Sri Lanka’s Inaugural Test at the Colombo Oval remembered

Oliver Doward of  BBC Sport,

This Monday, England play Sri Lanka in what for the hosts will be their 211th Test match. Just over 30 years ago, Sri Lanka was making their Test bow, also against England, at Colombo’s Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu Stadium. For Sri Lanka, the match marked the end of a long wait for Test recognition. They first played first-class cricket as Ceylon in 1927 against the MCC and made their international debut at the 1975 World Cup.

For England, the contest came off the back of a gruelling tour of India. A 1-0 series defeat after six energy-sapping Tests was quite a come-down from the euphoria of the summer of 1981 when Mike Brearley’s men so famously retained the Ashes. Brearley had sauntered off into the sunset to be replaced by another wily veteran, Keith Fletcher, the Essex captain who had last played for England in 1977. After losing the first Test in Mumbai, Fletcher and England became increasingly frustrated tourists, complaining of ill health, poor accommodation, lifeless pitches and bad umpiring.

‘The Gnome’, as he was affectionately known, also had to contend with his fair share of off-field issues including clandestine conversations that would eventually result in the first ‘rebel tour’ of South Africa and the banishment of England’s record run-scorer Geoffrey Boycott, sent home for playing golf while off the field because of illness.

Graham Gooch “We lost the first Test in Bombay and then as sometimes happens in the sub-continent, the wickets suddenly become very flat. Gavaskar and Viswanath filled their boots.”

John Emburey “It was nine overs an hour even with the spinners bowling. It was awful cricket.”

The change of scene in Sri Lanka came as a welcome relief for much of the squad, as did the unseasonal mildness at the PSS. Sri Lankan captain Bandula Warnapura won the toss and elected to bat on a surprisingly sticky wicket. The sense of excitement and anticipation was palpable… …..

Geoff Cook “The build-up was lively, there had been all kinds of pomp and circumstance in the preceding days. It was a bit surreal really, especially with the undercurrents of a potential rebel tour, there were all sorts of side issues going on.”

Sidath Wettimuny “We found out we had been granted Test status in a Yorkshire hotel during our 1981 tour of England. We were very excited and there was huge expectation from both players and fans. In the 1975 World Cup, we had given Australia a real scare. We firmly believed that we were good enough to compete with the best in the world.”

Chris Tavare “I remember the changing rooms were still being painted the day before the Test started!”

England got off to a flying start. Headingley heroes Bob Willis and Ian Botham dispatched both openers, Warnapura and Wettimuny. On the moist track, the ball was spitting viciously and Willis was finding steepling bounce. Roy Dias and the pugnacious Duleep Mendis, who had hit his country’s first boundary, soon followed.

Wettimuny “I was very nervous, the one thing we lacked was experience against international sides, so there was still an awe of players you had heard a lot about. Willis was pretty nippy and Botham’s great strength was his unpredictability. He was quite capable of a terrible delivery followed by an incredible one. He had an annoying knack of getting people out with bad balls, which is what happened to me!”

Duleep Mendis “Facing Bob Willis was quite an experience with that action and that hair. We had faced quicks in Australia but nothing quite like Willis!”

Keith Fletcher “The pitch was damp. I can’t remember whether they’d covered it but even if they had it wouldn’t have made any difference as they didn’t have very good covers anyway. But it wasn’t a bad cricket pitch, there was turn and the seamers could get it through.”

Sporting an over-sized helmet and brandishing a patched-up SS Jumbo, the 18-year-old Ranatunga looked every inch a 1980s schoolboy. Bob Willis welcomed him with a bouncer, but the teenager was soon displaying the confidence and appetite for the fight that would become his trademark. His half-century, the first by a Sri Lankan in Tests, was full of attacking brio off the front foot and feisty flicks to leg, particularly off the wayward Paul Allott. The partnership of 99 with Ranjan Madugalle, later an ICC match referee, took the score from 34-4 to 133-5…

Arjuna Ranatunga “We never felt the importance of Test cricket as schoolboys but when I was picked to play in the one day series and then the Test, I realised this was something far bigger than school and club cricket. Nobody was expecting me to perform so there was less pressure on me and I played that game as just another game.”

Gooch “Ranatunga had first played against us in the warm-up match in Kandy, he was quite a feisty character even as a teenager.”

Mendis “We all knew about him. I played with him right the way through my career at Sinhalese Sports Club. Seeing him walking into bat was a matter of huge pride for us because we knew he was going to be a great player.”

As the pitch began to dry out in the afternoon, Derek Underwood came into his own. Now 36 and in the twilight of his career, he finished with miserly figures of 5-28 off 18 overs. It was the Kent left-armer’s first five wicket haul since 1977. Sri Lanka were all out for 218…

Derek Underwood “I’d got the best match figures of my career in Sri Lanka for an International XI in 1967/68, 15 in the match, so I was comfortable on those wickets.”

Mendis “The wicket was still drying on day one which played into the hands of Underwood, who was a master in those conditions.”

In reply, England also got off to a shaky start. The powerfully built 22-year-old Ashantha De Mel was Sri Lanka’s secret weapon, a fast bowler of genuine pace. Northamptonshire’s Geoff Cook, making his Test debut, fended to gully. Tavaré was bounced first ball and yorked the next. Gooch was adjudged lbw. England were 40-3.

Cook “De Mel wasn’t what you’d expect from a Sri Lankan at that time, they were known for their diminutive players and their spinners, but he was a big strong lad, we didn’t know much about him.”

Emburey “De Mel was very sharp, he really ran in.”

Ashantha De Mel “We didn’t have any speed guns back then, I was running in and bowling as fast I could. I hit Tavaré on the head and then bowled him next ball. To play the first Test match, bowl the first ball and take the first wicket makes me feel very fortunate.”

A typically languid 89 from Gower rescued England, but their lead going into the second innings was just five runs. As the thermostat rose, England bowlers toiled against the dashing Dias. By the end of the third day, the hosts had reached 152-3.

Fletcher “I’d been there before on smaller trips with the MCC and other sides. I did know what to expect. I knew they’d be no pushover in their own country.”

Tavaré “I had played at University with Gajan Pathmanathan who took the Yorkshire bowling apart in a Benson & Hedges match at Barnsley in 1976, so I knew Sri Lankans had great flair as batsmen.”

Emburey “They were absolutely in the game. We’d had that tough tour of India and suddenly this match was slipping away from us. We went in very cold, there were no videos, no team meetings in those days. We didn’t do the homework on the opposition like they do these days.”

There were also further gripes about the standard of the officiating…

Fletcher “It was before the days of neutral umpiring, it took the authorities far too long to introduce that. I had got quite annoyed in India. They never minded giving nine, 10, jack out but not the top order.”

England regrouped on a dramatic fourth morning. From 167-3, Sri Lanka lost their last six wickets for eight runs to a series of injudicious shots. Off-spinner Emburey finished with 6-33 off 25 overs. It was an extraordinary turnaround.

Fletcher “They were a bit like the early West Indian teams, if you kept them quiet for a few overs, they would do something rash, and thankfully they did.”

Wettimuny “We hadn’t played five-day cricket, all we played was club cricket which was two days. I put it down to sheer lack of experience because we had England where we wanted and we let it go. I will never forget that passage of play. England knew they were in trouble. They knew we were the kind of guys who would block or attack. We weren’t going to work the ones and twos. Emburey had an inner ring and an outer ring but nothing in the middle. We fell into the trap.”

Emburey “For me personally it was great, it was my first six-wicket haul in Tests and to do it partnering Derek Underwood made it all the more satisfying.”

Gooch “He’d hardly seen a delivery turn in the previous four months in India!”

England’s target was 171. De Mel removed Cook for a duck, but an assured partnership of 83 between Tavaré and Gower eased England home. Sri Lanka’s much vaunted three-pronged spin attack of DS De Silva (leg spin), Kaluperuma (off spin) and Ajit De Silva (left arm) had been well and truly blunted by the time Gower stroked the winning boundary through the covers moments after Tavaré had been stumped for 85 off 186 balls.

Gooch “Positively smashing it for Tav! Chris unfairly got a reputation for the length of time he batted and was the butt of the jokes. I don’t think Geoffrey Boycott enjoyed it when he was up the other end and couldn’t get the strike. He was difficult to remove and although he could play a range of shots all round the ground, in Tests he would sometimes drop anchor and he was like a barnacle!”

Tavaré “I was no longer surprised by De Mel’s pace, which had certainly been my downfall in the first innings. Prior to the trip I did some work with Alan Knott, who had been successful in India on turning wickets in 1977, not that we saw many turning wickets in India!”

De Mel “Our spinners were very disappointed. They didn’t bowl quite at their best. If we had scored another hundred runs, I think we could have put England under a lot of pressure.”

Fletcher “Their spinners didn’t strike me as that special. We’d played a lot of spin in India so we were quite used to it by then. I thought it was going to be a tougher chase, but it was still a very hard Test match win.”

Ranatunga “It was part of a learning process. We were not professionals, we were amateurs, we had to go back to work after the Test match -me to school and the others to their jobs!”

Man-of-the-match Emburey, along with Gooch, would not play Test cricket again until 1985 after serving three-year bans for their participation in the tour of South Africa a month later.

Underwood’s three-wicket haul in the second innings took him to 297 overall, still the benchmark for an England spinner. ‘Deadly’ Derek would never play for England again after he too chose to join the rebel tour party.

Underwood “I didn’t know it would be my final Test at the time, it was unfortunate but I’m not too sad about it now. I played three Test matches against the Rest of the World in 1970 so I count those extra wickets which take me past the 300 mark!”


Graham Gooch is England’s record run scorer in Tests and the current England batting coach.

John Emburey retired in 1995 having taken 147 Test and 1608 first-class wickets. He has coached Middlesex and Northants.

Geoff Cook played just six more Tests for England. After 19 years at Northants, he became Durham’s first county captain and is now their head coach.

Sidath Wettimuny scored Sri Lanka’s first Test century in March 1982 followed by 190 against England at Lord’s in 1984, but lost his place in the side three years later.

Chris Tavaré played 31 Tests for England. He went on to captain Kent and Somerset. He is now a biology teacher.

Duleep Mendis captained Sri Lanka to their first Test win and scored 111 and 94 at Lord’s in 1984, hooking Ian Botham for three consecutive sixes. He managed the Sri Lanka squad that won its first overseas Test in 1995 and the World Cup in 1996.

Keith Fletcher captained Essex from 1974-1985 and again in 1988, presiding over the most successful spell in the county’s history. He has since coached both Essex and England.

Arjuna Ranatunga led Sri Lanka to World Cup victory in 1996. He retired in 2001. He has been chairman of the Sri Lanka board and is now an MP.

Derek Underwood retired in 1987 aged 42 after 25 years at Kent. He took 2,465 first-class wickets. He was named President of the MCC in 2008.

Ashantha De Mel took his country’s first five wicket haul and 17 wickets at the 1983 World Cup. He retired prematurely through injury in 1987 and is now Sri Lanka’s chairman of selectors.

It would also prove to be Keith Fletcher’s last hurrah in an England shirt. Shortly afterwards, he was sacked by chairman of selectors Peter May.

Fletcher “It was just me, the manager [Raman Subba Row] and the physio on that tour. I had a lot on my plate. I turned down South Africa then got the sack. It wasn’t the best of times for me, he [May] obviously did it for what he thought were good reasons and I disagreed with him.”

Emburey “It was hard for Fletch. The press really got stuck into him after he knocked his bails off in Bangalore. He was a very experienced captain with Essex, very tough, an excellent tactician. He could never remember anyone’s name though. We used to line up for introductions at the start of matches and Fletch would just make up the names!”

Sri Lanka, with Mendis at the helm, would eventually clinch a coveted Test victory in 1985  . Eleven years later they won the World Cup.

Mendis “In the 1975 World Cup, we played a game against West Indies  twice in Manchester because we’d lost by the time many Sri Lankans had travelled up from London, so we felt compelled to play another match. 21 years later we were the champions.”

Fletcher “Has it really been 30 years? They’ve done incredibly well, always been competitive from day one. For a small country it’s a magnificent achievement. I’m pleased for them because the Sri Lankans are genuinely lovely people.”

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