Living Legends - Daya Sahabandu

The indefatigable Sahab

By Sa’adi Thawfeeq
Daya Sahabandu was undoubtedly the best left-arm spin bowler produced by Sri Lanka. But to get there was not all that easy. It was a long hard struggle and nothing came to him on a platter. His career figures doesn’t do any justice to the way he performed because he belonged to an era when international cricket was few and far between and the domestic division I Sara trophy cricket he played for more than two decades for Nomads and NCC didn’t carry weight of a first-class status tag. Many cricketers, even after Sahabandu had long retired, underwent that handicap until 1988 when the Sri Lanka Cricket Board eventually granted first-class status to its major domestic tournaments.

So nowhere in the record books would you find under Sahabandu’s name that he became only the third spinner from Asia after Pakistan’s Intikhab Alam and India’s Bishen Singh Bedi to take 1000 wickets in domestic ‘first-class’ cricket. Alam and Bedi of course had the advantage of playing for English county sides to boost their tally whereas Sahabandu’s efforts were restricted to division I club cricket. The domestic cricket that Sahabandu played was not recognised as first-class because matches were of less than three days duration, either one and a half or two days. But despite the short time frame of these matches Sahabandu in 19 and a half seasons still managed to squeeze out 6552.1 overs (1119 maidens) and take 1048 wickets at an average of 14.11 from 253 matches for Nomads and NCC. The majority of his wickets were taken while playing for Nomads since 1963/64. He came out of retirement in 1985 to play a few matches for NCC at the age of 45 because Ranjith Fernando, the former NCC and Sri Lanka stalwart invited him as some of their players were away on national duty.

From his school days at Royal College it was a case of fighting to establish a permanent spot in the team for Sahabandu. He started off as a left-arm fast-medium bowler and ended up as a dual purpose bowler, opening bowling with the new ball and then reverting to spin when the shine had gone. For a cricketer rated as a poor fielder Sahabandu had amazing stamina to keep bowling non-stop for hours from one end which earned him the nickname ‘Machine’ from former Sri Lanka cricketer Stanley Jayasinghe who was instrumental in transforming Sahabandu from a fast bowler to a spinner when he joined Nomads. Sahabandu was at times compared to England’s left-arm bowler Derek Underwood who went on to take 297 wickets in 86 Tests in a 15-year career. Underwood was rated the best wet wicket bowler proving to be unplayable on drying pitches which earned him the name ‘Deadly’.
“On soft surfaces I bowled like the way Underwood does but he was slightly quicker than me on harder wickets. A lot of people compared me to Underwood and Stanley Jayasinghe even went to the extent to call me ‘Banduwood’,” recalled Sahabandu.

In his first year with Royal College in 1957, Sahabandu played in only two matches. He was spotted by another former Sri Lanka all-rounder Gamini Goonesena who had dropped in during practice ahead of the Royal-Thomian encounter and had inquired from the Royal captain Michael Wille about Sahabandu. When Wille told him that Sahabandu was not playing because he was a weak fielder, Goonesena had responded saying, “That is the chap who will play for Ceylon”. Sahabandu opened bowling in the Royal-Thomian encounters of 1958, 1959 and 1960 which were all drawn. Although he didn’t produce any startling figures at these contests he won the school bowling prize for two consecutive years 1958 and 1959.
In 1960 he joined SSC but for the next three seasons was confined to playing division III Daily News trophy cricket until he moved to Nomads in 1963 when the club was promoted to play division I Sara trophy cricket. It was here that Sahabandu really made his mark as a top class left-arm spinner under the watchful eyes of Nomads captain DH de Silva and Stanley Jayasinghe.

“Stanley told me that my talent lay more as a spinner and he got me to bowl spin on length and line at the nets. He corrected a few areas like getting the arm up and things like that. Not only myself but DS de Silva (younger brother of DH) and TB Kehelgamuwa also benefited a lot by Stanley’s coaching,” said Sahabandu.
He was selected for the maiden cricket tour to England in 1968 but unfortunately the tour never materialised. Then later that year when a strong State Bank of India team toured Sri Lanka, Sahabandu playing under the captaincy of Jayasinghe bowled a couple of overs with the new ball and, switching over to spin, took a match bag of seven wickets.

“At Nomads we worked and played together which helped to build a perfect team spirit. DH de Silva had full control of his players and he always set the field for me and told me to bowl either middle and leg or middle and off,” recalled Sahabandu.
Even the Ceylon cap didn’t come to him that easy although he had by now becoming a prolific wicket-taker in the Sara trophy tournament. Since making his debut in the Sara trophy tournament in 1963, Sahabandu had to wait six years before he was awarded the national cap.

“I must admit that I was considered a poor fielder and certain people said that it was one of the reasons why I had to wait a long time for a Ceylon cap. Actually speaking the first Ceylon cap I got was by accident. MCC were to tour South Africa in 1969 but the selection of coloured cricketer Basil D’Oliveira forced the tour to be cancelled. The MCC then arranged to tour Pakistan and Ceylon. If the tour to South Africa had taken place I don’t know how long I would have had to wait for my Ceylon cap,” said Sahabandu.
Playing in his first unofficial Test against England at the P Sara Oval, Sahabandu opening the bowling with Kehelgamuwa took two wickets for 90 off 44.2 overs in the drawn match. Among his victims were Keith Fletcher and the graceful batsman Tom Graveney who made a century.

Sahabandu recalling that match said: “Graveney played some shots that I have never seen. He didn’t give the impression that he was putting power into his shots but just stroking the ball. The ball he got out off me he just came down the pitch and stroked it. I thought it was going to end in a simple catch to mid-on. We had no mid-on and the ball ended up near the commentators’ box where Dhanasiri Weerasinghe caught it. I wondered if this man really opens out where the ball will end. He was something of a touch player. I have seen batsmen like Clive Lloyd, Garry Sobers and Basil Butcher hitting the ball hard and getting hundreds, but this type of innings was completely different.”

Graveney was so impressed with Sahabandu’s bowling that he commented: “Your left-arm bowler Sahabandu is one of the best I have played in my 20 years of international cricket. No bowler could have bowled so well on that placid turf.”
Further plaudits came Sahabandu’s way when Tony Lewis’ MCC team toured Ceylon in 1970 and in the 4-day unofficial Test played at the Sara Oval and manager of the team former England wicket-keeper Alan Smith commented: “Sahabandu, the left-arm bowler bowled very well and he can trouble batsmen in any part of the world.” Although Ceylon lost the ‘Test’ by 173 runs, Sahabandu ended up taking five wickets for 86 in the second innings bowling 37 overs. Strangely enough, Ceylon’s batting collapsed twice to the left-arm spin of Don Wilson who took 14 wickets in the match.

In the unofficial Test against Bill Lawry’s Australian side in 1969, Sahabandu dismissed Ian Chappell and Ian Redpath (in the first innings) and Keith Stackpole and Jock Irvine (in the second) innings. However his best performance against foreign opposition was in the Gopalan trophy fixture against Madras (now Chennai) in 1969 when he took 11 wickets for 137 runs off 63 overs at Chepauk under the leadership of Dhanasiri Weerasinghe.
Although being such a successful bowler, Sahabandu admitted that he hated bowling to left-handers. “I hated bowling to good left-handers mainly because the ball that leaves the bat is harder to play than the ball that comes into the bat. Going by the same law the off spinner is coming into the right-hander but since there are more right-handers in cricket they get used to it.”

Not only was Sahabandu a wicket-taking bowler but he was very accurate and could bowl long spells without tiring. “I didn’t have any special practice like spot bowling or anything like that but I cultivated good line and length bowling in the nets. I rarely bowled a loose ball and I didn’t get tired. When you are bowling well and batsmen are struggling and you are taking wickets you get that extra stamina.”

“As a playground instructor we were allowed time to practice for cricket and our workload was not like the other cricketers who worked in Mercantile firms. We were there at practice by 3.30 pm and on certain days we had practice in the mornings too. When you practice like that your physical fitness is bound to improve.
“Before an international match for Ceylon the physical instructor gets us to run about 4-5 rounds around the ground after practice and do physical exercises. I feel all that is not necessary for us to bowl our overs non stop. My personal view is that when you are young you are fit to a certain extent. That extra type of fitness I don’t say is not necessary but for the type of game we are playing it doesn’t serve the purpose,” Sahabandu said.
On the tour of India in 1975 Sahabandu showed the world that he was no novice with the bat by sticking it out for 4½ hours against the world class spin of Bedi, Chandrasekhar, Prasanna, Madan Lal and Mohinder Amarnath to score an undefeated 32 coming to bat as night watchman in the first unofficial Test played at Hyderabad. With Tony Opatha he added 76 for the eighth wicket to raise Sri Lanka’s total from 191-5 to a respectable 321.

The cricketers of Sahabandu’s era played the game purely for the love of it with no monetary gains to look forward to unlike today. “When I played for Ceylon I travelled in the bus to the grounds. I can still remember very well carrying my cricket bag and travelling in the same bus with the crowd. Once in a way we got a lift from someone. But that was the type of cricket we played. We played it hard and enjoyed it and got personal satisfaction even though we didn’t have any monetary gains.

“We had the enthusiasm to play club cricket because whatever matches we were getting at international level were few and far between. Our enthusiasm was to do well in club cricket and create some kind of record which at that time was a very great achievement because there was nothing beyond that for us to achieve. I broke Darrell Lieversz’ record for the highest number of wickets in a Sara trophy season in 1968-69. We were looking forward to that type of achievements. Whatever international matches we came by was also by accident because teams used to stop by to play on their way to other countries. Even if a player performed well in club cricket it was difficult for him to maintain that form because we didn’t know when the next international side would come. That was very unfortunate. We derived personal satisfaction by getting headlines in the newspapers. The sacrifices were worthwhile because we are playing Test cricket today because of these sacrifices,” Sahabandu stated.

Sahabandu bemoaned the fact that after Muthiah Muralitharan there was no spinner in the national team whom one can consider a regular. “During our time we had a wealth of spin bowling talent like Abu Fuard, Neil Chanmugam, Dan Piachaud Lalith Kaluperuma, Mahendran, Cyril Ernest, Ajit de Silva, Anuruddha Polonowita, Fitzroy Crozier, Amaresh Rajaratnam, Annesley de Silva and DS de Silva. It was difficult for all to play because international matches were not frequent as it is today,” said 70-year-old Sahabandu who lives with his wife Swarna and only son Janaka at his residence at Charlemont Road, Wellawatte.

An avid reader of newspapers he makes it a point to go to the public library everyday. Sahabandu’s opinion of limited-over cricket is that in bowling the bowler should be able to put the ball where he wants it. “But if your captain says he wants to cut down the runs and gives you a 7-4 field and tells you to bowl 2-3 inches outside the leg stump then you are being negative. This is one reason why we don’t develop quality spinners at school level.”