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Thirty Years On

In Sri Lanka by Bill Ricquier

After a five-nil drubbing at the hands of the best team in the world, England and its beleagured left handed batting captain might be hoping for some relief with the arrival of the Sri Lanka tourists.

Those words apply today but they would have been equally relevant in 1984 when David Gower’s England side played a solitary Test against Sir Lanka immediately after suffering a “blackwash” at the hands of Clive Lloyd’s West Indians.

The Test, at Lord’s, was to be Sri Lanka’s twelfth; they had lost eight and drawn three of their previous eleven. England had lost seven and drawn four of theirs, so on that simplistic basis form was not too divergent (though Sri Lanka had yet to face the West Indies).

The two sides had played each other once before in Tests, in Sri Lanka’s inaugural Test at the P Saravanamuthu Stadium in Colombo (formerly the Colombo Oval) thirty months earlier in February 1982. England had won that match by seven wickets, off spinner John Emburey taking six for 33 as Sri Lanka collapsed in their second innings.

Eleven of the participants in that inaugural match played at Lord’s: Sidath Wettimuny, Roy Dias, Duleep Mendis (who captained the side at Lord’s), Ranjan Madugalle, Arjuna Ranatunga (who was still attending Amanda Collage when he played in Colombo), D S de Silva and Ashanta de Mel for Sri Lanka, and Gower, Chris Tavare, Ian Botham and Paul Allott for England. All England’s eleven had featured in the series against the West Indies. Sri Lanka gave a Test debut to one player – Aravinda de Silva.

Both sides had suffered defections to rebel tours of South Africa, England losing Emberey, Graham Gooch and Derek Underwood from their eleven who played at Colombo while Sri Lanka lost, among others, their first Test captain, Bandula Warnapura.

Sri Lanka sent a team of sixteen, including three schoolboys – de Silva, Marlon von Haght and Don Anurasiri – and a forty-one year old, D S de Silva. The side was managed by former international the late Neil Chanmugam and accompanied for coaching purposes by the old Sussex stalwart Don Smith (as I write, the oldest living England Test cricketer). Five of the players, including Wettimuny, arrived five weeks early to acclimatise. Ten of the team had first-class experience from previous tours of England.

On four previous visits to England, Sri Lanka had won only two first-class matches. Hopes for their chances in the Test match were not enhanced by their performances in the county matches played before the Test. They played seven counties, losing the game against Surrey and drawing the rest.

Not for the first or the last time, it was the bowling that was the problem. Only two bowlers – de Mel and V.B. John, who opened in the Test – averaged under 37 on the tour and they only once managed to bowl a county out. Five county batsmen (plus Desmond Haynes for D B Close’s XI at Scarborough) scored hundreds against them. “About as good as Cambridge University” was the verdict of one experienced county coach. That was the prelude to the Test match, Sri Lanka’s first ever game at Lord’s.

The all-important toss was won by Gower, who invited Sri Lanka to bat. Of course this is usually – at least traditionally, in Test cricket – regarded as a mistake but in fairness to Gower it was a muggy morning and the England captain cannot have been the only person on the ground who thought the ball would swing. Indeed, after thirteen overs Sri Lanka were 43 for two, Botham having dismissed Amal Silva and Madugalle. But that was pretty much the home team’s high point of the match. Sri Lanka finished the first day – which ended an hour early because of bad light – on 226 for three, with Wettimuny 116 not out.

But this was just setting the stage for the second day. England took a solitary wicket – Ranatunga, bowled by Jonathan Agnew for 84 – and Sri Lanka finished on 434 for four. Mendis made a scintillating century off 112 balls, including three hooks for six off Botham and Wettimuny just ground on. Gower’s tactics were sometimes perplexing. England’s seamers were hardly threatening but the sole spinner, Pat Pocook, had his first bowl of the day when the score was 366 for four.

England’s supporters probably thought things could not get any worse. Wrong. Their display on the Saturday afternoon – and the Saturday of a Lord’s Test is supposed to be special – was genuinely grotesque. They finally managed to get rid of Wettimuny – his 190 lasted 624 minutes and was the longest Test innings played at Lord’s – and Mendis and Sri Lanka declared at 491 for seven. There followed a display by England which strong men still shudder to recall. Between lunch and tea Chris Broad and Tavare put on 49 runs in 20 overs: this was despite the fact that D S de Silva, de Mel and John were all carrying niggling injures. After tea, 58 runs came in 29 overs. Tavare made 14 in two and a quarter hours off 95 balls.

Bank Holiday Monday was enlivened by a hundred from Allan Lamb – his fourth Test century of the summer. England were bowled out for 370; John and de Mel each took four wickets.

There could obviously be only one result. Again on the fifth day the honours that were going went to Sri Lanka. Opener Silva made a hundred and Mendis batted beautifully again to score 94.

A draw was more than respectable in the circumstances. After all, Australia had lost their first game in the “old country” (David Frith suggested an equivalent to The Ashes: an incinerated coconut encased in Tavare’s “box” to be housed in the Lord’s Pavillion); so had the West Indies and India. Sri Lanka came without high expectations, played some exceptional cricket and made a lot of friends.

There was something about the Sri Lankans’ performance that genuinely enchanted English pundits, if not the crowds (just over 30,000 watched the Test over five days). John Woodock, the editor of Wisden, said that for many followers of the game the most agreeable days of the summer were the first two days of the Lord’s Test against Sri Lanka. There was something about the style and class of their batsmen – Dias, Mendis and Wettimuny in particular – that reminded people of a bygone era. Perhaps it was just the contrast with the shock tactics that had been endured against the West Indies Christopher Martin – Jenkins was equally complimentary in The Cricketer. He wrote of Sri Lanka’s “triumph” in the Test, their “marvellous” performance and said that their batsmen, in contrast to England’s, played with “charm, skill, enterprise and pure orthodoxy.” E W Swanton too praised the batsmen’s technique and the preparation for the tour, orchestrated by Chanmugam and resident coach Stanley Jayasinjhe.

There was one curious incident at the start of the match that would have meant little to the vast majority of people at the ground. Nine Tamil students ran on to the pitch at the start of the game and again after lunch. They were carrying banners concerning the Tamils’ claim for a separate state. They were removed by stewards and police officers and subsequently bound over to keep the peace for a year.

The date was 23 August 1984 just a year after the ambush of an army patrol in Jaffne and the subsequent riots and killings in Colombo which marked the start of the Civil War.

Bill Ricquier, 19/05/2014

This article was published in The Island:

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