Sidarth interviews Sidath

Sidath Wettimuny interviewed by Sidarth Mongia, Q and A in in article entitled 

‘Our early 80s line-up was better than today’s’

Pic by Getty Images in cricinfo

Opening in a Test with my brother was fun. I couldn’t open with my eldest brother [Sunil], although our careers overlapped. When he toured I didn’t, and when I toured he didn’t. We always felt that they wouldn’t take two brothers at that time. Mithra was actually in Hong Kong, and he had lost out on a year or two. He was an accountant there. He came back and he got into the side briefly. Then I opened with him in a Test series in New Zealand. Winning the World Cup made cricket a lot more popular in Sri Lanka, but by 1996 we had a damn good team. Had we not won, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world.

 Our fitness levels were a joke. We just had fun. When I look back, we did all the wrong things. We used to burn out so much before we went on tour that the tour seemed like a break.

 Roy Dias was one of the most stylish batsmen. My brother Sunil was an absolutely stylish player. Michael Tissera was a beautiful batsman to watch. I thoroughly enjoyed Anura Tennekoon. Never played in Tests. He scored a hundred against every country that toured here. He would have been a run machine.

 We were very unfortunate, in that most of our tours were one-off Tests – one-off or two. We could never capitalise on form, or when we got going we could hardly convert it into a big series.

 The England tour of 1984 was also one such. We toured for a month or so playing counties, and then one Test. If you failed in that Test, whatever the result of the rest of the tour, you felt you had a bad tour. I remember the match before the Test, against Sussex, I got 70-odd. John Snow wrote, “Watch out for Sid.” [Wettimuny batted for close to 11 hours, scoring 190 at Lord’s]

 Cricket in our day wasn’t exactly an elitist sport, but 90% of cricketers in Sri Lanka came from Colombo schools.  My father was extremely keen that we learn to bat properly, technically. He appreciated the art more than anything else. He actually built the first indoor school in this country for us to learn cricket, so that we could go and learn from the man I thought was the best coach, Bertie Wijesinghe.

 I have always looked for and appreciated the little friendships you build along the line with players from other countries. 

  In the early eighties the batting line-up we had – believe it or not – was better than what we have today. But we played cricket for fun. If I look at pure batting skills – you ask Arjuna Ranatunga, he will tell you the same thing – our line-up was much better. The skills were better. They viewed us with respect. I always liked playing on English wickets. If you played straight, you could score there.

 A guy came and made us run 19 rounds around a ground, saying “This is how you keep fit.” By the time the tour started we were exhausted. We never did weight training. We didn’t have those facilities. It was pure skill that kept us going. 

 If you take the period we were in, it was very formative in Test cricket exposure. Lord’s was a big step. We were beginning to tell ourselves that we could perform on the big stage. That we could battle with the big boys and still do well. We were playing at Lord’s, the home of cricket. Everybody was keen to do well. It contributed in that sense; it told the coming teams that it could be done.

 Arjuna was very confident from day one. He had that aggressive approach even then.

 We have to give a lot of credit to Dav Whatmore for 1996. Until then we did our own thing basically. Even in 1994, that was how we played. It was not a unit playing cricket, it was cricketers doing their own thing and coming together on tour.

 We have got so much of natural talent, which needs – I must qualify – to be converted into skill and performance. The natural talent, good coordination is there, you know. Our guys are well coordinated; you go to the villages and see.

 I don’t know whether we were too nice. Let’s face it, we were amateurs; even when we retired we were semi-professional. So I think the hard-nosed cricket style came with the commercialisation of the game.

 Arjuna was definitely one of the guys who went out of the way to show the opposition, “Look we can beat you.” Maybe he did convey that to them better than some of the guys earlier.

 Around age 30-31, I seriously thought I had come to a crossroads. For a long time we didn’t get enough Test tours. Then there was trouble in the country. It was the middle of the southern uprising and we were going to have only two Tests in the next two years. That’s when I retired. Unlike now, where when you retire you have made enough money to sit back and relax, we had to seriously think, “Hey what the hell do I do now?”

 I believe even today you can play the game as cleanly as ever and still perform at the highest level.

 When we played in India, we did well there. The three one-dayers we lost because of one man and one man only, Kris Srikkanth. In the Test, we did well too. Roy batted beautifully, Duleep got twin hundreds. I don’t think our opponents thought we were bad, but we lacked five-day exposure and fitness.

 When I saw the 1996 team, I thought, “What the hell were we doing?” We used to get 30 runs and get cramps.

 The greatest thing Dav did was to bring organisation. Not technical skills, he brought organised thinking. He brought Alex Kountouris with him. What that did was, batsmen who would score 70 and throw their wickets away due to lack of fitness and application would go on to convert it to 140. The guy who took two wickets went on to get six because he had strength, stamina and focus. It upped our cricket by 40% just through dedicated and disciplined thinking, and the incredible increase in fitness.

 In Sialkot I got 45 on a crazy green top against Imran and Wasim. Battled and battled and got 45, and in the second innings I was given lbw in the first over. That was disappointing. There was bad umpiring, no doubt, when Pakistan toured in 1986. Even in Pakistan we had some terrible umpiring. I don’t know if it was tit-for-tat. In Kandy I disappointed some of our management by walking, but all my life I have played my game that way. I felt it beneath my dignity to be out and then not walk. How can you look those guys in the eye after that?

 Sadly I learned to stay fit only after I retired. I work hard now to stay fit, but never during our playing days.

 At Lord’s, when I went out to play, I still remember Mohsin Khan called me on the dressing-room phone at every break. He was playing in the leagues then. First before the match, saying, “Look, I got a double-hundred there, you can also do it”. Lunch, tea, close of play, till I got out, he called me every break. Those are the sort of things you remember. Kapil and I are very good friends. Sunny. The Crowe brothers in New Zealand.

 It has been a very slow turn from the mid-eighties, nineties, but today 80% of our national cricketers are from outstation. That’s where we need to focus. We aren’t developing enough bases. The same bases we have in Colombo, we should be having in Galle, in Kandy. We should be now having them in Jaffna.

 Roy is a very mild guy – in fact, too mild. He was very sensitive, to the point of nearly being insecure. But he was different when he batted. All his confidence showed when he batted. People forget he was not only a brilliant batsman but a brilliant fielder too, possibly at one time the best cover fielder in this country.

 My father used to always say, “It’s a game that builds character.” If you can play the game in a certain way, you will take it outside the game too. I see a lot of truth in that.

 Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo

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