Singapore.
December 2017, the Asian Championships are a few months away and once again Sri Lanka are on the hunt for a new Head Coach, after a disastrous couple of years that have seen the Lionesses fall behind Malaysia and Singapore in the world rankings. Thilaka Jinadasa is roped in and this is when the tides begin to turn.
Jinadasa is a double international who has represented Sri Lanka in both Athletics and Netball. She has some history with Sri Lanka Netball, having coached the side to an Asian Championship in 2009, being in the foreground of Sri Lanka netball and then subsequently been left hanging.
The Sri Lanka Netball Team is in preparation ……
She knows she has her work cut out, she’s got a group of women who not only have had very little netball under their belts for a national team, but are jaded by the lack of resources and disappointing results. As with many Sri Lankan sports, there is no dearth in talent, but Sri Lanka are missing something, that little bit of magic.
May 2018, there’s a familiar figure walking onto court in the opening game of the International Invitational Quadrangular Netball Championship in Colombo. She stands nearly a foot taller than everyone else on court. Tharjini – Genie, is back. Fittingly, her return is against familiar foes, Singapore. The first pass to her in the game, a lob from Thilini Wattegedara, sails over her head. You see, the Sri Lankan mid-court isn’t quite accustomed to getting in the perfectly weighted lob pass over the defenders into the hands of Sivalingam. They would have to fix that. Jinadasa would see to it, she’d got in Sri Lanka’s greatest ever Netballer, all she needs now is a little bit of magic.
The relationship between Thilaka Jinadasa and Tharjini Sivalingam is special. When Sivalingam made the decision to move to Colombo as a university student to further her Netball career, it was Jinadasa who mentored her at Seylan Bank. It was Jinadasa who coached Sivalingam to her first Asian Championship title and it was Jinadasa who helped her snag a contract to play club Netball in Australia after she more or less brought an end to her career with Sri Lanka. Now quite fittingly, it is Jinadasa who drags her back from exile like only she could.
Sri Lanka win the tournament, barely; 72-70. The runners-up, Singapore finish with the silver but aren’t too disappointed – with a few months to go for the Asian Championship, they have valuable insight on Sri Lanka’s plans and they’ve gotten the youngsters on their team some game time against one of their key competitors.
September 2018, A Sky Full of Stars by Coldplay is playing as confetti rains down on the Sri Lankans and Chathurangi Jayasooriya lifts the Asian Championship trophy up in the air, for the first time in 9 years. At the back of Sri Lanka’s huddle there is that unmistakable figure, the tallest player in the Netballing Universe, Sri Lanka’s 1st real Netballing superstar. Sri Lanka are more than Tharjini Sivalingam, but every time they have possession, they seek her, they find her, and she delivers!
After winning the Asian Championships in 2018……
Singapore got close 4 months ago, but they are blown away by Sri Lanka in the final that mattered. Momentum appeared to have swung the way of the hosts at 20-18 with 12 minutes left in the first half when goal-shooter Lee Pei Shan had the opportunity to put Singapore up by three after an intercept on the other end. But she misses, and Sri Lanka regroup to score seven unanswered goals to take a 26-21 half-time lead, a lead they never relinquish.
July 2019, Team Sri Lanka is in Liverpool, they have prepared as well as they could have, now the time has come for bearing the fruit of that preparation. Ranked 18th in the world, realistically, Sri Lanka have no chance of winning the World Cup – instead, they focus on making it to the top 10 at the tournament. To do that, they have to beat Zimbabwe and then Northern Ireland, both ranked significantly higher than the Islanders at 13th and 8th respectively.
Tharjini Sivalingam’s nickname ‘Genie’ has little to do with magic lamps, but Sri Lanka will need some magic if they are to achieve what they’ve set out to do in Liverpool, they’ll need all 6 feet 10 inches of it!