Mahes Goonatilleke September 5, 2009

The one that got away

He was perhaps the best wicketkeeper Sri Lanka produced; but five Tests was all he played

"Today's wicketkeepers dive too much. It shows a lack of foot movement and speed. There's too much of it. I hardly dived, and neither did my wicketkeeping peers. It makes your clothes dirty." The voice on the line is soft yet commanding. It still cares for Sri Lanka cricket, despite a bitter history with its authorities.

Mahes Goonatilleke is regarded by many in the country as the finest Test wicketkeeper produced by Sri Lanka. But few outside the country will have heard of him, because his international career was over before it could take off, and a nation was robbed of a great talent.

Goonatilleke kept wicket in Sri Lanka's inaugural Test match, against England at the P Sara Stadium in Colombo, but only played four more Tests and six one-day internationals before a decision to tour South Africa in 1982-83 ended his career overnight. He played just 26 first-class matches.

Now 57, he lives and works in Kurunegala, a town about 90 kilometres outside Colombo and about 40 from Kandy. He wants to clarify that he is not a rebel with a grouse.

"I was looking for an opportunity to leave, to see a new country, and to earn more money," he says of the decision to join Bandula Warnapura, Sri Lanka's first Test captain, to play in South Africa. The players were not "rebels", he says.

"Finance was a major reason to go on that tour. I am a simple man from outside the city. I led, and still lead, a simple life. It was hard to travel back and forth for practice and matches, and we hardly played a Test back then. I needed money to support my family. Yes, there was some politics involved, but it wasn't so bad in my case, personally. Others, like Bandula, had it bad and felt much wronged.

"Yes, we sold our talent, but that's not against the law. We received our punishment. Today such situations are called IPL and ICL, but only one gets chastised. Such are the times."

While in South Africa, he interacted with some great names in that country's cricket, most of whose careers coincided with the years of sporting isolation. Vintcent van der Bijl, one of the best bowlers not to play Test cricket; Garth le Roux; Barry Richards; Jimmy Cook; Graeme Pollock and Clive Rice were just a few of those Goonatilleke got to watch and speak to. "They were all tremendous players, and a real treat to watch, even if they did well against us. They were a fantastic side. Witnessing apartheid was something alien to us."

The Sri Lankan players were slapped with a life ban on return by the Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka, as it was then, and many found it difficult to revive their domestic cricket careers or to get employment. Some, like Anura Ranasinghe, found the repercussions too heavy and turned to alcohol to cope with depression. But Goonatilleke, a university graduate, had no trouble finding a job, and settled into one in a garment factory near Kurunegala.

"The decision to go to South Africa was not liked by many in Sri Lanka, but we were not hassled at the airport," he recalls. "There was no contact from the government or the sports ministry; no one came to speak to us. There was a feeling on return that we had let some people down, but the response from the government and the cricket authorities was too harsh. I just came back and picked myself up."

Goonatilleke will never forget Wednesday, February 17, 1982, the day Sri Lanka became cricket's eighth Test-playing country. "Needless to say, it was a proud day for all of us. We took the field with immense pride and determination. Seeing the England team on the field and standing alongside them was very symbolic," he says. "We lost the match but we didn't see it as defeat. We were an inexperienced side but I believe we showed in our first Test that we deserved to be there."

"Yes, we sold our talent, but that's not against the law. We received our punishment. Today such situations are called IPL and ICL, but only one gets chastised. Such are the times"

In 1967, just a rookie compared to the other big names at St Anthony's College, Goonatilleke had 27 dismissals. He went on to lead the side in 1971, and though they only won one match, against St Sylvester's, Goonatilleke's reputation as a brilliant wicketkeeper and team man was enhanced. Those are years he remembers with fondness.

"Oh it was good fun, some of the best years. I played with so many good cricketers, and forged some good friendships. I had the basics of wicketkeeper from the start. I think it was inborn. I loved it. It's bloody hard work, let me just say, but it was enjoyable. I put in a lot of effort."

Among his breed, Goonatilleke was most impressed by Alan Knott, the Englishman he would be compared to in later years. But it was while trying to emulate Knott's brilliance that Goonatilleke learned a lesson he still tries to pass on. "One thing I try and point out to wicketkeepers is - and I firmly believe in this - do not copy anyone. Be yourself. I tried copying Knott once - I can't recall the season - and I didn't do well that year. I realised what I had done wrong. I had copied someone. Never do that. Be yourself."

Goonatilleke admits he was kept under pressure by Russel Harmer, the schoolboy prodigy wicketkeeper-batsman of the late 60s and 70s - "really a great talent" - and thought Sri Lankan wicketkeeping was in good health when he saw Guy de Alwis, his junior, keep wicket on the first-class scene. Goonatilleke's South Africa misdemeanour allowed de Alwis to make his debut on the 1982-83 tour to New Zealand.

In later years, Goonatilleke was involved in developing talent for the future. He was invited by Warnapura, during his eight-year tenure as Sri Lanka Cricket's director of operations, to hold clinics in Colombo, where he worked with the likes of Romesh Kaluwitharana, Kumar Sangakkara, and Prasanna Jayawardene, who in his opinion is the best wicketkeeper Sri Lanka have had for some time.

"When I was on the national selection panel I pushed Prasanna's case, but for some reason he was overlooked. It's a misconception that he's not a very good batsman," he says. "I had many of them practise with rubber balls, which were bounced off the walls. It can be hard to read the ball off the ground and I've found that this method works. It improves your anticipation, reflexes, footwork and even your batting.

"I counsel cricketers who come to me for tips but I don't take any money. I have my garment business, I am content. I just pass on my knowledge."

Jamie Alter is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo

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