Roshan Mahanama: Staying True in Tempestuous Cricketing Times

Sanjeewa Jayaweera, in Island, May 2020, with this title Roshan Mahanama a gentleman par excellence” …..

I recall meeting Roshan Mahanama and his father Upali Mahanama 15 years ago, both not known to me, while climbing a narrow staircase in a hospital. Presumably, the elevator was not functional. I was taking my mother for a consultation. What struck me and my mother, who was then about 75 years, was the innate politeness and humbleness of Roshan and his father. They quickly got aside and made way for my mother and me to go up as they were coming down. Also, they acknowledged us with a heartwarming smile despite not knowing us.

This type of manners, coming from a well known Sri Lankan cricketer and ICC match Referee and his father, a well known senior corporate figure, was refreshing and left a lasting impression on my mother and me. My mother, who was an authority on cricket post-1995, quickly tugged my shirt sleeve and said: “Is that not Roshan Mahanama?”

This time my mother did not mind the customary two-hour wait for the doctor, which usually was so annoying for her! It enabled her to recount the many great Sri Lankan cricketing victories. I remember her distinctly telling me, “See what a decent boy Roshan Mahanama is. So polite, clean-shaven, and has combed his hair too! Not like the Ruffians who play today!” I was able to relate to her comments quite easily!

I next met Roshan about four months ago at a talk show. He recounted some of his cricketing experiences and subsequently answered questions from the audience. What struck me was the clear and precise manner of his delivery and in answering the many questions posed. There was no attempt to prevaricate and avoid awkward questions. When I asked him if he had underperformed during his career, and [suggested that] the numbers did not do justice to his talent, he agreed with me. I qualified my comment by stating, cricketers were not professional in their preparations due to the lack of opportunities during his time. He agreed with me but did not use that as an excuse.

Roshan played for Nalanda Vidyalaya. It is said, as a nine-year-old, during a match against Ananda College, he was struck under the eye by a fast-rising delivery from a pace bowler. Blood began to pour from the injury, and he had to return to the pavilion to attend to his severe injury. He showed his guts when he went in to bat after two more wickets fell, and won the match for Nalanda. Those were early indications of an exceptional cricketer with lots of guts.

In 1984, Roshan broke the big match record, scoring 145 not out. He won “The Schoolboy Cricketer,” “The Most Popular Schoolboy cricketer,” “Best Batsman” and “The Best Fielder” awards for two consecutive years. He is the first cricketer to have achieved this feat.

It was evident to many that Roshan would immediately graduate from school cricket to international cricket. He made his Test debut for Sri Lanka against Pakistan in 1986 as an opener despite never having opened batting previously. That too against Imran Khan and Wasim Akram! Although he did not score that many runs, Sri Lanka won the match by eight wickets, our second test victory. He was to play only seven test matches in the first five years of his international career as the escalating civil war, and then the JVP insurrection prevented foreign teams from touring Sri Lanka for five long years. He scored his first half-century, to be precise 85 runs, against Australia in Hobart in 1989.




Roshan was in prime form in 1992, scoring over 600 runs in ten innings while also scoring his first test century. He scored 153 against New Zealand in Moratuwa and a century in the next match against the same opponents at the SSC. Sri Lanka was now playing on av

erage, five test matches every year. This exposure saw several of our cricketers, including Roshan blossoming into world-class performers. He was now a permanent member of the team, and his highest test score of 225 was against India in 1997 at the Premadasa stadium. This match is memorable because of the 576 runs second wicket partnership between Roshan and Sanath. At that time, it was also the highest partnership in test cricket for any wicket until Kumar Sangakkara, and Mahela Jayawardena put on 624 runs for the third wicket in 2006 against South Africa at the SSC.

Roshan scored 50 runs against South Africa at the Centurion in 1998 in what was to be his last test match. At that time, none of us realized it was his final test. It is a match Sri Lanka should have won after gaining a substantial first-inning lead. However, a second-innings collapse resulted in a South African victory. It would have been a crowning moment in his Test career had Sri Lanka posted a win in South Africa.

In many ways, most of us would remember Roshan for his immense contribution in the one-day internationals. He was an integral part of the 1996 world cup winning team. His record from 1992 to 1997 was exceptional. During this period, he scored 3,411 runs at an average of near 35 runs per innings, including four centuries and 24 half-centuries. He won the player of the series award for his brilliant performance in Sharjah in 1995, the first time Sri Lanka won an overseas tournament. He was still opening the batting for Sri Lanka and scored 288 runs during the tournament at a whopping average of 96! He scored 101 against the West Indies in one of the preliminary matches and 66 in the finals against the same opposition. I vividly recall this tournament as our success caused a buzz in Sri Lanka, with many people congregating in front of television stores to watch our matches in the evenings.

Our next outing was a triangular tournament in Australia featuring the host nation, West Indies, and ourselves. The tour was a turning point for Sri Lankan cricket. It was acrimonious from the word go. Sri Lanka was charged with ball-tampering in the first test match. There was controversy over the size of the sponsor’s logo on the shirts of the players. Australian umpire Darrel Hair repeatedly called ace spinner Murali for throwing in front of a packed crowd at MCG on Boxing Day. The Australian press and spectators were rather boorish towards our team, making them feel they were under siege. Sri Lanka came back fighting in the ODIs, proving the saying, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

As part of the revised strategy, Sri Lanka decided to promote Romesh Kaluwitharana to open the batting and pushing Roshan down the order. Sanath and Kalu were to redefine the art of batting in the first 15 overs in limited-overs cricket. Roshan performed well in his new role and played some crucial innings enabling Sri Lanka to notch up some important victories.

India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka jointly hosted the 1996 World Cup. The number of matches Sri Lanka had to play were reduced as both Australia and West Indies decided not to tour Sri Lanka and thus concede their games. Sri Lanka notched up easy victories against Zimbabwe, India, and Kenya. In the first two matches, Roshan did not bat while against Kenya when Sri Lanka posted a world record score; he did not face a single ball.

Our next match was the crucial quarter-final in Faisalabad, Pakistan, against England. Roshan was in for a shock. He was informed the day before the game that his name would not be in the playing eleven. No reasons were offered. He was absolutely shattered. Given that he had not batted during the tournament and had fielded with customary brilliance, there were no plausible reasons!

However, about 30 minutes before the game, he was told he would be playing!. Sri Lanka posted a comfortable five wickets victory. The game is still spoken of for the outrageously brilliant innings by Sanath when he plundered 82 runs off 44 balls. However, Sri Lanka lost several wickets and was in an uncomfortable position requiring another 39 runs to win with five wickets remaining when Roshan joined Hashan Thilakeratne. He scored 22 not out in 38 balls with two boundaries to see us through to the semi-finals. It was an innings of fortitude played under tremendous pressure by a player who till 30 minutes before the match commenced thought he would be fetching water for his team-mates!

Roshan was to play his most crucial innings for his country in the semi-finals played in Calcutta in front of 100,000+ screaming spectators. Sri Lanka had lost both their explosive openers in the first over of the match! Aravinda was playing a blinder when Roshan joined him in the middle with Sri Lanka tottering at 35 with three wickets down. To be pushed up the batting order at a crucial stage of the game is a sign of Roshan’s versatility. I am sure he did not expect to bat ahead of Arjuna and Hashan, especially in a semi-final in front of 100,000+ deliriously happy Indian spectators! He scored 58 priceless runs off 101 balls and stroked six boundaries. His partnerships of 50 with Aravinda and then 83 with Arjuna tilted the game decisively towards Sri Lanka. The sweltering heat inside the stadium and the unbearable tension of the occasion took its toll on Roshan as he was afflicted with severe cramps. I still vividly recall the pain on his face as he bravely tried to bat on. However, he had to retire hurt when Sri Lanka were 182 for five wickets off 37 overs. When helped off the field, he had played his most crucial innings for his country. Sri Lanka went on to post a comfortable victory over India and then went on to win the finals played in Lahore, Pakistan. Once again the brilliance of Aravinda and significant contributions from Asanka and Arjuna resulted in Roshan not having to bat in the finals.

Roshan was part of the one day team post-1996 World Cup victory and contributed to the overall success of the team with his solid batting and brilliant fielding. He was part of the team for the 1999 World Cup played in England. We lost three out of the five matches and did not qualify for the super sixes. Although we beat Zimbabwe and Kenya, our losses against England, South Africa, and India were by significant margins. Roshan scored 107 runs in his five innings. He opened the batting in three out of the five matches. The contributions of the other senior batsmen over five innings were – Sanath 82 runs, Attapatu 139 runs, Aravinda 73 runs, Arjuna 134 runs, and Kalu 90 runs.

The country as a whole was disappointed. The selectors decided to make several changes with Sanath appointed as captain. Roshan was dropped from the team after being told; he had to make way for youngsters. He was only 33 at that time, and both Arjuna and Aravinda were older than him while Hashan was just a year younger to him! Arjuna retired in August 2000 while Aravinda played until the 2003 World Cup in South Africa.

Roshan retired from international cricket in 1999. In his book “Retired Hurt” he states, the reason attributed by the selectors to him being dropped to groom youngsters seemed odd since older players continued. Roshan retired from international cricket as a matter of principle and self-respect. He did not get to play a well-deserved farewell match in front of his home supporters.

Asanka Gurusinghe, a team-mate of Roshan, too retired in 1996 at the age of 29. The retirement of these two accomplished and talented players with a mind of their own at a relatively young age is a reflection of the poor administration that prevailed at Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) which unfortunately has continued unabated.

It might be just a coincidence, Roshan was the captain and Asanka, the vice-captained when Sri Lanka toured Sharjah in 1994. It occurred as a result of Aravinda losing his place in the team for failing his fitness test. Arjuna refused to tour in support of Aravinda. If I remember correctly, the house of Asanka was pelted with stones by unknown persons while he was playing in Sharjah.

Roshan took up the post of manager and Head Coach of the Sri Lanka A team and Development squad in 2001. Although his appointment was for a term of three years, he resigned after just six months. He realized he would not be able to work with the SLC with a clear conscience amidst the intrigue, backstabbing and political interference.

The loss to Sri Lankan cricket was the gain to international cricket as he joined the International Cricket Council (ICC) panel of elite match referees in 2004. Over the next twelve years, he refereed in 61 Tests, 222 ODIs, and 35 T20s, including three ICC Cricket World Cups.

The ICC General Manager Cricket, Geoff Allardice, while complementing Roshan for his contributions as a match referee, had this to say. “Roshan, very efficiently and intelligently, integrated his cricketing knowledge into match management skills to earn huge respect and appreciation from the entire cricketing fraternity.”

The compliment paid by Vince Van Der Bijl, ICC’s Senior Umpires & Referees Manager, was equally gracious. He said: “Roshan’s hallmark as a Match Referee has been his meticulous preparation and methodical approach. His efficiency and dedication to the task in serving cricket has shone through his time with the ICC.”

Although the ICC stated that Roshan was retiring to devote his time to his family and business interest, the fact is that Roshan retired on a matter of principle. The internal power politics within the ICC resulted in injustice to a few of the senior match referees, including Roshan, to which he took exception. He, therefore, conveyed his unhappiness to the ICC and decided to retire from a very lucrative and enjoyable career despite being asked to let go of the matter.

His decision to stand up on a matter of principle speaks volumes of the man. There are not too many in Sri Lanka nor the world over who would give up a lucrative career on a matter of principle. Most of us would swallow our pride and remain. Undoubtedly, his remuneration would have been significant. Besides, the perks of the job would have also entailed business class air travel and staying at luxury hotels while doing a job that he thoroughly enjoyed!.

Roshan abhors politicians! While most of us do so, we rarely ever say so in public! He is an exception. There are several clips of his speeches available on social media as the chief guest; he commends organizers for not having invited politicians to the event! He often laments of our so-called leaders, who have no values and fail to lead by example.

In most of his speeches to the younger generations, Roshan stresses the importance of hard work, commitment, dedication, ethics, honesty, and integrity to be a good human being. He is a perfect role model for our youngsters to emulate.

A great family man, Roshan pays tribute to his wife and three daughters who have supported him throughout his career. His father, Dr. Upali Mahanama, was a well known corporate leader. He unhesitatingly attributes his success and qualities as a human being to the upbringing he received from his parents.

Roshan also pays tribute to his cricket coach Mr. Nelson Mendis for inculcating many of the personal attributes that helped him through his cricketing career. He says, “we were taught to respect the game, its culture, to follow team ethics and uphold the true spirit of the game.”

It is my fervent wish for Roshan to one day head SLC. It would, without a doubt, bring about the much-needed changes to uplift the game. Additionally, it would rid the cricketing administration of the corruption, cronyism and mismanagement that has afflicted this institution since our world cup victory in 1996.

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