Q and A with Sidath Wettimuny: “With Sir Gary around, we felt like walking with a KING”

Rex Clementine interviews Sidath Wettimuny, Island 9 & 10 February 2011

The achievements of Sidat Wettimuny in Test cricket are unique and unbeatable, but more than the records, if there was a competition to choose the nicest man to have played Test cricket for Sri Lanka, he’d probably beat Roshan Mahanama for the gold medal. Now 54, Wettimuny has more interest in golf than cricket, but in the 1980s he helped immensely to shape the country’s cricketing image. Sidat was the first Sri Lankan to score a Test century (157 against Pakistan in Faisalabad) and followed that up with the longest Test innings ever played at Lord’s. After his epic 190 at the home of cricket, Wisden bestowed him with the honour of Five Cricketers’ of the Year in 1985 and the Editor went onto comment thus. “Few, surely, would have backed a 28-year-old Sri Lankan Buddhist, and a vegetarian at that, to demonstrate his stamina for 637 minutes, or 642 minutes if the two hold-ups by Tamil protesters are included. But Wettimuny did so, and thereby converted sceptics who had previously doubted Sri Lanka’s right to Test status. His innings of 190 was enhanced by some of the finest cover driving seen in England all summer, which was all the more creditable for someone who had never played at Lord’s before.”

He played just one World Cup, the 1983 tournament and in today’s ‘Memorable World Cup Moments’ he speaks on his World Cup experiences and what Sir Gary Sobers brought into Sri Lankan cricket as coach. He also speaks on the influence of his father in his cricket, coming close to beat Pakistani in 1983 and lots more. Here are the excerpts.

Question: They say your father Ramsay Wettimuny was a huge influence on your cricket career.

Wettimuny: Absolutely. Our father was cricket crazy. He built the first indoor nets in this country at the Health Department just to teach us cricket. He got Bertie Wijesinghe to coach us and he just loved the whole game. He thought cricket was a way of life, something which will teach you a lot more than the game. He thought cricket was a good comparison to life, the ups and downs and how you take it and stuff. He said if you learn to play the game, how it should be played, you will hugely benefit in your future endeavours. He said if you want to play the game, play it properly and learn the art of the game. He was very technique conscious and I am eternally grateful to him. He died just before I captained Ananda. So he missed out on seeing the third son captaining Ananda and he missed out a lot. By the time I was 17, he had ingrained in me enough to carry on with the way he wanted me to.

Question: You were five boys in the family. Three of you went onto play for Sri Lanka. What about the other two?

Wettimuny: Sunil was the eldest followed by Mithra, then Ranjan and I. There was a younger brother Nimal, who was nine years old when our father died. Ranjan played a little bit of cricket. He was very talented and played for Trinity and then gave up. He was a jack of all trades and the master of none. He did all the sports, but didn’t pursue. Nimal pursued. He played for SSC briefly and then shifted to motor racing and became a motor racing champion.

Question: So the three of you who played for Sri Lanka went to Ananda and the other two to Trinity?

Wettimuny: No, only Ranjan was sent to Trinity because he was a riot at Ananda. Nobody could control him. So Bertie Wijesinghe was at Trinity and he told my father to send him over to Trinity and said “I will control him.” But he was a rioter there as well.

Question: How big an influence were your brothers on your cricket?

Wettimuny: Sunil and Mithra were both big influences and it was fun. We were playing for SSC at the same time and we used to go for the match together and come home after the game and we talked about cricket and it was fun. SSC in the 1980s dominated club cricket. It was between SSC, Bloomfield and NCC. We had, I think nine Sri Lankan caps at that time. We had a fabulous lot. SSC was the club to play for at that time. Hats off to my mother who had to tolerate five boys, most of us playing cricket.

Question: Tell us about the 1983 World Cup. You beat New Zealand and had a couple of close games against England and Pakistan.

Wettimuny: We were concerned about playing in English conditions. We had Sir Gary Sobers, who was our Manger and Coach and that was a fantastic experience. Sir Gary is the sort of guy when he is around you feel confident. It was like going around with the ‘King’ of cricket. He made you feel confident. We were feeling good. His understanding of wickets was amazing. I have never known a guy who could read wickets like Sir Gary. I specifically remember this one experience where we were playing this practice game on a wet wicket. It was a pre-World Cup tournament game. We walked up to the wicket and said, my God, this is so wet; we don’t want to bat on this wicket. Sir Gary then walked up to the wicket and said, “hey guys, you better bat on this wicket, because if you are going to bat second, you are going to be in big trouble.” We looked and wondered whether something was wrong with this guy. But we had so much confidence in him, we said, “okay, this guy knows and we’ll bat first.” We batted and got 190-odd if I remember right. It wasn’t easy when we were batting as pieces of mud came out of the wicket. But when they went to bat, the wicket had hardened, but the surface was uneven because those pieces had come out and the ball was flying. Ashantha (de Mel) hit two guys on the face. When we traveled in the bus, Sir Gary would stand and talk about his cricketing experience and jokes. He had an amazing sense of humour. He would crack jokes and we would be laughing from one county to the other county listening to his jokes. Mr. Murugaser was our manager.

Question: What was so special about Sir Gary the coach?

Wettimuny: He had that air about him. Those Englishmen never dared to cross paths with Sir Gary in any area. You felt that you were walking around with the greatest all-rounder in the world and he made sure that everyone knew that he was the greatest. He was very supportive of whatever we did. He told us you guys are as good as any and you guys aren’t second to none. One thing I treasure is that he wrote in one of the magazines commemorating Gamini Dissanayake that we could have been as great as anybody given the opportunities. I treasure that statement by him. We just didn’t have opportunities.

Question: You could have beaten Pakistan in that World Cup. Imran Khan got a hundred when they were in trouble and then Abdul Qadir got a five wicket haul.

Wettimuny: We beat New Zealand and against Pakistan we had them exactly where we wanted and then let them off the hook. More than Imran getting a hundred, chasing 236 to win, we were 162 for two and we were cruising. I got out after getting a 50. I threw my wicket away actually. We were sailing. We should have won with three wickets or so down. But we lost in a hurry and that was a sad moment.

Question: They say you put a high price on your wicket.

Wettimuny: When I say I threw my wicket away, that may have been due to lack of experience. We were 162 for two and I thought we were home and dry. I think I hooked someone and got out. Not finishing things off was something that we lacked those days. We lacked the staying power. That’s what Dav Whatmore and Alex Kontouri brought into Sri Lankan cricket. Those days we would get 50 runs and we would feel tired and our concentration level would be slipping. We didn’t have the necessary fitness levels to stay. After 1995, the guys who got 50s went onto get 150s. The guys who bowled five overs went onto bowl 12 overs. Everything got sharper. That’s what we lacked in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Question: Then against England at Taunton, you had an impressive run chase after they posted 333 in 60 overs.

Wettimuny: We played well against England. David Gower got a big hundred. We chased well. That was one of the toughest fast bowling I have faced. They had Graham Dilley, Bob Willis and Ian Botham. Dilley was possibly the quickest English bowler at that time. He bowled really well. If you ask Roy, he would confirm. The ball was whizzing. I was given leg before wicket for 30-odd sweeping and I wasn’t too happy with it. We lost that match, but we chased and did well.


 Pic by Getty Images

Question: So after losing a close game against Pakistan at Headingly, you went onto beat New Zealand two days later. And unlike today, that was a very good New Zealand side.

Wettimuny: I believe New Zealand played their best cricket in the 1980s. They had Richard Hadlee, Martin Snedden, Ewen Chatfield, Lance Cairns and Glenn Turner, who was a fabulous player. Jeff Howarth was their captain. Martin Crowe was probably making his debut. Turner is one of the few guys who has got 100 hundreds in England and beating that New Zealand side is a very special feeling.

Question: Then the game against England was a high scoring thriller and you could have won again.

Wettimuny: After beating New Zealand, when we played England we were very confident. David Gower played an amazing knock. He just slaughtered us. We felt we were in with a chance and we were going well. I got set and should have gone onto make a big score, but it was not to be.

Question: Any unforgettable memories of that World Cup?

Wettimuny: Well, we were playing England in Taunton. I am not a guy who hit sixes. But my girlfriend Shamini, who is my wife now, came to see the match and I had said that I was going to hit a six towards her when I spot her. She was studying in the UK at that time and from midwicket she started waving at me. Then I hit Botham for a six. That must have been one of the rare sixes that I hit in my life. I remember clipping Botham over the fence.

Question: Ashantha de Mel’s performances were special in that tournament. He was the second highest wicket taker in 1983?

Wettimuny: Ashantha de Mel bowled superbly. He was as good as any fast bowler in those 1980s. He used to go to Pakistan and bowl in those dead tracks and some of those top Pakistani batsmen used to run. Those legendary players were struggling against him. This was at a time despite all those difficulties in getting leg before decisions and stuff. In so many games, we found that despite hitting them plumb in front, but we couldn’t get them out. But he bowled tremendously well. Ashantha is a fighter. It’s another case of lack of opportunities. He retired very early when his knees started giving trouble. Today that would have never happened. He would have been looked after either surgically or whatever and he would have played another five years. Ashantha was a very strong guy. Maybe when some of us retired he would have felt bored and gave up.

Question: Your exploits in England when Sri Lanka played the first Test on English soil are legendary. How much did that experience in 1983 help a year later?

Wettimuny: My first tour to England was in 1981. It was an eye-opener as to how to play on those English conditions. I had a really good tour and that’s when I found out how to play on those wickets. Both in 1981 and 1983 we had long tours playing counties and that helped to get a good grasp on how to bat on those wickets. So when I went to England for the Test in 1984 I was confident. I was fairly a straight player, so I knew if I keep playing straight I was going to get runs.

Question: Sri Lanka piled up nearly 500 runs in the first innings of that match. Were you surprised England put you in after winning the toss?

Wettimuny: I think they underestimated us. First they thought they could bowl us out cheaply. We took them by surprise. Also, funnily enough, that was one of the days I was cover driving and hitting everything middle of the bat. All through the day they felt they could get me caught at the slip because I was driving so square. It was too late by the time they realized that it was futile. The seamers persistently bowled outswingers. They kept on trying all day and I kept on hitting them. They had made a strategic error. Those days we had lot of pressure due to these one off Tests. The sad thing is you have a fabulous one month tour. Say you come a month ahead of the Test and play all the counties and you have a really good run and then if you failed in that one Test you feel the whole tour was a disaster. I think we surprised the English.

Question: Do you regret not getting the double hundred?

Wettimuny: Yes and No. I look at what I got and say I am happy with what I got rather than say shame, I didn’t get those ten runs. You have to learn to look at things and be happy with what you get rather than be unhappy with what you don’t get. Well, had I got the double hundred then I would have become the first player to score a hundred, 150 and double hundred for Sri Lanka. But you know that’s the way the game goes.

Question: Duleep got a hundred in the first innings and 94 in the second. What was it like to bat with him?

Wettimuny: Oh, well, his hundred was amazing. He just slaughtered them. The mistake they did was they bounced at Duleep. Now, Duleep doesn’t like when he’s being bounced at. He had decided that he was going to play his shots and he played in the typical Duleep Mendis style. He hit them all over the park. He had an amazing eye and sadly, Roy, had one of those unusually tough tours. He got lots of 30s, but never went beyond that. It was nothing but bad luck. Even in that game, they were unlucky not to see Roy at his best. He got 32 I think.

Question: That was also Aravinda de Silva’s debut?

Wettimuny: Oh yes. I remember the game before the Lord’s Test, we played Essex. They had a fantastic pace attack. We were 40 or 50 for three when Aravinda walked in. I was on the other end and we put on 160 odd. I got hit on my box when on 75 and I was carried off. He got a 60 and he showed his class there. The thing about Aravinda is that he was never his age. Even at that tender age, he never showed the bowler that he was an 18 year-old. He showed very little respect to the bowlers. I still remember him hooking and pulling those guys showing the confidence of a guy who had played international cricket for ten years. Even when I batted with him, I rarely went and told him, look, this is the way you should play. With Aravinda, it was a case of saying hey; now take it easy, we want to see this through. He was that kind of player.


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