It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when and where Ruwantha Kellapotha’s unexpected rise to a Melbourne Renegades contract began.
Was it back-to-back player of the match performances for the Renegades Academy? Was it a barnstorming debut season in Premier cricket? Was it years of dominance at local level? Or can it be traced back to his time in Sri Lanka?
It’s likely that this rise was the product of no particular defining moment or game, but rather the culmination of a lifetime of hardwork and dedication to the cause of becoming a professional cricketer. To suggest otherwise would be somewhat insulting to the immensely driven Kellapotha.
But when the Melbourne Renegades unveiled an overseas replacement player - note overseas replacement - that only made his Premier cricket debut last season, and spent the eight seasons prior playing local cricket in Melbourne’s south-east, the question leaving many people’s lips was: who?
So who is the softly spoken and deceptive leggy that traded the navy blue of Berwick for the red and black of the Melbourne Renegades in less than two years?
To understand how it was all possible, we need to revisit the summer of 2009/10, at St. Thomas’ College, Matale, in central Sri Lanka, where Kellapotha was captaining his school side.
It was over these few months that the then 18-year-old established himself as a prodigious talent, taking 108 wickets over 14 games and becoming just the second player that season to reach the 100-wicket milestone in Sri Lanka’s Under-19 schoolboy comp.
The streak included 11 five-wicket hauls and a match-haul of ten wickets on three occasions, while he also piled on 779 runs. It was no fluke, with Kellapotha having claimed 87 scalps the year prior, and represented his college’s under-19 side for six consecutive years.
A 2010 article from Sri Lanka’s Sunday Observer boldly declared Kellapotha “is bound to go for national honours in the future.”
The prospect certainly wasn’t far-fetched, for Kellapotha didn’t slow upon entry into Sri Lanka’s first-class system.
Over his two years playing for Moors Sports Club and Police Sports Club he picked up 72 wickets, including three 5-fa’s, and tallied a batting average of 38.56, which included an unbeaten century.
But with a prosperous first-class career ahead of him, and his desire to play for Sri Lanka still burning strong, what brought Kellapotha to Australia?
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He describes two factors: the pursuit of financial stability, and simply that he enjoyed his time here.
“My under 23’s coach played [for] Springvale South, and after that he got a job with Sri Lankan Cricket… so I came to Springvale South just for a half season in December. After that I wanted to come [to Australia]... I enjoyed that season,” Kellapotha tells The Sporting Landscape.
“Before that I had a really good season in Sri Lanka… I wanted to try play [for] Sri Lanka, but I’m not financially stable at that time, so I got that decision because I want to be financially stable and it’s very hard to do that in Sri Lanka and play cricket, because there’s not much pay for cricket.
“It’s a tough decision… everything’s a bit hard. It’s a different culture, different conditions, I have to move with a different bunch of people.”
But Kellapotha would persevere, spending eight years in the Dandenong District Cricket Association, playing two seasons with each of Springvale South, Keysborough, St Mary’s and Berwick.
Kellapotha sends one down for St Mary's. Image: Dandenong Star Journal
“I really enjoyed my cricket [in the DDCA]. It’s one of the leading competitions in Victoria and that eight years I learnt a lot… and very competitive cricket at that time,” he says.
“I was playing hard every time, because if I had to go back to Sri Lanka I wanted to play that [first-class] standard. So that’s the main thing, I perform well every year.”
And perform well he did, his dominance reaching its crescendo in season 2020/21, with Kellapotha taking home the Wookey Medal for the competition’s best player with a record 45 votes off the back of a 353-run and 34-wicket season.
Deciding the time was right to make the switch to Premier cricket, he would take to the competition like a duck - or Swan - to water.
But having endured such success at local level, one might ponder why Kellapotha didn’t make the move sooner?
“I’m not financially well at that time, that’s why I couldn’t go [to Premier cricket] earlier,” he says.
It was ultimately Kellapotha’s wife, Anjalie, that pushed him down the Premer path.
He recalls her telling him ‘if you want to play better cricket, or if you want to test your ability, go and play Premier cricket. Don’t waste your time in local cricket.’
With a familiar face in former Berwick coach Will Carr taking the reins at Casey-South Melbourne, someone Kellapotha had a “good friendship” with, the decision to join the club was straightforward.
It took him just one game to capture the attention of state selectors, with a haul of 3-24 against Prahran, and before he knew it he’d be taking to the MCG representing Victoria’s Second XI.
“That was a surprise. I never expected that call, I think I’m the first player to play Second XI and just play the one Premier cricket game,” Kellapotha says.
“I really enjoyed that, playing on the MCG is a next level experience.
“I was nervous. I’m new to this set up, I’m new to this cricket environment. I don’t know anyone except Ash [Chandrasinghe], they don’t know me, four days of cricket with them. But after first day I was totally fine. It was a good bunch of cricketers.”
Kellapotha featured twice for the Second XI, taking three wickets and striking 32 runs.
Kellapotha in action for Victoria's 2nd XI. Image: Cricket Australia
But it was Premier cricket where he stole the headlines, finishing his debut season as the competition’s leading wicket-taker with 37 poles at an eye-catching average of 15.59, while also cracking the Team of the Season.
“I didn’t try to do much. I just did the basic cricket things I’m always doing, I trust the basics everytime,” he says.
“It’s very hard to take 30 wickets without a lot of support and… my teammates support me very well.
“Much more tough conditions than local cricket, flat wickets, you have to play against the best cricketers around in Victoria. So I used my experience and that’s it.”
His arrival on the Premier cricket scene coincided with the rapid rise of the Swans, who catapulted from 15th the season prior to a shock top-four finish and grand final berth.
By the day of the grand final, Kellapotha had already attracted interest from Big Bash clubs.
And if not for his pending citizenship status, it’s likely he’d have been snapped up then and there.
But it’s that pending citizenship that makes Kellapotha’s rise even more remarkable, as he isn’t eligible as a local player, instead signed by the Renegades as an overseas replacement player.
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It made his task significantly more challenging, but he continued to grab every opportunity with both hands, a pattern which continued into his time with the Melbourne Renegades Academy in August’s Top End T20 tournament.
From three appearances, Kellapotha put forward two player of the match performances.
The first came against the Stars Academy where he was tidy with 1-16 from four overs. He was given a chance to open the batting in the next match against Papua New Guinea and struck a 27-ball 45, coupled with 1-35 with the ball.
Kellapotha spoke glowingly about his experience in the Top End T20 tournament, and the Renegades organisation as a whole.
“It’s a great experience, tough conditions, playing with and against good cricketers. I don’t have much experience playing under the lights, that’s a tough thing,” he says.
“Great bunch of players… the thing is they have engaged well with the new players, supporting each and every one, that’s amazing feeling.
“I played as the strike bowler so I have to take wickets and cut runs. I just try to take wickets, I want to win the game, we lost a couple of games so third and fourth game I try and cut the runs.
“I got a good chance to bat top order. I didn’t bat much last year because I played middle order, so I had a good opportunity to bat with Mackenzie Harvey, and I think I took it well.”
Kellapotha training with the Renegades. Image: Melbourne Renegades
Local player or not, Kellapotha was becoming too good to ignore, and on the 29th of September, he was unveiled as the Melbourne Renegades latest signing.
“I was excited and I thought I got some reward after my hard work and dedication,” Kellapotha said of the contract.
“It was an unbelievable feeling to imagine playing with world-class cricketers and at world-class venues.
“I deeply appreciate the Renegades for giving me the opportunity to be involved this year. It’s a huge privilege I don’t take lightly.”
At the time of writing, Kellapotha could also be in line for a shock Sheffield Shield debut for Victoria, included in the 13-man squad to take on Western Australia from October 17.
Yet another milestone along his rapidly ascending path.
He may be 31 years of age, but there are many more chapters to come in the tale of Ruwantha Kellapotha, and it’s likely his story is closer to the beginning than the end.