Rugby’s loss is baseball’s gain | Daily News
Sri Lanka rugby great Priyantha Ekanayake outlines his vision and passion for a new sport:

Rugby’s loss is baseball’s gain

Priyantha Ekanayake displaying his all-round skills as CEO of the Sri Lanka Amateur Baseball/Softball Association.
Priyantha Ekanayake displaying his all-round skills as CEO of the Sri Lanka Amateur Baseball/Softball Association.

Baseball is poised to set sail to the next stratosphere in Sri Lanka thanks to the dynamic leadership of a former rugby great Priyantha Ekanayake.

A genuine all-round sportsman during his playing days having started as a cricketer for his school St. Anthony’s College, Katugastota before reaching for the stars in basketball, he attained the zenith of his career in rugby.

One of the greatest to wear the No. 8 jersey for Sri Lanka, his outstanding leadership qualities saw him lead the country for many years and also head the national rugby body and Asia Rugby as well. A man with a vision and passion for sport was forced to cut short his stint as chief executive officer (CEO) of Sri Lanka Rugby (SLR) but it has come as a blessing in disguise for the fledgling sport of baseball in the country.

“I was the CEO of Sri Lanka Rugby from January 2017 for one and a half years. I was mainly involved in the development, marketing and supporting the High-Performance project. Asanga (Seneviratne) brought me into Sri Lanka Rugby but when he went, they stopped the development basically and also got rid of the national coaches after we had put a structure in place. For me, development was the key. I even quit my job and came to SLR to develop the sport in this country,” related Ekanayake, who also serves in the National Sports Council, when asked why he turned his back on rugby.

“I was asked by the president of the baseball association Fazil Hussain last year whether I could support the sport. So then I thought I will take a chance.

“I paid for the ticket on my own and went to the US and Canada where I met some of the clubs and charity organizations and did a lot of groundwork,” he said before agreeing to become CEO of the Sri Lanka Amateur Baseball/Softball Association (SLABSA).

“I realized there is a huge potential. We can get a lot of money and a lot of support from the US. But I did not want to get anything from them until I put the house in order here because when you bring money, it will be the end of the story. If the money comes without systems, that’s where the problem is,” said Ekanayake alluding to the fact that cricket has got politicized and rugby has become partly politicized.


“When they brought me in, obviously they were looking at bringing in money into the system and giving them some kind of a direction. I was amazed to know we had 31 baseball playing clubs in the country and 22 schools playing including Royal and some of the top schools,” he said explaining the association’s plans.

“Our vision is to take this sport to all 98 educational zones in the country. Basically to ensure we go to all 25 districts so that we can have zonal tournaments, district tournaments and then the provincial tournaments. Our biggest obstacle is the grounds and also the cost of equipment,” he said pointing out that a bat can cost about 30,000 to 45,000 rupees.


Ekanayake has ambitious plans to raise the profile of baseball from being an amateur sport to be professional in outlook. It has been well documented that baseball was first brought to Sri Lanka in the mid-80s when former minister Festus Perera was instrumental in introducing the game with the help of Lee Ann Ross, a dynamic lady attached to the American embassy.

“Over the years it has remained an amateur sport. We have to give the game a profile. That’s one of the reasons we are trying to host an international tournament for the first time. That will give us the momentum,” said Ekanayake who feels the biggest issue was equipment and grounds.

“We have an international venue in Diyagama where the Japan-Sri Lanka friendship ground was built at a cost of Rs.30 million,” said Ekanayake.


He was positive about engaging the Sri Lankan Tamil community in Canada to propagate the sport in the north and east where the Toronto Blue Jays have a huge following. “There are about 350,000 Tamil expats in Toronto. We will try to convince at least 50,000 to become members of Blue Jays and seek their help to develop the sport in Jaffna and Kilinochchi,” he said.

Sri Lanka has made rapid progress in baseball since staging the first national tournament in 1995, being ranked 40th in the world, seventh in Asia and No.1 in West Asia.

It has soared in popularity in Sri Lanka in just over three decades.

“The under-15 national tournament was won by Galewala MV, runner up was Wevalaweva MV and third was a team from Matale. It has gone to the grass root level. Also, Trinity who were playing, are going to start again. There was a time 31 schools were playing, now 22 are actively playing,” he said.

“You will be amazed last year we had an under 12 national team that went on tour, under 15 went to Japan, under 18 team also went on a tour and Sri Lanka made its baseball debut at the Asian Games as well,” he said.


Ekanayake felt it was easy to promote baseball because it was a great spectator sport and somewhat similar to cricket.

“Here we are throwing at 80 to 100 miles an hour. There is hitting and bases are there. It is more like cricket because you need hand-eye coordination but the technique is a little bit different. So it is an interesting sport. Every spectator is like trying to think ahead. It’s always a thinking game, so you are one step ahead,” he explained.

Ekanayake said the need to build an academy was one of their top priorities.

“I think what we lack is a proper academy. We are talking to the Japanese government, various other agencies and the sports ministry in this regard. We need to build a stadium with all the facilities. Then we can invite Japan who doesn’t play baseball for four months during the winter, to come and play here,” he said.


Ekanayake aims to catch players young and bring them through the system to achieve high-performance levels.

“What we want is to have five different levels of national teams from under 12 to the national team. Even if they don’t tour, we can give them colours and bring them to NISS (National Institute of Sports Science) and teach them about etiquette, social skills, injury management, etc. We want to teach them at that level so that we bring good players through a system,” he said.

Their ultimate objective is to increase the player-base within five years.

“Our target is to get 20,000 baseball players by 2025. We need to have about 500 coaches to do that,” he declared.

It is not a tall order for someone who strode like a colossus during his heyday as an athlete.

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