Sunday, June 25, 2017

Chamara Dabare: The evolution of a Tusker

Photographs are usually a good way of keeping track of the past. They highlight what was to make it easier for us to ascertain what will be. They induce nostalgia, particularly when they’re hard to find. They also induce humility, a sense of proportion which, if nurtured properly, improves as the years pass. Important, especially with respect to the career, the range of interests, and the hobbies captured in those photographs. Because I found it difficult to obtain some decent shots of Chamara Dabare, I believe I have come to appreciate that point about him.

Chamara is not a photographer, far from it. He’s a rugby player. A Tusker. He played for his school, left the game for a year, and returned to represent his country. His name hasn’t gone by unnoticed. Thankfully, I should think. A friend of his (also of mine) pointed him out to me, which is how I got to talk with him.

His story doesn’t begin with rugby. It begins many, many years before, when he started playing cricket as an Under 11 batsman and wicketkeeper for his school, Royal College. As is usually the case, he had joined the squad because his classmates had. But then, as the years passed, something happened. Some of those classmates abandoned cricket. They abandoned it for another game. Rugby. Unlike cricket, there was something rather cosmetic about it which enflamed Chamara. The jersey.

It had to do with his school. More pertinently, his school colours. To wear the jersey, to represent those colours on the field, was an honour bestowed on a few. “Only those who were in the squad were allowed that honour,” he remembers for me, “That is why those who donned it were considered as heroes, to look up to and to emulate. That is also why I wanted to play, to join the College squad, to give back. So when a friend of mine, Mushin Faleel, asked me to take part at some House Matches, I was only too thrilled. I would have been 14 or 15 at the time, back in 2006.”

He didn’t abandon cricket straight away after that, though. Instead, he continued with it alongside rugby, giving it up eventually as an Under 17 player. And not for nothing: for every schoolboy in the rugby squad at Royal, the biggest opportunity to flaunt his colours was the Bradby Shield. Chamara got his turn in 2009, when as a left-winger (his usual position, barring a short stint as a full-back) he contended for his team and managed to clinch the Shield from their rival, Trinity College. He played the following year as well, when they retained it.

There’s something about playing for your school that’s hard to emulate, harder to improve on elsewhere. It’s never easy to get that down in one sketch, but I try my luck by asking Chamara to describe what those years meant to him.

“It was thanks to my school that rugby became an overriding passion. I remember my cricket coach, Nalliah Devarajan, excusing me whenever I needed to practice at rugby. He was an avid enthusiast of the game, so he would have known I’d eventually join the squad. In 2009, my first real year in the squad, we became the Singer League Champions. Coupled with our scores at Bradby, I can’t think of a more exhilarating time in my life. Royal College meant so much because it gave me so much. The best way, in fact the only way, I could give back was through the squad. That I did give back enlivens me. It’s not easy to put all that in words, to be honest.”

Given how passionate he was about it, moreover, he didn’t do anything else at school. He wound up as a coloursman in 2010, when he was awarded the most prestigious accolade a Royalist can get, the Royal Crown. “That same year I left or rather tried to leave rugby because I had to focus on my studies. I offered Commerce for my A Levels. Try as I could, though, I couldn’t simply ‘exit’ it: in August, I had to tour Hong Kong in the Under 20 National Squad. We defeated South Korea for, I believe, the first time in the squad’s history. That was my first time overseas, moreover.”

He got the break he’d clamoured for the following year, the same year he wound up as a Prefect. But then, as with his previous attempt, that break wouldn’t last. Before the year was up, he would be called to join the CR & FC. “I played, but since I was out of school, I needed a job. So I started working at John Keells. I found it difficult to continue with the game thereafter. Eventually I shifted to the Carlton Super Sevens, where I came to be noticed by Asanga Seneviratne. He invited me to join Havelocks. By August that year, I made up my mind. I took up his offer.”

Chamara’s first match for Havelock was against the Police Club. They won it 47 to 12. He subsequently got around defeating CR & FC, before “graduating” to the Asian Five Nations Tournament. This was in 2013, when Sri Lanka hosted the Division I tournament and won the Championship. “What I remember the most about it was that I was there with so many players I’d looked up to while at school, including the inimitable Fazil Marija.” They hadn’t emulated their winning streak the following year, however, a fact that speaks volumes about the consistency or lack thereof of rugby in Sri Lanka. But that’s for another article.

Meanwhile, his professional life changed. He left John Keells and went to Dialog, where he was hired to play on a contract basis. “Once you represent a company, you can join it in whatever capacity, whether as an accountant or as a sales representative, and continue with your career on the field. The problem for me was that I was practising every morning and every evening. I couldn’t work in between. Naturally, I had to play with everything I had. I had to devote every minute I was awake to it. I suppose I got to learn about it, more than I had elsewhere, owing to that.”

That probably explains how he ended up playing at both the Sri Lanka 7’s and the First XV. “The First XV is more strenuous, since it involves a greater number of players across the field. I played for the 7’s only once, in 2012. I didn’t get a chance to play again thereafter. I suppose that has in some strange way been for the better, since the First XV taught me a lot about speed, concentration, and retaining form, points which a winger needs to imbibe if he is to perform well.” The fact that he realised the importance of those points, he highlights for me, as a great deal to do with his trainers, starting with his College coach, Bilal Yusuf, right down to Tavita Tugalese, or Laga to most, at Havelock. “They helped open my eyes, to be honest.”

One never gets the full sketch of a player, whether in one profile or a series. Chamara has seen the light of day. His ascent hasn’t been free from those slights which jolt such players, but despite them all, he hasn’t forgotten his base, his background. That is where I end my little piece.

“There’s a sense of professionalism you must capture within yourself when you represent your country. I personally believe there are bigger and better opportunities for aspiring rugby players once they pass out from school. They are paid more, they get better coaches, and the organisations they are affiliated to help them. I know I wouldn’t have been here if it wasn’t for my school, my friends, and my coaches. They believed in me. So much so that every time I look back, think of those days we spent playing for College, I can only say that I learnt to give my best and work for whatever organisation I got to represent later on.”

It wasn’t easy, searching for Chamara’s old photographs. They evaded me and made my task more difficult, in other words. So difficult, in fact, that I could only imagine his evolution as a Tusker. An evolution which leaves me awed, intrigued, and by all accounts, impressed. Because I don’t have anything more to write, I will stop here.

Written for: The Island YOUth, June 25 2017