Gamini Goonasena: Tribute to a legend

Rodney Cavalier

Former Sri Lanka captain Gamini Goonasena died in Canberra last week. Gamini was a familiar name to us who were born after the War and grew up inSydney. Just as were being captured by the glories of cricket, we encountered Gamini Goonasena. He was a player out of the ordinary. Such a striking name. A black in a team of whites. Gamini was born in a country then called Ceylon. As a child of Empire, he was playing county cricket in England, first for Nottingham, then Cambridge University. He was a right-arm leg-spinner who gave the ball plenty of flight. When the wickets were helpful he could bring off prodigious spin. He was more than a useful batsman: his score of 211 in the annualOxfordvCambridgematch in 1957 remains the record for a Cambridgebatsman. He played seven times for the Gentlemen against the Players, itself a record.In a fine career he played 194 first class matches. Only seven did he play forNew South Wales, a statistic that astonished as he seemed to be around a lot. It is about his NSW career I want to write.

Gamini was approaching 30 when his career with the Ceylon Tea Board brought him to Australia. Who remembers their slogan, “the teas that please are Ceylonese”? He played first grade for Waverley. He was competing for a place in a NSW Shield side that included Richie Benaud, Neil Harvey, Alan Davidson, Norm O’Neill, Bob Simpson and Johnny Martin. He was offering himself as a spinner who could bat a bit in a side that had frontline spinners of the caliber of Richie, Johnny Martin and Peter Philpot. All could bat more than useful. Richie had three Test centuries to his credit, Martin hit some of the biggest sixes Australian grounds have seen, Philpot scored a first class double century.

Gamini was selected when the Test players were absent, cause for many vacancies. Gamini made his debut in the Shield game againstWestern Australia, 9-13 December 1960 at the Sydney Cricket Grounds. For keen observers, you will have noted the match overlapped the first four days of the First Test,Australiav West Indies inBrisbane, a Test that would finish in a tie and change the course of Australian cricket.Opening the pages of Webster – the complete statistics of first class cricket inAustralia since its beginnings – was like opening a forgotten box of family photos. There they were. Some of the finest names to have worn the Blue. Ian Craig was captain, enjoying an Indian summer of high scores. Making debuts were Dick Guy, a future Test selector who would be responsible for the selection of Peter Who in 1987, and Russ Waugh, about whom I know nothing. The Western Australia side opened its account with Lawrie Sawle, a future Test selector. In the side were Keith Slater who had played one Test in the Ashes of 1958-59. Each of Barry Shepherd, Graham McKenzies and Des Hoare would be playing Tests shortly.

In case we think small crowds are a recent phenomenon, the first day crowd was 1821. Only 2,844 came on Saturday.

NSW was demolished for 154 with McKenzies and Slater among the wickets. Only Brian Booth passed 50. Gamini, batting at no.7, scored 16 before Garth shattered his stumps. WA took first innings points with 233 (Shepherd 61). Gamini took a useful 3-66 off 15 overs. The NSW 2nd innings of 248 (Gamini 19) left WA 170 to get. They fell eight short. Gamini was an important part of the victory with 3-68 off 24.

Gamini had played well enough to be a part of the team minus the Test players but not so well as to disturb the grip of the absent. He played again againstVictoriaover the New Year period while the Second Test was in progress. On a batsmen’s wicket he scored 21 and toiled for 1-119 off 33. Bill Lawry staked a claim for the side toEnglandwith his 266, what was then the record first class score inAustraliasince the War.

Against South Australia, Gamini took 3-21 when SA collapsed for 108. One notes the names in the South Australian side – John Lill (later Secretary of the Melbourne Cricket Club), Ian McLachlan (future Defence Minister, presently Chairman of the SACA), Neil Dansie, Neil Hawke, Barry Jarman, Rex Sellers. The game was over in three days. Not bad for a second string outfit.

His final game for the season he gained familiar numbers – three wickets, a score below 25. More than a year passed before he played a single match in the 1962-63 season. NSW was flattened for 82 in a match otherwise famous for the first class debut of Doug Walters, just a kid and looking like a kid. I was present for the duration, giving me lifetime boasting rights that I saw Dougie’s debut.

 Another year and Gamini played one final game. AgainstVictoria he did not get a wicket in either innings. Whatever there was about Gamini, I liked him. In epic games of backyard cricket in Putney, I was Gamini when I was not Neil Harvey. Many years later I met him just the once at the SCG and explained my absolute honour in meeting him. Ian Craig, skipper in most of his NSW games, told me yesterday that Gamini was a good guy to have in your team. He contributed a lot. His final years were hard.

So passes another link with the golden summer of 1960-61 – for me, the passage of weeks between primary school and high school – when Frank Worrell led the most splendid group of men to our shores to play cricket and to find in Richie Benaud a leader entirely worthy of the challenge.

Cricket continued at all levels through that summer. The pages of Webster record the names of all those first class players who kept the flame. Gamini played but seven games for NSW. A younger Gamini would doubtless have played more. He certainly would have been a Test cricketer if Ceylon/Sri Lanka had been a Test nation. Gamini was a credit to his side and a credit to the game.

I am grateful to Cricket NSW for always advising of the passing of their players.Requiescat in pace, Gamini Goonasena!

 (Cavalier is a former New South Wales Minister for Education and is the current Chairman of Sydney Cricket Ground Trust)

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