Island tour

Inaugural Essay, Memoirs of Arjuna – The Island

by Rex Clementine

When the England cricket team landed in Colombo in February 1982 for Sri Lanka’s first Test match, Ian Botham was their biggest star. Just six months earlier, Botham had become the center of attention when he played a few stunning shots to secure the Ashes as England snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. So much so that the 1981 Ashes is known as “Botham’s Ashes”. This week marks the 40th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s inaugural Test match and Arjuna Ranatunga recalled with us the memories of the country’s greatest sporting moment since Duncan White’s Olympic medal.

“The first ball I remember I tried to hook. I was behind the shot and in no time he was in the wicketkeeper’s gloves. Botham was the big star, but Bob Willis was really fast. I thought I had never faced anything so fast before. You even start to wonder if you are good enough to compete at this level,” Ranatunga recalled.

Fair enough. After all, Arjuna was a schoolboy. He was 18 years old. It must have been a hell of a thing to come in at bat with your team 34 for four. All the big boys, Roy Dias, Duleep Mendis, Sidath Wettimuny and skipper Bandula Warnapura back in the pavilion.

“I think I was lucky to play the first Test. What really happened was that the team was looking for a left-handed batsman because England had Derek Underwood (Orthodox left-arm). We didn’t have many left-handers. So I had a break,” Arjuna said.

“By nature, I am a fighter. I had a lot of respect for guys like Willis and Botham, but Mr. Lionel Mendis gave me good advice when I was 11. It was, no matter how good a bowler is, remember you should only face one ball from them at a time.

“Going back to the game, Ranjan Madugalle is one of the sharpest cricketing brains I have seen. I would say he is the best captain that Sri Lanka has produced. He said to me, let’s just pick up the simple let’s keep the scoreboard moving and then we’ll reassess. He reminded me not to be intimidated by the opportunity. Obviously we had never experienced anything like this before. So we took bullet by ball. Once we got some time in the middle, it got easier and we cashed in,” Ranatunga added.

Ranatunga became the first Sri Lankan to score a half-century Test and Madugalle soon followed as the pair added 99 runs for the fifth wicket.

“There was this misconception that there was a battle for the final place between the late Anura Ranasinghe and myself. But the truth is that it was a draw between Lalith Kaluperuma and Anura. It was a great atmosphere around that team. They were guys who were several years older than me. DS de Silva was I think 40 when I was 18. We had a caring skipper in Bandula Waranpura. He was so protective of me. He called me “podi eka” (little guy) while Roy Dias called me “chuti” (little one). They loved me and they still call me that. During the first test match, when they were socializing, they didn’t even let me near the table. At first I didn’t like it, but later I realized they were protecting me.

“It was a brilliant test match and we showed the world that our cricket was very strong. But we lacked experience. That’s what happened on the fourth day. We had done so well the first three days, but on the fourth day within half an hour we lost seven wickets and ended up giving the game to England but it was a huge learning experience.

The atmosphere of the 1980s helped Arjuna become the leader he is. “A good thing in our cricket was that we had superb gentlemen around. We had Mr. Gamini Dissanayake as Chairman of the Board. Then Mr. JR Jayewardene was the Chairman of SSC while Mr. Lalith Atulathmudali was the Chairman of NCC. These gentlemen may not have played great cricket, but they were good administrators. They were surrounded by brilliant cricketing brains and despite their political stature, they were willing to listen to people who knew cricket. There were so many things to learn from them.