Cricket’s Iron Lady-by Rex Clementine

The world is celebrating the election of Kamala Harris, the first female Vice-President of the US. But hey, we Sri Lankans had a woman as our Prime Minister more than half a century ago. Some of our women have been trendsetters and their visionary leadership has been remarkable and exemplary. In cricket circles, you find more and more women taking up leadership roles. Sri Lanka set the trend in appointing a woman to run one of game’s showpiece events when they hosted the World T-20 in 2012. Upeka Abeykoon is her name.

The World T-20 in 2012 is the biggest sporting event the nation has hosted so far. The men’s and women’s events were scheduled simultaneously and hosting 20 international teams is a herculean task. Upali Dharmadasa’s committee met to decide on a Tournament Director. There were other accomplished men in both cricket and corporate sectors like Sidath Wettimuny, Ajit Jayasekara, Nuzki Mohammad and Prakash Schafter to name a few in that committee and they unanimously decided on  Upeka.

Ours is not an effort to say that Upali Dharamdasa was a paragon of virtue. His decision to sack Geoff Marsh took our cricket backwards and cost Sri Lanka Cricket an arm and a leg. He also conspired with a senior player against his own captain. But he needs to be given due credit for making that tough call. Upeka Abeykoon became the first woman to be the Director of a cricket tournament.

The obstacles Upeka had were many. She had only 11 months to prepare for the event. The tournament consisted double headers and hence extra dressing rooms had to be put in place at cricket centers like Pallekele and RPS. In order to cater to 20 teams, umpires, match referees and officials, the organizing arm had to make sure they reserved 800 hotel rooms in both Kandy and Colombo.

Colombo had many options but Kandy was a tough one. Upeka prevailed venturing into nearby Dambulla where you find very good hotel facilities. The idea to airlift match officials and teams to Pallekele from Dambulla was mooted but with the help of police escorts all involved in games were brought to venues in double quick time by road.

To cater to the needs of such a big contingent plus the world’s media and fans, Upeka recruited some 12,000 volunteers. Mostly school leavers, these volunteers became immensely popular among fans and overseas media as they won everyone over with the typical Sri Lankan hospitality.

Another feather in Upeka’s hat was introducing an online ticketing system for the first time in Sri Lanka. The system was not only secure but took away many hassles as well such as waiting in long queues and purchasing tickets in the black market paying through your nose. The black market mafia that frequents RPS was literally wiped out thanks to the online ticketing system and all credit to Upeka.

People often make jokes of Upeka’s height – five feet no inches. But there aren’t many individuals in the cooperate world who are as smart and as diligent as she is. Here’s an example.

Politicians often want hundreds of tickets for cricket games to be given away for kith, kin and supporters. It’s a tricky issue that Sri Lanka Cricket had been afraid to take head on for years. Upeka’s method worked. Politicians were cut to size and fair play prevailed thanks to the online ticketing system. From the Sports Minister to the ordinary cricket fan all were served with the same spoon. Sports media loved Upeka for this. Many men had failed to tackle this issue. But she came off with flying colours in her first assignment itself and for this sports media called her the iron lady for not many people take on politicians and survive.  

Upeka’s theories were interesting. She believed that no one is indispensable, even herself.  She told her team that even if something were to happen to her lead up to the event, the tournament had to finish successfully. The nation put out a spectacular event. The ICC congratulated SLC on a fine show.

Following the success of Upeka in other parts of the world, women were entrusted in running cricket events. Accordingly, Jennifer Nero conducted the T-20 World Cup for women in 2018 in the Caribbean and  Andrea Nelson has been put in charge of Women’s’ World Cup in New Zealand in 2022.

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