Gamini Goonesena’s Brilliant Journey through the Green Fields of Cricket

Mahinda Wijesinghe, in Sunday Times, December 2019 where the title is “A ‘net’ bowler storms the cricket world”

Royal College right-arm leg-spinner Gamini Goonesena (1931–2011) first made a dramatic appearance in the 1947 ‘big match’ against S.Thomas’s – and thereby hangs a tale. A bare two weeks earlier, Goonesena had celebrated his 16th birthday and was merely considered a ‘net’ bowler for the first team, and was hard at practice in the final week preceding the annual Royal-Thomian cricket encounter.

Conducting practices on that fateful day was Coach Saram. Watching Goonesena bowl, wily de Saram insisted that the leg-spinner be picked for the ‘Big-Match’ despite the fact that the leg-spinner has not been played in a single first XI game previously – a tradition that has not been broken since this encounter began in 1879. Obviously this move must have upset many in this tradition steeped school.

In the first innings he was not too successful but in their second innings, the leg-spinner turned tables on both Thomian openers and ended with figures of 15-4-37-3, and Royal cantered home for the loss of a wicket. In the 1948 ‘Big’ game, he had a match-bag of 10/80, though the match was left drawn. On his final appearance in the Big Game he bowled the final over and restricted the Thomians in reaching their victory target.

The signs of a bright future were obviously on the horizon though none could have imagined the dizzy heights Goonesena scaled. Becoming the first Asian to captain Cambridge University, played first-class cricket in England/Australia/West Indies and finally returned to his native land to lead his country, being the cream on his cricket cake.

Admittedly, his initial stint at the Royal Air Force in England did not prove successful. However, he signed up as a professional by the English county of Nottinghamshire in 1953, and turned amateur the following year and played in this capacity continually until 1964. His appearance for the county was interrupted between 1954-57, since he began his career at Cambridge University, winning his ‘Blue’ each year and leading the University in his final year to an overwhelming victory by an innings and 186 runs against Oxford – the worst defeat suffered ever by the Light Blues since this series began in 1827. Skipper Goonesena scored 211 runs, which remains the highest individual score by a Cantabrigian player in this series and then captured 4/40 as well. He and Geoffrey Cook (111) put on 289 runs for the seventh wicket, setting the highest partnership for any wicket by either side. Incidentally, a future England Test captain, Ted Dexter played under Goonesena.

This is not all. How many can claim to have captained his native land, played first-class cricket in England, Australia and the West Indies, captained Cambridge University, and other than the three Indian princesses, Ranjitsinhji, Duleepsinhji and the Nawab of Pataudi (all of who had represented England no less) as the only other Asian to have been selected for the Gentlemen of England?   Goonesena was also invited to lead the M.C.C. at Lord’s for a couple of games both of which ended in victories under his astute leadership.

During his stint at Cambridge, he remains the only player from either University to have scored over 2,000 runs (2,309 runs at 29.2) and captured over 200 wickets (208 at 21.8) in first-class cricket. In fact, none from either University had this tally of wickets to boast of since this series began.

Goonesena’s  all-round capabilities were recognised by E.W. Swanton who invited him for tours to the West Indies (1955-56) and the sub-continent (1964-65) amongst a galaxy of international stars, including Cowdrey, Frank Tyson, Tom Graveney,  Mickey Stewart et al. As the Wisden Almanack (1957) commented :  “Goonesena proved himself an all-rounder of near Test class, he and Tyson being the only bowlers whose dismissals reached double figures”. In addition, West Indian star Clyde Walcott stated: “Goonesena was the most popular and a very successful member of an extremely popular touring party.”

Whilst working for the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board, during the early 1960’s he played a few games for New South Wales. Admittedly, C.I.Gunasekera, another leg-spinner, who also played for the same school (Royal) and club, (SSC) was a more explosive batsman but both were ornaments to the game.  P.I.Pieris who played under Goonesena for Cambridge in a few games was unequivocal: “ Gamini was the best leg-spinner I have seen….had a keen cricket brain and as a captain stood heads and shoulders above his contemporaries and there were captains such as Peter May (Surrey), Cowdrey (Kent) and Cyril Washbrook (Lancashire) to name a few….he always led from the front be it in batting, bowling or fielding. Gamini would throw himself totally into the game and never gave up….”

In 1965, he was appointed Ceylon’s representative to the ICC and managed the Sri Lankan Test team to tour India (in 1992) with Sidath Wettimuny being his Assistant Manager. In 1990, he became President of Colts C.C. one of the oldest clubs in the island and gave his expert comments to the Test Match Special commentary team as well. He retired in 2004 to live in Sydney, Australia.


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