Duleep Mendis: Doughty Fighter, A Man to Command

Rex Clementine, in The Island, 9 June 2018, where the title runs:  “Duleep’s grit and courage – need of the hour”

A Tamil demonstration kinda opened proceedings when the Aussies were batting at the Oval — Editor, Cricketique

It was on a day like this, 43 years ago, Sri Lankan cricket made its biggest impact in the world stage. The six full members of the ICC were automatic choices for the 1975 World Cup and in a bid to make up the numbers, Sri Lanka and a team comprising cricketers from East Africa were invited to play the inaugural event. The quality of Sri Lankan cricket was displayed on this day at The Oval against an Australian side comprising the Chappell brothers, Dennis Lille, Jeff Thomson and others.

A century by Alan Turner and half-centuries by Rick McCosker, Greg Chappell, and Doug Walters had propelled Australia to a total of 328. Many would have thought that Sri Lanka had little chance. But they did well; reaching 150 for two and needed 179 runs in 30 overs with eight wickets in hand.  Australian skipper Ian Chappell was a worried man.

Duleep Mendis and Sunil Wettimuny were out in the middle and yet to come were the team’s two best batsmen – Anura Tennekoon and Michael Tissera. Chappell’s last throw of the dice was to call up Jeff Thomson, who needed no invitation for aggression.

On a placid Oval pitch, Wettimuny and Mendis were making merry until Thomson came in for his second spell. The two batsmen were subjected to a barrage of short-pitched bowling. Wettimuny was left with a broken hip bone and a broken foot while Mendis was hit right on the center of the temple.

Mendis was set for his favourite cut shot, but the ball swung back sharply to hit him. There was no first aid at The Oval and no stretcher to carry the batsman off. He was taken to the nearby St. Thomas’ Hospital. Wettimuny had gone onto become the first Sri Lankan to score a half-century in an international match and soon he too joined Mendis at the hospital.

Celebrated cricket writer Jack Staggles visited the two Sri Lankans at the hospital. In the story he published the next day, a quote from Mendis described the man. “What happened was one of those things. It would not bother me in the slightest if I had to go out and face Thomson again tomorrow. It would take more than this to intimidate me.”

Mendis was 22 then and his courage and grit was visible. The same traits were seen as he held many other responsible positions of Sri Lankan cricket over the next four decades. An insatiable passion for the game, no-nonsense approach, and his visionary thinking saw the game thriving under his charge. Some of the decisions he took weren’t the most popular ones, but leaders are meant to take those unpopular decisions with the well being of the institution they serve in mind. Some of the problems that Sri Lankan cricket faces at the moment wouldn’t have happened had Mendis been around as the CEO of SLC.

How on earth Sri Lanka Cricket decided to promote a gym assistant to the post of Assistant Venue Manager of the Galle International Stadium is beyond our comprehension. Ousted SLC chief Thilanga Sumathipala owes an explanation to the cricket loving public in this country. It was this Assistant Venue Manager who was caught by the Al Jazeera sting that investigated corruption in cricket.

The hallmark of some of our politicians is to appoint clowns and cronies around them to important positions. Thilanga Sumathipala is no different. National Curator is one of the most prestigious positions in the cricket board held by some fine individuals over the years.  But under Thilanga this has been compromised and one of his confidants – Godfrey Dabare was appointed for the position. It was Godfrey’s suggestion to promote Tharanga Indika, who was caught in the sting operation, to be promoted as Assistant Venue Manager.

Had Mendis been the CEO of SLC, he would have vehemently opposed such a move.

Thilanga also has been criticized heavily for almost doubling the number of teams with First Class status. With the likes of Mendis sitting on the Executive Committee meetings, such a resolution wouldn’t have got passed so easily.

When Thilanga won the cricket elections in 2016, there was a move to bring Duleep back into the Sri Lankan cricket fold from Oman. In the end, the efforts didn’t materialize. It was said that SLC wasn’t fit enough to match the remuneration package that Oman had offered Mendis. Surely, given the deals that SLC has signed with some individuals in recent times, roping in Mendis was a child’s play.

Perhaps why Thilanga didn’t aggressively persuade to bring Mendis back home was because that he knows that with the likes of him around, there wouldn’t be smooth sailing all the time. The position SLC was going to offer Mendis was team Manager. We learn that individuals within the SLC Ex-Co were eyeing the position of Team Manager.

When SLC terminated Mendis’ services as CEO in 2010, The Island pointed out the injustices meted out to one of the greats of the sport. SLC responded saying that Mendis was paid three months of his salary and was allowed to keep his car valued at Rs. 3.5 million as compensation.

We then pointed out that the service rendered by Mendis to Sri Lankan cricket is invaluable and it cannot be measured in terms of rupees and cents or aging automobiles. Today Sri Lankan cricket is paying a heavy price for getting rid of such visionary thinkers.


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