Living Legends - CI Gunasekara

CI reminisces

The Nation pays tribute to one of Sri Lanka’s greatest cricketers CI Gunasekara who passed away on Thursday at the age of 90 by reproducing an interview he had with the newspaper in the ongoing series ‘Living Legends’ which appeared on February 14, of this year. CI in fact was the first to be featured in the series.

By Sa’adi Thawfeeq
At 89 years Conroy Ievers Gunasekara would easily qualify to be the oldest living Sri Lanka (or All-Ceylon when he played) cricketer along with his team-mate Bertie Wijesinha.
‘CI’ as he was fondly called was taught the game during the British Empire when the country was under British rule. Born on July 14, 1920 he played in an era when a cigarette was just two cents and a match box cost 25 cents.

“I was a dreadful smoker at 2 cents a cigarette I could afford it for 50 years. That’s why my lungs are shrunk,” said Gunasekara speaking to The Nation from his Dickman’s Road home. “No one knew that it was bad. Even doctors were offering you cigarettes. At the time they didn’t know medical science.”
“I live alone here in this very big house. What is interesting is it is the only thing that is older in Dickman’s Road than me. It’s over 100 years and its 60 years since it was brought.”

Gunasekara was keen to focus attention more on the game of cricket rather than on himself. “In those days cricket was played in silence. The only inimitable sound was bat on ball, a lovely noise, and an occasional hardly audible appeal by one man. Today the exercise is a little different more boisterous, not necessarily words. They hug each other and jump in the air.
“In the old days bowling a bumper at a batsman was not on. They had fast bowlers like (Harold) Larwood never mind the names and there was no technique to measure their speeds. They could have been faster than those of the present age,” said Gunasekara.
“If a man bumped a ball and it was in slightest danger of the batsman he would say ‘I am sorry about that’. Today if they can’t bowl you out in an over or two then they go for your body. That’s a new technique, everything’s changed.

“We only played cricket for love, there was no money involved and the game was not so seriously taken. You go to the ground and played for the love of it. Money, by my standards, is a great incentive for people to misbehave. Because of modern science too much of cricket is played and people get huge money from it,” continued Gunasekara.
“Modern science has made so many differences to cricket. If you have got the efficiency our players have got there is plenty of money to become millionaires and billionaires if you are good. It is a very profitable enterprise rather than going to work and getting a monthly salary. The whole ball game of cricket has changed. It has something to do with betting.
Moving deeply into the game, Gunasekara who kept referring to himself as ‘Old Man River’ after the famous Paul Robeson song of the 1920s, said: “The game is just the same as far as the distance between the wickets and the distance to the boundary line. It’s only the techniques that have changed. The technique of the modern era has changed life.

“When I was young the village boys used to play ‘gudu’ and ‘elle’. Then came the introduction of television and only the rich had sets in their homes, now everybody does. When we used to go on our rounds outstation we see a huge television set in the village and all the boys and women watching. They decided that they will go for cricket too – tennis ball cricket for a start. Today I would say the whole of the country is cricket oriented.
“The local games of ‘elle’ and ‘gudu’ they gave it up in favour of cricket. That is the reason why there are no audiences for five-day Test matches and other matches too because everybody’s got a television at home and they can put their legs up and have a drink and don’t have to go to the matches and sit on uncomfortable seats or stand. There’s so much of cricket now. I watch on television but it’s the same, a repetition,” Gunasekara opined.
“The only thing that’s changed is the lbw rule. At some point in time the old rule was the ball had got to pitch on the wicket to wicket rectangle. They said an off-spinner can pitch outside the rectangle and if it is going to hit the stumps you are out lbw. If you played during my time they would have said you were not out because the ball didn’t pitch on the rectangle.

How did players of his era keep fit to play international cricket?
“You can do a 100 or 1000 press-ups on the boundary line and you are very fit but ultimately it’s a question of whether you can bring bat to ball at that instant. I am not talking about a second I am talking of a fraction of a second how to bring bat to ball. That’s where the runs come not from your press-ups. We never had any exercise that’s why we were so bad and that’s why they are so good now. We played for the love of the game.
“The fielding standards are much better now. Fitness of your body in movement is obviously a great advantage. The players of those days had no time for fielding maybe half an hour. I don’t think the game has anything to do with it. It’s a question of the individual’s exercise. With tongue in cheek I won’t say there weren’t more brilliant catches in my day.

When asked to recall the best innings he’s played in his illustrious career, Gunasekara replied: “My personal innings I can’t remember anything. There is nothing profitable to record.”
“The best innings I’ve seen was a remarkable one from a double international called Mahes Rodrigo who is much younger than I. He scored 135 runs when he was 19 years old in 1948-49 when those West Indies giants came here. The three W’s (Worrell, Weekes, Walcott) and the two fast bowlers both six foot four inches tall John Trim and Prior Jones. He opened the innings and carried out his bat. They couldn’t get him out. For a man of 19, I’ve seen a lot of innings, but this is the one of the finest. I played with him in that match and got a few runs.”

Gunasekara was renowned as a hard hitting right-hander who also bowled right-arm leg-breaks. His performances at Royal College hardly raised any eyebrows. “I was never coached. There was a system of nominal coaching in school not like today. The game was played because you loved it. The whole ball game has changed and it has changed for very good reasons. If you get to the top you are a multi millionaire.”
Gunasekara started to make waves only after he joined SSC and began scoring hundreds at a rapid pace. He won his first Ceylon cap at the age of 27 against Don Bradman’s Invincible Australians in 1948 and represented his country against international teams till Bob Simpson’s Australians in 1964. He was belatedly handed the national captaincy in 1960 at the age of 40 when most sportsmen are past their prime and it was in this capacity that he played a cameo innings which everyone still talks of. He plundered 28 runs in less than two overs against Richie Benaud’s Australians in 1961 helping himself to 24 (3 fours, 2 sixes) in one over from left-arm spinner Lindsay Kline.

Gunasekera’s uncle was the famous Dr CH Gunasekara, who became the first Sri Lankan to play for an English county side – Middlesex (1919-1922). He also excelled at tennis and athletics, but everyone remembers him for his cricketing exploits.
What about Twenty20 cricket? “Twenty20 cricket is keeping the game alive. Without it no one will watch cricket because they don’t have very much time. Time is a very big factor today. There is no time for people to go and watch matches. They do that because they want to see bat on ball quickly. They don’t have time to go to the grounds and watch and hope that there will be a good six.

“Like in the old days you haven’t got leisure time. The globe has shrunk and it is one helluva rush as I see it. As I go to Kanatte I can see the whole situation because I was born in the heart of the British Empire days. I can see the world emerging,” Gunasekara concluded.


Sri Lanka under 19 cricketers tour of England

Coach Nawaz on first ‘Test’ win

By M Naushad Amit
Sri Lanka Under-19 coach Naveed Nawaz praised the commitment of his boys in bowling and fielding which he called an exceptional display to outclass their English counterparts in their own backyard. The Sri Lanka Under-19s went on to record a remarkable achievement by beating England under-19s by a margin of 199 runs in their inaugural 4-day Youth Test played at Northampton last weekend.

“The pitch was quick and bouncy the first three days and spun a bit on the fourth day. Our fast bowlers took 17 wickets and this indicates the conditions here. The bowling and fielding departments were exceptional which won us the game and made the difference between the two teams. The result will lift our standing a bit higher than what England expected. We will have to face that added pressure which is in a way a new experience for the boys,” Nawaz said in an e-mail interview with The Nation.

Sri Lanka and England were evenly matched over the first three days at Northampton, but the visitors took the upper hand in the afternoon of the fourth day as fast-bowler Sanitha de Mel and leg-spinner Saranga Rajaguru combined to demolish England’s top order and derail the hosts’ pursuit of 369, which looked unlikely, in their second innings. Sri Lanka made 287 in their first innings and bowled out England for 286 runs. Sri Lanka skipper, Chathura Peiris, stole the limelight with a fluent 46 not out and picked up 5/44.

England’s disappointing show with the bat followed with their struggle to dislodge the stubborn lower-order resistance which allowed Sri Lanka to declare at 367-9 in their second innings. Wicketkeeper Denuwan Rajakaruna (45) and Peiris (66) combined in a 102-run stand for the seventh wicket to tilt the match in the visitors favour. De Mel (4/49) and Rajaguru (3/51) came out as heroes as the duo made early inroads to reduce England to 75-5 and eventually dismissed them for 169 to earn a 199-run win.
“It was typical unpredictable English weather, changing every hour. But we adapted quite well in short time. It was something the players couldn’t control, so we focused more on the things we could control instead. This was our strategy even before we arrived, not to worry much about the weather and pitch conditions, but to adapt accordingly as we go on. I think we did really well in that aspect. We had a game plan and it was implemented well,” Nawaz said.

However Nawaz was not very pleased with the Sri Lanka Under-19 batting except for a few who rose to the occasion to accumulate needed runs. He said this will be a major concern as Sri Lanka goes into the five ODIs and two Twenty20 internationals.

With Sri Lanka’s top order batsmen failing, the team had to rely heavily on the all-rounders and the lower order. Nawaz had great praise for his skipper, Chathura Peiris, who played the anchor role in bringing Sri Lanka Youth team their first-ever Test win.. “It is a good morale booster to be with a win in hand in the Test series as most of these boys never played 4-day cricket before.”
According to Nawaz the England team looked more experienced and professional, having been moulded in county cricket.