Rex Clementine, from Island, 29 january 2011
also see two Notes at end
Talking of cricketing families, the Wettimuny family has a unique place in Sri Lankan cricket history. All three brothers, Sunil, Mithra and Sidat went onto represent Sri Lanka. Mithra and Sidat opened batting in two Test matches, while Sidat became the first Sri Lankan to score a Test hundred (157 in Faisalabad in 1982). His 190 at Lord’s is still considered one of the best knocks by a Sri Lankan overseas. The other two brothers also had their moments and very few know that the first ever World Cup half-century for Sri Lanka was scored by Sunil.
Photo by Prasanna Hennayake
That half-century in the 1975 World Cup was against Australia when Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee were at their peak and it was a game that saw him ending up in hospital after being hit by Thomson. Wettimuny persued his career in the aviation industry as a pilot after prematurely ending his cricket and he had his moment against the Aussies when he was the captain of the flight that took the victorious Sri Lankan team home from Lahore.
Pic by Prasanna Hennayake
In today’s ‘Memorable World Cup Moments’ captain Wettimuny, who was once destined to lead Sri Lanka, recalls bringing the team home from Lahore. “I was extremely tired as the captain. I had done the flight to Lahore with eight ministers on board. Then I watched the game straight away after the flight. Then I wanted to sleep because I had to take the flight back, but Sidat and Duleep (Mendis) were knocking on the door asking whether they could take the team back home with me,” Sunil Wettimuny, who was flying for Air Lanka at that time, said.
The Sri Lankan team was scheduled to leave Lahore on a different flight, later than the chartered flight that Sunil was manning, but Arjuna and the crowd wanted to get back home as soon as possible and it was a request that was impossible to turn down.
“I said I can’t, I have a full load of passengers. Fortunately, some of these ministers’ wives and other businessmen’s wives stayed back to do some shopping. So they didn’t come on that flight,” Wettimuny added.
“But I tell you that was one flight we cheated on the load sheet. I don’t know how they did it, but there was a disco on board. I remember coming to Colombo and making an automatic landing because I was so tired to do the landing myself. The Tri-star was a beautiful plane and it was a real good journey. I came onto the apron, parked the aircraft and saw this crowd and said, “Oh My God!” I was wondering how to get out of the airport.”
Throughout the flight and even before take off there were goodwill messages from all corners and people were being extra nice to the flight that was carrying the World Cup winning team. And for captain Wettimuny who couldn’t fulfill all his cricketing aspirations, this was a nostalgic moment. “It was a nice flight in the sense that every controller knew that the World Cup was on board. So normally you have to find an airway, but they gave me shortcuts to Colombo. So I could take the team home fast. Every controller sent congratulations. It was so nice. I still remember a Pakistan Airlines flight waiting to take off and they said, Air Lanka, you go first. You are cleared to take off. It was fantastic,” Wettimuny added.
The pilot was so tired and he slept the whole day after coming home, but there was no escape for the World Cup heroes. “I heard Arjuna and the guys were stuck on the road for eight hours before they went home. Poor guys, they were exhausted. People don’t understand it because they wanted to rejoice. The players had celebrated the victory after winning the World Cup and they didn’t sleep that night. Then they were on a plane where there was a disco and they came back to Colombo and they were on the road for eight hours. Imagine how tired they would have been,” Wettimuny said.
NOTE I by Michael Roberts: among the unofficial advisors in the Sri Lankan cricket team’s entourage was Sidath Wettimuny. He too played for Sri Lanka and did so under Duleep Mendis who was the Manager of the XV in 1996. Given his cricketing skills and acumen I suspect that he would have been an influential voice in the dressing room. Ironically, when Arjuna Ranatunga and Aravinda de Silva between them messed up the selections for the World Cup in England in 1999 and conributEd to a disastrous campaign, a new Interim Committee under Rienzie Wijeytilleke called on Sidath Wettimuny to be Chairman, Selectors – a body entrusted with the task of revamping the Sri Lankan squads and getting rid of cronyism. The re-jigged team promptly won the Singer Cup by beating Australia convincingly in mid-1999.
Note II by Tissa Jayatilleke: “I recall the flight and the non-stop baila quite well. The singing was led by Sam (Aravinda’s father) de Silva and Upali( Roshan’s father) Mahanama. We were scheduled to leave Lahore around midnight but by the time the cricket team and a few politicians arrived it was around 3 a.m. that we left.
Sunil Wettimuny announced as soon as we were safely away that “it is party time” and that the bar will be open and drinks will be on the house At one point, the crowd had flocked around Sam and Upali so much that there were too many at the front of the plane. Sunil had to plead with a few of us to get back to our seats for the safety of all. It was a most memorable flight.