The first Test: As they walked into the ground, taking their first apprehensive steps into the harsh world of Test cricket, the Sri Lankans could not have asked for a worse start. Captain Bandala Warnapura had opted to bat on a damp wicket at the Saravanamuttu Stadium, Colombo. After 35 minutes of struggle, he became the first Lankan batsman to be dismissed in Test cricket, edging one from Bob Willis. Two runs later, a severe blow was struck as Roy Dias walked back for a blob, caught by Geoff Cook off the same bowler.
Dias was acknowledged as the most stylish batsman of the island, with a fabulous gift of timing. With years of experience in First-class cricket already behind him, he was the man Sri Lanka looked at to add a dash of class to the inexperienced line-up. Three years ago, when they had pulled off a surprise win over India in the 1979 World Cup, Dias had been the batting hero with a patient half-century.
Sri Lanka fought back for a while through Ranjan Madugalle and a very young Arjuna Ranatunga, but then Derek Underwood started bowling over the wicket into the rough and ran through the batting line-up. The first innings of the new cricketing nation amounted to a measly 218.
Some thoughtful, enthusiastic bowling by Ashantha de Mel and Somachandra de Silva kept the English lead down to just five runs. And when Sri Lanka batted again, Dias displayed exactly why he was considered as a force to reckon with.
On a crumbling wicket, the experienced duo of Underwood and John Emburey were becoming unplayable, but Dias batted against them like a dream. His cover driving during the innings was exceptional, virtually flaw-less. The 77 that he scored under pressure and against all odds must rank with one of the best innings he ever played, and among the very best ever for a minnow nation just dipping their feet in the merciless pool of top grade cricket.
While he was at the wicket, at 140 for two, the match had been all but taken away from England. That was when Underwood induced him to snick one to Bob Taylor towards the end of the third day. On the fourth morning, Emburey bowled from round the wicket and the home side lost their last seven wickets for eight runs. Inexperience told heavily, and England survived the minor scare, winning easily in the end by seven wickets.
However, Sri Lanka’s debut had been impactful, and Roy Dias had been revealed to the world as a batsman of the top league.
Standing among ruins: It would be quite accurate to say that Dias started with a bang and continued in the same vein for a couple of years. Sri Lanka, though, did not progress as fruitfully. After the inaugural Test, Dias toured Pakistan, scoring 53 in Karachi, 98 in Faisalabad and 109 in Lahore in the three Tests. Yet, Sri Lanka lost the series 0-2.
Moving to India, he hit 60 and 97 in the only Test at Chennai, and scored two centuries in the One-Day Internationals. At this stage, he had played five Test matches, with at least a half century in each, having 529 runs to his credit at 52.90 with one century and five half centuries.
Watching him at the wicket was a delight, the compact technique and the fluent timing.His driving through the off-side was a special treat – where along with Zaheer Abbas and Dilip Vengsarkar he added a third dimension of subcontinental elegance. With Duleep Mendis, he formed the bulwark of the early Sri Lankan line-up around which the rest of the batting revolved.
The form dipped somewhat in the series that followed, but Dias did notch up yet another hundred against the visiting New Zealand side, standing solid against Richard Hadlee to deny them victory in the second Test.
His career reached its peak during the historic series against India in 1985. In the second Test at Colombo, he laid the foundations for the first Test match win of the nation by scoring 95 in the first innings and stroking a fluent 60 in the second. In the final Test at Kandy, Mendis joined him at 24 for three in the second innings, and they put on a match-saving 216. Batting over five hours, Dias scored 106 before being run out, denying the Indian bowlers the victory that they desperately strived for. The eventual draw ensured the first ever series win for Sri Lanka.
During this epic innings, Dias also became the first Sri Lankan to reach 1000 runs in Tests, in just 12 Tests at an average of over 46. However, that was the last hurrah.
Sri Lanka as a team could not capitalise on the victory and continued to struggle, succumbing to humiliating defeats in Pakistan, India and at home. And Dias as a batsman could not keep up his exalted standards. The last eight Tests of his career brought him a paltry 265 runs with just one fifty on a featherbed. His Test career hurtled to an abrupt end as incidents of terrorism around the country forced cancellation of two of the three Tests scheduled against New Zealand in 1987.
He did return for the Reliance World Cup six months later, and managed 80 against England in his last international appearance, but like so many of his excellent efforts this innings too came in a losing cause. Dias ended with 1285 runs from 20 Tests at a very healthy average of 36.71, figures that seem more impressive given the fragile team he had to represent all through.
We have been blessed with a gamut of serious batting talent from the beautiful country in recent years, from Aravinda de Silva and Sanath Jayasuriya to Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara. But Roy Dias will be definitely remembered as the first Sri Lankan batsman to stamp his class and authority on international cricket.
Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix