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The birth of a nation

We look back to the day Sri Lanka became the eighth country to play Test cricket

Bandula Warnapura and Keith Fletcher go out to toss, Sri Lanka v England, Inaugural Test, Colombo, February 17, 1982

Bandula Warnapura and Keith Fletcher go out to toss ahead of Sri Lanka's first Test; by the end of the year the international careers of both men were over  •  David Frith

On Wednesday, February 17, 1982, when Bob Willis bowled to Bandula Warnapura, Sri Lanka became cricket's eighth Test-playing country. Minutes earlier, Warnapura had become the first Sri Lanka captain to win a toss; minutes later, he was their first batsman to be dismissed when he was taken high in the gully by David Gower off a Willis snorter for 2.
The match itself had been in preparation since the previous July, when the ICC had finally granted Sri Lanka Full Member status. That moment was more symbolic than the country arriving as a force in world cricket. Many regarded it as final confirmation of Sri Lanka's importance and standing as an independent nation.
Cricket was in the nation's blood. The first club had been formed 150 years earlier, and Sri Lanka had been a regular stop-off point for touring sides to Australia since Ivo Bligh broke his journey there in 1882-83. Scores of legendary players had played in Colombo.
In the seven months since the ICC decision, preparations had been made in anticipation of the match. More than £100,000 had been spent on modernising the Colombo Oval and building stands to take the capacity to more than 20,000. Ramshackle huts near the stadium were demolished and the 20 or so families who lived there rehoused. Other venues in Colombo, as well as Galle and Radella, had been renovated. In Kandy, the Asgiriya ground, the home of the Old Trinitians, had been doubled in size by removing part of a hill and then constructing a new pavilion.
By the time England arrived on February 5, straight from their tour of India, the preparations were in full swing. Banquets were being organised, special stamps and coins were issued, and businesses and shops were planning to shut on the first day of the Test. One local paper reported that even the police were likely to have one ear glued to the radio.
England spent a few days acclimatising - they had come from northern India, and the change in temperature was marked.
A VIP train took them to their first game in Kandy, which was well attended and finished in a draw. There then followed the two one-day internationals, both played out in front of capacity 20,000 crowds at the Sinhalese Sports Club. England won the first by five runs, and seemed on course to repeat their success when they reached 203 for 5 chasing 216 in the second. But amid riotous scenes they lost their last five wickets for ten runs to give the home side a remarkable three-run victory. The crowd invaded the pitch at the end, lit celebratory bonfires in the stands, and remained in front of the pavilion long after the sun had set, cheering in the dark.
Less than 60 hours later, the Test started, but some of the gloss was taken off the occasion as the ground was only about half full - it was estimated there were around 10,000 present at the start - which was put down to high ticket prices (one day's admission was equal to the weekly salary of a clerk), the fact it was a weekday, and the effect of saturation TV and radio coverage. Low attendances continued throughout, and on the second day the large contingent of English followers were in the majority, a portent of the Barmy Army, which emerged a decade later.
But there were plenty of dignitaries, led by the Hon J Jayawardene, the president; government ministers; cricket administrators from across the world; and many former national players. Derrick de Saram, who scored a hundred for Oxford University against the touring Australians in 1934 and who died less than a year later, summed up the feeling of the many former national players in attendance when he said that he only wished he was 40 years younger.
The only controversy in the immediate build-up to the Test had come when Keith Fletcher, the England captain, had expressed concern about the pitch being excessively watered on the eve of the match. The Times, in a misprint that might not have been out of place 15 years later, noted Fletcher made his observations when the team had arrived for "early morning bets". Before the match he had stirred controversy by stating Sri Lanka were not County Championship class, although adding the rider they were a tough proposition at home.
For Fletcher, weary after a gruelling tour of India, the time in Sri Lanka was a chore, as he was repeatedly called upon to make speeches. In the Guardian recently, Frank Keating recalled that on Fletcher's previous visit to the island it had been called Ceylon and that caused him no end of confusion. "He regularly had his team and us pressmen giggling into our handkerchiefs, for Keith could never stop himself calling it, not Sri Lanka, but Sri-lon as in: 'ow 'appy we are to be Sri lon'."
Willis noted that the residual dampness made Warnapura's decision to bat dubious, and when they slid to 34 for 4 the captain was a worried man. "It looked," wrote John Thicknesse in the Cricketer, "momentarily as if the first day's cricket in Colombo would be an embarrassing disaster."
Sri Lanka recovered and only conceded a five-run first-innings lead as England lost their last five wickets for 23 on the third morning. Willis was seething, and turned on his colleagues, who were moaning about a string of dubious umpiring decisions. "Here we are, limply rolling over to be beaten by this lot: a humiliation is staring us in the face and all we can do is whinge on about the flaming umpires. We should be ashamed of ourselves. Let's just get up and get out there and win."
The rallying call seemed to fall on deaf ears. But after finishing the third day in the strong position of 152 for 3, Sri Lanka lost their last seven wickets for eight runs in 45 minutes. John Emburey took 6 for 33 including five wickets in 33 deliveries. England were set 171 to win and Chris Tavare's unbeaten 85 helped them to a seven-wicket victory inside four days.
"The baby," wrote David Frith in Wisden Cricket Monthly, "had been delivered without complications; heartbeat regular, breathing sound, if a little excited."

What happened next?

  • Later in 1982, Bandula Warnapura captained the rebel Sri Lankan side to South Africa and received a life ban from cricket as a result. Of those who played in the inaugural Test, Mahes Goonatilleke, Ajit de Silva and Lalith Kaluperuma also threw in their lot with the rebels
  • Arjuna Ranatunga almost joined the rebel tour but was persuaded not to do so by Warnapura, who told him: "'You're not going anywhere. You're too young to go and you have a long career ahead of you."
  • Keith Fletcher never played for England again and was replaced as captain by Bob Willis, although Peter May, the chairman of selectors, neglected to tell Fletcher the news and he found out through the media
  • Sri Lanka recorded their first Test win in their 14th Test, defeating India by 149 runs in Colombo in September 1985

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Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa