Rags to Riches: Clementine’s oral history on momentous episodes in Lanka’s cricket history

Michael Roberts

Preamble: This foreword was written in early March 2011 for the book Rags to Riches (Colombo, Godage, 2011) launched by the Island newspaper, with Kumar Sangakkara as Keynote Speaker, later that month. The book reproduced a series of Q and A interviews serialised by the Island in the lead-up to the World Cup. This is an invaluable collection of memoirs and called for a prodiguous amount of work by Clementine. The book can be purchased by credit card from http://www.vijithayapa.com and at both Godage and Yapa bookshops.

 Pics by Prasanna Hennayake

 Pic from Island 

Oral History

In fashioning essays on Sri Lanka’s cricket history during the last decade[1] I have often elicited information as well as opinions from individuals who were at the centre of significant episodes. This is standard methodology for journalistic reportage. In effect, we are all indulging in a form of oral history. Its resonances were brought home to me recently by Kumari Jayawardena’s enthusiastic reaction to the recorded interview with her father A. P. de Zoysa in 1967 that was a  product of the Roberts Oral History Project, 1965-1969.[2] Though her enthusiasm was partly conditioned by the impact of her father’s voice coming alive once again, Kumari was also intrigued by specific pieces of information provided by A. P. de Zoysa with reference  to his electoral candidature for Colombo South in the 1936 general elections. So, we are speaking here of empirical detail that may have otherwise disappeared into the dust-heap of lost history if I had not embarked on such a venture with the assistance of the Asia Foundation and the approval of Professor Karl Goonewardena.

    More recently, the ongoing investigations that supported the writing embodied in Incursions and Excursions in and around Sri Lankan Cricket (Colombo, 1989, author as publisher, Vijitha Yapa Publications as distributor) benefited from information provided by many cricketing personnel. Let me provide two illustrations.

    A corpus of data was derived through telephone conversations with Daryl Foster who resides inPerth. Foster is as unpretentious and honest a person as one can wish for. I praise him without ever having met him — purely on the strength of his good works and the timbre of his commentary. He provided fresh information on the processes that had led to the Department of Human Movement & Exercise Science at theUniversityofWestern Australia(UWA for short) examining Muralitharan’s bowling action in January 1996, a measure that saved Murali’s career at that point of time.

    Till this conversation on the phone fromAdelaide, I was not aware that Foster had interacted with Muralitharan at close quarters at the St. Lawrence Grounds inCanterbury, the home of Kent County Cricket Club, in the early summer of 1995 when Foster was serving as coach. Muralitharan had arrived early and joined Aravinda de Silva atCanterburywhen bound for another county assignment. It was this friendship with Muralitharan and Aravinda and his evaluation of Muralitharan at close quarters that led Foster to offer his help in early 1996.

   Such an offer did not promise a partisan body of work from the UWA’s Department of Human Movement & Exercise Science. What Duleep Mendis as Team Manager and thus the ICC eventually received in a letter dated 19 January 1996 was a technical analysis that was not sullied by the country patriotism or self-righteousness of the sort that had directed Robert Simpson an others to target Muralitharan in their crusade against bowlers who chucked.[3]

    The second example I raise here serves as amusing relish, but also marks significant gaps in the information provided. My focus is on that moment in 23rd August 1984 when a body of Tamil demonstrators invaded the sacred precincts of Lords Cricket Ground to launch a protest against the Sri Lankan state during Sri Lanka’s one and only Test match that season. Sri Lanka had been asked to bat first and Sidath Wetimuny was wracked with tension and apprehension as he took guard. The intervention took place at precisely that moment. A chill ran through Wettimuny’s body as the vociferous cluster of men ran unto the field. He made “a tactical withdrawal” (his words) to the safety of the English slip cordon. He need not have worried. It was a peaceful demonstration. The Tamil men allowed themselves to be shepherded out by the police. When Wettimuny took guard again, his tension had evaporated and his technical skill ensured that he ground the English bowlers into the (sacred) dust by amassing 190 runs.[4] To this day he remains “eternally grateful” to those Tamil men ofSri Lanka who were againstSri Lanka.

     That is an amusing sidelight, a tale of human interest. The tale falls short however. Sidath Wettimuny could not remember what the placards proclaimed or what the demonstrators shouted. Neither could Amal Silva (the other opening batsman) and Duleep Mendis (in the pavilion) when I consulted them. Nor did the one English news item that I have retrieved thus far, one by John Woodcock in the Times of 24 August, illuminate this question. With the pogrom of July 1983 as immediate background,[5] of course, one could anticipate what would have been said. But it would be useful for historians to gain insights into the minds at propaganda work through the specifics of representation during this episode in cricket history that interlaces with the history of the Tamil-Sinhala conflict inSri Lanka.

Rex Clementine’s Oral History

In underlining the importance of oral history the preamble above clarifies why I have opted to write the Foreword. I applaud the initiative. Only scholars and reporters who have resorted to this type of work will comprehend the hard work it involves. There is mental pressure involved in so far as the person coining the queries has to remain sharp and focused, a demand that I failed to sustain during my ROHP work. Again, the subsequent task of transcribing the recording is more than exhausting unless one has the resources of an institution in support.

    One should not imagine that the fifty “Memorable Moments” captured thus by the Island enterprise organized by Rex Clementine is exhaustive. Lankan aficianados will point to several individuals whose knowledge was worthy of record or episodes glossed over or neglected during the course of this survey. In that sense it is only a beginning.

    Not surprisingly, Clementine’s selection of personnel and main focus has been on episodes surrounding previous World Cups. Among the liveliest of these tales are those presented by Sunil Wettimuny, Arjuna Ranatunga and others about the Sri Lankan Airlines charter flight back from Lahoreafter victory was secured on 17 March 1996. This is light-headed stuff, the sort of tale that is geared towards exaggeration and fantasy. As it happens, though, Tissa Jayatilaka was among the personnel who went to Lahoreand back on this flight and I already had some empirical information about the partying that went on during the journey back. The information that drinks were on the house on the captain’s orders, that is, Captain Sunil Wettimuny’s instructions, was new, spicy information to me. But Jayatilaka had told me that the baila and bajau was led by two senior citizens, Sam de Silva and Upali Mahanama, two fathers to team members. Sam de Silva, a fellow Aloysian and friend, is no more; but that he could bajau I can vouch for.

    Even within the parameters imposed by World Cup history, crucial empirical information of broader significance emerges at times during this series of interviews. Take the Q and A session with Ana Punchihewa, who was the elected President of the BCCSL in 1994/95. He informs us that the Board had only Rs 300,000 in its coffers in early 1995 when they were seeking a coach. They approached that indefatigable supporter of Sri Lankan causes, Dr. Quintus de Zylva. It seems to have been de Zylva who informed the Australian Board of Cricket about these circumstances while he was in the process of trawling for possible coaches forSri Lanka. At this point, says Punchihewa (Interview 26), “the Australian board asked us whether they could be of any help. We said we were struggling for finances. The Sri Lanka team was supposed to play a series in Australia later that year and we were to get 100,000 dollars US as guarantee fee and they were good enough to make it 200,000 US$ and they paid the money in advance.” This line of credit, so to speak, was like a life raft for floundering boat. Whatever the merits of its cricket team, the BCCSL, then, was not even a cargo ship in its financial foundations.

    It is a vital piece of information that would have certainly been picked up and stressed in my article on “Saving Murali” if that episode of Memorable Moments had arrived earlier – but as it happens my work was already in bed.

   That particular detail was, and remains, vital because my essay is cast as a slashing criticism of the Australian cricket world for the psych-ops mounted against the Sri Lankan team in 1995/96, the attempt to drum Muralitharan out of the game and the several decisions in 1996 to renege on their obligations to play in Sri Lanka, first their World Cup match and then the tour penciled in later in the year.

    Punchihewa’s critical piece of information on financial aid, therefore, is a counterpoint to this motif in my work. I was, fortunately, alive to other aspects of Australian support: for instance, their readiness to giveSri Lankareasonably lengthy tours in the 1980s and 1990s in contrast with the position adopted byEngland. In fact, the article on “Saving Murali” is shaped in part by the metaphorical contrast set up between Darrel Hair as “scimitar” and Daryl Foster as “crutch” in Muralitharan’s immediate Australian circumstances.

    Again, take the clutch of details provided by Arjuna Ranatunga in Interview 49 about selection issues and strategic decisions in the middle rounds of the World Cup in 1996. They highlight the camaraderie and committed team spirit of those players in the squad of fourteen who did not make the final XI, with special emphasis on Upul Chandana. The Selection Committee on tour, and the coach, Dav Whatmore, in particular, were keen to play Chandana againstEnglandin the quarter-finals because it was believed they would be vulnerable to his type of bowling. This meant replacing Roshan Mahanama with Chandana. We are now told by Ranatunga that Chandana had turned up quietly at his room and in the privacy of these surrounds had suggested that they should stick with the winning team and with experienced players.

“At about 10 in the night, Upul came to my room and said he wanted to speak to me. And he asked me why we were changing the team. ‘Why don’t we go with the winning combination,’ he asked. Then I asked him; ‘Are you scared?’ ‘We have six batsmen and you can bat in the lower middle-order.’ Then he said; ‘No, I am not scared, but it’s all about experience. I would love to play one game in the World Cup, but why do we have to change the winning combination?’ I said; ‘Okay, but, anyway, be ready to play the match. We will have a chat in the morning.”

Having mulled over this issue, at the grounds the team’s think-tank eventually took the decision to play Mahanama. It panned out well as Mahanama contributed to the victory with his batting, though Jayasuriya set it up with a violent innings.

    To put matters in a nutshell then, this Island book is a mine of information as well as a good read with some amusing stories. Thinking readers, however, will raise a pertinent question: how reliable is the empirical information conveyed by those individuals who have been honoured with the task of recollection and historical reportage in response to questions? Yes, this is a vital issue.

   Ultimately the answers depend on the character of each person responding to Clementine’s questions and the context of each particular “fact”. Take the revelation from Punchihewa about the financial aid provided by the Australian Board of Control for Cricket in 1995/96. I have not looked at the financial audit of either institution to confirm its veracity. I take this fact at face value because it is information that can be checked out if required and because the information brings no credit or preen to Punchihewa. It is probably true and it would be waste of labour time for me to chase down confirmation through oral investigations or auditing journeys.

    Again, there are individuals such as Michael Tissera, Sidath Wettimuny and Roshan Mahanama whose integrity of person is such that we not need to cast doubts on their honesty of information. However, even with such individuals it is possible for them to have been misled by others or for their memory to fail.

    These cautions direct readers to the possibility of spin and dissimulation in some answers. The disastrous World Cup campaign inEnglandis a good example. It is possible to criticize Clementine for too great a focus on 1996 and too little on the 1999 episode. But, to his credit, he did not totally neglect the latter either. It is the character of the answers he received that provide us with glimpses of some personalities and the spin they generate on questionable and bleak moments in their life.

    Readers should carefully assess the answers to two questions presented to Ranatunga by Clementine in the final interview, No. 50. They ran thus:

Question: What went wrong in the 1999 campaign inEngland?

 Question: There were off the field controversies as well during and after the 1999 World Cup.

 The first drew a couple of tangential moves that obfuscate rather than assist us. The second of these questions attracted the following answer: “For the 1999 Cricket World Cup cricket board officials took underworld criminals toEnglandon cricket’s expenses. These unwanted people made a mess of our cricket. Eventually Sri Lankan cricket paid a huge price for all that mess.”

     The unnamed official is Thilanga Sumathipala. At some point in 2003 a split in underworld circles and information provided by Mahinda Godage alias Badā Mahinda enabled the Sunday Leader’s intrepid investigative team to identify one Dhammika Amarasinghe (alias Ruwan Liyanage alias Dhammika Perera) as a shadowy underworld figure who had moved in the Sumathipala orbit.[6] Subsequently, both Sumathipala and Amarasnghe were jointly accused of felony in securing a false passport so that Perera could travel abroad for the World Cup in 1999. But when Perera was brought to court one day he was assassinated. The killer was caught, but there seems to be no information about those who had given him the contract. Eventually, with Perera out of the way and unable to sing, the case against Sumathipala was abandoned for lack of evidence.

     Ranatunga, then, is referring to these figures and to allegations that are not proven. But it is not concoction either. The issue, however, is whether these “facts” were central to the question raised. It seems clear that this facet of his response is an obfuscation and red herring. To those who are not aware of the background let me stress that Dhammika Ranatunga had been chosen earlier as CEO of the BCCSL by Sumathipala and that the Ranatunga clan were in firm alliance with Thilanga Sumathipala in the cabal that ran BCCSL in 1998 and 1999. Unverified rumours abound about the coteries taken toLondonby both wings of this alliance on the back of BCCSL’s cricket monies. It was later that the Ranatungas and Sumathipala fell out. Whenever an acrimonious break-up occurs inAsia, as we know, vengeance consumes the principal participants and takes a monumental form.

   This tendency has coloured Arjuna Ranatunga’s answers. In the process he obscured central elements in the story ofSri Lanka’s abysmal failure in the 1999 World Cup. Let me end by marking these factors and processes in point-form:

  1. The squad selected for the World Cup is known to have been those favoured by Arjuna Ranatunga so that the Selection Committee led by Duleep Mendis is widely believed to have rubber-stamped his preferences.
  2. The XV included several players in Arjuna Ranatunga’s coterie, among them Eric Upashantha and Pramodya Wickramasinghe. This does not mean they were totally useless choices. Wickramasinghe’s contributions were useful relative to most of the other bowlers. Upashantha was a swing bowler who could have been useful in English conditions, though he was ill-experienced and vulnerable to pressure (as events proved both in 1999 and later).
  3. Ranatunga is believed to have dominated selection policy and tactics during the 1999 tour with Roy Dias having a limited influence. Chandika Hathurasinghe was not deployed in any match, though his medium pace combined with batting ability and experience made him a better option than Upashantha.
  4. Having won the 1996 World Cup Ranatunga and Aravinda de Silva had let the triumph get to their heads and got too big for their boots. Both of them were also unfit and jaded in their personal performances, faint shadows of the figures that bestrode the World Cup stage in different conditions in 1996.

    In the result Sri Lanka won only two matches in its round of five games in Group A, those against Zimbabwe and Kenya. They ended a poor fifth in the Group with 4 points and a NRR of 0.8. More revealing are their batting totals against South Africa, India and England: 110, 216 and 210 respectively set against 199 for 9 by South Africa, a massive 373 for 6 by India at Taunton and England’s easy stroll to 207 for 2 in reaching Sri Lanka’s 210 runs.

    It is healthy for all of us today to dwell on the failure in the World Cup in 1999 and not to bask too strongly in the momentous triumph achieved in 1996. Optimism is high in Sri Lankatoday because we have a team that has enjoyed some success in the 50-over version of cricket in recent times. This has made for some headiness and unwarranted optimism about a series that is wide open.[7] That so many reporters, to judge from Chesterfield’s recent review in the Island, thought that Sri Lanka would easily run down the Pakistan total of 277 runs last Saturday, February 26th, is testimony to the giddiness of wishful thinking. Mario Perera, seated next to me in Block B, had better sense: he weightedPakistan’s chances as 60 to Sri Lanka’s 40 once the visitors batted first and recorded a decent total. He was on the mark. Both reviews and forecasts must stay grounded. So, too, must history writing and the oral and archival investigations that feed its products.

[1] These include Forces and strands in Sri Lanka’s cricketing history, Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association 2006 and two of the articles reprinted as chapters II and III in Incursions & Excursions in and around Sri Lankan Cricket,Colombo, Author, 2011.

 [2] Note MSS 0031Series 1 Oral History Project (Ceylon / Sri Lanka) 1965-6 in Michael Roberts Papers now at Barr Smith Library,Adelaide University

 [3] See Roberts, “Saving Murali: action on field and off-field, 1995-2005,” in Roberts, Incursions & excursions in and around Sri Lankan cricket,Colombo, 2011, pp. 112-17.

[4] See Roberts, “Cricket as protest arena: Tamil incursions,” in Roberts, Incursions & Excursions in and around Sri Lankan Cricket,Colombo, 2011, pp. 94-96.

 [5] Michael Roberts, “The agony and the ecstasy of a pogrom: southern Lanka, July 1983,” in Roberts, Exploring confrontation. Sri Lanka: politics, culture and history. Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1994.

 [7] See Roberts, “Sri Lanka’s prospects in the World Cup, 2011,” Island, ??  and http://www. maldiviandigital.com/f506/sri-lankas-prospects-world-cup-94066/

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