Dhanasiri Weerasinghe enters the Fray: Stormy Currents in Ceylon Cricket in the 1960s

Sa’adi Thawfeeq, in Daily News 21 April 2018, where the title is “The cricket tour that never took place but changed national selection policy” …. AND where Thawfeeq’s sub-title line runs thus:Dhanasiri Weerasinghe a key figure in the controversy spills the beans after 50 years

It is fifty years since Sri Lanka first attempted a full cricket tour of England, that failed to materialize for several reasons. Many are of the view had that tour taken place in the summer of 1968, Sri Lanka would not have to wait to gain Test status for as long as 1981 but become a full member of the ICC much earlier.

To understand the reasons behind why the tour failed to take place one has to delve into the background of how it first came about.

Soon after Ceylon (as it was known then) was admitted to the Imperial Cricket Conference (now known as International Cricket Council) as an associate member in 1965, SC ‘Billy’ Griffith, then secretary of the MCC and manager of the MCC team that toured Australia and made a visit to Ceylon in 1965 offered to host the Ceylon team for a tour of England in 1968. However Griffith stressed that the tour was not to be considered as an admission to Test status but a stepping stone to that higher status, an opportunity for Ceylon to learn to play longer hours, over a greater number of days. The MCC arranged for Ceylon to play against 12 counties, two universities, MCC, Scotland and Ireland – a tight schedule of 15 first-class 3-day matches and some minor games during a two-month tour.

Dhanasiri Weerasinghe when he captained Ananda College in 1955

The tour ran into difficulties even before it had started over funds. The Sri Lanka Cricket Board did not have the wherewithal to undertake a tour of such magnitude and they appealed for funds. THE FIRST TO RESPOND TO THE CALL FOR DONATIONS WAS THE ASSOCIATED NEWSPAPERS OF CEYLON LIMITED (ANCL) WHO MADE A CONTRIBUTION OF RS. 3000. Others took the cue and followed afterwards. However it was not because of the lack of funds that the tour failed to materialize but over team selection!

Dhanasiri Weerasinghe who was a central figure in the team selection controversy was good enough to roll back the years and recall in detail what actually took place and how the tour eventually came to be cancelled. Weerasinghe, a former Ceylon captain and chairman of selectors was in Sri Lanka recently on holiday and took time to speak to the ‘Daily News’ about the pandemonium that reigned during that time which put back the progress of the country’s cricket by at least a decade.

Relating what took place Weerasinghe now in his eighties (he is 82) said, “What actually happened then was, for a number of years nobody from Galle, Panadura, Kurunegala, Kandy, Ananda College, Nalanda College or any other schools could play for Sri Lanka. With FC ‘Derek’ de Saram in charge, they would always select the Thomians and Royalists, the Josephians and the Peterites and we would get no chance whatsoever. There was an outcry from the clubs that we had to change this method of selection and eventually they did. Sam Abeysekera who was a Thomian and a national selector was the one who really started the ball rolling by saying, “Dhanasiri this has to stop. Everybody who comes from anywhere should play for Sri Lanka and therefore all the clubs backed us. They also said, ‘Peter May and Colin Cowdrey as selectors had been picked to play for England as selectors so you as selectors could also pick yourselves if you were good enough. We were good enough at that time and we decided to select ourselves. Only Chandra Schaafter (a national selector) stood in our way. He walked out and created all the issues and the papers were dead against us, so was Robert Senanayake (who was then Cricket Board president).”

The Ceylon team selected for the tour was:

* Dr Herbert IK Fernando (captain)

* Michael Tissera (vice-captain)

* Stanley Jayasinghe

* Dhanasiri Weerasinghe

* Abu Fuard

* Anuruddha Polonowita

* Tikiri Banda Kehelgamuwa

* Daya Sahabandu

* Dr Buddy Reid

* Anura Tennekoon

* Ranjith Fernando

* Dan Piachaud

* Mano Ponniah

* Gamini Goonesena

Standbys: Sarath Wimalaratne, Nihal Samarasekera, Lionel Fernando, David Heyn.

Dan Piachaud, Gamini Goonesena and Mano Ponniah who were already in England playing for the counties and university were invited to join the team.

The four-member selection committee comprised: Dhanasiri Weerasinghe (chairman), Dr HIK Fernando, Sam Abeysekera and Chandra Schaafter.

DUDLEY REFUSES BROTHER ROBERT’S REQUEST

Speaking further Weerasinghe who was employed in the Police Force said, “The Sports Minister was VA Sugathadasa and I was the Minister’s security. He knew everything that was going on. Robert came to him and said, ‘You know Sugathe there is so much media reports about the selectors selecting themselves and all, we must cancel the tour.’ The Minister said, ‘As the Minister of Sport if you as president of the cricket association tell me I will do that’ and he cancelled the tour.


Weerasinghe batting for Ceylon

“A week later, Robert turns up and says to the Minister that Dusty Miller (who represented Ceylon at the ICC) had got 15 tickets and whether a President’s XI can be sent to England. Sugathadasa told him, ‘Look I am the Minister and I cancelled the tour, I can’t ask a President’s XI to tour it must be a Sri Lankan XI that should tour why don’t you speak to your brother (Dudley Senanayake) who is the Prime Minister and get it okayed’. But Dudley refused.

“Gamini Goonesena was invited by us to be player-manager of the team so that he could manage and advise the team. Anyway Gamini also turned against us. But Sugathadasa stood by us. Calling off the 1968 tour came about purely because we changed the team policy.

PI Pieris, Neil Chanmugam and the crowd we dropped them and made room for others so they all rose up in arms. Without any doubt the tour cancellation was the opening of doors for cricketers from other schools and clubs to gain selection to the national team,” Weerasinghe stated.

‘HAVE YOU BROUGHT YOUR SARONG WITH YOU?’

The selectors even went to the extent of demoting Michael Tissera (who had then won two unofficial tests against Pakistan and India) to the role of vice-captain. Weerasinghe however had his reasons for doing so.

“When CI Gunasekara finished captaining in 1962 Michael had come into the team and Derek picked him as captain straight away when it should have gone to HIK who was the next senior player. That’s what made us all angry not with Michael but the manner in which the appointment was made. Michael was a good captain, a lovely player and nobody had anything against him. At that time we thought the right thing should have been done by appointing HIK. That was how HIK was picked to captain the 1968 team to England,” explained Weerasinghe.

“You know that when Polonowita when he first went to play for the SSC, Derek de Saram asked him whether he had brought his sarong with him. It was that sort of attitude that we had to live with. It was the time when the brown sahibs ran the show and you couldn’t blame them for it. During that time a player like (Lasith) Malinga would have never played for Sri Lanka, Derek would have cancelled him straightaway,” Weerasinghe said.

Weerasinghe, a product of St John’s College, Panadura and Ananda College had to pay a heavy price for the role he played in the selection.

“The next year when the State Bank of India team came to Sri Lanka the team that we had picked for England was chosen to play against them except for me. I was dropped continuously for about 2 to 3 years but I continued to play and I scored runs so they couldn’t ignore but pick me. The reason for not picking me was because of the England tour cancellation,” recalled Weerasinghe, an aggressive right-hand bat, leg-spin bowler and outstanding fielder.

“Suddenly one day I get a call from DD Jayasinghe (chairman of selectors) who had replaced us. He said, ‘Dhanasiri I am at a board meeting I want you to come because we are choosing you as the captain for the South Indian tour (Gopalan Trophy).’ So I turned up and we chose the team. There was an issue about HIK Fernando as I wanted him as vice captain. HIK said that he will play under anybody for the country. I won the Gopalan Trophy against Madras (now Chennai) and the papers had to write good things about us. I retired immediately after that.”

BEST INNINGS

It was on that tour that Weerasinghe played the best innings of his career for Sri Lanka.

“I would rate the 94 I scored at Chepauk as my best innings because it was made against Venkatraghavan, VV Kumar and Satwender Singh. You know what the wickets are like in India, turners. That was I thought quite an exceptional innings by me especially being captain.”

Weerasinghe also scored a pleasing 43 in Sri Lanka’s first ever limited overs international win over the MCC at the P Sara Oval in 1969, sharing a second wicket stand of 64 with Anura Tennekoon (42).

“These are things that happen in life I am not angry with anyone. I still have very cordial relationships with Michael (Tissera), Fitzroy Crozier and all the Reid brothers in Australia, they are very close friends. The fight was they realised that everything went according to their plans and we couldn’t get a foot in. When it all changed they used to call us “Maradana boys” and various things like that. PI became a very close friend even though I dropped him from the team to England. Every time he came to Australia we had lunch together.”

Born on September 8, 1935 in Panadura, Weerasinghe played in the first eleven team for St John’s College Panadura at the age of 13 in 1949 as a leg-spin bowler. He came to Ananda College the following year and played for the first eleven as a leg-spin bowler and went in as the last batsman.

“I travelled to Ananda College by train from Panadura as my mother who was from Nuwara Eliya and father from Baddegama had settled down there. I played for Ananda from 1951 to 1955 captaining in my final year. That year I was selected as the best all rounder Ceylon Schools by the Times of Ceylon and Ananda was the champion school team,” said Weerasinghe. “I left college after 1955 and played one year for Panadura SC in the Daily News trophy scoring two hundreds and a 90 then I came to Bloomfield. That’s where I started playing Sara trophy division I cricket. From 1958 onwards I played for Ceylon in almost every game till I retired at the age of 35.”

MIGRATION TO AUSTRALIA

Weerasinghe recalled the hard times cricketers of his era had to undergo unlike in today’s context where they are awfully rich.

“There was a lot of hardship in the sense there wasn’t a lot of money. We had to come from outstation every day for practice. It wasn’t easy but there were a lot of people who helped Sri Lanka cricket at the time and we just got used to that kind of life,” recollected Weerasinghe.

“The government wouldn’t give you money to take out of the country. So we had to go and sell our bats in India to get some money to buy our wife a saree or clothes for yourself, it was really tough. But we were young, we were happy and we managed somehow unlike today, where these guys walk around with millions in their pockets.”

The grounds for Weerasinghe moving with his family to Australia was also because of the sanctions imposed on the people by the government at the time.

“I migrated in 1975. My wife and I decided to go there because of my children (3 daughters aged 5, 6 and 7). During that time Mrs (Sirimavo) Bandaranaike said that we cannot send our children overseas to study in English. So we decided to retire. My wife had a senior internship in Monash University in Melbourne so we took that opportunity and went there. Since then my three daughters have done very well, one is a lawyer, the other a doctor and the third a chartered accountant. They are all married to professional Australian boys. I have 4 grand children one of whom became the champion in age 14 group rhythmic gymnastics in Australia. She just missed being selected to the Commonwealth Games this time,” said Weerasinghe.

“I have lived happily in Australia but never forgotten my motherland I used to always follow the cricket throughout and I think at the moment we are having one of the best batting sides, the most talented batting side in international cricket. We don’t have to worry too much about the talent we have it will do us good for the next five years if properly guided.

“They say (Chandika) Hathurusingha is good but I don’t know him personally. They talk very highly of him maybe he can put things into order. I think we are on the right track at the moment. I don’t know much about officialdom in the Cricket Board but we seem to have a lot of talent. We have more talent that even Australia.

“There is money in the game now and that allows them to perform better than they would normally do, so that they can earn a little extra money. I personally think they should often have grass on wickets like at the CCC and NCC so that our boys can get used to the swing and the swerve and also some turning wickets. That is where skill comes in. Otherwise on flat pitches you and I can also score runs.

That is what is happening today everyone goes and plays their shots whereas in our time at 11 in the morning you get an off spinner turning the ball onto your face and we also had some good swing bowlers like (Malcolm) Spittel. We had to get used to all that. All batsmen should be technically sound first so that their talent can then be extended in more useful ways,” Weerasinghe said.

Winding off on a sincere note Weerasinghe said, “Had that tour to England in 1968 taken place we would have got Test status long before 1981. We were very good in the sixties and our teams were extremely strong. It is the ICC and England who kept us away because there is a lot of politics. I would still say maybe in my own selection I would have refused being chairman and on hindsight have accepted that but that’s life.”

***  ***

A NOTE:

It is not inconsequential that this item of analysis has appeared in print after the internet version of a report composed earlier in the year 2000 by SS Perera in Thuppahi in 2017.

 

S. S. Chandra Perera: The Tour that did not go beyond the Board Room, 1968,”  November 23, 2017, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2017/11/23/the-tour-that-did-not-go-beyond-the-board-room-1968/

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2 Comments

Filed under cricket and life, cricket governance, cricketing icons, English cricket, performance, player selections, politics and cricket, Sa'adi Thawfeeq, sportsmanship, Sri Lanka Cricket

2 responses to “Dhanasiri Weerasinghe enters the Fray: Stormy Currents in Ceylon Cricket in the 1960s

  1. Pingback: How the Scheduled Tour of England in the 1960s was blown apart from Within | Critiquing Cricket

  2. Pingback: Dhanasiri Weerasinghe passes away in Melbourne | Critiquing Cricket

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