Cricket in Sri Lanka

Print edition : December 25, 2000

The Janashakthi Book of Sri Lanka Cricket, 1832-1996 by S.S. Perera; edited by S. Muthiah; pages 636; price not stated.

THERE is a certain charm, a certain mystique, about cricket in Sri Lanka. The spirit with which the islanders approach the game and the flair and passion that they demonstrate take one's breath away. The array of stars to emerge from the Sri Lankan crick eting stable over the years have added lustre to the sport.

The Janashakthi Book of Sri Lanka Cricket offers a wealth of knowledge. The story of how the game took root in Sri Lanka and how the nation, after overcoming rather daunting hurdles, became a vibrant force in the sport, is well told.

Indeed, from 1832, when the first match on record was played in the island (Sri Lanka was known by the name Ceylon at that time), to the triumph in the 1996 World Cup, it was a long and eventful journey for a nation craving for success. Along the way, th ere were tales of courage and character, of guts and glory, of triumph and tragedy.

Men such as the imperious M. Sathasivam, the courageous Anura Tennekoon, the path-breaking Duleep Mendis, the classical Aravinda de Silva, the canny Arjuna Ranatunga and the uniquely gifted Muttiah Muralitharan have, with their great deeds on the cricket field, added golden chapters to Sri Lankan history.

Perera's book, goes beyond highlighting their heroic performances: it travels to the time when British officers introduced cricket in the plantations and narrates through "records, results, anecdotes and incidents", the history of cricket in the Emerald Isles. It is indeed a labour of love. The author, who has been closely involved with Sri Lankan cricket as a writer, statistician and administrator, has managed to dig out little-known facts about the growth of cricket in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is lucky in that it has had selfless and devoted officials, who played no small a part in the country's march forward in the game. Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu, the first president of the Board of Control for Cricket in Ceylon; Robert Senanayake, w ho contributed immensely throughout his long association with Sri Lankan cricket; and Gamini Dissanayake, who played a major role in securing the nation Test status, receive prominent mention in the book.

Perera's father G.G. Perera was a prominent cricket personality during his time. What started as a hobby - Perera started collecting newspaper cuttings about local cricket events more than 60 years ago - became a passion, and an enduring one at that. He thanks S. Muthiah of the Madras Editorial Services for "editing the manuscript, rearranging it to make it appear more chronological..." Muthiah wrote a weekly column in the Sunday Times during the 1950s and 1960s, and his association with sports j ournalism has continued over the years.

THE section on the early days of Sri Lankan cricket makes interesting reading. It was in 1889 that the first "unofficial Test", between the All Ceylon Eleven and the team of an Englishman G.F. Vernon, took place at the Recreation Grounds, in Kandy. Bloom field Cricket Club, which went on to produce several Sri Lankan stars, was formed in 1893. In 1903, in a match between the 11 Joseph brothers' team and Bloomfield C&AC in Pettah, the siblings successfully defended a paltry score. Rare and interesting fac ts such as these enrich the book. There are also some good cartoons and rare pictures.

In the early days of Sri Lankan cricket, several international teams made "whistle-stop" tours of the island nation. In 1938, for instance, the Sri Lankans were fortunate to see Don Bradman's team in action, though to the disappointment of the crowd the legendary Australian batsman himself was indisposed. The "Black Bradman", George Headley, visited the island in 1949 and, to the delight of his fans, made runs.

Those were also the days when M. Sathasivam was making runs, and making them in style. His marvellous knock of 215, for the Ceylon Cricket Association, against South India in Madras (Chennai) in 1947, where his dazzling repertoire of strokes was in full view, is counted as one of the finest innings played at the Chepauk stadium.

C.T.A. Schaffter, managing director of the Janashakthi Insurance Company, makes a pertinent point in the Foreword when he says: " ...it must be remembered that M. Sathasivam, F.C. de Saram, and C.I. Gunasekera played their cricket on uncovered wickets wi thout protective armour and scored their hundreds with the same facility that our cricketers of today do on well-prepared, covered tracks."

The 1950s and 1960s saw the Sri Lankans play some captivating cricket, but full Test status was still some distance away. There were fine performances in the "unofficial Tests," with Michael Tissera excelling with the bat.

It was only in the 1970s that the Sri Lankans took strides towards attaining Test status. Their spirited chase of Australia's mammoth 328 in the 1975 Prudential World Cup encounter at the Oval, where the Sri Lankans withstood intimidatory bowling from th e frustrated Australian pacemen, did not go unnoticed.

Finally, Sri Lanka was granted full Test status in 1981. The nation has improved with the years, after a hesitant beginning. Indeed the 1980s was an eventful decade for the Sri Lankans. They recorded their first series victory, at home against India, in 1985. In the process they displayed enormous resilience: the team had lost several key players, who had embarked on a rebel tour of South Africa.

With the passage of time, youngsters such as Aravinda de Silva and Arjuna Ranatunga grew in stature, and with the emergence of a match-winning off-spinner, Muttiah Muralitharan, and an explosive batsman, Sanath Jayasuriya, the side became a threat away f rom home too.

Indeed, the Sri Lankans, after overcoming a turbulent phase in 1994, when senior cricketers were dropped on flimsy grounds, triumphed in Pakistan and New Zealand, but still did not get from the world cricketing community the respect they deserved, much t o the chagrin of skipper Arjuna Ranatunga, who often gave vent to his feelings. One instance is the Sri Lankan's tour of Australia in 1996.

The culmination of Sri Lanka's quest for respect came when Arjuna Ranatunga held the World Cup aloft at Lahore on an unforgettable night in March 1996 after outplaying Australia. They were now the world champions, and no cricketing nation deserved the ho nour more.

The book concludes at this point. It is a good buy, especially for serious students of cricket history.

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