CRICKETER OF THE YEAR - 1985

Sidath Wettimuny

Had cricket followers known in advance that the record for the longest Test innings ever played at Lord's was to be broken last summer by an opening batsman, most would have assumed that Gordon Greenidge would be the man to take that honour, or conceivably Desmond Haynes. Few, surely, would have backed a 28-year-old Sri Lankan Buddhist, and a vegetarian at that, to demonstrate his stamina for 637 minutes, or 642 minutes if the two holds-ups by Tamil protesters are included. But Wettimuny did so, and thereby converted sceptics who had previously doubted Sri Lanka's right to Test status.

His innings of 190 was enhanced by some of the finest cover driving seen in England all summer, which was all the more creditable for someone who had never played at Lord's before. His experience of the ground was limited to the nets at the Nursery End, where he and several team-mates had practised for a fortnight before the tour (rain in Colombo having limited the Sir Lankans to a couple of outdoor practices in the previous four months). So he had to overcome his own nervousness, along with the apprehension that all the Sri Lankans felt at playing their inaugural Test in England, before completing his historic achievement.

SIDATH WETTIMUNY was born in Colombo on August 12, 1956, the third son of an engineer. The eldest son, Sunil, opened the batting for Sri Lanka in pre-Test days, and was top-scorer when Sri Lanka made their mark on the 1975 World Cup by scoring 276 for four against Australia. The second son, Mithra, played two Tests as Sidath's opening partner early in 1983, the first instance of two brothers opening a Test innings since W. G. and E. M. Grace in 1880. They all attended Ananda College, the leading Buddhist school in Colombo, and progressed through the schoolboy competitions which give the island's cricket so much of its strength.

However, Ramsey Wettimuny, father of the household, may have had the decisive impact on his sons. He became chief engineer of the Ceylon Transport Board and visited England, where he was attracted to cricket for the first time and also - being technically minded - to the works of C. B. Fry. Indeed, he read Fry's Batsmanship (1912) so often that a typed copy of it had to be made. Then he built an indoor cricket school, which Sidath claims to have been the first in Sri Lanka, and there inculcated in his sons the principles of batsmanship as expounded by Fry.

Wettimuny remembers in particular the chapter on wristwork. When we cannot quite explain something in a stroke we refer it to the wrists, or else to timing; and end by vouchsafing the information that timing is largely a matter of wrists. But Fry goes on to analyse the subject in scientific detail, using terms like longitudinal arm-turn. All this impressed the young Sidath: and those cuts and cover drives he produces at Lord's owed much to the last-second flick of the left wrist which Fry prescribes as the source of proper timing.

Sri Lanka's introduction to Test cricket was not successful in the matter of results, but Wettimuny acclimatised as well as anyone, having averaged 43 during the short tour of England in 1981 that preceded their inaugural Test. By scoring 157 against Pakistan at Faisalabad Wettimuny became the first Sri Lankan to make a Test century, and in making 63 not out against New Zealand at Christchurch he became the first to carry his bat through a Test innings. He had missed only one Test match, through a groin strain, before his Lord's triumph.

The background to that innings was a stern lecture by their coach, Don Smith, formerly of Sussex, on the morning of the match. He told the Sri Lankans that everyone, during their warm-up county games, had remarked how they looked the part: but where was the substance, where were the victories? Wettimuny went out to bat full of the determination which Sri Lankans had hitherto been accused of lacking.

His first runs, and boundary, came from cuts backward of square. He reached 50 in the over before lunch, and 100 out of 154 in 219 minutes, whereupon he slowed down, partly because of cramp. His last 90 runs took 418 minutes, but to the end he remained neat and effective on the off side: of his twenty boundaries, sixteen came from cuts and cover drives to the area around the Tavern. As if his stamina had not been taxed enough, he was then subject to a series of telephone calls from official dignitaries, congratulating him on putting Sri Lanka on the cricket map.

Back at home Wettimuny works in the family-owned jewellery shop in Colombo, but at present he can devote only a few weeks of the year to that part of his career. Cricket has become almost a full-time occupation, and when he is not playing for and captaining Kaluthara in the new domestic first-class competition, he is attending national squad practices. For a month before every series, the Sri Lankans now do physical training from 6.30 every morning, followed by nets in the afternoons. "I guess that being new we put that much more into it" says Wettimuny.

© John Wisden & Co