Channa, A Man for All Seasons
by Trevor Chesterfield
Channa Gunasekara, once described by a contemporary as being the Len Hutton of Ceylon, confided about fifteen months before his death (October 4, 2008), how he would have enjoyed even five minutes of batting with the great Yorkshireman. While the tall, upright batsman, of whom it was said had a flashing cover-drive similar to the England opener, and may have consciously based his game on that of the man with whom he shared a birth date (June 23), it is also suggested that he had a style and charisma of his own.
‘Channa,’ as his much older cousin Ievers (CI) Gunasekara once remarked in an interview, “was never dull. His bat was a part of him. His strokeplay always so often a defining moment, showed his disciplined qualities. He retired too soon”. However, his death on Saturday, aged 77 years and 110 days, closes a remarkable family chapter in the annals of the game in what was Ceylon and now Sri Lanka cricket. His father, Dr Churchill Hector Gunasekara, was the second-born Ceylon player to captain his country and has a gate named after him at the Sinhalese Sports Club.
As had been his father, CH (Channa Hemasiri) was very much his own person and while he had excelled at other sports and enjoyed tennis, he was dedicated to the game which last century brought his family respect in England and on the island.
So often the son fades into the shadow of the father. But not the younger CH. At the time of his untimely death, he was working on an autobiography on his career “Through The Covers”, a thoughtful ramble through his life and what it was like growing up in the shadow of an illustrious parent.
A tall man with supple wrists and stylish technique and balance, he opened the batting for Ceylon in the pre-Test era which suggests that he had a limited first-class career. Yet he disputes his career statistics, as with the incorrect spelling of his name (an international website has the father and son with different family name spellings), they were “an irritating reminder of people not checking facts”.
You soon came to understand this side of him. Always willingly generous with his time, he was a man with a sharp mind and indepth knowledge of facts, figures and recall of past players, Channa was a fine person to talk to about the past and how he saw the present and the future. His bright eyes would shine with a smile when recalling many humorous anecdotes of his career. “Dancing until near dawn and rushing back to get ready for a club game,” is one such lighter moment.
And being a coach, with a sharp eye of how to improve technique when it came to pointing out flaws in a player’s technique, his honest views were rarely appreciated. It was for this reason that he was once appointed as a national selector by the old Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka (BCCSL).
Educated first at the Royal College preparatory school Glendale in Bandarawela, he went on to captain Royal College in 1948 in the annual Royal College game against St Thomas’s, emulating his father. He first played for a Ceylon XI at the age of 19 against the Commonwealth XI and in 1952/52 against the MCC side led by D B Carr.
Apart from his respected newspaper and magazine articles, he also did radio and later spells of television commentary, this came after his retirement from working as a tea buyer for Brooke Bond Ltd. Yet it is in his later years, when he became an author of note, with newspaper articles and his authoritative essays on four the pre-Test era players, Sargo (S S) Jayawickrama, F C (Derrick) de Saram, Mahadeva Sathasivam and C I (Ievers) Gunasekara were included in the delightfully privately published ‘The Willow Quartette’ in the late 1990s. Now the challenge is to have his impressive, well researched and diligent autobiography, “Through The Covers” published by someone who would like to see it on the shelves.
He is survived by his wife Shanti and only son Chanaka, who resides in Melbourne, and grandchildren.
Yes, A Man for All Seasons
by Michael Roberts
Two tributes to Ivers Gunasekara on his recent demise prods me to resurrect an obituary for Channa Gunasekara from Chesters. As with Chesters, Channa was one of my friends. This friendship developed late in life because I was from a younger generation and only got to know him while playing tennis at the SSC.
This fellowship grew when I began preparing ESSAYING CRICKET (Colombo, Yapa, 2006) and Channa introduced me to his store of news clippings. He himself was a part-time cricket writer and had produced a booklet entitled The Willow Quartette (Colombo, 1997) which extolled the virtues of four of our old cricketing stalwarts for the benefit of new generations. Which four? SS Jayawickrema, M. Sathasivam. FC de Saram, and…. yes, guess whom… none other than CI Gunasekara!
He also pr supplied me with some useful old photographs (usually as clippings) for use in my book including some depicting the Australians in Ceylon during their whistle-stop tours. It is noteworthy that he himself represented Sri Lanka in the 1950s and played against Hassett’s Australians at the Colombo Oval in March 1953. The Aussies scored 209 runs in their allocated 60 overs. “Ceylon” made 149 for 4 wkts in 28 overs when light ran out. Channa opened batting and was 66 not out. Yes, 66 and still batting. But, then, all our innings in this world must end sometime.
Fingleton described his batting skills as “classical,” while Learie Constantine, then the team’s coach, had this estimate: “Gunasekara has again demonstrated what discipline and concentration can do and he ranks as one of the foremost batsmen in the country.” What an accolade!
Details of both this match and the 1948 whistle-stop game together with superb accounts of the games by such accomplished cricket reporters as Bill O’Reilly, Fingleton and Constantine can be found in M. Roberts and A. James, Crosscurrents. Sri Lanka and Australia at Cricket (Sydney, Walla Walla Press, 1998).
I was a youngster watching this match and recall Miller hitting Channa on the head with a bouncer, a glancing blow really, much to the amusement of spectators and fielders. As a result Keith and Channa became lifelong buddies and Channa visited Miller in Sydney ona couple of occasions.
Both CI and Channa were part of cricketing lineage which produced several outstanding cricketers. Channa’s father, Dr. CH Gunasekara, played cricket in England and also wrote on cricket for the newspapers in the 1960s. Channa showed me some of these writings in typescript form. I used Ananda Chittambalam’s evaluative skills to select the most pertinent of these essays for inclusion in Essaying Cricket.
So, one can dwell on CH Gunasekara’s essay “My Cricket in England: Early Twentieth Century,” on pages 263-67 of this book.
A Review of Channa Gunasekara’s The Willow Quartette
by Neville Turner
Sri Lanka is now amongst the foremost cricket-playing nations in the world. For my part, I should rate it within the top three, and in terms of attractiveness, the premier. I would rather watch Sri Lanka play than any other national cricket team. The Sri Lankan approach embodies the best traditions of this beautiful game. Its rise to prominence in the 1990s has been one of the miracles in the history of cricket. And yet, the literature on Sri Lankan cricket is very sparse. This is unfortunate. For its present eminence is explicable only by an understanding of its history.
Essentially, the strength of Sri Lankan cricket has lain in the importance attached to it in the private schools. Even today, a match between Royal College and St Thomas’ College is a social event likely to attract more spectators than a Test match. To that extent, Sri Lankan cricket has a rather elitist pedigree. It is significant, however, that this is changing in the 1990s as international success has captivated the imagination of the whole land. Now, following the example of the likes of Jayasuriya and Wickremesinghe, both humbly born in the Matara area, cricket has swept through the country. It is to be seen in paddy fields, in children’s homes and orphanages, in shanty-towns and even on the part of the Galle Road sealed off for security reasons.
Another contributing factor to its popularity even after Independence, has been the good fortune that Colombo was a regular stopping place for ships to and from the Antipodes. Matches against touring teams were for many years regular features of the gracious era of ocean liners. And, thirdly, international competitiveness was sharpened by regular tours of India and, indeed, by an annual contest known as the Gopalan Trophy between Sri Lanka and the Indian state of Madras (now Tamil Nadu).
The Willow Quartette is claimed in the preface to be the first book everwritten on Sri Lankan cricket. This is perhaps an exaggeration, but certainly it is the first to present vignettes of distinguished Sri Lankans who laid the foundations of the present pre-eminence of their country long before it achieved Test status. The names are unlikely to be known by the generality of cricket lovers: S S Jayawickrama, F C De Saram, M Sathasivan and C I Gunasekara. The author of this book is the nephew of the lastnamedand a distinguished writer in his own right.
Of the four, three were Sinhalese, but Sathasivan was a Tamil. They were all products of the private school system and all led their country. But, in other respects, they were different in personality and style. The author cleverly categorises the four in the terminology of musical tempi: Allegro, Allegretto, Minuetto and Presto.
Channa Gunasekara’s charming style of description produces some memorable euphemisms. He writes of Jayawickrama’s ‘marginal rotundity in the mid-regions’ and designates him as a ‘typical Sinhala gentleman — self-effacing and reticent‘. Of De Saram he is less coy. He was ‘not of athletic proportions’ and apparently lost favour because of his liability in the field: ‘due to his heavy feet, fielding was a sore point’. And yet Gunasekara analyses De Saram’s batting technique in a dispassionate compliment. De Saram had a ‘watertight technique, a sharpness of eye and strength of wrist, which suggested early judgment to get his feet to the optimum position well in advance, allied to a facile brain’.
This is manifestly the assessment of a seasoned observer. De Saram could not have been too handicapped by ponderous footwork, for he managed to score a century against the travelling Australians in 1934, and perhaps even more meritoriously, 43 against the mighty Tyson and Statham twenty years later. But Gunasekara’s typically Sri Lankan politesse leaves the reader tantalisingly intrigued to learn the details of why De Saram was remanded in prison for ‘allegedly master-minding a coup’, and for a more precise delineation of the ‘somewhat intemperate ways’ that caused him to succumb to a heart attack.
Sathasivan is rather wickedly allotted the epithets, ‘pigeon-toed’ and ‘knock-kneed’. Unlike the other three masters, ‘power was never his forte’ — his style was not ‘in the sculpturing of stroke but in the fragile economy of movement and effort’. But stylist or not he managed to spend two years in gaol on a capital charge! Again, Gunasekara spares thereader further details and, no doubt, spares the heirs of the hero further embarrassment.
C I Gunasekara was a late developer. Unlike the other three, he did not shine at school cricket. But he must have been the most spectacular of the four, for his nephew, the author, labels him the ‘Jessop’ of Sri Lankan cricket. On one occasion, he was batting with Keith Miller for a Commonwealth XI against the MCC. They were both chasing centuries. The author tells how Miller, ever the ‘magnanimous showman’, permitted the local hero to get there first. Later, Gunasekara became the oldest captain of Sri Lanka at the age of 40, and scored his final century at the age of 51 when he was roped into playing for Thurston College as he was spotted driving past the ground in a vintage car!
This delightful, literate book is far more than a catalogue of the achievements of four heroes. It tells the perceptive reader much about theethos of cricket in the beautiful country of Sri Lanka. In its modesty, its generosity, its grace and precision of prose, it bespeaks the values prized by the archetypal Sri Lankan cricketer and gentleman. They are those towhich cricketers throughout the world would do well to aspire.
J Neville Turner, Warbuton, Vic
The Last of the Gunasekaras
Venkat Ananth, from http://cricket.yahoo.com/cricket/blog/venkatananth/2/2venkatananth
I vividly remember that rainy day in Colombo, sometime around the second week of May of 2007, when I walked past my hotel in Bambalapittiya, turned left on Dickman Road (now Lester James Peiris Mawatha) and arrived at – if I remember correctly – house number 85.
An old Maruti 800 car was parked right outside the steps; a man in whites came out and opened the gates for me. He was Conroy Ievers Gunasekara, then 87 and possibly one of Ceylon’s, and Sri Lanka’, best batsmen of all time, alongside his colleague Mahadevan Sathasivam and modern-day greats like Aravinda de Silva, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara.
Gunasekara, like most ‘Ceylon’ cricketers, represented an era which saw the island nation’s cricketing foundations only getting stronger. The Gunasekara I met was reclusive, after the death of his wife six months earlier, and was living in conditions unimaginable for someone who had served Ceylon cricket passionately and tirelessly. His diet: a LKR 50-60 worth of a ‘lunch packet’ commonly sold by roadside vendors, and a few bottles of beer to boot.
He sat me down and handed over a photocopied piece on his career by Bruce Maurice, a journalist who lived bang opposite his place. The conversations ranged from his career, his past colleagues, modern day Sri Lankan cricket, and interestingly, the English language.
He was honest enough to admit that he never spoke Sinhala, didn’t intend to do so, because he felt the Ceylon he knew was the Queen’s country and not quite the one run by Rajapaksa & Co. today.
During some of my background research before interviewing Ievers, I read that he was one of the most hard-hitting batsmen of his times – an opinion seconded by none other than Keith Miller, alongside whom he had played for Commonwealth XI in a game against the MCC in 1949.
When I asked him about his batting style, he said, “I used to play tennis regularly, and that’s where I learnt my shot-making from. My strength in tennis was hitting the ball as hard as I can, because I was gifted with powerful forearms.” That’s the unusual story of how one of the most ferocious strokeplayers of Ceylon cricket learnt his trade. “People call it slogging these days, but no, I wasn’t quite slogging. I just saw the gap, and if the ball was there to be hit, I hit it as hard as I could, so that the velocity of the ball could beat the fielder and make it difficult for him to catch.”
From what his peers and colleagues told me, he was a tentative starter, preferring apprehension over bravado, liking to gauge the bowler like a predator and out of nowhere, as his cousin Channa describes Ivers’ batting in his book “The Willow Quartette”, “would he unleash an upstanding straight drive of super velocity past a terrorised bowler’s head, who prompted by instinct of self-preservation takes swift evasive action away from its murderous flight – all the earlier diffidence evaporating now.”
Channa writes further, “Blessed with powerful forearms blended with steel wrists sans velvet, the delicacy of a late cut or a leg-glance were not for him, he rather trusted the full meat of his 3lb bat. Some of his forward defensive jabs more often than not were wont to streak past an astonished mid-off for boundaries. Sixes straight and square, lofted drives and pulls kept the scoreboard in a state of perpetual motion, and it was not just indiscriminate slogging, but an operation of clinical precision.” That was the original ‘Master Blaster’.
He played at a time when Ceylon cricket was blessed with some of its best talents, batting-wise. The likes of Mahadevan Sathasivam, Derek de Saram and Sagaradaththa Jayawickrama were Ievers’ colleagues and that just speaks highly of the standard of cricket played in Sri Lanka in that period. Ievers said, “The cricket we played was like international cricket. The standards were really high, and the level of competition helped us in playing against strong visiting teams who toured us.”
Right from the 40s to the 70s, many teams – representative and invitational in nature — toured Sri Lanka for the odd game. For some of the Ceylon cricketers, this was their occasional shot at international glory and somewhere, as Channa Gunasekara said, “It went a long way towards us getting Test status.”
In 1949, the visiting Pakistanis bore the brunt of Ievers’ ferocity, when he pumelled 120 in a memorable counter-attack after Khan Mohammad and Fazal Mohammad had Ceylon down to 49/4. He single-handedly took on the swing and the pace of the Pakistanis, producing one of his most memorable innings at the time.
One of Ievers’ finest moments as a cricketer came against an MCC side in 1952 for a Combined Commonwealth XI led by FC de Saram which included 4 Ceylonese, 2 Pakistanis, 2 Indians and 3 Aussies (including Neil Harvey, Keith Miller and Graeme Hole).
A rare Indo-Pak combine (Imtiaz Ahmed and Vinoo Mankad) opened the batting and got off to a sound start – a 50-run partnership, followed by a brilliant 74 by Neil Harvey in just 80 minutes (13 fours). Then, in walked Ievers and along with Keith Miller, added 207 for the fourth wicket.
Channa’s description of the partnership goes, “Given the head start of very nearly thirty runs, CI closed the gap rapidly, and then began to challenge Miller in a neck and neck race for their respective 100’s. It was a rare cricketing fiesta to see two of the hardest hitters in the game in harness together and the sparks were really flying.
CI caught up with Miller in the 90s and Miller, the magnanimous showman he was, then let up and CI raced to his hundred ahead of him to the wild delight of the local crowd.” Ievers later fell for 135, with 20 ferociously stroked boundaries and a six. The Commonwealth XI went on to win the game by an innings.
Following that inning by CI, this is what Keith Miller had to say about Gunasekara, “I was fortunate enough to have a close look at two great innings, those of my Australian colleague and Ceylon’s own CI Gunasekara. I can say that very few top ranking players put as much power behind their strokes as Gunasekara does. His secret lies in the heavy bat he uses (I will not be able to use it) and his perfect timing when he hit the ball, it travelled like a bullet.”
His bowling is often the less talked about facet regarding his cricket, but make no mistake, Ievers was a lethal leg-spinner with a seemingly unplayable googly. Channa writes on Ievers’ bowling, “At the end of a short 5 or 6 yard run, he would brace his sturdy frame just prior to delivery and using his entire body, propel the ball at near medium pace and bounce with the click of strong fingers or turn of wrist. He could spin his googly or leg-break a yard or so on a faintly responsive surface, but I think he rather fancied operating on a hard strip, where he could trap the unwary with fizzing top-spinners.” And most importantly, he was an excellent fielder, who more often than not held on to his catches.
Ievers was a special sporting personality. Someone who not just mastered three distinct sports but perfected them and excelled in them. His glorious tennis career included 8 national titles in the Mens Doubles and Mixed Doubles, and he told me about his “double-handed forehand”, an unusual shot during those days, which originated from striking a tennis ball with his father’s racket, which was heavy and hence he had to use both hands to derive maximum power.
Ievers played golf with equal skill and commitment, thereby managing to make it to the National semi-finals during the early 60s. For the record, he turned up for the iconic Royal College in no less than five sports – rugby, cricket, golf, tennis and hurdling.
The story came to an end this Thursday July 29, with the passing away of Conroy Ievers Gunasekara at 90 – the last of the Gunasekaras as I choose to call him, a man who not just belonged to the first family of Sri Lankan/Ceylon cricket, but also ensured that he lived up to his surname.
In 2007, during my conversations with him, he often spoke about his will to stop living, and every third sentence had a reference to Kanattha, a cemetery in Colombo’s suburbs. Three years later, Ievers Gunasekara left us all — a lonely man yet one of the most celebrated sportsmen in Sri Lanka’s history.