April 14, 2014

The finest of Sri Lanka's early years

Stuart Wark
Roy Dias: the fastest Sri Lankan to score 1000 Test runs  © Getty Images

In recent articles I looked at the first great batsman from India and Pakistan. After watching Sri Lanka's meritorious victory in the World T20 recently, I was motivated to continue this wander through the history of some of my favourite cricket-playing countries and move on to consider who was Sri Lanka's first great with the blade.

As I have noted previously, one of the difficulties in such an endeavour is trying to evaluate performances across eras and times, and particularly for players we may not have witnessed personally and for whom there is no available video footage to review. However, Sri Lanka are easier in this regard than either India or Pakistan, as they are a relatively recent introduction to the family of Test-playing nations.

I am using the same criteria as with the previous pieces in only considering batsmen who have played at Test level. Sri Lanka made their debut in 1982. This means that many undoubtedly very good players are not eligible. Batsmen such as MK Albert, LDS Gunasekera, Nihal Gurusinghe, Frederick C de Saram, Mahadevan Sathasivam, Sargo Jayawickreme, TCT Edward, Mano Ponniah, Stanley Jayasinghe, Anura Tennekoon, Sunil Wettimuny and Ievers Gunasekara all have excellent reputations and are worth acknowledging for their performances for both Ceylon and Sri Lanka prior to their country becoming a Test nation.

Other players, including Bandula Warnapura (who captained Sri Lanka in their inaugural Test match), Duleep Mendis and Sidath Wettimuny, likewise deserve recognition for their efforts in getting Sri Lanka to a point where they were admitted as a Test nation, and then for their performances in the team's early years of international competition.

However, my choice for Sri Lanka's first great batsman is Roy Dias. He was, without question, a truly great batsman. As with many countries during their early years in Test cricket, Sri Lanka struggled with a lack of bowling strike power to really threaten any of the established nations. However, the reliable presence of Dias in the top order ensured that their batting had a stability that most new teams take years to develop.

Roy was a classically correct strokemaker, capable of both attack and defence, depending upon the circumstances and, unlike many of his compatriots, equally comfortable against both pace and spin

Dias was born on October 18, 1952 in Colombo. His ball skills were apparent early, and he was lucky to have a number of Sri Lanka's best coaches assist him through his schooling. Carl Obeysekera, a former All-Ceylon cricketer, was a major influence during Dias' formative years. He provided him with his first coaching lessons, and contributed to his developing a classic technique that facilitated his ability to adapt to changing pitch conditions.

Dias left school in 1972 and was quickly picked up by the Colts Cricket Club in Colombo. He played for them for the next eight seasons, before moving to the Sinhalese Sports Club in 1980, and finally finishing his career with the Colombo Cricket Club in 1988. He was selected to make his formal international debut for Sri Lanka in the 1979 World Cup. On the back of strong batting performances by him, Mendis and Tennekoon, Sri Lanka had established themselves as the dominant side among the Associate nations. The highlight of Sri Lanka's then very short international career came in their third and final match, against India. Sri Lanka won their first game, putting together a score of 238 for 5 on the back of half-centuries from Dias, Mendis and Sunil Wettimuny. In reply, India slumped to 191 all out. This victory was a pivotal moment in Sri Lanka's push to become a full-fledged Test nation. Following the intense lobbying of Australia's delegates, among others, Sri Lanka were finally admitted as a Test-playing nation in 1981.

Their inaugural Test match commenced on February 17, 1982 at the P Sara Oval. Dias' first Test innings was a disaster: he was dismissed for a duck, caught by Geoff Cook off Bob Willis. While Sri Lanka were dismissed for 218, they did well to limit England's response to just 223. However they could only manage 175 in their second innings, reaching the total predominantly due to Dias' magnificent 77, with only two other players managing to get double figures. It was not enough, though, and England won easily, by seven wickets.

Dias was quite old when he made his Test debut - nearly 30. However, his experience and skills were to prove of inestimable value to his nation. He was a classically correct strokemaker, capable of both attack and defence, depending upon the circumstances, and unlike many of his compatriots, equally comfortable against both pace and spin.

Sri Lanka quickly followed this one-off Test against England with a three-match tour of Pakistan. Dias just missed his first Test century in the second game, in Faisalabad, scoring 98 before being caught off left-arm spinner Iqbal Qasim, with the game ending in a draw. In the third Test, in Lahore, he managed to get triple figures and finished the series with 295 runs at 49.16, reinforcing his rating as the best batsman in the team.

He followed this with scores of 60 and 97 in the one-off Test against India in Madras. At the conclusion of his career, Dias was to rate this 97 as the best innings he ever played. One of his opponents, Sunil Gavaskar, also considered the performance, on a wearing pitch against India's spinners, to be one of the best batting displays he ever saw.

Sri Lanka's next Test series was against New Zealand in 1984 and Dias was again in top form, making his second Test century in Colombo (108 out of 289) against an attack featuring Richard Hadlee and Ewen Chatfield. The following year he had his best Test series. He started disappointingly with scores of 4 and a duck in the first Test against India. However, Sri Lanka recorded their first victory when they beat them at the P Sara in the second match. Dias made 95 and 60 not out and India were bowled out for 198, giving Sri Lanka a 149-run win. Dias scored his third Test century in the final game of the series, and finished with 273 runs at 54.60.

Dias was one of a number of players discarded for both Test and one-day matches by the selectors following Sri Lanka's disappointing 1987 World Cup performances. While it was claimed that Sri Lanka were looking for new talent to take them forward, it was a sad end for a man who had done so much to make his nation competitive over the years since their admittance into international competition. Dias was over 35 by this time, but he still appeared to have much to offer in the five-day game, and it seems unfortunate that his Test-match place was lost largely on the back of poor limited-overs results.

His final Test batting average of 36.71 is perhaps not overly impressive when viewed in isolation, but it fails to capture his immense contribution to a young and inexperienced team. He is still the fastest Sri Lankan to 1000 Test runs, getting there in just 23 innings, which ranks in front of current players such as Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara.

His peers all rated him very highly. A measure of his standing in the game was demonstrated when Viv Richards was asked to name his World XI. He overlooked many of his own team-mates, such as Richie Richardson and Larry Gomes, to name Dias as his No. 3.

Following his early enforced retirement, Dias kept his links with cricket alive. He set up an academy for talented players in Colombo, and was one of the selectors who picked the 1996 World Cup-winning squad. He was appointed as Sri Lanka's coach after Bruce Yardley was sacked in 1998, and Sri Lanka had a very successful 15-month period under him, beating England comprehensively in a one-off Test at The Oval and also winning a series against New Zealand. However, Dias was sacked after Sri Lanka's poor performances in the 1999 World Cup.

From there, he was offered a position as coach of the Nepal national team, and he helped them take great strides. The Nepal Under-19 side were the Plate runners-up in the 2002 World Cup and won the Plate title in 2006, and Dias' efforts were recognised by King Gyanendra, who awarded him the Prabal Gorkha Dakshin Bahu (IV Class), an honour Dias described as being equivalent to a knighthood or OBE. Roy has also been an ICC match referee and subsequently coached the Oman and Malaysian teams since leaving Nepal.


Stuart Wark works at the University of New England as a research fellow

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Keywords: Nostalgia, Tributes

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Posted by yohandf on (April 17, 2014, 7:58 GMT)

Never seen him bat . but my father told he is such a classical batsman . he is the fastest in getting to 100 test runs even surpassing Sanga , Mahela , Aravinda . So he should be damn good . He played in very early days of SL cricket and against attacks consists Hadley , Kapil , Bothem , Qadir . I think has done a wonderful service to Nepal cricket being coach . now doing his good work with Malaysia . These players played for satisfaction at thier time .so always will be remembered .

Posted by   on (April 17, 2014, 4:24 GMT)

Mr. CricketPissek, don't worry too much about Mad_Hamish's comment because he's mad as he himself proclaims. We know all about Roy Dias and the environment in which he played. Mr. Mad only knows his average.

Posted by anuradea on (April 17, 2014, 3:45 GMT)

@mad Hemish - I don't think you can get into the world XI picked by great Viv Richards to bat at No 3 if you are not a great. You have to consider the era and the change of level he had to go through and to start the career at the age of 30 and playing so few tests those days, an average of 36 is great. If you have played at that level you'd know.

Posted by anuradea on (April 17, 2014, 3:23 GMT)

I had the honor of playing with and against Roy and there is no doubt that was a great batsman and NO team rested until he was out in the 70's and 80's. More than anything he was a true gentleman and a great human being who always helped the young and old cricketers who are team mates or opponents. I am truly lucky to have been able to call him a team mate and a peer. Good luck Royyya as we call him.

Posted by   on (April 16, 2014, 15:47 GMT)

he is given father-figure by nepalese cricketers in Nepal , his contribution to nepal cricket is immence, something that can t be described in words.

Posted by Paulk on (April 16, 2014, 14:34 GMT)

Very happy to see Roy Dias mentioned on these pages. He may not have the record of Sangakkara or some of the other legends of the game but he was a very special player who could dominate attacks. I was listening on radio the day he scored 97 with 18 hits to the boundary against India. It is interesting that from today's perspective, and just from their statistical records, you'd never think some of these players were such great batsman. You simply had to live through that era to experience it first hand. Another batsman of this ilk is Wasim Raja of Pakistan. And Kim Hughes - Ricky Ponting's idol. Alvin Kallicharran. I was also thinking that even though Miandad is generally regarded Pakistan's greatest batsman, as a schoolboy in the late 70s it was really Zaheer Abbas (the Asian Bradman) who captured every schoolboy's imagination. He did not end up with the record Miandad did but he was the one everyone waited for to come out to bat.

Posted by Nish_S on (April 16, 2014, 11:04 GMT)

Thanks Stuart for rekindling our memories of a great batsman who deserved so much more from his country for simply being the 'Gentleman Cricketer' he was. I was fortunate to have known Roy from the age of 5 years when we joined St. Peter's College as kindergarteners. In just five years we got to know each other very well, coming to school in a 'buggy cart' from Templer Road Mount Lavinia, treating ourselves to free thosais at the many eateries on Galle Road, breaking fruits from my neighbours mango tree at McLeod Road or playing softball street cricket. Although I left St. Peter's College after just five years, Roy and I did keep in touch from time to time and continue to do so. The world of cricket during his era was fortunate to have seen his flowing elegance with bat in hand and we may now debate his averages and records, but to me, Roy Dias has been that PERFECT GENTLEMAN OF CRICKET on and off the field. Nishanta

Posted by CricketPissek on (April 16, 2014, 6:06 GMT)

Mad_Hamish - you make a valid point, but you have to look at context. The author doesn't say Roy was a "Great Test batsman" per se. Roy was at his peak before SL got Test status. You are comparing an avg of 36 in someone who joined the Test arena at the middle-end of his career with those in that era who could play Tests from day 1. You will need to compare like for like really. Also, unless you've watched him play, I don't think you're in a position to judge his greatness purely based on a simple metric such as a batting average.

Posted by Mad_Hamish on (April 16, 2014, 5:14 GMT)

I don't think you can claim to be a great batsman with an average of 36.71 unless you're a pre-WWI batsman. Good and important to Sri Lanka but not great

Posted by SLSup on (April 15, 2014, 20:30 GMT)

I'd say Dias's average of 36 is quite decent for a player from a new Test playing nation as he was up against the rest of the world who were all better able to negotiate Test cricket and various international conditions than him. It is also consistent with his overall career averages in all forms of cricket. He sure was a "calssically correct strokemaker" but wasn't interested in occupying the increase just for the sake of it. Accordingly, he wasn't into pointless defensive strokes - except perhaps in that Asgiriya Test where occpying the crease was paramount to save the Test. What a thrilling day it was!

I can't think of a SL batsman who was more exciting to watch than Roy Dias. Some who've seen Sathasivam say he was the best SL stroke player ever but I've never seen him bat.

The fact that Gavaskar thought Dias' 97 was one of the best innings he'd ever seen is quite amuzing.

Posted by   on (April 15, 2014, 18:35 GMT)

Remembering great Roy Dais. He scored 97 in second inning in one off test against India at Chennai. Against Kapil Dev, Chetan Sharma, Maninder Singh etc Dais scored brillient 97. And the most impressive thing is he crossed his fifty with a boundry & it was his 12th boundry. Can you imagin 50 runs with 12 boundries and that is too against Kapil Dev & co. Simply great cricketer.

Posted by J751 on (April 15, 2014, 14:59 GMT)

I remember watching Roy Dias during the 1981-82 tour to Pakistan.He made a hundred at Lahore.This was against Imran Khan who was at his peak as a fast bowler and took 14 wickets in the match.Dias made quite an impression during that tour even though an inexperienced Sri Lankan side was trounced.

Posted by android_user on (April 15, 2014, 13:39 GMT)

actually icc did the blunder by delaying giving test status to sri lanka . but still within 32 years we reached almost all the achievements in cricket arena which was some countries took 100 years to acheive

Posted by Philip_Gnana on (April 15, 2014, 12:00 GMT)

So refreshing to see that the players of yesteryears are being recognised. Thank you, Stuart for this lovely piece of writing.

I remember Roy Dias as a school boy although I was not a Peterite. School cricket being famous we would attend every game in Colombo. We would describe Roy's cover drives as carpet drives as ball as the ball travelled on the green. Roy was a useful bowler and and excellent fielder in the covers. Very reminiscent of our own David Gower.

Being awarded the highest accolade by the King of Nepal, wow.

Typical of the SL administration in not comparing like with like when it came to assessing players performances. Philip Gnana, Surrey.

Posted by rizwan1981 on (April 15, 2014, 8:07 GMT)

I have fond memories of Roy Dias playing club cricket. He was very elegant and played classical shots and did not resort to slogging but yet scored quickly. Its a pity his prime years were lost because SL was not a test nation in the 70s.

The 80s were a lot different-Spectators were genuinely interested in the game and the presence of corporate sponsors was limited. Club cricket was of a very high standard and there was a healthy rivalry between SSC . NCC . CCC and Bloomfield -Its unique that all these 4 grounds are located in a one square KM radius( I doubt there is any other country in the world that can boast of such a record ) .I still recall , Aravinda who was batting at the NCC ground smashing a SIX on to the adjoining SSC ground !

There are vey few batsmen today who bat in the classical fashion of Dias.The likes of Lara , Gower , Ramprakash , VVS and Mahela will never be seen again and the game is poorer for it

Posted by ksquared on (April 15, 2014, 7:00 GMT)

Though I haven't seen Roy Dias play I remember my grandfather describing that innings against IND at P Sara but more than that I will always remember him as my first cricket coach when it came to teaching technique he was incomparable. I still remember his first coaching lesson on batting, the V grip, the stance and then the forward defence. Even while coaching his batting stance as well as strokeplay looked magnificent. Looking back I will always remember and cherish those memories of those afternoons at the Colts cricket grounds with the great Roy Dias teaching us the art of batsmanship. Thank you Sir and May God Bless you and all your future endeavors.

Posted by Charindra on (April 15, 2014, 6:13 GMT)

I have never seen him bat, but I have heard some wonderful stories about his batting. He appears to have been a purist and classical stroke maker. I remember Arjuna Ranatunga saying that he was unlucky that SL was not given test status earlier, as his best years were in the pre test era.

Posted by harshthakor on (April 15, 2014, 5:19 GMT)

Roy Dias had the talent to dominate even great West Indian,Australian or Pakistani attacks.I would have loved to see Roy play in the 1990's for Lanka on the bouncy Australian tracks and the seaming English surfaces.i would have backed Roy Dias to join the cliub of Tendulkar,Lara and the Waugh brothers with a full test career in the 1990's.His batting posessed the artistry of David Gower or Azharuddin combined with the technique of Rahul Dravid.

His batting in India in the one of test in 1982 was simply an exhibition.I just cannot forget his regal drives all round the wicket.

Posted by harshthakor on (April 15, 2014, 4:44 GMT)

There were few batsmen who radiated greater joy than Roy Dias whose strokeplay was exhilirating..His batting blended the skilll of a technician with the artistry of a musician.He could pierce the most impregnable gaps with the most delicate of touches,dispatching the very best of balls to the fence.In many ways his creative skills were similar to Rohan Kanhai,of West Indies.I would have loved to see Roy face the likes of Akram,Donald,Ambrose and Mcgrath.Above all Roy could champion a crisis.Statistics hardly did justice to Dias who was potentially ahead of later greats like Mahela Jayewardene.Roy may well have averaged above 50 runs in the modern era.Sad that Roy hardly played much one day cricket where his inventive capacity would have won many a game.

Posted by   on (April 14, 2014, 19:00 GMT)

This is a very nice article. I've heard quite a lot about Roy Dias but never actually saw him bat. A new team needs someone who can lead from the front, and Dias did exactly that for Sri Lanka.

Posted by Muzahir1 on (April 14, 2014, 18:49 GMT)

Wonderful appraisal and richly deserves to be one of the finest and stylish cricketer. I can remember watching the radio commentary by Pakistani (Chistry if I remember correctly) shabas shabaz and praising highly of his immaculate fours. It is very sad though he was a great cricketer was never honored in Sri lanka and this shows the cricket administration lack of rewarding the best. Well done Roy and we missed to see you live. From Saudi Arabia

Posted by The_other_side on (April 14, 2014, 16:36 GMT)

Roy Dias was one of my favorites. I followed him and Mendis from my school days. Roy, Mendis Mahanama and Gurusinha were true attacking batsman from Sri Lanka and only Jayasuriya and Aravinda De Silva could play like that in the next generation. Although K Sangakkara and M Jayawardene are very good they are not of true out and out attacking style as the former players were...

Roy Dias never scored test century outside subcontinent, having played only one test in England!!

I remember his 100 in Kandy that prevented a test loss to Indians. I heard it on radio and badly wanted to see him in live action. Couple of 90s he hit were better than100.

My prayers were answered in World Cup 1987, I watched him score 80 against England in Pune on Television. He started slowly, but I still remember the flicked sixes he hit to midwicket. He was always compared with Viv Richards and no wonder Viv wanted him as No.3 in his XI.

Truly great attacking batsman who is more than what stats indicated

Posted by Anantas11 on (April 14, 2014, 15:53 GMT)

Roy Dias is still a very respected coach in Nepal and he has earned millions of Fans in Nepal.... He is a great cricketer.. Very good coach/mentor and excellent human being!!!

Posted by Thomas_Ratnam on (April 14, 2014, 13:53 GMT)

As one who watched Roy Dias from his school cricketer days in Colombo, I can say that the years have not erased the memory of his elegance at the crease. His innings of 97 at Madras (Chennai) in Sri Lanka's one off test in 1982 was a technical masterpiece and had the Indian commentators in raptures of praise let alone the cricketers. Sri Lanka's school cricket was the feeding system into the national side in the pretest era. We had the pleasure of witnessing the exquisite stroke play of some great young batsmen in the late 60s and 70s. Anura Tennekoon, Gajan Pathmanathan, Ravi Sathasivam, and Sunil Wettimuny joined Roy Dias in bringing us to the cusp of international recognition and were then sadly forgotten!

Posted by Tambapani on (April 14, 2014, 13:28 GMT)

Thank you very much for that well documented article. I had the great fortune of having seen Roy Dias bat. He had substance and style - only Mahela comes close to Roy with those silky shots but the cover drives of Roy were from another world!

Posted by xxxxxxxxxxxxxyyyyyyyyyyyyyyzzzzzzzz on (April 14, 2014, 12:50 GMT)

I have also enjoyed the steady and seemingly endless supply of excellent and stylish Lankan batsmen. Always great to watch and always play the game in an attacking way that makes fans and cricket gods smile ........ and all this from a country of just over 20 million with limited monetary resources. Very impressive!

Posted by Afzal_Ismail on (April 14, 2014, 10:52 GMT)

Well written article to highlight the contribution made by pre test era players and their subsequent contribution to justify granting test status to Sri Lanka. When you look at those score cards of early test and our 1st test win it gives immense pleasure and brings back lot of found memories.

I am hopeful like the BCCI, SLC can also recognize the contribution made by our prominent cricketers who laid the foundation to the success of Sri Lanka cricket.

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Stuart Wark
Stuart Wark grew up watching cricket with his three older brothers, as he had no choice in the matter. However, over time he came to love both the game and its rich history. He played cricket (very poorly, it must be said) for many years across country New South Wales until failing eyesight caused his early retirement. When cricket-viewing permits, Stuart is employed at the University of New England as a research fellow with the School of Rural Medicine.

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