Profile March 3, 2004

Flamboyant Colombo and CH Gunasekara

While Colombo has her attractions and may be far more colourful, wearing her finery with the flamboyance of an attacking batsman, and Kandy, the ancient kingdom up in the hills, has the scenery to match the majesty to go with such soundings, it is often Galle in the balmy south which attracts, beguiles and seduces the tired tourist or visitor.

It is all about first impressions. How to express this, however, is far from easy. It comes against the backdrop of a nation which having, for more than a century, embraced that quaint English pastime of cricket, explains little. What was needed was to lift the black sarong which covered a nation's bruised psyche to discover some of the truth.

Yet what truth are we discussing here? What truth are we seeking? How can a Western mind, long seduced by that `quaint English pastime' hope to expect to understand such diverse spiritual needs and demands of a South Asian nation and her pride? Love of a country is one thing. Love of a people and the ambiance is something else. It is the latter which draws and attracts. To explain some of this needs patience. The starting point is easy: it expresses the experiences of a traveller in love with a people and the surroundings.

Unless you have ridden through the colourful jigsaw which is Colombo in one of those dilapidated three-wheelers, it is easy to overlook the often gregarious mood, spicy tastes and flamboyant character which inhabits the city. It is the mood which speaks of Sri Lanka.

There is, too, an inclination, as you are whipped along a multitude of routes, past a succession of roadside stalls and along tree-lined avenues, to mistake the psyche of what is the complex political fabric of the country. On the face of it a nation of contrasts: weary from a long, exacerbated conflict while the conscious soul of the country had, by September 2002, been reawakened, if not entirely refreshed, through the exuberant success of Sanath Jayasuriya's heroes in the wake of the International Cricket Council's Champions Trophy.

It is through their clear white-flannelled images, or in this case, the royal blue and gold colours worn with pride, which brings a new smile. The results they have achieved from that tournament masked the true identity of this South Asian nation of diverse cultures and warm-natured people with their personable friendliness which has been allowed to re-emerge. Consider this: by May 31 1999 they had developed a querulous stance and displayed the mood of a nation in mourning with the bruised ego of former World Cup champions: all showing their various forms of grief. By the end of April 2000, the remarkable success of Jayasuriya's side at Test and limited-overs level had become more than just a pick me up job. Beating Australia (at home) 1-0, and Steve Waugh would not have quibbled with a 2-0 series defeat; success overs Zimbabwe (also 1-0) in Zimbabwe and then 2-1 over Pakistan in Pakistan, underlined the transformation Dav Whatmore and Jayasuriya worked hard to achieve during a matter of 11 months.

After that it was partly a roller coaster ride. Not that it was done without anguish and against a backdrop laced with the sort of political intrigue, paranoia and undertones hard to imagine, and with politicians dabbling in such matters as team selection. Then again, if we read the thoughts of the second Ceylon-born captain, Churchill Hector Gunasekara, written more than half a century earlier, is this not what those early pioneers of the game warned against? For someone who was a couple of generations ahead of his time, CH or Hector Gunasekara, was an internationalist. Whether this comes from his years while studying medicine at Cambridge and later playing for Middlesex, English county champions in 1919, is unclear.

He certainly argued how the game was more important than the individual yet must also symbolise the spirit of the individual. He warned in 1950 how the politician and unscrupulous administrator would use the game to further their own interests. This was not the legacy he wanted for later generations of Sri Lankans. He wanted a game free of tainted administrators and run by those where not only its servants but also had strong international respect.

Some of this philosophy in included, along with revealing insight among a variety of highly informative unpublished papers. In them CH comes across as a highly astute thinker, well ahead of his time. For one thing, the Royal College educated allrounder did much to lay the foundation of the modern game's early thinking. He was a progressive in an era where conservatism ruled much of society and it showed in what followed.
Preserved and cared for by his son, Channa, a former stylish Ceylon opening batsman, the brief Memoirs and Impressions offer a rare insight and reflection of the game's history in the pre-Sri Lanka Test era. There is some highly informative material about this growth, transformation and transition. An enjoyable conversationalist, Channa is not shy when it comes to expressing an opinion or recalling events where his father was involved in a Colombo society which was as elegant in character as it was in old world courtesy.

Captain of the Royal College team of 1912, he was denied a blue at Cambridge when two years later World War One broke out. He was the first of a famous line of Ceylonese and Sri Lankans who have played the game at county level; yet it was his unique position as the first which gives him a place on honour. He was a firm advocate in what is now called the `bleep' test; a fitness exercise whereby players run short bursts of forty or fifty metres as a way of improving physical skills as part of a daily routine. And this was in 1930.

While he admired the county game and other aspects of life in England, there was also a matter of colour prejudice (or plain racism). `It was something,' he wrote `which we of the East had to get over at that time. It was our greatest obstacle.' In those days it was not referred to as racism; the term prejudice was then seen to be the more moderate word to explain what is still myopic Raj xenophobia. Hector shrugged it aside as if it came from a section of society that knew little better; the ruling class can be like that: snobbish and uncaring. Human rights was an unknown term and to him, the friendship earned through the game overrode such chauvinistic opinions. It was through such association that he helped Ceylon achieve a form of unofficial international recognition.

While in England for the last time in 1922 and playing for Middlesex, he received a letter from Dr John Rockwood, then president of the recently formed Ceylon Cricket Association and a friend of the Gunasekara family. In the letter he was asked to talk to Sir Francis Lacey, then secretary of the Marylebone Cricket Club, to have the MCC side to stop off at Colombo on an official visit with games against the All-Ceylon side.

One of the criteria was that a country where MCC or Australian teams toured or stopped off, such as places as Colombo, there should be an official national body to look after the team's interests. Dr Hector Gunasekara was able to promise the MCC secretary that now there was an official body on the island, this would not present a problem. Agreement was reached but there were other concerns. One was criticism of selection policy and teams selected. It was he same old cliché, because officials of some of the first-class clubs did not agree with selectors, players were barred from playing in teams against touring sides.

It was what Dr Gunasekara considered an intolerable situation and when he voiced an opposition view to demands that certain players withdraw from the side to play an MCC side led by Arthur Gilligan in 1924/25. While the selection of the players was resolved, it left the doctor with a feeling of disquiet at how petty jealousies were not helping the independence of the ACC or its growth as a national body.

This is part of an expurgated version of a chapter on Dr C H (Hector) Gunasekara in a book being written by Trevor Chesterfield on Sri Lanka's captains titled: Our Golden Lions: Sri Lanka's cricket captains. Although New Zealand-born and currently South African-based, Trevor Chesterfield is a veteran cricket writer with a deep interest in Sri Lanka cricket history. He is managing editor of an international cricket website. Part two: The Years of Challenge, will appear shortly