Nirgunan Tiruchelvam, courtesy of islandcricket.lk and The Island, where the title is “The Man Who Bowled Viv Richards”
Kapila Wijegunawardene, the new Chairman of Selectors, was an unsung cricketer. None of the present team are aware of his record. He deserves fame not obscurity. The fast bowler played just two Tests and 26 ODIs during the dark era between 1987 to 1992 when nobody toured the island. His day in the sun was his role in Sri Lanka’s first victory over the West Indies, which took place in Rajkot, India in October 1989. It was an ODI in the league stage of the six-nation Nehru Cup
Wijegunawardene’s name will ring long in cricket’s memory as he bowled Viv Richards, the greatest of post-war batsman. He is only Chairman of Selectors in the world with that accomplishment. On that day, West Indies struggled against Sri Lanka’s swing bowlers. Wijegunawardene was the star with 2 for 30. The mighty West Indies limped to 176 for 9. Sri Lanka, led by the 25-year-old Arjuna Ranatunga, were electric in the field. Except for Desmond Haynes and to a lesser extent Richards, none of the West Indians applied themselves. They underestimated a team that had less international exposure than Ireland has today.
Asanka Gurusinha, a determined plodder, was the batting star. His patient 66 was foundation for Sri Lanka’s chase. There was a late wobble when Sri Lanka lost three wickets for 45 runs. Athula Samarasekera and Hashan Tillakaratne, took Sri Lanka over the line with four wickets to spare.
The cricketers were jubilant, but the victory received scant attention in Sri Lanka. Cricket was far from the country’s attention. The JVP insurrection was at its peak.
Wijegunawardene was a swing bowler with an easy action. He could hurry batsmen and had a deadly in-swinger which proved Richards’ undoing. Wijegunawardene’s memory of the event is vivid. He recalls that “Viv Richards walked in after two early wickets. We feared him not only because he was Viv Richards, but because he had smashed 181 against us in the 1987 World Cup. The great man walked in with supreme confidence. After about 30 minutes at the crease, he had got his eye in. I bowled Viv Richards for 24 through the gate with an inswinger. Richards was on the front foot. It is a moment that I will not forget.”
Wijegunawardene’s journey to international cricket was long and hard. He had captained the elite S. Thomas’ College to defeat in the 1983 Big Match. After leaving school, Wijegunawardene developed a reputation as a fine bowler for Colombo Cricket Club. Ashantha de Mel, Rumesh Ratnayake and Vinothen John were ahead of him in the pecking order. They were quicker and abler. By 1988, he was knocking on the door, particularly as de Mel struggled with his fitness.
Wijegunawardene’s career had great promise, but his international opportunities were extremely scarce. His ODI debut was in the Asia Cup in 1988, where he was instrumental in beating Pakistan. His Test debut was the one-off Test at Lords in 1991. He was nearly 27, which is when fast bowlers start to decline. Sri Lanka were crippled by Arjuna Ranatunga’s suspension. Wijegunawardene was used sparingly by Aravinda de Silva. He went wicketless.
The length of his surname was a severe challenge to the condescending commentators. Brian Johnston wished that Sri Lanka had picked Vinothen John instead, as his name was shorter.
His final Test provided a fleeting glimpse of his talent. In his second and final Test against Pakistan at Faisalabad he had a match analysis of 7/98. In the second innings he took 4 for 51, which took Sri Lanka within sight of victory. But, it was not to be, as the batting faltered.
There were murmurs that Wijegunawardene would play during the 1992 Australian tour of Sri Lanka. However, Sri Lanka turned to spin in that series. A slim 20 year-old called Muttiah Muralitharan made his debut. Kapila then chose to focus on his career as a Business Executive at Maharajas.
Wijegunawardene’s appointment revives memories of Sri Lanka’s early hardship. The country was deprived of his talent due to the cricket drought. He may make up for it by finding new blood at a time of transition.
Sanath Jayasuriya, the previous Chairman, had a mixed record. The committee introduced two paid selectors, which is an excellent move. Jayasuriya’s pedigree was an asset. But, the committee was basically a one-man show. Not even a blade of grass could grow under the Sanath Jayasuriya Banyan tree.
Jayasuriya’s main fault was the chaotic leadership appointments. Sri Lanka introduced a new concept to cricket – the tag team captaincy. Angelo Matthews was captain only in name. The old firm of Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene openly set the field. TM Dilshan added his two cents worth.
Dinesh Chandimal was given the Test and ODI vice-captaincy before he cemented his place. He was also the T20 captain, but was displaced by Lasith Malinga. Chandimal could not handle it. Things took a turn for the worse with Lahiru Thirimanne’s appointment, whose credential are even worse than Chandimal’s. During the World Cup, there were seven captains in the playing eleven.
Wijegunawardene can rectify Jayasuriya’s faults. His committee includes Hemantha Wickramaratne, who retired in 2009 after 20 years of club cricket. If Wijegunawardene can find some bowlers that can rattle Viv Richards, then he will deserve the adoration that has eluded him.