In the build-up to Sri Lanka's first Test in England in 1984, a throwaway line in a newspaper article caught my eye. The Sri Lankan bowling attack was to be headed by a 42-year-old legspinner. That a bowling attack could be said to be headed by a spinner, in a summer headlined by fearsome West Indian pacemen, was unusual enough. That he was 42 was even more beguiling.
Thirty years later, I met Somachandra de Silva and sated my curiosity. De Silva is an enviably fit-looking 73-year-old, who is still able, as he demonstrated, to turn his arm over. His story is of a lifelong, if peripatetic, involvement in cricket. He is too good to be described as a cricketing journeyman, but he is certainly a man of cricketing journeys.
De Silva hails from Unawatuna on the south coast. It is now a seaside resort, but in the 1940s it was the quintessential sleepy village, a place where the bicycle and the ox cart were the customary means of transport. His cricket career started when he moved as a schoolboy to Moratuwa, outside Colombo. An attacking right-hand batsman, he graduated from school cricket to club cricket with Nomads; he was one of three brothers to play for both Nomads and the national side. His bowling was restricted to the occasional over in the nets. It was a chance conversation with the Sri Lankan great of the era, Stanley Jayasinghe, that put him on the path to a bowling career.
"He told me to stop fooling around and take my bowling seriously," recalls de Silva. His application to legspin, the cricketing discipline with the most demanding apprenticeship, was not immediately successful. When he represented his country for the first time, he was picked as a batsman. But his bowling improved, and before the 1975 World Cup, he was established as a legspinning allrounder.
De Silva believes that tournament was a seminal moment in the development of Sri Lankan cricket. "So many of us had the chance to play in England after the World Cup. Ashantha de Mel, Ravi Ratnayeke, Tony Opatha, Rumesh Ratnayake. It helped us so much." In de Silva's case, it led him to league cricket with Scunthorpe, West Bromwich and Middleton (where he followed Rohan Kanhai as the team pro), and to Minor Counties cricket with Lincolnshire and Shropshire.
In the World Cup, my memory is of Jeff Thomson seemingly knocking Sri Lankan batsmen over at will. The first-hand account is no less terrifying. Duleep Mendis was struck flush on the forehead by a Thomson bouncer. This was, of course, the pre-helmet era. "He spun around and around before falling. We thought he was dead," said de Silva. He remembers waiting to bat with a heartfelt, "I was shivering!" An obdurate stay at the crease by Michael Tissera and Anura Tennekoon spared him the ordeal of facing Thomson.
The pinnacle of his career - full Test status - was regrettably brief. Time was against him. He considers himself lucky, however, to have had that opportunity. He listed the contemporaries who were not so fortunate, including former captain Tissera, whom he tried to persuade to stay on to play Test cricket. De Silva himself was 39 years old when he made his Test debut in 1982 - he remains Sri Lanka's oldest international debutant. He is also the first Sri Lankan to take five wickets in a Test match, in Faisalabad against Pakistan.
That match at Lords' in 1984 - his last Test - was a disappointment for de Silva. On the first morning of the match, while warming up in the nets, he turned his ankle. He declared himself unfit to play but was persuaded by the team management that his experience was essential. He had two days to rest his ankle, as Sidath Wettimuny and Mendis battered a flagging English attack, but when it came to bowling, he was a shadow of himself. "It was my standing foot, and I couldn't land properly," he explains, stamping his left foot down in illustration. Despite the injury, he bowled 45 overs for two wickets, but the memory remains a frustration.
His international career ended the following year, in Australia, at the World Championship of Cricket. De Silva also had a five-year stint in club cricket in Melbourne, first with Northshore Geelong, and then with Ringwood, until he finally retired as a professional cricketer aged 49.
He then embarked on a coaching career, taking over the Sri Lanka Under-19 team, which made the World Cup final in 2009. That year he was appointed chairman of the interim committee to run Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC), a position he held until 2012. During his tenure, Sri Lanka were ranked third in the Test rankings and reached two limited-overs World Cup finals. He also served as a national selector.
His time in charge of SLC, however, was not without controversy. Under his leadership, SLC built stadiums in Pallekele and Hambantota, with questions asked about the choice of location. De Silva denies any political influence in that choice. SLC remains hamstrung by the loan repayments for those stadia.
At the conclusion of his tenure as chairman, de Silva was appointed ambassador to Poland. His cricketing journey has taken him from a sleepy seaside village to an ambassadorial residence, from Nomads to northern English leagues, Victorian club cricket and back to Colombo. Astonishingly, he played cricket professionally in the unforgiving leagues of England and Australia until he was 49. Along the way he rubbed shoulders with some great cricketers, and made a living from the game for over 40 years. As cricketing journeys go, it will take some beating.