November 4, 2013

Baila arrives at Lord's

When Sri Lanka played their first Test at Lord's, in 1984, a 16-year-old discovered the joy of being a supporter

Sri Lanka's squad to England in 1984
Sri Lanka's squad to England in 1984 © Getty Images

August 1984. That rarest of beasts, a hot English summer. Grandmaster Melle Mel's "White Lines", the soundtrack of that summer, brought a new music, hip-hop, to the streets. I was 16 years old, on the brink of adulthood, and wherever I looked, change was in the air.

Eclipsing all else was the momentous event about to unfurl at Lord's; Sri Lanka's first official Test in England. On a hazy Thursday morning, I joined a throng of Sri Lankan supporters at the Grace Gates. It felt as if every Sri Lankan I knew was at the match. Aunties carried foil packets crammed with patties and vadai, uncles sneaked off to the bars as soon as they opened. It had been a long wait for Test status. The Sri Lankans had come to enjoy themselves.

For the England cricket team, playing a match against a fledgling Test country at the fag end of the summer was probably the last thing they wanted to do. David Gower's team had been battered in every sense by Clive Lloyd's West Indians in five brutal Test matches. At The Oval, scene of the final denouement, placards proclaimed the "blackwash". Perhaps Gower was simply weary when he invited Sri Lanka to bat first on a wicket so placid that Ranjan Madugalle remarked, "Machang, you could go to sleep on this", shortly before he was bowled.

It was a decision Gower had cause to regret. For nearly 11 hours, Sidath Wettimuny's straight bat and elegant drives made the English attack look obtunded. Aided by Arjuna Ranatunga, displaying the pugnacity that would become his hallmark, and the gloriously rotund Duleep Mendis, Wettimuny went on and on and on. For two days the English papers were full of the high left elbows, the textbook footwork, the classically correct style of the Sri Lankan batsmen. And for two days, I stood, danced, sang in the midst of a small but vocal crowd of flag-waving Sri Lankans. Every boundary was encouraged by a chorus of "Ara ara ara aro!" Every lull in play triggered another round of baila songs.

If Wettimuny was orthodox, Mendis played an untrammelled brand of cricket, cousin to the calypso cricket of the West Indians. We matched the exuberance on the pitch. I had no idea cricket could be so loud, so colourful, so joyful. Wettimuny eventually fell ten runs short of a double-hundred, but Sri Lanka had put a marker down - 491 of them - before declaring, of all things, in the first innings of their first match at Lord's.

Regrettably, Sri Lanka's bowling attack lacked the firepower of the batting, an ongoing problem. There was a glimmer of hope. Three wickets down, Allan Lamb nibbled at a ball outside his off stump. The edge headed straight to first slip. Amal Silva, gloves outstretched, flew to his right. I can still see him lying prostrate, first slip crumpled behind him, the ball trickling away. It was, at best, the shadow of a ghost of an opportunity to set up the game, but it was gone as quickly as it had come. Lamb went on to make a hundred, and even though England had a first-innings deficit of 121, the match was safe.

The Sri Lankan batsmen did, however, have a chance to put on another show. Silva literally limped to a hundred, and Mendis hit a flamboyant 94, almost emulating George Headley by scoring a hundred in each innings of a Test at Lord's. Headley was, at that time, the only batsman to have done the Lord's double. When asked by Peter West why he had slapped a sloppy shot to midwicket when he was on the brink of greatness, Mendis smiled and replied that he was tired. To me, that quote sums up the Sri Lankan set-up at the time. Joyous, unrepentantly adventurous, amateur to the core.

It was in some ways the nearly match. Wettimuny nearly hit a double-century in his country's first match at Lord's. Amal Silva nearly pouched a catch to send the England top order into disarray. Mendis nearly matched George Headley. But it was an extraordinary debut nevertheless.

Sri Lanka had waited 55 years from their first-class debut to its Test debut. At a time when sport was at the forefront of the anti-apartheid struggle, it was whispered that the authorities did not wish to upset the delicate balance between the old Commonwealth - England, Australia and New Zealand - and the new - India, Pakistan and the West Indies. Whatever the reason, for senior players, like Wettimuny himself, and Roy Dias, a stylish and compact right-hand batsman, that solitary Test was their only chance to display their talents in England. The seeds of future greatness were sown that day, though, not least in the form of a 20-year-old Arjuna, and a debutant 18-year-old named Aravinda de Silva. Those of us who sang in the stands, and afterwards bestrode the Lord's turf, were proud. Sri Lanka had shown panache, had comfortably outplayed the home side, and, above all, had proved they could compete at Test level. Baila never sounded so good.

Janaka Malwatta is a poet, doctor and cricket lover who lives in Brisbane. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • kamransekha on November 5, 2013, 9:06 GMT

    I virtually remember each and every ball bowled in this Test Match. Actually I have half hour highlights of each day's play on VHS tape. Wettimuny's 190 included the finest cover drives ever seen at Lord's. They were simply superb, even better than Viv Richards' cover drives. As for Mendis, his six sixes in the two innings were all from quality hook shots falling into the Lord's Tavern. Ian Botham was the victim each time. Sadly, Botham had the last laugh with his gentle off spinners when an injured Mendis mistimed one on the leg to be caught by Graeme Fowler in the covers for 94. In fact at one stage, England were in danger of being followed on when Marlon von Hagt, the substitute took a good catch, but A.J.Lamb saved the day for England. Only a few days prior to this game, Sri Lanka were rated as not much better than Oxford University. Sadly it was a one-off test, and despite Sri Lanka's performance, they were granted one off tests again in 1988 and 1991. Great memories though!

  • on November 5, 2013, 8:02 GMT

    I remember this match well. I was 13 at the time. There was no Live TV coverage of the match in Sri Lanka. Only radio commentary was available. We were glued to the radio to listen t o Wettimuny's heroics. I remember when the cricketers returned home from this tour red carpet was rolled out at the air port to welcome them. Great article brought back lots of great memories.

  • Grasian on November 5, 2013, 12:07 GMT

    As a then nineteen year old member of the diaspora living in Sydney, this was the match when our cricket team allowed every expatriate to stand tall. The England tour was followed by a tour of Australia for the triangular ODI series involving West Indies in late 1984. We got thrashed but there was one win over Australia in Melbourne which led to most of the expatriate community serenading the team on their return to Sydney Airport. We lost all three matches in Sydney but at least I now knew what a Big Match must have been like in Colombo. As a postscript, there was a good natured, slightly patronising, attitude towards the team amongst the media and local supporters - the team was portrayed as a bunch of bumbling but happy amateurs. That all changed during the 1995/6 triangular in Australia, but the 1984/5 team laid the foundations.

  • spas on November 5, 2013, 5:40 GMT

    Nice article which took me to one of the great test matches SL played.Felt I was there too!! Keep it up Janaka!

  • Nmiduna on November 5, 2013, 5:00 GMT

    woww..wonderful article! but you should be a Sri Lankan to fully enjoy the beauty of it! cheers doctor!

  • kamransekha on November 5, 2013, 9:06 GMT

    I virtually remember each and every ball bowled in this Test Match. Actually I have half hour highlights of each day's play on VHS tape. Wettimuny's 190 included the finest cover drives ever seen at Lord's. They were simply superb, even better than Viv Richards' cover drives. As for Mendis, his six sixes in the two innings were all from quality hook shots falling into the Lord's Tavern. Ian Botham was the victim each time. Sadly, Botham had the last laugh with his gentle off spinners when an injured Mendis mistimed one on the leg to be caught by Graeme Fowler in the covers for 94. In fact at one stage, England were in danger of being followed on when Marlon von Hagt, the substitute took a good catch, but A.J.Lamb saved the day for England. Only a few days prior to this game, Sri Lanka were rated as not much better than Oxford University. Sadly it was a one-off test, and despite Sri Lanka's performance, they were granted one off tests again in 1988 and 1991. Great memories though!

  • on November 5, 2013, 8:02 GMT

    I remember this match well. I was 13 at the time. There was no Live TV coverage of the match in Sri Lanka. Only radio commentary was available. We were glued to the radio to listen t o Wettimuny's heroics. I remember when the cricketers returned home from this tour red carpet was rolled out at the air port to welcome them. Great article brought back lots of great memories.

  • Grasian on November 5, 2013, 12:07 GMT

    As a then nineteen year old member of the diaspora living in Sydney, this was the match when our cricket team allowed every expatriate to stand tall. The England tour was followed by a tour of Australia for the triangular ODI series involving West Indies in late 1984. We got thrashed but there was one win over Australia in Melbourne which led to most of the expatriate community serenading the team on their return to Sydney Airport. We lost all three matches in Sydney but at least I now knew what a Big Match must have been like in Colombo. As a postscript, there was a good natured, slightly patronising, attitude towards the team amongst the media and local supporters - the team was portrayed as a bunch of bumbling but happy amateurs. That all changed during the 1995/6 triangular in Australia, but the 1984/5 team laid the foundations.

  • spas on November 5, 2013, 5:40 GMT

    Nice article which took me to one of the great test matches SL played.Felt I was there too!! Keep it up Janaka!

  • Nmiduna on November 5, 2013, 5:00 GMT

    woww..wonderful article! but you should be a Sri Lankan to fully enjoy the beauty of it! cheers doctor!

  • Nmiduna on November 5, 2013, 5:00 GMT

    woww..wonderful article! but you should be a Sri Lankan to fully enjoy the beauty of it! cheers doctor!

  • spas on November 5, 2013, 5:40 GMT

    Nice article which took me to one of the great test matches SL played.Felt I was there too!! Keep it up Janaka!

  • Grasian on November 5, 2013, 12:07 GMT

    As a then nineteen year old member of the diaspora living in Sydney, this was the match when our cricket team allowed every expatriate to stand tall. The England tour was followed by a tour of Australia for the triangular ODI series involving West Indies in late 1984. We got thrashed but there was one win over Australia in Melbourne which led to most of the expatriate community serenading the team on their return to Sydney Airport. We lost all three matches in Sydney but at least I now knew what a Big Match must have been like in Colombo. As a postscript, there was a good natured, slightly patronising, attitude towards the team amongst the media and local supporters - the team was portrayed as a bunch of bumbling but happy amateurs. That all changed during the 1995/6 triangular in Australia, but the 1984/5 team laid the foundations.

  • on November 5, 2013, 8:02 GMT

    I remember this match well. I was 13 at the time. There was no Live TV coverage of the match in Sri Lanka. Only radio commentary was available. We were glued to the radio to listen t o Wettimuny's heroics. I remember when the cricketers returned home from this tour red carpet was rolled out at the air port to welcome them. Great article brought back lots of great memories.

  • kamransekha on November 5, 2013, 9:06 GMT

    I virtually remember each and every ball bowled in this Test Match. Actually I have half hour highlights of each day's play on VHS tape. Wettimuny's 190 included the finest cover drives ever seen at Lord's. They were simply superb, even better than Viv Richards' cover drives. As for Mendis, his six sixes in the two innings were all from quality hook shots falling into the Lord's Tavern. Ian Botham was the victim each time. Sadly, Botham had the last laugh with his gentle off spinners when an injured Mendis mistimed one on the leg to be caught by Graeme Fowler in the covers for 94. In fact at one stage, England were in danger of being followed on when Marlon von Hagt, the substitute took a good catch, but A.J.Lamb saved the day for England. Only a few days prior to this game, Sri Lanka were rated as not much better than Oxford University. Sadly it was a one-off test, and despite Sri Lanka's performance, they were granted one off tests again in 1988 and 1991. Great memories though!