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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Arosha on September 7, 2009, 15:42 GMT

    I've never seen Mahesh Gunathilake keeping, but I've heard a lot about him, so I would say he's one of the very best keepers the nation has produced ever. Going by the standards Sri lanka had before they got their test status, he may be considered the very best. But one thing with so called cricket pundits in Sri Lanka, they never hesitate to label these 60s-70s-80s generation of cricketers the very best of their trade. I mean most of these are quite highly exaggregated ones. I know they were very good, that's why we (I'm a Sri Lankan Sinhalese too) got the full ICC membership in '82, but except a handful of them like Mahadevan Sathasivam, C.I. Gunasekara, F.C. De Seram, the rest were not in the league of greatness by international standards. I accept Mahesh Gunathilake to be a very fine wicket keeper, also a pretty useful batsman. But I have to say it's largely exaggregation that people like Gunathilaka, Michael Thisera, Ajith De Silva, Anura Tennakoon etc. were greatest ever players.

  • Fletcher on September 7, 2009, 1:32 GMT

    Thanks Jamie, this is a great bit of writing on a very gifted cricketer that Sri Lanka produced. I hope he is included in the shortlist when Sri Lanka's all time test team is selected..he deserves to be there. Another that was lost was Anura Ranasinghe, he would certainly have been the 1st genunie allrounder of Sri Lankan test cricket.

  • go on September 7, 2009, 1:10 GMT

    As I know this was set up by the cricket board. Even Mendis was aware of the whole situation and withdrawn from the team to go SA. This was a trap.

  • Ranjit on September 6, 2009, 19:29 GMT

    Seeing this article today has brought back nostalgic memories of Cricketer's of the early 80's. l never forgot Mahes Goonatilleke. Silently, I have been his Number 1 Fan for over 30 years.

    Growing up in Colombo in the 70's, Mahes Goonatilleke was the King of Wicket Keeping. His constant foot movement behind the stumps was a trade mark which served him well. As an employee of HNB, City Office and a Volunteer, I had the privilege of watching him keep wickets for Mother Lanka at the Inaugural Test Match at P.Sara Stadium. He was a very stylish Keeper with a lot of humility. The Cricket Pundits predicted a great future for this humble young man.

    After leaving the shores of Mother Lanka 25 long years ago, sometimes I do wonder what was the rationing behind banning these great cricketers who went to SA. The photo of Mahes in this article justifies his style and charisma as a Cricketer and a simple Sri Lankan.

    Wishing MG the best in life.

    Ranjit Canagaratnam Vancouver, Canada

  • Premin on September 6, 2009, 1:37 GMT

    What a waste of talent.How much he could have contributed to Srilankan Cricket . I don't think Srilanka has a nation would ever realize what they did to those rebel crickets it is th same thing has going to the IPL.I still remember the stumping of Grame Gooch in a oneday game against England.Srilanka went onto win that game. I hope Srilanka makes use of his Enormous talent that he cou;d offer Srilanka even now.

  • Lawrence on September 6, 2009, 0:44 GMT

    Mahesh was undoubtedly the most accomplished wicket-keeper Sri Lanka has produced and was a handy batsman too. I played against him at college level and then as a sport journalist followed his progress into the national team.He moved with pure silkiness and his keeping to spinners was a delight to watch. Mahesh unfortunately became a victim to a severe reaction by the Cricket Board. There was heavy denial by the organisers that such a tour to South Africa was happening and many were caught by surprise when the team left hurriedly - many people felt betrayed. Sri Lanka, having been newly entered into the Test arena, was quite sensitive to world opinion at the time and the" rebels"had to be taught a lesson. In retrospect,the punishment was very harsh but some of the cricketers, such as Bandula Warnapura, went on to serve Sri Lanka cricket well. I wish Mahesh well and hope Sri Lanka will continue to make use of his considerable skills to keep producing a good crop of wicket-keepers

  • Harsha on September 5, 2009, 19:14 GMT

    Jamie Alter, thank you for writing about Sri Lankan cricket and your experiences at home so passionately. You help to enlighten the world about our little island and cricketers. Even from this little town in Ohio, I am able to rekindle my memories of Sri Lanka because of your writings. At age nine, I remember watching Mahesh Goonetilleke keeping wickets in the cricket field of the beautiful Peradeniya campus. He was so stylish and seemed very approchable. By writing about Goonetilleke, you remind us that life can sometimes be unfair to some. You have also shown that he, however, is someone who has taken it humbly and moved on in life, which is not the easiest thing to do. Please continue your terrific work! p.s. did you meet the 'tuk tuk' driver again whom you wrote about in one of your blogs?? great story!

  • akinahd on September 5, 2009, 10:07 GMT

    HI DAGS, during that time (early 1980's) SA was banned from international sports.all the countries have suspended their sports activities with SA because of the the apartheid. So bandula warnapura & co (including mahesh G) went on a tour of SA. it was a personally organized tour with no involvement by the SL govt or cricket board. because of this they were banned from international cricket for 25 years. so..for a cricketer 25 years means a life time ban !!

  • Mirza on September 5, 2009, 9:19 GMT

    Mahes Goonatilleke was the best, no doubt, for those who have seen him and I had a chance to see him perform during their first Test tour of Pakistan. Remember that his batting was not like Sangakara but was dogged enough to occupy the crease for hours and also got 50 plus in one of the test match.

    Unfortunatley Sri Lanks cricket have also gone for batsman who can keep wickets rather than keepers who can bat.

  • Neil on September 5, 2009, 9:03 GMT

    DAGS, back in those days South Africa and its racist government had been banned from competing in international sport, including cricket. Playing in South Africa may have resulted in a bit of money, but it also resulted in temporary or permanent banning for them in their home countries. Countries like Australia and England had some rebel tours to South Africa in the 1980s and their players ended up being banned for a few years. Other countries, like Sri Lanka and the West Indies, also had tours but they punished their players more harshly. It's a real pity Goonatilleke didn't get to play county cricket.

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