Item in THE ISLAND
No foreign cricketer is likely to ever capture the hearts of Sri Lankans quite like Shane Warne did. Yet, of all the heartfelt tributes paid to the spin great on the island he had helped to rebuild from its worst ever natural disaster, the late spin great might have been most touched by a quiet moment in the small village of Seenigama this week. Back in the early 2005 at the urging of Muttiah Muralitharan, Warne had visited the seaside community on Sri Lanka’s south coast, one of many that had been flattened by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.
Among the most memorable vision captured by a 60 Minutes film crew during his visit was four-year-old Dilini Wasana kissing Warne on the cheek as he handed out food and toys. On Monday, four months after the sudden death of the Victorian, Dilini was in the same spot where she had met Warne seventeen years ago.
This time she greeted his brother Jason, who was visiting the Foundation of Goodness; the embodiment of Shane’s contribution to the country. “It’s been pretty emotional,” said Jason Warne, standing on a small cricket ground the Foundation built in the aftermath of the tsunami.
“We’re here because of what Shane did in 2004. It’s been great to come over here and get a sense of why he wanted to do it. (From) the footage that came out of Shane’s visit, there was one little girl (Dilini) who gave him a kiss on the cheek, you could see she was so happy.”
“She was saying she would love to be able to say thank you one more time. To go there today and see her, was pretty special.”
The spin legend’s visit back in 2005 to Sri Lanka shone a light on the destruction to lives, homes and the Galle cricket ground where Warne had taken his 500th Test wicket less than a year earlier. It prompted a wave of donations from Australia and his continued efforts in the ensuing years have not been forgotten.
Kushil Gunasekera, the long-time manager of Murali who runs the Foundation of Goodness, has used the proceeds to build community facilities across ten sites in rural Sri Lanka. One of the graduates of the Foundation’s educational programs was Ramesh Mendis, born in nearby Ambalangoda and whose off-spin saw him take four wickets against Australia in last week’s first Test.
“He was the first one to come,” Gunasekera said of Shane on Monday, as he gave Jason and his wife Shay a two-hour tour of school, health, dental and sporting facilities in Seenigama.
“What Shane did when he came with 60 minutes, and because of the way he presented the case, it went all around Australia. And as a result Master Builders came, the Victorian Government came, and we were able to get help from so many people.”
Since his brother’s passing, Jason Warne has heard countless stories, tributes and messages of gratitude from around the world about the leg-spinner’s impact on other’s lives.
For the first Test in Galle, the ground the late Warne had helped raise $1 million for, posters with his and Murali’s faces were stationed around the ground while seven members of Sri Lanka’s 1996 World Cup winning team were on hand for a commemorative plate presentation before play.
“It was hard not to notice the Warnie portraits up all around the ground,” said Mitchell Swepson, one of the few leg-spinners to play Test cricket for Australia since Warne. “All the work he did for the Sri Lankan tsunami fund, he’s had a massive impact on this country with his cricket and off the field as well. It was great to see them pay tribute and see how much they respect the man
“I’m in no way shape or form trying to be Shane Warne, he is the best we’ve ever had … but when people ask me what I do, I tell them I bowl leg spin it’s ‘Oh, like Warnie”.
“That’s just the mark he left on the game, he’s a legend.”
Some tributes have even surprised Jason Warne, most notably the announcement from the United Nations at the MCG memorial service that a wildlife conservation grant would be named in the late cricketer’s honour. “It’s sometimes hard to get your head around that my brother, who I used to just go up to the nets with and have a bit of fun, has left such a legacy,” said Warne.
Scenes illustrating the damage wrought by the tsunami