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The birth of a nation

We look back to the day Sri Lanka became the eighth country to play Test cricket

Martin Williamson

March 24, 2012

Comments: 29 | Text size: A | A

Bandula Warnapura and Keith Fletcher go out to toss, Sri Lanka v England, Inaugural Test, Colombo, February 17, 1982
Bandula Warnapura and Keith Fletcher go out to toss ahead of Sri Lanka's first Test; by the end of the year the international careers of both men were over © David Frith

On Wednesday, February 17, 1982, when Bob Willis bowled to Bandula Warnapura, Sri Lanka became cricket's eighth Test-playing country. Minutes earlier, Warnapura had become the first Sri Lanka captain to win a toss; minutes later, he was their first batsman to be dismissed when he was taken high in the gully by David Gower off a Willis snorter for 2.

The match itself had been in preparation since the previous July, when the ICC had finally granted Sri Lanka Full Member status. That moment was more symbolic than the country arriving as a force in world cricket. Many regarded it as final confirmation of Sri Lanka's importance and standing as an independent nation.

Cricket was in the nation's blood. The first club had been formed 150 years earlier, and Sri Lanka had been a regular stop-off point for touring sides to Australia since Ivo Bligh broke his journey there in 1882-83. Scores of legendary players had played in Colombo.

In the seven months since the ICC decision, preparations had been made in anticipation of the match. More than £100,000 had been spent on modernising the Colombo Oval and building stands to take the capacity to more than 20,000. Ramshackle huts near the stadium were demolished and the 20 or so families who lived there rehoused. Other venues in Colombo, as well as Galle and Radella, had been renovated. In Kandy, the Asgiriya ground, the home of the Old Trinitians, had been doubled in size by removing part of a hill and then constructing a new pavilion.

By the time England arrived on February 5, straight from their tour of India, the preparations were in full swing. Banquets were being organised, special stamps and coins were issued, and businesses and shops were planning to shut on the first day of the Test. One local paper reported that even the police were likely to have one ear glued to the radio.

England spent a few days acclimatising - they had come from northern India, and the change in temperature was marked.

A VIP train took them to their first game in Kandy, which was well attended and finished in a draw. There then followed the two one-day internationals, both played out in front of capacity 20,000 crowds at the Sinhalese Sports Club. England won the first by five runs, and seemed on course to repeat their success when they reached 203 for 5 chasing 216 in the second. But amid riotous scenes they lost their last five wickets for ten runs to give the home side a remarkable three-run victory. The crowd invaded the pitch at the end, lit celebratory bonfires in the stands, and remained in front of the pavilion long after the sun had set, cheering in the dark.

Less than 60 hours later, the Test started, but some of the gloss was taken off the occasion as the ground was only about half full - it was estimated there were around 10,000 present at the start - which was put down to high ticket prices (one day's admission was equal to the weekly salary of a clerk), the fact it was a weekday, and the effect of saturation TV and radio coverage. Low attendances continued throughout, and on the second day the large contingent of English followers were in the majority, a portent of the Barmy Army, which emerged a decade later.

But there were plenty of dignitaries, led by the Hon J Jayawardene, the president; government ministers; cricket administrators from across the world; and many former national players. Derrick de Saram, who scored a hundred for Oxford University against the touring Australians in 1934 and who died less than a year later, summed up the feeling of the many former national players in attendance when he said that he only wished he was 40 years younger.

Bandula Warnapura faces the first ball from Bob Willis, Sri Lanka v England, Inaugural Test, Colombo, February 17, 1982
Bandula Warnapura faces the first ball of the match from Bob Willis © Wisden Cricket Monthly

The only controversy in the immediate build-up to the Test had come when Keith Fletcher, the England captain, had expressed concern about the pitch being excessively watered on the eve of the match. The Times, in a misprint that might not have been out of place 15 years later, noted Fletcher made his observations when the team had arrived for "early morning bets". Before the match he had stirred controversy by stating Sri Lanka were not County Championship class, although adding the rider they were a tough proposition at home.

For Fletcher, weary after a gruelling tour of India, the time in Sri Lanka was a chore, as he was repeatedly called upon to make speeches. In the Guardian recently, Frank Keating recalled that on Fletcher's previous visit to the island it had been called Ceylon and that caused him no end of confusion. "He regularly had his team and us pressmen giggling into our handkerchiefs, for Keith could never stop himself calling it, not Sri Lanka, but Sri-lon as in: 'ow 'appy we are to be Sri lon'."

Willis noted that the residual dampness made Warnapura's decision to bat dubious, and when they slid to 34 for 4 the captain was a worried man. "It looked," wrote John Thicknesse in the Cricketer, "momentarily as if the first day's cricket in Colombo would be an embarrassing disaster."

Sri Lanka recovered and only conceded a five-run first-innings lead as England lost their last five wickets for 23 on the third morning. Willis was seething, and turned on his colleagues, who were moaning about a string of dubious umpiring decisions. "Here we are, limply rolling over to be beaten by this lot: a humiliation is staring us in the face and all we can do is whinge on about the flaming umpires. We should be ashamed of ourselves. Let's just get up and get out there and win."

The rallying call seemed to fall on deaf ears. But after finishing the third day in the strong position of 152 for 3, Sri Lanka lost their last seven wickets for eight runs in 45 minutes. John Emburey took 6 for 33 including five wickets in 33 deliveries. England were set 171 to win and Chris Tavare's unbeaten 85 helped them to a seven-wicket victory inside four days.

"The baby," wrote David Frith in Wisden Cricket Monthly, "had been delivered without complications; heartbeat regular, breathing sound, if a little excited."

What happened next?

  • Later in 1982, Bandula Warnapura captained the rebel Sri Lankan side to South Africa and received a life ban from cricket as a result. Of those who played in the inaugural Test, Mahes Goonatilleke, Ajit de Silva and Lalith Kaluperuma also threw in their lot with the rebels
  • Arjuna Ranatunga almost joined the rebel tour but was persuaded not to do so by Warnapura, who told him: "'You're not going anywhere. You're too young to go and you have a long career ahead of you."
  • Keith Fletcher never played for England again and was replaced as captain by Bob Willis, although Peter May, the chairman of selectors, neglected to tell Fletcher the news and he found out through the media
  • Sri Lanka recorded their first Test win in their 14th Test, defeating India by 149 runs in Colombo in September 1985

Is there an incident from the past you would like to know more about? Email us with your comments and suggestions.

Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa

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© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by   on (March 26, 2012, 3:36 GMT)

@miles100- dear frnd the 1st recorded cricket match in india was played back in 1721 and the 1st match in srilanka was played in 1832, so cricket started ind india 111 years b4 srilanka saw a bat or ball. get ur facts correct brother and if u want 2 crosscheck it plz search 4 it in wikipaedia. Britishers introduced the game in india in the early 1700s whereas the 1st britishers to set foot in srilanka came in d year 1802

Posted by AdrianVanDenStael on (March 25, 2012, 12:58 GMT)

@WC96QF: One could equally regard what happened to Sri Lanka as evidence in favour of further countries being worthy of test status. Remember that Sri Lanka were being dismissed by administrators, fans, of players of other teams right up to (and in some cases after) their winning the world cup in 1996, much as teams like Bangladesh, Ireland and Afghanistan are dismissed today. Prior to 1995-6, Sri Lanka were seen as cricket's whipping boys; in the 1987 world cup, although it was played in South Asia, they lost every game, and finished 8th out of 9 in the 1992 world cup. In other words, right up to their winning the world cup Sri Lanka were seen by many in cricket as a minnow. I'm not suggesting that Ireland or the Netherlands, etc, are likely to win the next world cup; but one ought to remember that there were many people ready to insinuate for a long time that Sri Lanka weren't worthy of test status, much as is being said of Bangladesh, etc, today

Posted by miles100 on (March 25, 2012, 12:01 GMT)

Cricket was first introduced to Sri Lanka in 1832 and Cricket was first introduced to India in 1845. Pakistan saw a cricket ball and a bat in 1947. SL is the oldest subcontinental cricket playing nation. However to the eyes of the other nations especially Paks and Indians, SL looked like Minnows even though cricket in Sri Lanka is lot older than these 2 countries. Indians and Paks will do anything to win against Sri Lanka even if they loose to the whole world. It is a pride India and Pakistan have because in their mind Sri Lanka is a new cricket playing nation as SL got the test status very late and they don't SL were playing cricket way before them. The truth is Sri lanka is the most senior(oldest) cricket playing nation in the subcontinent and SL Lions must have the continuous pride to dominate these 2 countries in almost every match they play.

Posted by WC96QF on (March 25, 2012, 9:15 GMT)

Very good article, tells us abt impt milestones in Cricket in this part of the world. Its also a good way to assess the progress of new nations coming into Test Cricket. If Sri Lanka entered Test Cricket in 1982, it took them just 14 years to win the ODI World Cup in 1996 ! thats a pretty commendable effort, because South Africa, New Zealand, England and Zimbabwe have still not won a World Cup! Bangladesh having become a test playing nation in the year 2000 had a wonderful opportunity to win the WC in its own back-yard in 2011. Hopefully after its Asia Cup performances, the team will pick up momentum. In Test Cricket, Sri Lanka's record outside Asia has been patchy; but still better than Bangladesh. I hope no other countries are given Test status for the time being!

Posted by CricketPissek on (March 25, 2012, 7:57 GMT)

i like how this article is about the birth of test cricket in sri lanka, but the comments are about how great tendulkar is or isnt lol

Posted by johnathonjosephs on (March 25, 2012, 6:40 GMT)

@MaruthuDelft How can you say Murali's action was always questionable? He was passed MULTIPLE times and there is proof all over the internet showing his action was about the same in degrees as any other bowler. His arm just gives it an illusion. Agree with you on Sangakkara. Kallis and Tendulkar are greats no doubt, but after Sangakkara gave up wicketkeeping, he has been matched by nobody. I believe he averages 70+ when not wicketkeeping and averages 57 away when not wicketkeeping. Plus he has like 7 or 8 Double Centuries and was fastest to both 8000 and 9000 runs (probably will be fastest to 10,000). Of course, its hard to touch base with Lara, who is the best Test Batsman of our era. Tendulkar is more of a complete batsman, mastering both the Test AND the ODI format, something Sangakkara and Lara never were able to do

Posted by csowmi7 on (March 25, 2012, 5:35 GMT)

@Danushka308 Yes while it may be true that sangakarra has played only 3 test matches in Australia but Tendulkar averages 58 in Australia 50 in SA and 54 in England. Compare this with Sangakkarra who averages 39 in SA and 30 in Eng compared to his career average of 55. This shows a great dip in form while playing on bouncy pitches. Tendulkar played a majority of his best cricket in the late 1990s when there were far better bowlers than today while sangakkarra has scored a majority of his runs in the recent past. Warne mcgrath ambrose murali vaas akram waqar donald and pollock were all at their peak at this time. This why lara tendulkar and ponting are rated higher. But it is unfair that SL play few matches in Aus and deserve an opportunity.

Posted by RavanaNation on (March 25, 2012, 4:44 GMT)

nice article. Cricket was a part of our life since then. It was the only relieve, we Sri Lankans had during Dark days of Civil war. The love for cricket is in our blood but we use both our heart and brain when reacting to victories and defeats. That makes Us so unique among Sub continent cricket lovers

Posted by Danushka308 on (March 25, 2012, 3:03 GMT)

@csowmi7 tendulkar played more matches than anybody..Sangakkara played only 2 test matches in australia.if sangakkara has more matches in australia he can score more many matches tendulkar played in australia to score all those 100s..lets see how sangakkara play in this december in australia..

Posted by PBs09 on (March 24, 2012, 18:08 GMT)

Cricket's greatest success story; that too by a long shot. But you wonder whether they can ever repeat themselves today. With the ICC's crackdown on Associate Nations and the reluctance of other nations to play them, you fear we may never see a story like Sri Lanka's again.

Posted by csowmi7 on (March 24, 2012, 16:22 GMT)

Sri Lanka have been a consistent side over the years and amongst the top 5 in the world. They have produced some fine batsman over the years in Aravinda de silva Jayawardene Sangakarra Jayasuriya and Dilshan. Not to mention the great bowlers in Murali and Vaas who have been amazing ambassadors for the game not only with their ability but with the way they presented themselves on and off the field. Wish my neighbors all the best against England.

Posted by csowmi7 on (March 24, 2012, 16:17 GMT)

@maruthudelft You say Ponting has scored classy centuries in SA. He has only scored 3 compared to Tendulkar's 5.

Posted by csowmi7 on (March 24, 2012, 16:15 GMT)

@maruthudelft Sangakarra is a classy batsman and one of the modern greats no doubt but he's not as great as tendulkar. I mean his average may be 55 but his average against Australia is only 41 and against England 40. Out of his 28 centuries 16 are at home and only 5 outside the subcontinent 2 of which are against NZ. Compare this with Tendulkar who has 14 centuries in Aus, SA and Eng and 29 centuries abroad against better bowlers in the 1990s. And dont even compare the ODI records of the two. Tendulkar stands alone.

Posted by nickcarter80 on (March 24, 2012, 15:20 GMT)

Really interesting article, about the birth of the nation with smiling cricketers. Imagine what would have been like without SL for past 30 years in world cricket. They have brought colour, flamboyance and excitement to the cricket with their naturally talented unique cricketers. And won millions of hearts with their performances around the world (I can't think of another country which have such neutral supporters, than SL).

Posted by MaruthuDelft on (March 24, 2012, 14:17 GMT)

You can't say Murali is Sri Lanka's greatest cricketer. His action was always questionable. Chaminda Vaas was the man. In batting they were always classy. Sangakara is the second best batsman in the world in the last 20 years. He is much superior to Tendulkar and Kallis. Ponting has some credibility to dispute that claim because he scored some dominant centuries against South Africa in South Africa. Of course Lara is a super batsman.

Posted by Balumekka on (March 24, 2012, 13:24 GMT)

Sri Lanka must be really proud looking at the achievements in past 30 yrs. one world cup win, runners up twice, produced some quality cricketers including the greatest wicket taker of the game, produced some great captains, added lot of innovativeness and excitement to the game, showed lot of fighting spirit and lot more....

Posted by Balumekka on (March 24, 2012, 13:19 GMT)

@Rajiv Agrawala: Yes there are hardly any articles on this. Most of the players of Sri Lankan side ("rebel side") toured South Africa for a bi-lateral tournament in 1982-1983 season. South Africa was isolated from the cricket community during tat time and banned at the International level. The reason was for SL rebel team to visit was actually money offered from South Africa. None of the SL players were professional players at that time and they were doing other jobs to live. So touring South Africa meant lot to them financially. Some brilliant players had to quit cricket thereafter. Ajith De Silva (people say that he is the best leggie produced by SL), Mahes Goonatilleke (people say he is the best wicket keeper SL ever produced, it is said that he hardly ever dives when keeping because he had the quickest foot movements for a keeper so that can reach to any ball!) and Anura Ranasinghe (fine allrounder) are some of them. Warnapura must get the credit for not taking Arjuna for tour!

Posted by AdrianVanDenStael on (March 24, 2012, 12:54 GMT)

Also I note a certain R.G. Pollock in that South African side ... don't know how I missed that ...

Posted by AdrianVanDenStael on (March 24, 2012, 12:48 GMT)

@ Rajiv Agrawala: this link will give you the scorecards of the fixtures of the "rebel" Sri Lankan side in South Africa. I see they had to play a very tough South African team (including Jimmy Cook, Clive Rice, Vincent Van der Bijl, and an ageing Barry Richards). Reading this article I am reminded of how little respect English cricket paid to Sri Lanka in its early days as a test-playing nation (as perhaps is common in English cricket's attitudes to emerging teams). It took England nearly twenty years to play a series against Sri Lanka (by which time Sri Lanka had already, unlike England, won a 50-over world cup, beaten England in tests home and away, and had great players like Jayasruiya, Murali, Aravinda de Silva, etc). Before this England only gave them the odd test here or there and in fact had only played Sri Lanka in 6 tests in nearly 20 years.

Posted by Udendra on (March 24, 2012, 12:17 GMT)

Sri lanka developed very fast winning their first test in 3 yrs. But, after 12 yrs of test status Bangladesh is yet to show something substantial to the cricket world.

Posted by Herath-UK on (March 24, 2012, 12:01 GMT)

The colour and class Sri Lanka have brought to cricket are unparalleled;simply rewrote the ODI format;records in abundance;highest scores in all forms of games Test,ODI,T20 and what not;highest wicket taker game has ever seen etc. All in so short of period when considering other nations labouring;how poor cricket would have been without Sri Lanka,beggars beleif! Ranil Herath - Kent

Posted by   on (March 24, 2012, 11:39 GMT)

I like what Bandula Warnapura had said to Arjuna Ranatunga. Imagine that never happening.

Posted by   on (March 24, 2012, 11:29 GMT)

Where mighty I learn more about the "rebel Sri Lankan side" as I'm not familiar with this history and I see no reference to this in Wikipedia articles?

Posted by   on (March 24, 2012, 10:35 GMT)

Murali= by far the main reason for Sri Lanka's growth and success

Posted by priceless1 on (March 24, 2012, 8:30 GMT)

From the begining they had a classy batsmen s and quality all rounders

Posted by pradeep_dealwis on (March 24, 2012, 6:55 GMT)

beautifully written article

Posted by Marcian on (March 24, 2012, 5:46 GMT)

Sri Lanka's first Test match is etched in my mind in vivid detail. We were in a good position to win the match if not for the second innings dramatic collapse. Duleep Mendis and Roy Dias almost signed up (or did sign) for the rebel tour but changed their mind at the eleventh hour. Good article: fond memories of a bygone era.

Posted by   on (March 24, 2012, 5:37 GMT)

And allies of Pakistan too.

Posted by Nadeem1976 on (March 24, 2012, 4:58 GMT)

Sri Lanka has improved a lot in last 30 years. They produced the greatest off spinner in history of cricket. Highest wicket taker in both forms of the game. They won WC. They have beaten all the test playing countries. After 1996 srilanka never went down mainly because of Murli and today they are top team because of their batting. Great team and great sportsmen.

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Martin Williamson Executive editor Martin Williamson joined the Wisden website in its planning stages in 2001 after failing to make his millions in the internet boom when managing editor of Sportal. Before that he was in charge of Sky Sports Online and helped launch and run Sky News Online. With a preference for all things old (except his wife and children), he has recently confounded colleagues by displaying an uncharacteristic fondness for Twenty20 cricket. His enthusiasm for the game is sadly not matched by his ability, but he remains convinced that he might be a late developer and perseveres in the hope of an England call-up with his middle-order batting and non-spinning offbreaks. He is now managing editor of ESPN EMEA Digital Group as well as his Cricinfo responsibilities.

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