University and Ceylon cricket in yesteryear: when cricket was for gentlemen and students


I was privileged to be invited by the 62-63, champion cricket team of the University of Ceylon, to their 50th anniversary celebration dinner at Blue Waters in Wadduwa a week ago. As I made my way from Colombo that evening I reflected on some of the names that had made that dream possible for University cricket….Carlyle Perera, Buddy Reid, Mano Ponniah, Mohanlal Fernado, Nihal Gurusinghe, Harsha Samarajiva, Nanda Senanayake, Cyril Ernst, Lareef Idroos ,V. Sivanandan, Nihal de Mel, “Gompa’ U.R.P, Gunatilleke, ‘Kitha Wimalaratne, Kingsley Fernando, Merril Gunaratne, Travis Perera;. Whew, each an outstanding school boy cricketer in his time and thereafter eminently successful here and overseas as doctors, engineers architects, businessmen, and in Merril’s case a very senior DIG.A name card indicated my place at this formal dinner and as I took my seat the team’s skipper Carlyle Perera began his speech. Yes the discipline was still very much evident as the evening programme was followed strictly to schedule. The speech was a sentimental journey down memory lane as Carlyle recounted the events leading to the tournament and then dwelt on the tournament itself.

An oversight of the administration had resulted in the University failing to send their fees to the Cricket Board on time. This meant that the University XI stood in danger of being debarred from participating and sadly the team that would have then crept in from a lower division as a result of a debarment left no stone unturned to ensure this. Carlyle’s battle had begun long before the first ball was bowled in that year’s P. Sara Trophy, then the nation’s premier cricket tournament. Fortunately saner counsel eventually prevailed and the University was given the nod to participate.

 As Carlyle re-lived the various games in brief, and the heart stopping final versus Colts at the Park, one incident stood out in my mind. Buddy Reid his closest friend and vice captain, was also a national table tennis champion. With a major tournament in the offing Buddy took time off on two consecutive days to practice the indoor game without his skipper’s permission to do so. That weekend’s game was crucial for the University, but so was the maintenance of discipline. Carlyle did not hesitate to make that difficult decision….he dropped his vice captain for that match demonstrating that breaches in discipline would be dealt with uniformly and not on a selective basis. It had a salutary effect on the team, and bonded them even more closely. Buddy the man he is, ensured that he did not miss a single day’s practice for the rest of that season!

Team morale reached a high as did the commitment and the reward was appropriate…..the P. Sara Trophy came to rest for the first and only time at the University of Ceylon! Carlyle concluded his absorbing address by paying tribute to the Vice Chancellor, Lecturers, the administrative staff headed by Dr Eric Alles, PAS Perera, and the two loyal groundsmen, loku and podi Piyasena.

For me it was indeed a memorable evening made all the more special by the humility of my genial hosts many of whom represented the country and contributed to the foundation for our elevation to test status that followed in 1981.

 Buddy Reid, Mano Ponniah and Lareef Idroos in particular featured in some important international matches against Pakistan and India in the mid sixties that Ceylon won. The next evening at the NCC, Michael Tissera, HIK Fernando, Neil Chanmugam, Anura Tennekoon, Ronnie Reid, Sylvester Dias, ACM Lafir, L.R Gunatilleke and AG Perera graced another reception hosted by these same gentlemen to give a glimpse of what sustained our nation’s cricket in the 60s while the presence of men of the calibre of Maj Gen C. Thurairajah, Harry Rasiah, Maj Gen Lalin Fernando , Jayantissa Ratwatte, David Ponniah, Lakshman Karaliadde, Rajah de Silva, Mahinda Wijesinghe, Ranjith de Silva, Michael Joachim, Ranjan Samarasinghe, Roger Abeyratne, et al made it a perfect reunion.

 Seven years later under the captaincy of Mevan Peiris the Thomian all rounder, in the 69-70 season, the University of Colombo became League Champions (the closest the University ever got to winning the trophy for a second time). Coincidentally, here too an incident relating to discipline had the same effect on our team. Sarath Seneviratne, a close friend and schoolmate of Mevan was by far the best batsman in the side. However Sarath was often late in arriving at the ground on match days and on occasion even after the captains had exchanged teams. In one such instance Mevan took the bold decision to leave him out in an important match. We not only went on to win that game, but Sarath never got late for a match thereafter. Yes it had a beneficial impact on morale and motivation and like Buddy Reid, Sarath too took it in his stride and came up with some sterling performances after that.

 We emerged Champions in the League beating a star studded Nomads outfit in our final game that boasted a near national team ….DH, DP and DS de Silva, Lionel Fernando, TB Kehelgamuwa (furiously fast then) Daya Sahabandu, Anura Polonnowita, and Abdul Lafir. Carlyle’s efficient wicket keeper V.Sivanandan had by then moved to the Nomads and did the honours behind the stumps.

 We batted first at Thurstan road and were soon in disarray at 5 for 42, caused by a typical “Kehel” blitz. MH Fuard (a brother of Abu) joined me at the crease and we set about a rearguard action and recovery that frustrated the Nomads up to close of play on the first day and well into the morning on the second. When we were parted by a run out (due to some excellent work by keeper Sivanandan) we had added a crucial 154 runs and with the rest of the batsmen throwing in their mite we were all out for 262, a defendable total.

 When we took the field we were a team that was raring to go. Mevan led from the front with an outstanding spell of sustained swing bowling almost right through the Nomad inning, while the rest of us gave him support by pegging away at the other end. Needless to say our fielding bordered on brilliance and when the final Nomads wicket fell at 188 to a spectacular catch, we had won by a comfortable margin of 74 runs and were League Champions.

Unfortunately we failed to produce the same brilliance in the final round as exams clashed with matches precluding us from fielding the team that produced the magic in the league. However Mevan Peiris, Sarath Seneviratne and I were picked for the Gopalan Tie (a very significant event in the Cricket Board’s calendar in those years) in Colombo later that year, (1970) and Mevan’s 5, my 4 and Sarath’s stylish half century contributed in no small measure to the Board regaining the trophy under Anura Tennekoon at the Oval.

Our Varsity squad comprised of Mevan Peiris, Priya Paranavithane, (vice captain ) S. Skandakumar, Selva Perumal, Chandima de Alwis, Shanti Koratota, Jayantha Wickremasooriya, T. Navaratnam, Prem Balaji, Sidat Dharmatilleke (Science Faculty), MH Fuard, Sarath Seneviratne, R. Seevaratnam, Gamini Ambepitiya, Arul Anketell (Medical faculty) R. Suresh Chandra, J. Canagarayer (Law Faculty ) and Nandin Chandradeva (Arts Faculty).

 As in the case of Carlyle’s team each member of ours also went on to high achievements in their chosen careers. We too were indebted to our Vice Chancellor, Lecturers, the same admin staff as our peers, in addition to the genial KLF Wijedasa and Mrs Sybil de Silva.

The Universities in those years attracted not only the finest minds but also many outstanding sportsmen and women. In fact in the sixties the University of Ceylon, represented by Colombo and Peradeniya-combined was to the forefront of sports in general, emerging champions in major national tournaments in Badminton, Basketball, Hockey and Table Tennis as well. Names such as N.Rasalingam, Ranjith de Silva, C. Thurairajah, Harry Rasiah, Buddy Reid etc were synonymous with these games. That was also a period when discipline was very much a part of an undergrad’s life and profile and the talents were effectively harnessed by two very enthusiastic and energetic Directors of Sports, at Peradeniya and Colombo, Leslie Handunge and KLF Wijedasa.

 By the mid seventies and with standardization for university admissions in force, many unsuspecting and impressionable young students became pawns in a power game that progressively lured them into a political world instead of lecture halls and playing fields. Those numbers very sadly increased almost exponentially in the years that followed, undermining discipline in almost every University. The arrogance of authority then began dealing with these breaches on a selective basis and that too had a negative impact and contributed to a further slide thereafter.

Many years later while holding honorary office with the Cricket Board I was invited to tea by the Vice Chancellor Prof Stanley Wijesundera. As I shook his hand in his office, I said: “Sir it’s a real privilege to walk through the College House gates because in our time we did so in silence, only to check on our examination results”. With a grim smile he said: “Skanda now not only do students come into my office uninvited, they sit on my table and thump their fists.” Not long after that he was brutally gunned down in that same office.

 Why Did It All Go Wrong: To those of us who experienced and cherished University life in those conducive times what has ensued in the years afterwards and is lingering on at present seems so much like yet another national tragedy to those that have befallen our beautiful country in recent times.

 One can only sympathize with the predicament of the genuine students for the environment and circumstances that surrounded their careers in later years. In addition, personal pressures too must have taken their toll of them. Given the huge window of opportunity that has opened for reconciliation and unity, it is not too late for life in the Universities to also revert to the core values that once made them and Sri Lanka (Ceylon ) the envy of the East.

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