Profile May 12, 2004

The story of Churchill Hector Gunasekera

As was the habit in India, when for more than half a century under the Raj, teams representing Hindus, Parse, Muslims and Europeans played in an annual series in (then) Bombay, Ceylon had a similar polarised structure. It was far from healthy and created a stigma of racism that spilled into many forms of life and fashioned false social barriers. While it became an accepted part of the colonial way of life, and there were those who felt quite comfortable with such a format, it was long frowned on for its discriminatory practice. For one thing, while it may have suited the colonial administration to allow their elite military units to get involved in such games, it did not sit at all comfortably with the pan-Indian ideals of Mahatma Ghandi. It created an image that suggested a fractured society and with a diverted quest for an identity.

What this unfortunately led to was the suggestion in less affluent Colombo society that the game was run by an elite band of brown sahibs for the benefit of their white brothers. It was claimed that the Ceylon Cricket Association used this vehicle to suit their ends. It led to the false impression that to play the game and be a brown sahib was as good as being British. In this sense, despite growing Sinhalese agitation for an accepted political identity in a colonial system, the game was seen as a way to infiltrate the colonial society. It was no different in Africa where there had been those emancipated from the shackles of slavery; or in the West Indies. While some Raj masters were benevolent, others used the system to create and increase their power and influence.

CH faced the problem of discrimination when a student at Cambridge in England. Years after returning home, and now captain of the Sinhalese Sports Club, he faced another type of inverted discrimination when selected in 1930 for the Ceylonese side to play Europeans in the annual match. It was suggested by the politicians within the Ceylon Cricket Association (CCA) that CH would not play in the same side as that led by Cecil Horan. The argument here was that both men were not on friendly terms. This, as CH points out was totally wrong. "Apart from all things," writes CH of the incident, "I am still of the opinion that Horan was a cricketer who thoroughly deserved that honour. Feelings of animosity could have so easily been created between Cecil and myself by the political machinations of those who wanted to create such feelings."

As he saw it, CH felt such arguments that he would not play with or under Horan was used as a deliberate political manoeuvre designed to force him to withdraw. It was also done, it was said at the time, to reduce the supposed growing influence CH had in CCA circles. Horan had been selected by the Ceylonese clubs to lead the side for the annual Ceylonese-Europeans match.

Straightforward as usual, CH, felt the insinuation was a slight on his character as well as affront to Horan's dignity as a sportsman. In private papers, CH said that he was disappointed by the critics who wanted him to either withdraw from the side or fail in the match. He was selected to bat at eleven in the game that was played at the CCC; he went on to take eight for 28 in the Europeans first innings of 156. Horan ignored the selectors' prescribed batting order and had CH bat at seven; he went on to top-score with 37 in the Ceylonese-born innings of 144. In the European second innings, the cunning flight, swing and length earned him figures of five for 52. Trusting his instincts, Horan had CH bat higher in the second innings and was rewarded with an undefeated 77. The Ceylonese-born players won the game by six wickets and embarrassed those who thought they would gain had CH withdrawn.

While contemporary reports and CH's own writings do not suggest as much, it has been hinted in other sources that Horan asked the CCA clubs not to interfere with future selections of the team. "The sport is above politics of any nature," Horan is said to have written of events leading to team selection, "and those trying to use the game for their own ends should leave it to those who serve the game for the benefit of all cricketers in the CC."

What is interesting is how the captain of the European's side, F A Waldock, presented the ball to CH after the match. He had the ball mounted and a silver shield inscribed the with bowling figures of 13 wickets for 80 runs. It was, for CH, one of his more treasured trophies and can still be seen at the home of his son, Channa, in Nawala Road, Rajagiriya.

As if reading Horan's thoughts into the question of leadership and other factors in the game's growing administration, the CCA met not too long after the Ceylonese-European game and, most wisely, say contemporary reports, selected C H as captain for the game against the 1930 Australians on their way to England. Horan was also selected and the so-called "feud" between two fine players was quietly buried with the politicians forced to admit defeat.

In what was the first visit to the island by Don Bradman in Bill Woodfull's team, the tourists spent the first day shopping at Mount Lavinia. On April 3, the Australians met the All Ceylon side at the Colombo or Tamil Union Oval; it was a time when Bradman had a growing reputation but was far from the scourge of bowlers he was to become. Players such as Stan McCabe and Bill Ponsford attracted equal attention.

Among those selected for the Ceylon team was the stylish all-rounder Neil Joseph; tall and lithe, CH considered him to be a highly skilled batsman with the advantage of being a leg-spinner. He was brought in as a late replacement for I J L Saltmarsh (CCC), The Australians scored briskly and McCabe soon lost his wicket; enter Bradman and after scoring a few brisk runs, CH brought on Joseph in what was his debut match. The first ball the all-rounder bowled to Bradman forced the batsman back onto his stumps and he was dismissed hit wicket for 40.

In his long career, the Don was out only three times hit wicket, only once in a first class match and twice in one-day games such as that against the All-Ceylon team. Bradman was impressed with the seam and swing of Ed Kleaart, who in 29.5 overs took six wickets for 65. In his autobiography Farewell to Cricket (published in 1950), Bradman freely admitted how the visitors found the All Ceylon team far stronger than they'd been led to believe. This in itself is an interesting tribute and is designed to praise and not patronise the standard of the game on the island as it was at the time.

Bradman rarely acknowledged in his playing days the quality of the opposition. During the 1948 tour he was quick to point out to F C Derrick de Saram that the pitch at the Colombo Oval (P Saravanamuttu Oval or P Sara to those Westerners who battle to get their tongue around the word that is far less complex than some Aboriginal names) was short. This required it be remeasured and it was found to be short by two feet. There are three versions of how the error was noted. SS Perera said it was the off-spinner and later Australian captain who made the discovery; Jack Fingleton only points fingers in his book of the 1948 tour, Brightly Fades the Don, saying the ground staff at P Sara failed to get it right: it seems though that Perera gleaned his Johnson theory from Fingleton, a former Australian batsman. Sid Barnes who suffered sunstroke does not support Fingleton, neither does Keith Miller nor does Johnson make mention of the incident.

Ievers Gunasekara, however, produces the most accurate account that it was Bradman who spotted the problem. Having tried to get the ball past the cover fieldsman, The Don found he was having a problem scoring what should have been a normal two. Having known, FC Derrick de Saram from playing in England before World War 2, the Don called to FC and blithely called out, "Derrick, this pitch is too short. Look how we are struggling to get twos where we all should have no problem. I think it should be measured and the length checked." This was done and the measurement showed the pitch to be two yards short. So, who is right here? Ievers or Fingleton and the Johnson therom? Frankly the way Ievers puts the story has more credibility than the Fingleton story. Don Tallon, wicketkeeper of that 1948 side also supports that it was Bradman who made the discovery during his short stay at the crease.

Back in 1930, however, the ever-crafty technician and tactician CH Gunasekara, conjured his own ploy to get rid of The Don and it worked as he scored less than 10. He was on his way to becoming recognised as the smartest captain Ceylon have had in the pre-Test arena. This time there was no one in the political field to try and spoil the growth that had been taking place on the island. While the years of early challenge were being replaced by more meaningful activity on the field and off it, and CH had by now put together a significant squad.

(This is the second 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, Trevor Chesterfield is a veteran cricket writer with a deep interest in Sri Lanka and the island's cricket history. He is managing editor of an international cricket website. Part three: The Road Ahead, will appear shortly).