A World Cup win born in Ceylon, 1997

Sri Lanka: years of preparation

Gerry Vaidyasekera

Nearly fifty years ago, the British ceased to rule Ceylon. They left behind their democratic form of Parliamentary Government, their literature and that lovely summer game of theirs, cricket, for us to cherish and treasure.

When our cold regions were converted into tea estates, several well-known cricketers, including county players and University Blues, came over to work as planters. Naturally, they played among themselves, formed clubs and taught the game to others. The game had been played on the island as early as 1832.

Men like Dr Bailey, Archdeacon of Colombo, introduced cricket at the Colombo Academy, later known as Royal College, over 150 years ago. (His son, George, toured England with the Australian team of 1878.) Royal College produced Dr Churchill Hector Gunasekera, who played regularly for Middlesex after the First World War. Around that time many of our cricketers were studying in England and played in the University Trials. Most failed to win Blues, like our late Prime Minister, Dudley Senanayaka, who played for the Indian Gymkhana Club at Osterley Park against the 1932 All Indian team. The first player who did win a Blue, F. C. de Saram of Oxford in 1934 and 1935, was an old Royalist, as was Gamini Goonesena, who later captained Cambridge.

Between the World Wars, cricket flourished in Colombo's public schools, and the newly formed Ceylon Cricket Association controlled the game. A three-day match was played, usually in August, between the Ceylonese and the Europeans. The Ceylonese won more often than they lost. Fortunately, Ceylon lay on the shipping route between Britain and Australia, and this gave us the golden opportunity of watching world-famed stars in action, if only for a few hours. These "limb looseners" were raised to Test status by our press, and crowds flocked there. Our cricketers deemed it a great honour to play against the greats.

After the Second World War, cricket flourished in the rural schools as well. The Ministry of Sports encouraged this growth. As cricket implements were costly, boys played with tennis balls. But the spirit, rules and the tempo were the same.

The sun has blessed us with cricket during the whole year, and the paddy fields began to echo with shouting when anyone brought out a bat and ball. Then, as TV sets started to disturb the peace of the countryside, cricket became even more popular, pushing soccer into second place. I live close to a High School and, whenever a game was being shown, boys and girls would flock round my set to watch their heroes.

Eventually, the boys demanded to switch from softball cricket to the real game. With the help of two firms from Colombo, we laid down a concrete practice area. The boys were thrilled at wearing pads and gloves for the first time; but they were shy of being hurt by the ball. When coaching them, I was surprised to find them playing graceful strokes, not taught by anyone, but copied from seeing Aravinda de Silva, Sanath Jayasuriya, Arjuna Ranatunga and Roshan Mahanama on the TV screen.

And now Sri Lanka has proved to the cricket world that it is a force to be reckoned with. In this hour of triumph and joy, we remember the English people who taught us the game and the Lankans - then called Ceylonese - who first brought honour to the country and absorbed the lessons that cricket teaches.

In the 1950s, after an election, I called on the defeated Prime Minister, General Sir John Kotelawala, to compliment him on the manner in which he took defeat. I shall never forget his reply. Gerry, he said, "I HAVE PLAYED CRICKET."

Gerry Vaidyasekera has been Wisden's Sri Lanka correspondent since 1966.

© John Wisden & Co