Wisden Cricket Monthly / Features

April 1982

Sri Lanka come of age

David Frith, the WCM editor, travelled to Sri Lanka to watch their inaugural Test against England in February 1982

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David Frith, the WCM editor, travelled to Sri Lanka to watch their inaugural Test against England in February 1982. Here is his daily report of the game

First day



Bandula Warnapura and Keith Fletcher go out to toss © WCM/David Frith
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It is just on thirty years since the last newcomer -- Pakistan -- took the Test cricket field for the first time, and it may be as long again before the next debutant strides out. Sri Lanka's entry thus signified something truly special in the game's history, particularly as Warnapura and his men made such a brave showing.

Sri Lanka's life as a Test cricket nation began with a whoop of the newborn: a delightful and daring half-century from schoolboy Arjuna Ranatunga. At 18 years 78 days this precocious left-hander ranks among the youngest of Test debutants, none of whom could possibly have batted with more flair and assurance. He first cashed in on his ability with an innings of 315 not out (plus 11 wickets for 24) in an under-14 school match. Now, coming in at 34 for 4 before lunch on the opening day of his country's maiden Test match, and greeted with a steep bouncer from Willis, he went for his strokes, mostly off the front foot, with the will and brisk execution of a Miandad. By the time he misjudged against Underwood, withholding his bat and being bowled off stump, he had scored Sri Lanka's first Test fifty and added a rescuing 99 with Ranjan Madugalle for the fifth wicket, the best of their strokes commemorated by the tom-tom beat of the bera.

The opening day, naturally, was a day of firsts. Bandula Warnapura won his country's first toss as the celebration balloons soared away, and soon made its first run. A local newspaper even recorded that he was the first to be hit on the chest. Then he became the first victim, taken high at gully in a Willis-Gower combination, though not before there had been the first of a succession of misshapen ball replacements. Roy Dias made the first duck, Geoff Cook, in his first Test, taking his first catch, standing unflinchingly at short leg as Dias played a hesitant and ultimately soft hook. After the first of frequent drinks intervals on a just bearably hot day, Botham was guilty of the first missed catch in Anglo-Sri Lankan Tests, putting Sidath Wettimuny down at second slip off Allott. Soon, the chunky Duleep Mendis, looking like Viswanath, thumped Allott straight for the first boundary. Botham's first over produced his first wicket -- Wettimuny caught behind hooking -- and when he had Mendis lbw playing back in his next over, England's power player had redeemed himself while threatening to wreck the inaugural Test. But when Gooch missed Madugalle above his head at gully, not only did it suggest that Paul Allott was following in the Lancashire tradition of Brian Statham when it came to evil fortune, but, as the afternoon session wore on, the costliness of the lost chance became starkly apparent.

Young Ranatunga scored freely to leg as Allott failed to bowl across him to a 7-2 off-side field, and while Willis exploited the bounce-potential for figures of 10-4-13-2, it came time for spin. Madugalle relished its introduction with a sturdy six over square leg off Emburey, and soon the hundred was up, in the 37th over, in 191 minutes -- a dismal rate of 111/2 overs per hour. When, after further ball changes, Ranatunga reached 50 in just over two hours, the disappointingly small crowd made as much noise as it could.

Expectations of a capacity attendance proved to be awry. It was a weekday, and the cost of admission was equal to a clerk's weekly wage. Those who were present on this historic day, however, saw Sri Lanka lose ground after tea, and it was Underwood, moving into the 290s as a Test wicket-taker, who drove them back. The ball gripped and spun on old Mrs Inasiam's mottled pitch, and in the 90 minutes after tea the Kent spinner took four wickets, as he once did habitually. Madugalle (64 not out), judging matters calmly, saw it through, but 183 for 8, even though preferable to 34 for 4, was disappointing for Sri Lanka, whose bowlers, with veteran Gamini Goonesena and their captain, studied the textured wicket after play and debated lengths and directions.

The baby, nonetheless, had been delivered without complications; heartbeat regular; breathing sound if a little excited.

Second day
Though Madugalle soon went -- skying Underwood to midwicket and giving him his first five-wicket Test haul in almost five years -- the tenth wicket took some prising out. Left-hander Ajith de Silva got away with some exotic shots before holing out soon after being hit painfully on the forearm. Like the streets of Colombo, Sri Lanka's total of 218, while anything but safe, was a living challenge. Asantha de Mel, 22, a strongly-built computer programmer, average height, is currently the best fast bowler on the island, and in his fifth and sixth overs he 'did a Lillee' by prompting a lame steer to gully by Cook, yorking Tavare second ball, and winning a dubious lbw claim against Gooch. Yet when England lunched at 44 for 3, de Mel was close to tears of frustration, not elation, for Fletcher had flicked him to short leg only for the diving D. S. de Silva to miss his last frantic grab for the ball. This was the big 'if' of the match. England, batting last against three spinners, would have been four down, 174 behind, with a long tail.

David Gower and his captain held firm for most of the afternoon session against the wiles of D. S. (Somachandra) de Silva's leg-spin/googly variety, Kaluperuma's off-spin, and de Silva's left-arm spin, delivered with a swift pivot and arm action, with no real follow through -- in the Lance Gibbs manner. Once Gower had helped de Mel to pasture with some graceful and measured boundary strokes -- including a sweet pull for six -- the game took on a 1950s glow: flight, spin, footwork (though Fletcher played mainly across the crease), and a sense of art previously lost to modern Test cricket. All three spinners, we were given to under-stand, had bowled better, but allowance had to be made for the tension of the occasion, as on the first morning, when Willis's fiery bounce on a slightly moist pitch was not the sole reason for the early collapse.

Thirty-three overs were sent down in the two-hour afternoon period, towards the end of which England's recovery was almost complete. Then Fletcher swept from off stump into square leg's hands near the turf, and Botham had time to signal his presence with two booming hits before the break. With England's two most exciting strokemakers in, there ensued a series of tight, even negative, overs, Ajith de Silva blatantly wheeling away at Botham well outside leg stump, the batsman constrained uncomfortably, sometimes kicking the ball away with contempt. The return of de Mel seemed to offer better. Botham mistimed a pull to mid-on, sighted another long-hop ... and bottom-edged into his stumps. Five down for 151.

Gower played coolly on, the elegant column around which England's awkwardly-shaped staircase was being built. Taylor held on dourly to the close, hemmed in by hungry fielders, and at the end England were 186 for 6, Gower 79, Taylor 8. The spectators, almost all new to a Test match, went home contented. The journalists went to the England team hotel to hear what the captain had to say.

Third day



Roy Dias drives on his way to 77 © WCM
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Soon after Taylor had clipped a straight-drive to the boundary to bring up the 200, Gower, having added an 89 to his last three Test scores in India of 74, 64 and 85 (still there were those who asked impatiently when the centuries were coming), was beaten by a ball from D. S. de Silva of corkscrew flight, and after Emburey was lbw at the other end, Allott slashed the leg-spinner to Kaluperuma, who knocked the ball up and dived gloriously after it to complete a one-handed catch. Next ball, Underwood's bat-edge helped a flashing leg-break fast to point, and Willis's run-out concluded a handy session for Sri Lanka, who had thus dispatched the second half of England's batting this morning for 37 runs. Fletcher's thoughts that England's spinners had turned more on the first day than Sri Lanka's had on the second needed amendment on the third.

By the end of the third day, few were prepared to put money on England. Sensible and sometimes sparkling batting took Sri Lanka to 152 for 3 by the close, and the island was agog. The newcomers seemed to have grown up in 48 hours. Willis's hostility was withstood; Botham's wild stuff put away for profit. And as lunch approached, Warnapura, the non-striker, removed a pad and rewrapped his trouser-cuff in as blatant a piece of time-wasting as any senior Test player has indulged in, Underwood's sarcastic clapping as they came off one over short marking an end to any thoughts that Sri Lankans, in their newness, must be naive.

Fletcher ignored Allott completely during the second Sri Lanka innings, entrusting the attack to spin after Willis's desperate effort. The big man knew the opposition had to be stopped now, but in heat which made watching from a breezy press-box uncomfortable enough, he managed only to shift Wettimuny with a near-yorker. After that, Warnapura and the dashing Dias shaped the day. The last over before tea was dramatic. Botham served up three bad balls and Dias helped himself to reach 50 and bring up the hundred. England were much relieved when, after the interval, Gooch held his ground as Warnapura swept, and threw himself forward to scoop up a vital catch. Further embarrassment was spared when Underwood got one to clip the edge of Dias's bat as he advanced, and with that fine, adventurous yet judicious innings killed off, England could concentrate on keeping their target as close to 200 as possible. With three days gone, Sri Lanka, 152 for 3, were 147 ahead.

Fourth day
Few were prepared for the sensations that came with the fourth day. The expectations before the start of this historic match were tinged with the same sort of uncertainty felt as Man approached his first Moon landing. Now everything had gone quite uniformly, and guards were relaxed. But how necks stiffened and chatter swelled as Sri Lankan batsmen embarked on a perahera (procession). The pitch was a spinner's dream -- though not so much so that the de Silvas and Kaluperuma dictated later on. At last, the match became one of professionals v amateurs. Mercifully, the massacre occurred on Day 4, not Day 1.

Warnapura resisted any temptation to break the top crust up yet with the heavy roller, though with that priceless commodity, hindsight, he should have done so. For nine overs all was steady, apart from a six landed over long-on by Mendis off Underwood. Visions of an awkward England target of 275 or so were strengthening. Then Madugalle popped Emburey to short leg, and the touchpaper to an extraordinary 47-minute period of play was lit. Another 68 balls accounted for the remaining six wickets for eight runs: put another way, seven panicked Sri Lankans were beaten or lured to destruction by the bouncing, spinning ball, while all the young nation's dreams distorted into nightmare.

Ranatunga, his launching glory already just a memory, was taken by an agile Fletcher at silly point; D. S. de Silva, having survived a loud shout for a short-leg catch off Emburey, went bat-pad to Underwood; Mendis hit Emburey irresponsibly out to long-on; Kaluperuma skyed an attempted hook; de Mel, swinging shoulders and bat like a Randall, plonked Emburey to midwicket; Ajith de Silva hoisted another catch to Willis on the line almost straight. Underwood's 10.5 overs this morning were worth 2 for 6, Emburey's 10 overs, 5 for 10, for a Test-best of 6 for 33 (he took the same number of wickets for 222 in the Indian Tests).

Breathtaking stuff; but so pink and sensitive had it rendered the nerves that a surprisingly low England requirement of 171, noted gratefully by those concerned, was no formality. Especially when a crestfallen Cook was given out lbw without scoring.

Tavare was hit clangingly on the helmet by de Mel immediately before lunch, but no harm was done. In fact, he batted with uncustomary boldness, and, with Gooch, set England some way along the victory road before his partner was yorked rather casually. The key question now was whether a fifth day was necessary. Everyone had a beach to go to or a pool to lie by, and when play became bogged down approaching tea, the likelihood of 25 runs still being needed at the close generated anxiety. Tavare and Gower, both tall, slim, calm, had it all sketched out, though, hitting tiring and impatient bowling, lofting cleverly into spaces, light feet taking them into position .against the curling ball. Tavare, beaten down the track, missed the satisfaction of seeing it through, but Fletcher had that pleasure, and Gower had the honour of steering the winning boundary through the covers five minutes from time.

The match awards, presentations and speechettes took some time, but the English players at least had cans of beer for comfort. Sri Lankan disappointment was obvious in the sunlit evening. The newcomers had held their own -- more -- for three days, but let it slip on the fourth. Still, West Indies and Pakistan had both lost their inaugural Tests by an innings, South Africa and New Zealand by eight wickets, and India by quite a lot of runs.

The first Test victory is the next target, and it may not be all that long in coming. Sri Lanka must ransack the hill country for a Sarfraz or a Kapil Dev. Given a proper opening attack, there would have been no compulsion to have batted first on the 'game' pitch. Never again, either, will there be such momentous tension beforehand -- until Sri Lanka prepare for their first Test at Lord's. Even then, judging from past World Cup and other performances, these cricketers, perhaps through the prevailing Buddhist sangfroid, will display the firmness of character so necessary in modern Test cricket. And with their band of spin bowlers, they will be as welcome as any side on earth.

© Wisden Cricket Monthly

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