Sri Lanka’s cricketing rebels from the Saf tour of late 1982

Courtesy of the Indian Express, 21 August 1997

 Bandula Warnapura was Sri Lanka’s first Test captain. He was also the man who led the infamous Sri Lanka rebel team on the tour of the then apartheid South Africa in 1982-83. In a candid interview with The Indian Express, Warnapura discloses the men who were responsible for organising the tour and how he is still being hounded for a `crime’ which he has served out punishment more than anyone else. Warnapura admits that finance was one of the reasons for undertaking the tour. “But more than that it was the pressure I was under from some of the senior BCCSL (Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka) members. I was not sure if I was wanted in the side. They were gunning for me. So, after some hesitation, I decided to secure my future,” he explains. What pains him most is the fact that the men who organised the tour are holding key positions in Sri Lankan cricket, while he is still the target of some elements. “The tour was the brainchild of Tony Opatha, Duleep Mendis and Roy Dias. When we (the rebels) were in South Africa, the official, Sri Lankan team was in Zimbabwe. Duleep, Roy and DS (de Silva) wanted to join us directly from Zimbabwe but could not do so as their passports were withheld by the Manager (KMT Pereira) — obviously under instructions from the Board. They had signed the documents (to be part of the team in South Africa) and I still have the copies of their contracts with me.”

Warnapura says that Mendis and Dias backed out after they were spoken to by minister Gamini Dissanayake. “Had he spoken to a few others and given some assurances like he gave Duleep and Roy, the tour would never have taken place. Duleep and Roy were made captain and vice-captain respectively for two years when the Sri Lankan Board policy was to make such decisions on a series by series basis. But the impression we got was they wanted us to go. There is freedom of movement in our country, so even the Government could not have stopped us.” Warnapura accepts that the decision of the rebels to go to South Africa did not go well with the people of Lanka. “What, however, changed their attitude was the 25-year ban that was slapped on us when no attempt was made to stop us from going to South Africa. In fact, the ban was slapped on us even before we played our first match in South Africa.”

It was nine years after the ban that an inquiry was initiated by the Sports Minister, who then requested the BCCSL to life the ban. Warnapura’s ban was for nine years, a year longer then the rest of the rebels.

“The ban was slapped on us without any inquiry. How can anyone be charged in a civilised society without a trial?” he asks, unable to accept the injustice after all these years. “The 25-year ban was not just on international-level cricket but at all levels — domestic and local. It came as a complete shock to us. We thought our punishment would be on the lines of that faced by the English rebels, who were banned from playing for England but not from the counties.” Warnapura feels that had the BCCSL conducted a proper and fair inquiry, a lot of things would have come out like the people who masterminded the tour. “The people who organised the tour and picked the team went scot free. Today Duleep is the manager of the Sri Lanka team and Roy is a national selector.”

Warnapura says that Opatha, in fact, wanted to give evidence against the players in the inquiry.

But why? “Maybe somebody would have assured him, too of something. Anyway, he has realised that what he did was wrong.”

Warnapura says that the ban, personally, was a blessing. “I learnt a lot in those nine years. I can now prepare turf wickets, do coaching and cricket commentary. Of course, if they had known I would do all this, they would have banned me from all these activities too. Even today there are people who are trying to destroy me as a commentator. The vice-president of the BCCSL threatened the TV authorities to do away with my services as a commentator. The TV station wrote to the BCCSL and found that it was not the Board’s official stand but only an individual opinion.”

Most of the rebels bought houses from the money they earned in South Africa, but almost everybody got into unemployment problems. It was an added blow for most of them. Warnapura, Ajit de Silva, Anura Ranasinghe and Mahesh Goonatillake were the only Test players in the side, but there were several others who would have in good time earned the national colours. Someone like Ranasinghe was only 24 and he just could not come to terms with the repercussions and became an alcoholic under depression. Mercifully, he is now cured. “In a normal society, when one serves a term, he is pardoned. Even a criminal who has served a jail term. But the players who went to South Africa with us continue to suffer long after the ban period is over. That’s sad,” Warnapura laments.

But Warnapura is candid in saying that in similar circumstances he would still have done what he did then. “Anybody would have done the same thing. Why else did Duleep and Roy wanted to join us in South Africa after the 25-year ban was slapped on us?”

He is also frank when saying that apartheid did exist in the South Africa they toured. “Since the whites invited us, they ensured we saw only what they wanted us to see. We did not experience any apartheid, but the `whites only’ boards made it apparent that racial discrimination did exist in the then South Africa.”

Warnapura is determined that the `real truth’ must surface. “The real truth has not come out yet. Only a part of it is known. Before I die, it will all be documented in a book.”


BANDULA WARNAPURA (Captain): A full time coach now, who has till recently director of coaching of the Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka (BCCSL). Also a television commentator and an importer of sports goods.

LALITH KALUPERUMA: He is in the coaching committee of the BCCSL. Also into sports goods and import business. A very successful businessman in Colombo.

TONY OPATHA: Settled in England, where he is a professional coach.Favian Aponso: Settled in Holland, whom he represented in the Wills World Cup. A professional player and coach.

NIRMAL HETTIARARATCHI: Is now involved in the share market. Also coaches the famous Royal College, Colombo.

HEMANTA DEVAPRIYA: Got his old job back after the ban was lifted. Works for Maharaj & Company — a PVC pipe manufacturing firm.

BANDULA DE SILVA: Coaches at the Tyronne Fernando Stadium and school in Moratuwa.

ANURA RANASINGHE: Works in a sugar company in Kaluwatta, where he also coaches.

BERNARD PERERIA: A senior coach in Trinity College, Kandy,

JERRY WOUTERSZ: Got his old job back. Works for Manchester Threads as a marketing executive.

AJIT DE SILVA: Runs a store in Ambalagoda. Likely to enter politics.

MAHESH GOONATILLAKE: A university graduate, he had no difficulty in finding a job. Works in a garment factory near Kurunagela.

LANTHARA FERNANDA: Runs a hardware store in Moratuwa and visits cricekting assignment in Holland, courtesy Tony Opatha.

SUSANTA KARUNARATNE: Was working with Warnapura but now runs his own rent a car business.

Copyright © 1997 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd

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