Ranjit Fernando: Eloquence behind the mic, Effervescence behind the stumps

Rohan Wijesinghe, from the Sunday Leader, 22 January 2011

  In the balmy 60’s and the 70’s, sure there were heaps of flamboyant ‘gloves’ being flashed around, but flash and flamboyance by itself would not have done. That would have been the selectors’ line of thinking. We needed steadfast dependability behind the stumps. Besides which someone had to comprehensively ‘dent’ the new ball for us. Take it ‘head on’ if you like. Mckenzie, Hawke, Lillee, Thomson, Brown, Snow, Willis, Hall, Safraz, Masood, Holder, Roberts, Holding, Marshall and Clarke and a young tearaway Imran Khan, were dynamiting the worlds ‘top order’ batsmen — to thy kingdom come. Cometh the hour, cometh ‘our’ wicket keeper – opening batsmen. That’s Edward Ranjit Fernando for you. In the fast lane then. No fancy crash helmets nor dandy arm guards.

Light of feet and heavy of bat

Dunked at the deep end in 1969, aged about 24, Ranjit with a 58 and Buddy Reid with 57 chased Cowdrey’s Englishmen all over Wanathamulla, to eventually surpass the visitors 236 in 60 overs, for a priceless ‘One Day’ victory. The ‘two good pals’ Buddy and Ranjit soon followed it up with a pulsating opening stand of 118, in the ‘follow up’ three day International, a mere 72 hours later, with Buddy Reid grafting a 59 and Ranjit, battering a typical 45. In our baptismal World Cup outing of 1975, Fernando was adjudged this Country’s Best Batsmen, with a brilliant 98 not-out against New Zealand, in one of the ‘side’ games – as his best. That particular morning his bat was ‘All Middle and No Edges’. Then again in 1979, with Lanka sliding to defeat, Ranjit and Roy Dias came together to stave off embarrassment, with 49 and 44 respectively – against Marshall, Clarke and friends. Not very friendly pace though.
Left out in the cold

Sadly he was left out of the ‘79 World Cup squad along with Mike Tissera. That they were pensioned off — long before their panache ran out — was the contention of many. The year before that, Ranjit — batting as only Ranjit can — led the NCC to comprehensively annexe the much coveted Sara Trophy. In the year 1980, Tissera uncorking his champagne brand of cricket, led CCC, also to the much desired ‘Sara’. Both Fernando and Tissera were in ‘plum’ form, despite the axing. I can vouch for that, as I played a tiny part in ‘both’ dressing rooms. There were more politics in cricket – than in politics itself — in that particular era.

New ball killer

Before all that razzmatazz, Ranjit was shipped out to India, aged 20, in the year ‘64, as understudy to the great H.I.K. Fernando, under Tissera’s rule.  He had to wait a further ‘four’ long years before gaining both — the gloves and the inners. Whilst waiting and watching and learning from the ‘Asian Ace’ — Ranjit batted so belligerently, making claims for the openers spot. With the senior Fernando’s flamboyance fading by 1972, the Benedictine from Bloemendhal eventually gained full custody of the gloves.

A cut apart

With his lovely rolling gait, coupled with his 1000 megawatt smile – further accentuated by a dusky complexion, Ranjit cut a dash on the playing field or wherever. Never a negative note on his keyboard and soaked in commonsense as dinned into the perky lad by his Master-In-Charge at St Benedict’s Mr. Gnanapragasam, it is in Ranjit to keep his friendships in constant touch and repair, if repair is ever needed. Hard liquor is a big taboo on his menu. With him the ‘spirits’ would flow from within – seemingly. His strongest brew being  a passion fruit cordial on the rocks — heaps of icy rocks.

Networking for pals

The wicket keeper spends a fair bit of time, dishing out and networking opportunities and contracts for pals – with the ease and glee of a leg side stumping – all within the ambit of his genial stride. ‘There’ lay much of the man’s charm. Tubby-ish and yet beautifully balanced, the Ranjit that I knew could ‘devilishly’ tear a bowling attack to shreds and thence unwind for the night, by ‘piously’ curling up in a yoga sutra – with the hapless bowlers trudging home in a stupor. As a keeper he possessed in abundance, the seemingly contradictory assets of both relaxation and concentration – surprisingly little fuss — from the bundle of energy. As a batsman he brandished a battering ram – full stop.

Glittering shots

Edward Ranjit Fernando was one of the ‘biggest’ box office draws to emerge from Kotahena in the ‘60s – oh yes he lit up that Benedictine paddock. His 120 in 110 minutes against Royal College, was a ‘runaway’ session. A hundred between the start of play at 12 noon and milk taken at 2pm, was such a rarity in school cricket. The relatively small build, the hawk eye, thence the short quick steps, back or across — to launch into that array of punchy shots of his. Such as his dandy drives, his succulent square cuts and the punishing pulls, as he established supremacy over the hapless schoolboy bowling – within minutes of having scratched out his ‘middle and leg’ — so bristlingly aggressive. By the year 1962, Ranjit was the ‘Best Keeper’ within the schools, with two of his glamorous contemporaries, Placidus Leanage and Russel Hamer just a step or two  behind him.

Melancholy Era

This in an era whence the grass was green, the creams were cream and the earth felt damp and new, in that oh so melancholy past. The wicket would be covered by ‘butterflies’ between sessions – if at all. What other ‘covers’ in his time? They would be ‘covered’ in mud if it rained and yet chalk the score-board ‘chock-a-block’ with runs. If I may digress from my subject – the hopeless dreamer that I am! That era was enriched for Ranjit by his dad Edward, who first put a tiny bat in his hands, Ben Navaratne, his neighbour, who taught him the ropes and Harold de Andrado, who even paid the young stumpers, NCC club subs, to ensure his gloves did not wander.

Man of wide horizons

By the mid ‘60s Ranjit had found employment in the capacity of a ‘Management Trainee’ at Mackwoods Ltd. and ‘paused’ a while to let ‘books’ take priority over his ‘bats’ and gloves. He ‘Safety Netted’ his future by arming himself with a degree from the Chartered Institute of Marketing, UK. Edward Ranjit Fernando is a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing as well as the Chartered Institute of Management, UK. A ‘booming’ message there for our young turks, from Ranjit. A career parallel to cricket must be pursued is his philosophy.

Paramount principle — Good fielding

Ranjit remembers managing our under-19 tours to Australia and England in the mid ‘90s and setting a murderous pace, bombarding the youngsters with his fielding drills. Looking back, Aravinda de Silva, Roshan Mahanama, Asanka Gurusinghe and Hashan Tillekeratne, they all emerged from those ‘achy’ drills of summer sweat. And they fielded like greyhounds fresh-off-a-leash at Lahore, didn’t they?

Inspires loyalty

Ranjit’s combative, tenacious spirit was bared in the year 1979. Due to a dispute of some sorts, six of NCC’s stalwarts, led by Tissera, fled the club and Ranjit marshalling the forces that were left behind, such as Opatha, Jeganathan, Ranchigoda, Mahendran and three star schoolboys Madugalle, Yohan Gunasekera and Prasanna Ameresinghe, comprehensively annexed the coveted Sara Trophy, for the Nondescripts. He cajoled more than commandeered that ‘Motley’ collection to winning ways. He was ‘boundless kindness’ to the school leavers. More importantly, the fact that those who ‘fled’ the club and the ones who ‘stayed’ to play are the best of buddies now, is a resounding triumph for the game of cricket and the spirit it inculcates. Ranjit has been a member of NCC for over 50 years, is a life member and was its president a while ago. Everything he touched at NCC has been the better for it.

Wide grasp of cricket issues

By the year 1980, Ranjit having hung up his gloves, added his boundless energy, enthusiasm, expertise and energy to a multitude of committee rooms, shovelling heaps back to the game. The ex-wicket keeper then saddled himself with the business of coaching the national side — managed several of our tours abroad and has now come on board, in the capacity of a national selector.

Cascading the game into living rooms

Behind the mic for almost all of world television TV sports networks, Ranjit not only transported the game to our living rooms, he so comprehensively won over the hearts and minds of his fellow commentators, officials and even the players. No mean task — what with him having to rub shoulders in the box with media types of all hues, with a surfeit of local pretenders and envious detractors snapping at his elbows for a bite of the mic – a mic that he handled with such virtuosity and aplomb for well nigh two decades or more.
Just a couple of gaffes over the mic over a span of 20 years and our so-called  pundits – all of them categorically Lankan — are baying at the moon. We are happiest when we are miserable, that’s for certain. Measured tones personified his commentary and that he covered it well enough for us is my contention entirely. Truly an ambassador at large for the Lankan Flag — and I can only bracket Ranjan Madugalle with him, in the same breath, as the two strut the world of cricket, with commendable poise.

Mellowed at 65

The Benedictine has mellowed much at 65, having adorned this game for well nigh 50 years, as a wicket keeper, opening batsmen, manager, administrator, coach, commentator and latterly as a national selector — a mountain on his plate. It seemed to this writer that Ranjit had cut his candle in half and set fire to all four ends. Thankfully, he retains his characteristic ebullience and effervescence to date. He can lay down his passion for cricket one day — to retire to his endearing and gracious spouse Ramani and his four precious children – in the assurance of having added tonnes of colossal colour to our game; this self made gentleman, this Benevolent Benedictine from Bloemendhal.
(Rohan Wijesinghe is a former Josephian, BRC, NCC and Sri Lanka Schools opener.)

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