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Cricketers reflect on their lives and times

Anura Tennekoon

'We had to prove ourselves in every game'

The former Sri Lanka captain remembers his team's early years in international cricket, playing the first two World Cups, and facing Jeff Thomson without a helmet

Interview by Firdose Moonda

February 5, 2012

Comments: 14 | Text size: A | A

Anura Tennekoon
"I can put my feet up now but I don't wish to do that" © ESPNcricinfo Ltd
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Teams: Sri Lanka

We didn't have helmets. Players' reactions had to be better. We watched the ball better - it was the natural instinct to survive. When you don't have a helmet, you won't hook in front of your face. You will step inside the line and hook. I got hit on the nose while trying to hook in club cricket.

When I started playing, cricket was very much an amateur sport. The engagements Ceylon got against international sides happened when, for example, England were travelling to Australia. They would stop and play a game. India and Pakistan also gave us games quite regularly.

I can put my feet up now but I don't wish to do that. I will probably get involved with a bit of coaching. I would love to coach my old school team.

Sri Lankan cricket's proudest moment was the World Cup final in 1996. I was witness to it in Lahore. The PCB invited me. It was a dream come true. That really put us on the map and also helped our administration, because we became more of a marketable team.

In the '70s, the ICC was keeping an eye on us to see if we were good enough to be Full Members, so our games became more important. We used to play four-day games against visiting sides. Those were unofficial Tests. It was important that we did well in order to stake a claim for full membership. We were under some pressure, because in every game we had to prove ourselves, and we used to get a game once a year or so. We kept improving and we became more competitive.

The situation in Sri Lanka is rather peculiar because most of the job opportunities lie in Colombo. Most of the outstations don't have job opportunities. That includes cricket.

At the first World Cup in 1975, Sri Lankan fans thought we were going to make a big impact, even though we were amateurs playing against professionals. But in the first game we were bundled out for 86 by West Indies on a green wicket in Manchester. It was a quite a baptism by fire. No one gave us a chance in the second match, against Australia. We were chasing over 300 and there came a point where things became quite tricky for Australia. We were up with the run rate and there were two batsmen going well. Jeff Thomson, who was a very scary bowler, knocked one fellow's head off and the other batsman got hit on the instep, and both had to be hospitalised. Had it not been for those two injuries, we'd have got closer to the target. From that performance, people realised we can play some cricket.

 
 
"We didn't have helmets. Players' reactions had to be better. We watched the ball better - the natural instinct to survive. When you don't have a helmet, you won't hook in front of your face"
 

After the 1979 World Cup, I hung up my boots. Had I continued too long in cricket, I would have lost out on job opportunities and going up the ladder, so I took the decision. I had two young kids as well.

Mike Smith captained the MCC in the first match I played, in 1965. They had players like Colin Cowdrey in that team.

I played in the Royal-Thomian Test match for five years, since I was 15. I was in the first side from my first year at high school. We used to get very good responses from crowds for schools and club cricket in my day.

Sri Lanka's victory over India at the 1979 World Cup made the cricketing authorities realise that we could compete at international level. I was injured for that game but I really enjoyed watching it from the change room.

I worked as a marketing executive for a tobacco company for 26 years. When I finished that job, I assumed duties as the chief executive of the cricket foundation. Thomson was the most difficult bowler I faced. He used to bowl 90mph and had this action where he used to sling it from behind his back. If you didn't pick him early, you would struggle. The first over I played off him was in 1975, at the World Cup, and I only saw the ball whizzing past my head.

Sri Lanka were awarded Test status in 1981. I had a little bit of regret that I had retired, because I knew I had come so close. But I made the decision based on the prevailing conditions. You make the decision and then you live with it.


Tillakaratne Dilshan and team manager Anura Tennekoon walk around the ground during practice, Lord's, June 2, 2011
Tennekoon was the team manager for Sri Lanka's recent tours to England, Pakistan and South Africa © Associated Press
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We used to conduct coaching clinics in the outstation areas. We used to get talented players and give them scholarships to come down to Colombo once a month and get trained. We also provided them with equipment. Three players got into the national side through that scheme - Malinga Bandara, Chamara Silva and now Tharanga Paranavitana. Sri Lanka's rebel tour to South Africa was taken very seriously at home because the government did not support the apartheid policies. When those guys left on their own, they were taken to task. They were banned. I wasn't approached - they probably didn't have faith in me, thinking I would let the cat out of the bag. I didn't like it. You have some sympathy for the guys. They were amateurs and they knew once they finished playing cricket for Sri Lanka, they wouldn't have much to fall back on because they had sacrificed their jobs by devoting time to cricket.

There are more results than draws these days. That's mainly due to people playing more limited-overs cricket than Test cricket, and they don't have the staying power and the technique when it comes to Test cricket.

We have always had a club cricket structure in Sri Lanka. That was the way we nurtured our cricketers. We also have a very good school cricket structure. Children get a good grounding in the game.

I'm not sure I would have played 20-over cricket. It is really not the cricket. The cricket is Test cricket, where your skills, temperament, everything is tested to the full. There is no substitute for Test cricket to judge a person's skills.

We've got a lot of good young players. It's a matter of nurturing them and getting them properly trained and giving them the disciplines in life that are required to hit the top in international sport. Unless you train hard and discipline yourself, it's very hard to play at the international level.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

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Posted by   on (February 6, 2012, 18:16 GMT)

I still remember Anura Tennakoon's century against visiting WI team at CCC(SSC?) in mid seventies, I was watching entire innings at the ground. After Michal Tisera, the best and elegant Batsman produced by Sri Lanka. unforgettable players.

Posted by   on (February 6, 2012, 16:44 GMT)

I had the pleasure and the privilege to be a contemporary of Anura at college where we were boardered. Anura had that precocious talent which was honed by a fabuloius coach, Lassie Abeywardena, in whose charge a number of players were moulded.l doubt he would have succeeded in ODIs and I have a sneaky feeling that Anura's antipathy for T20s stems from the lack of character of the pyjama game where temperament is subjugated by temptation!

Posted by   on (February 6, 2012, 16:23 GMT)

Watched you play in the 70s in the Moin ud Dowlah championship games and an unofficial test match. Saw you take apart some of the best bowlers India had at that time. Done with silken grace!!!!!!!

Sir, you were all class and the cricketing world is unfortunate not to have had SL as a test playing country in your time. Guys like you, DS DeSilva, Tony Opatha, Heyn et al would have made SL a very comepetitive and entertaining team.

Thanks for the memories and the classy way you played the game!!!!!!!

Posted by royramesh on (February 6, 2012, 15:16 GMT)

Sir, I would have loved to hear your views on your immaculate technique - how it evolved and how it compares with the so called modern techniques of todays S L batsmen such as Dilshan; and why the S L coaching section says that they do not coach textbook cricket.

Posted by   on (February 6, 2012, 6:13 GMT)

It was a pleasure to watch him play, and also the whole Sri Lanka team. Being my mother's cousin he is my uncle too, and we got special privileges like getting to sit in the pavilion. Still remember other greats like David Hyen, Bandula Warnapura, Siddath Wettimuny etc.

Posted by   on (February 6, 2012, 5:27 GMT)

We as kids were fortunate enough to see the performances of Anura T, Michael Tissera, david Heyn, Duleep Mendis, Anura Ranasinghe, Jayantha Seneviratne, Bandula warnapura etc. they were real heores playing against fire without protective gears against Windies and aussies when the rare opportunity arose. The empire current crop rules was built on their bllod and sweat. We lost a technically sound Anura T as he reveals in this piece just to keep the fires burning and to feed two kids. Any way He was a great solid batter anfd more than anything else a perfect modes gentleman

Posted by   on (February 6, 2012, 3:38 GMT)

Respected gentleman cricketers of glorious past who played the game for pure pleasure not money. Respect sir, wish you well.

Posted by   on (February 5, 2012, 18:57 GMT)

Anura Tennakoon was one of the most technically correct batsmen produced by Sri Lanka in pre test match era. I was at the Colombo Oval watching him score a hundred against Clive Lloyd's West Indies in the second 3 day unofficial test match during 1974 tour. It was a classic knock. When Anura reached his hundred soon after lunch on second day Clive Lloyd walked up to him and shook his hands in full of appreciation. We would have won that match having bowled out the powerful WI for 119 and replied with 306 in first innings. But in second innings Roy Fredricks century and 77 by Viv Richards ensured that WI escaped with a draw. I thought had Michael Tissera was given the ball a little bit earlier we would have bowled them out early to have enough time to reach the victory target. As it happened as soon as Tissera was brought in just before tea he made a crucuial breakthrough and he and DS De Silva ran through WI middle order and tail in quick time after tea.

Posted by Charindra on (February 5, 2012, 17:04 GMT)

Respect sir. These were the unsung heroes of SL cricket. The guys who played cricket as a hobby without thinking about the money. As the saying goes, "you don't know where you're going, until you know where you've come from."

Posted by tennakoon63 on (February 5, 2012, 14:50 GMT)

One of the best cricketers Sri Lanka ever produced. He is a gentleman.

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