Of late, it seems India play Sri Lanka in some form of cricket just about every other month. These matches, especially one-dayers, have little charm and no one really remembers anything much about them. Sri Lankan cricketers have suffered from over-exposure in India, which is such a pity when you think of the soft caress of Mahela Jayawardene's strokeplay or the elegance of Kumar Sangakkara, to mention just two of their finest.
There was a time, back in the 1970s, when cricketers from Sri Lanka were exotic and rare creatures, who created quite an impact on schoolboys like me in Madras. We caught a glimpse of them during the annual MJ Gopalan Trophy (thankfully now revived after a long hiatus), which pitted the Sri Lankans against the Tamil Nadu state team. The matches were three-day affairs and often keenly contested. And there was the unofficial two-Test series between a near-full-strength Indian team in its pomp and the Sri Lankans in early 1974. Though India won 1-0, the home team more than held their own.
Though the two nations are separated by a narrow strait, Indian and Ceylonese (the country officially became Sri Lanka in 1972) cricketers seemed to be cut from very different cloth. Back then, it seemed the Lankans, especially their batsmen, played with a flair that was more Caribbean than subcontinental. One of the hardest hitters of the ball I have ever seen is Duleep Mendis. Not even Gordon Greenidge or Ian Botham in their pomp smacked the cherry with more power than him. One of his square cuts in Chepauk was hit with such ferocity that the gully fielder simply let the ball go through rather than hurt himself trying to stop it. A stocky figure who looked a lot like India's GR Viswanath but on steroids, Mendis was quick to get on with the game once he got his eye in.
Players like their captain Anura Tennekoon, the left-hander David Heyn, dashing opener Sunil Wettimuny, and Roy Dias (who has to be regarded as the prototype that Mahela was later modelled on), were elegant and technically correct batsmen. I don't remember much about their bowling except for the sheer musicality of some of the names. To hear "Kaluperuma" or "Kehelgamuwa" pronounced by Sri Lankan broadcasters was a treat in itself.
Sri Lanka did not then yet have official Test status (gaining it as late as 1981), and their tiny size and the fact that their contests with a Ranji Trophy team were fairly even, produced in many of us a patronising, big-brotherly attitude. The Lankans would soon put us in our place and how!
"A stocky figure who looked a lot like India's GR Viswanath but on steroids, Mendis was quick to get on with the game once he got his eye in"
During the inaugural World Cup in 1975, while India responded to the challenge of chasing down England's 334 by inexplicably crawling to 132 for 3 in 60 overs at a little over two runs an over, just four days later the Sri Lankans, faced with Australia's 328, had reached 150 for 2 in the 32nd over and were playing out of their skins. Australia's bowling attack included Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee (at their terrifying best then) as well as Max Walker and Ashley Mallett, and the Sri Lankans were facing them in their felt cricket caps, not helmets.
The BBC commentators rhapsodised over their courage and dashing strokeplay. In desperation, the Australian captain Ian Chappell threw the ball to Thomson to see if he could stanch the flow of runs with a wicket or two. Soon enough Wettimuny and Mendis were forced to retire hurt after being hit by brute deliveries from Thommo: Wettimuny was hit twice in succession on the same foot by searing yorkers and Mendis flush on the head by a bouncer. Both were stretchered off the field to a nearby hospital, but Sri Lanka did not fold, and made 276 for 4 to lose with much honour. It was gripping, heroic stuff and a brave contrast to India's clueless and shambolic campaign.
By the next World Cup, in 1979, Sri Lanka's status as a non-Test playing nation was a travesty and symptomatic of much that was wrong with the stodgy ICC. Sri Lanka handily beat India by 47 runs although India supposedly had one of the shortest tails in the tournament, in a team full of bits-and-pieces allrounders. The young men I had watched perfecting their craft when I was a schoolboy - Wettimuny, Mendis and Dias - all got fifties, with Mendis scoring at over a run a ball, slamming the bowlers for three huge sixes and collecting the Man-of-the-Match award. India ended their campaign without a single win in three matches. Their encounter with Sri Lanka was one of the few times I actually remember rooting for an opposition team over my own.
As I watch teams like Bangladesh and Zimbabwe struggle to hold their own even today, despite it being so many years since they attained Test status, the long delay in awarding it to Sri Lanka rankles. It's unfortunate that the likes of Wettimuny and Tennekoon never got to play an official Test match. Yet, at least in my memory, they will rank up there with the best who played the game in the subcontinent.