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Sri Lanka's rise in Test cricket is one of the finest underdog stories in the game's history. England have played Test cricket for 126 years, while Sri Lanka have only competed for 31. Yet Sri Lanka has two batsmen with 10,000 Test runs while England have none. Sri Lanka have also produced the game's highest wicket-taker: Muttiah Muralitharan's career haul of 800 is more than double the tally of England's leading bowler (Ian Botham with 383).
Sri Lanka have won Tests in England, West Indies, New Zealand, Pakistan and South Africa. However, a Test win in India has remained elusive. Their score-line in India is appalling. They have played 17 Tests in India, losing 10. Eight of the losses have been innings defeats. The darkest humiliation was the 1994 tour that featured three innings defeats. The 2-0 drubbing in 2009 was also lop-sided.
However, if you were to delve into the era before they got Test status, you would find an instance of Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was previously known) defeating India in India. It happened in Ahmedabad, in 1965.
Before Sri Lanka were conferred Test status in 1982, the Ceylon side played unofficial Tests. These were four-day affairs that were recognised as first-class matches. India and Pakistan were the only two countries that invited Ceylon for unofficial Test series. The two Asian neighbours constantly pushed the ICC to recognise the island as a Full Member. In 1964-65 Ceylon toured India for three unofficial Tests. The tour included side matches against the leading sides in the Ranji trophy such as Madras, Bombay and Maharashtra.
Ceylon were led by Michael Tissera, a 25 year-old with a puritanical batting technique. As a captain, he was a risk-taker who commanded loyalty from his players, many of whom were older.
The team included one professional - Stanley Jayasinghe, a batting allrounder. Jayasinghe had established himself as a stalwart at Leicestershire. Other stars include the veteran wicketkeeper HIK Fernando and the Cambridge opener Mano Ponniah. Ceylon's bowling was spearheaded by Norton Frederick and Darrell Lieversz, two dangerous young seamers.
India were led by the Nawab of Pataudi Junior, an icon whose fame went well beyond cricket. India were on a high, having recently drawn a Test series against Australia. Despite Ceylon's lowly status, they played their full-strength side. Their batting included the Oxford Blue Abbas Ali Baig and the Bombay legend Dilip Sardesai. The left-arm spinner Rajinder Goel - the highest wicket-taker in Ranji history - led the Indian attack along with Srinivas Venkataraghavan. It was one of Goel's rare appearances for the country, even if it was only a first-class fixture.
India won the first two matches convincingly. In Ahmedabad they met their Waterloo, losing by four wickets. Lieversz, Ceylon's opening bowler in that match, is now 70 and settled in Melbourne. At 22, he was a powerfully built seamer, nippy off a short run even on the tame Indian pitches. Lieversz has vivid memories of the game, some of which he narrated to this writer:
It was a low-scoring match. The conditions were in favour of the bowlers. There was no play on the first day due to rain. The pitch was under covers that were not removed until the delayed start of play on the second day.
Only about one and a half hours of play was possible on the second day. The condition of the ground was still very wet and we found it rather difficult to get a foot-hold when bowling.
Stanley Jayasinghe took nine wickets in the match, despite not being a regular bowler. His county experience was key to his success. He bowled a lot on the tour. He bowled offspin but his constant change of pace seemed to confuse most batsmen.
On the third day, India was all out for 189 in the first Innings thanks to the outstanding bowling of Stanley and Freddy [Frederick]. Our batsmen fought stubbornly back stubbornly with [Anurudda] Polonowita scoring a brilliant 53 and Fernando 38 not out, ending the day's play at 144 for 7.
At the end of the third day, Michael summoned a team meeting and informed us that he was thinking of declaring our innings at the start of play the next day even though we were 45 runs behind. Michael felt that the condition of the pitch after the overnight dew would suit our bowlers better. It was a gamble but we all agreed with him, and this declaration was indeed the masterstroke that enabled us to win the Test match.
I think the shock declaration rattled the Indians. They never would have imagined that they were going to have to bat at the start of play that morning. A tame draw was the popular prediction. The bowling run up area was so wet and slippery that Freddy and I found it quite difficult to achieve a firm foot hold.
However Freddy and I were able to swing and seam the ball lavishly. Everything seemed to be working out to the plan. We got off to a great start with India losing their first three wickets for four runs. Stanley and Polonowita were also able to make use of the seaming surface.
Stanley was able to adjust his run-up to compensate for the very wet and slippery conditions we had to bowl in. This was a common occurrence in England. His county experience was a boon. Wickets fell regularly and India were all out for 66. We then had to make 112 runs to win which we did. It was indeed a great win.
The teams got on famously. Although we were staying in different hotels we spent a lot of time together. We very often travelled to and from the game in the same coach.
The Indians encouraged us to memorize a few sentences of Hindi. They said it would enable us to "break the ice" and converse with people. It started off innocently. Some of the sentences got quite complex. Others would warn us against using them for obvious reasons.
There were strict liquor laws in some Indian states in those days. We were issued with special liquor permits as visitors to India. Many of us shared these permits with our Indian friends.
Tiger Pataudi was a perfect gentleman. His personality commanded respect. He was revered in India and throughout the cricketing world. Pataudi was appointed captain of India at the age of 21 years and he was considered the best cricket captain India ever had. He was fearless and gifted. He was a skillful batsman who would have broken many records if not for his accident. He had a cheeky sense of humour that kept everyone around him in a good mood. I consider myself very fortunate to have played against a captain of his calibre.
We were close comrades. It was a pleasure playing under Michael Tissera as captain. I give full credit to Michael for inspiring us.
The only sad memory of the match was when Trevlyn Edwards our opening batsman was hit in the face. It was early in India's first innings while he was fielding in the slips. The ball shattered his spectacles causing serious external injury to his eye. He could no longer take part in the game. We won the match without our opening batsman.
Our win at Ahmedabad in the third test was Ceylon's first victory in an unofficial Test match. It was the first step towards us being accepted as a full member of the ICC. It is sad that after three decades of Test cricket, we are yet to win a Test in India.
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