Baila Cricket at Lords, August 1984

Janaka Malwatta, courtesy of ESPNcricinfo, where the title is different and where you will find comments from Sri Lankan bloggers

August 1984. That rarest of beasts, a hot English summer. Grandmaster Melle Mel’s “White Lines”, the soundtrack of that summer, brought a new music, hip-hop, to the streets. I was 16 years old, on the brink of adulthood, and wherever I looked, change was in the air. Eclipsing all else was the momentous event about to unfurl at Lord’s; Sri Lanka’s first official Test in England. On a hazy Thursday morning, I joined a throng of Sri Lankan supporters at the Grace Gates. It felt as if every Sri Lankan I knew was at the match. Aunties carried foil packets crammed with patties and vadai, uncles sneaked off to the bars as soon as they opened. It had been a long wait for Test status. The Sri Lankans had come to enjoy themselves.

SIDATH Sidath Wettimuny

For the England cricket team, playing a match against a fledgling Test country at the fag end of the summer was probably the last thing they wanted to do. David Gower’s team had been battered in every sense by Clive Lloyd’s West Indians in five brutal Test matches. At The Oval, scene of the final denouement, placards proclaimed the “blackwash”. Perhaps Gower was simply weary when he invited Sri Lanka to bat first on a wicket so placid that Ranjan Madugalle remarked, “Machang, you could go to sleep on this”, shortly before he was bowled.

It was a decision Gower had cause to regret. For nearly 11 hours, Sidath Wettimuny‘s straight bat and elegant drives made the English attack look obtunded. Aided by Arjuna Ranatunga, displaying the pugnacity that would become his hallmark, and the gloriously rotund Duleep Mendis, Wettimuny went on and on and on. For two days the English papers were full of the high left elbows, the textbook footwork, the classically correct style of the Sri Lankan batsmen. And for two days, I stood, danced, sang in the midst of a small but vocal crowd of flag-waving Sri Lankans. Every boundary was encouraged by a chorus of “Ara ara ara aro!” Every lull in play triggered another round of baila songs.

If Wettimuny was orthodox, Mendis played an untrammelled brand of cricket, cousin to the calypso cricket of the West Indians. We matched the exuberance on the pitch. I had no idea cricket could be so loud, so colourful, so joyful. Wettimuny eventually fell ten runs short of a double-hundred, but Sri Lanka had put a marker down – 491 of them – before declaring, of all things, in the first innings of their first match at Lord’s.

Regrettably, Sri Lanka’s bowling attack lacked the firepower of the batting, an ongoing problem. There was a glimmer of hope. Three wickets down, Allan Lamb nibbled at a ball outside his off stump. The edge headed straight to first slip. Amal Silva, gloves outstretched, flew to his right. I can still see him lying prostrate, first slip crumpled behind him, the ball trickling away. It was, at best, the shadow of a ghost of an opportunity to set up the game, but it was gone as quickly as it had come. Lamb went on to make a hundred, and even though England had a first-innings deficit of 121, the match was safe.

The Sri Lankan batsmen did, however, have a chance to put on another show. Silva literally limped to a hundred, and Mendis hit a flamboyant 94, almost emulating George Headley by scoring a hundred in each innings of a Test at Lord’s. Headley was, at that time, the only batsman to have done the Lord’s double. When asked by Peter West why he had slapped a sloppy shot to midwicket when he was on the brink of greatness, Mendis smiled and replied that he was tired. To me, that quote sums up the Sri Lankan set-up at the time. Joyous, unrepentantly adventurous, amateur to the core.

It was in some ways the nearly match. Wettimuny nearly hit a double-century in his country’s first match at Lord’s. Amal Silva nearly pouched a catch to send the England top order into disarray. Mendis nearly matched George Headley. But it was an extraordinary debut nevertheless.

Sri Lanka had waited 55 years from their first-class debut to its Test debut. At a time when sport was at the forefront of the anti-apartheid struggle, it was whispered that the authorities did not wish to upset the delicate balance between the old Commonwealth – England, Australia and New Zealand – and the new – India, Pakistan and the West Indies. Whatever the reason, for senior players, like Wettimuny himself, and Roy Dias, a stylish and compact right-hand batsman, that solitary Test was their only chance to display their talents in England. The seeds of future greatness were sown that day, though, not least in the form of a 20-year-old Arjuna, and a debutant 18-year-old named Aravinda de Silva. Those of us who sang in the stands, and afterwards bestrode the Lord’s turf, were proud. Sri Lanka had shown panache, had comfortably outplayed the home side, and, above all, had proved they could compete at Test level. Baila never sounded so good.

Janaka Malwatta is a poet, doctor and cricket lover who lives in Brisbane. He tweets here

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