The year: 1969. The match: Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, versus England. The atmosphere at Colombo was electric. What’s more, with John Snow in full flow, the resplendent isle’s early batsmen – from whom much was expected – were soon cooling their heels in the pavilion. Enter 22-year-old Anura Tennekoon from St. Thomas College — with his no-fuss, no-nerves, no-feeling-of-awe attitude. As he faced the brunt of the English attack resolutely, the young colt provided the home crowd something to cheer about.
It was a great occasion for him — to prove what was expected from a batsman of his ability and talent. The English attack was no chicken-feed. It was formidable, with the likes of Snow and David Brown who were supported by Derek Underwood, Pat Pocock and Basil D’Oliveira, all classy spinners. But none of the English bowlers were able to contain Tennekoon, despite his dogged and painstaking approach to batting at times. In the end, Tennekoon achieved something, which no Lankan batsman had realised before in the 135 years of the game’s existence in Serendip. He posted a fine ‘ton’ — an innings full of character and purpose.
A prodigious batsman, in the classical mould, Tennekoon had the rare distinction of playing for his country while still in school, against an English side led by M. J. K. Smith. Tennekoon, during his short tenure at the wicket, showed glimpses of his natural empathy for the willow, with his good sense of timing and synchronisation.
In the years to come, he also fulfilled his early promise. He became not only Sri Lanka’s most-sought-after cricket ‘hero’, but also a capable captain, taking on the mantle from Michael Tissera, another fabulous player from the island nation.
As luck, or destiny, would have it, while Tennekoon became the first Lankan batsman to hit successive hundreds against any international side — and lead his team meritoriously during the first edition of the World Cup in Blighty in 1975 — it was only a quirk of fate that he was never able to play in official Tests for his country.
During the course of the first Prudential Cup in 1975, Sri Lanka produced a dazzling performance, which gave several hiccups to a mighty Aussie side led by the legendary Ian Chappell. Facing a massive Australian total of 328 for five, the 1000-1 outsider answered positively against the world’s quickest opening attack — Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson — and piled up an astounding 276 for four, when its allotted quota of overs expired. Lanka’s momentum was stalled primarily due to injuries. Duleep Mendis (32) was hit on the head and S Wettimuny (53) had his in-step ‘mashed’ by Thomson.
Despite the efforts of Tennekoon (48) and Tissera (back for the great event with a masterly 52), the target proved too much in the end. It was, nevertheless, champagne cricket. Lankan cricket was the real victor; Australia, a pallid winner, in a match tinged with controversy. One example: when Wettimuny lurched forward in pain, Thommo ‘had a go’ at his wicket, and ‘pulled it’ down too — with insensitive celerity.
If Tennekoon was the heir-apparent of a legacy cast in gold by pre-World War giants like Sargo Jayawickrame, M Sathasivam and Gamini Goonesena, who was Ceylon cricket’s torch-bearer in the 1960s, Lankan cricket has only grown from strength to strength and prospered through the likes of Ranjan Madugalle, Mendis, Roy Dias, Arjuna Ranatunga, Aravinda de Silva, Sanath Jayasuriya, Roshan Mahanama, Marvan Attapattu, Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara et al. Yes, Madugalle did not fulfil his vast potential, so also Bandula Warnapura. Somachandra de Silva and Tony Opatha, likewise, did not find growing age favourable to carrying on into Test cricket — though the former could perform at the highest level till the ripe old age of 43.
It was Mendis who set the Thames on fire in England, in 1984. He failed by a whisker to repeat what he had achieved in India — a century in each innings of a Test match. Not only that; Dias, the supreme stylist and conjuror with willow, made a great impression during his halcyon days. The two of them, who were among the best in international cricket, contributed most notably in Lanka’s initial run on the international stage, which was followed by the cavalier spirit of ‘Mad Max’ de Silva, who formed the bedrock of Lankan fortunes in international cricket for a long time.
So far, so good. One name which meant much to Lanka cricket has been missed far too often. His identity: David Heyn, Lanka’s corollary of his English namesake — David Gower. A batsman with character and temperament. A gentle bat who stood up to every guile, or, subtle chicanery, of the renowned spin trio of Erapalli Prasanna, Bishen Singh Bedi and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar in the Hyderabad ‘Test’ of 1975. Heyn, with his left-handed classiness, mercurial footwork and indomitable grit, scored a century, and missed another by just 16 runs in the match. If he had achieved the feat, he could have become only the third batsman after Don Bradman and Everton Weekes to accomplish this coveted feat against India.
Heyn symbolised the belligerent qualities of Lankan cricket. When he inched towards his hundred, in difficult conditions, pitted against an attack which caused nightmares to reputable batsmen in the Test business, Heyn’s wonderful repertoire of stokes and aplomb brought great pleasure and drama to the game. The grand applause for the smart batsman, who fought a losing battle for his side, exemplified his singular contribution as ‘stand-in’ captain, filling in for an unfit Tennekoon.
With the official stamp of Test status that emerged, in 1982, Sri Lankan cricket has travelled a long way. Its roseate apotheosis was the World Cup 1996 triumph, followed by a host of memorable Test victories. While it is agreed that Lanka — like any other cricketing outfit — has had its ups and downs, its cricketing exploits continue to gleam all along, in all brands of the game.
This itself should be worth a tug or two for the legacy of Fred De Saram, Mahadevan Sathasivam (who Sir Garry Sobers eulogised as "the greatest batsman ever on earth," and Sir Frank Worrell extolled as "the best batsman he had ever seen") Ben Navaratne, Tissera, Tennekoon, Mendis, Ranatunga, de Silva, Jayasuriya, the insuperable Muttiah Muralitharan, the inimitable Jayawardene, and Sangakkara, among others, who have inspired Lanka’s fertile cricket talent to great heights, with or without the ostentatious perfidy of umpires like Darryl Hair, or the raucous, crooning potion of Percy Abeysekera, the one-man cheer platoon, or ‘vocalised’ nuclear taskforce, with his ubiquitous presence wherever Lanka plays.