West Indies vs Ceylon at the Oval in January 1967

Sanjeewa Jayaweera, in Sunday Island, 19 April 2020, with this title “Ceylon vs. West Indies in 1967”

Neil Chanmugam in full flow

I have been fortunate to have watched two World Cup finals at Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) in Australia and Wankhede in India in addition to several matches at Lords and Oval in England and Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) in Australia. However, my fondest and most precious memory as a spectator was the encounter between West Indies and Ceylon played at the P.Saravanamuttu Stadium in Colombo, then known simply as ‘Oval.’ The three-day match was played between 21 and 23 January 1967.

The indomitable Sir Garfield Sobers captained the all-conquering West Indian team. Michael Tissera led the Ceylon team. The West Indians arrived after having completed a highly successful tour of India. 

In those days, most international teams would stop over in Colombo and play a single two or three-day game. Television was yet to arrive, and our connection to our foreign cricketing heroes was through pictures and reports in local newspapers. Those of us fortunate enough to have a shortwave radio at home would try to follow the matches played in England and Australia on either BBC or ABC amidst constant static rendering most of the commentary challenging to decipher. If a sponsor was forthcoming, Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) would broadcast a daily 30-minute segment. The quality of the CBC broadcast was far superior.

We used to wait for the arrival of a visiting team eagerly. In this instance, my brother and I were the fortunate recipients of two complimentary passes to watch the second day’s play. Our Uncle, then Chairman/Director-General of CBC, most generously gave us his two passes received due to CBC having broadcasting rights.** I was seven years old, and my brother was ten. Our instructions were to be on our best behavior as the Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake was in the row before us!

My brother and I used to play softball cricket in a tinny strip on the side of our house every afternoon and most of the day during school holidays!. We played make-believe “Test” matches, the only form of cricket played at the time. Invariably my brother being older would determine, he would represent Ceylon or England.  Therefore, I represented either Australia or the West Indies.  Since Sir Garfield Sobers was my hero, leading the West Indies was a pleasurable exercise.

My brother and I, accompanied by another Uncle, made our way to the Oval on January 22. We were deliriously happy about being able to watch our heroes in action. That, too, from the comfort of the VIP enclosure! The “Oval” was packed to the rafters as the saying goes!

Heyn blunting Sobers

Our batsmen had done quite well on day one to post a score of 290 for nine wickets. David Heyn, a pugnacious left-hander, had scored 69. Other useful contributors were Captain Tissera 52, Lionel Fernando 48, and Dr. H I K Fernando 42.

Play resumed on day 2 with Ceylon’s last pair at the crease. We witnessed a grand display of power batting by our No 10 and No 11 batsmen. Neil Chanmugam (72 runs) and P I Pieris (46 runs)  added 110 runs for the last wicket in about 70 minutes of exquisite stroke play.  Although I was too young to remember every detail of that partnership, it set the ground alight. One of the sixers clobbered by Chanmugam saw the ball wedged between the tiles of the pavilion roof. A groundsman had to climb up to fetch the ball.  Invariably any last wicket partnership of substance gets one’s adrenalin going. In this instance, with Ceylon scoring exactly 400 runs in their first innings, the partnership between Chanmugam and Pieris was of great significance and brought a great deal of joy and pride to the spectators.

Tissera bowling leg-spin -Pix by Chandi Chanmugam

It was then the turn of the West Indians to entertain the crowd. Despite our bowlers claiming a couple of early wickets, we were to witness a grand exhibition of power-hitting by Clive Lloyd.   He scored 138 and along the way belted several sixes, many of which landed and broke the roof tiles!  I found it fascinating to watch him clear the boundary with such ease. On the opposite side was Basil Butcher, who scored 152 runs with a lot of grace and timing. However, I was heartbroken, my hero Sir Garfield Sobers did not get the opportunity to bat on day 2. My Uncle had informed us, he would be utilizing both his passes on day 3.

On the final day of the match, I decided to fall sick and skip school so that I could listen to the commentary of the game over CBC. My father refused to accept the offer of a complimentary pass from his brother to watch the third day’s play. However, he decided to try and buy a ticket. As tickets were sold out,  with the help of some younger spectators, he chose to watch the match from a treetop. He was 40 years old!

When he came home, he described to my brother and me in great detail the century (115) scored by Sobers. He was enthralled, and I remember him showing some of the strokes played by Sobers. According to him, some of the stroke play of Sobers was unbelievable.  It had been an inning full of artistry and sheer class. Sri Lankan paceman Sarath Wimalaratne nearly bowled Sobers out before he had scored any runs. However, after that, it was all one-way traffic with Sobers in full flow.  He was a languid cricketer with loose limbs and a delight to watch.  

West Indies declared their innings having scored 549 runs for 8 wickets. In the second innings, Sri Lanka scored 163 for 3 wickets, and the matched ended in a draw. Lionel Fernando (72) and Anura Tennakoon (54) remained unbeaten.

One of the highlights of the match for all of us was the sight of the great West Indian fast bowler, Wesley Hall, starting his run-up from near the boundary line! He was a very tall and strong man with a constant smile who bowled genuinely fast. He was a nightmare even for many batting greats. Earlier on during the India tour, Hall had entertained crowds with the type of batting seen nowadays in 20/20 cricket. Local spectators were full of expectations of a repeat performance. To their utter disappointment, he was bowled out for a duck by P I Peris. On the last day towards the end of the match, he decided to keep wickets while wicketkeeper Derryck Murray bowled a few overs! His co-fast bowler Charlie Griffith did not play.

I am sure many of the players who represented Ceylon in that memorable match and a sizeable number of spectators who watched it are still around. Hopefully, reading this article while being ‘locked down’ at home will bring some happy memories to them as it does for my brother and me.

** Sanjeewa is referring here to the indomitable Neville Jayaweera whose outstanding contribution to Sri Lanka’s cricketing scene was the introduction of commentaries in Sinhala for the Ananda-Nalanda match — a revolutionary innovation involving several broadcasting personnel. Note this account: “This step occurred as late as 1967 and was due to the initiative of a leading administrator, Neville Jayaweera – a Thomian, no less – who, as head of the Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation, arranged for one of his employees, a former Nalandian cricketer, to provide ball-by-ball accounts of the annual Ananda–Nalanda cricket match. A whole new vocabulary had to be invented for this purpose. [In] subsequent decades the sonorous voice of Premasara Epasinghe used the Sinhala
medium to captivate audiences and disseminate knowledge of the game among many
for whom it had been quite unfamiliar.” ….
Michael Roberts, “Landmarks and Threads in Sri Lanka’s Cricketing History,” in Sport in Society, Vol. 10, No. 1, January 2007, pp. 133–155

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