Living Legends – Jayantha Seneviratne

Jayantha the unlucky one

By Sa’adi Thawfeeq
Jayantha Seneviratne is one of the few unfortunate cricketers to miss out playing Test cricket for his country because at the time he took the decision to quit the game in 1980 there was only optimism of achieving Test status. Little did Seneviratne realise that within a year of him retiring Sri Lanka would be admitted as full members of the ICC. Thus Sri Lanka lost an aggressive middle-order batsman and an outstanding fielder who specialised at gully, short leg and cover point.

“I was working at Wellawatte Spinning and Weaving Mills as a junior executive and at that time as I didn’t have any commitments towards cricket I got married in 1980. After that I lost interest in the game and started to coach although I continued to play for Bloomfield till 1990,” Seneviratne told The Nation.
“At the time there was talk that we were going to get Test status and all that but I never expected it to come so soon as 1981. If only I had known that beforehand I would definitely have continued for another 2-3 years because I was doing very well for Bloomfield,” he said.

Seneviratne, a prolific middle-order batsman for Nalanda College and Bloomfield played for Sri Lanka between 1973/74 and 1978/79 appearing in unofficial tests against India, Pakistan and West Indies and laying the foundation for Sri Lanka’s progression towards achieving Test status.
His best knock was an unbeaten 98 against Pakistan in the second unofficial test at Karachi in 1974 which Sri Lanka lost narrowly by 17 runs. Seneviratne put on 91 runs for the fifth wicket with Duleep Mendis (60) after the first four wickets had gone for 62 and helped his team gain a first innings lead of 49 totalling 265.
“It was my third unofficial test and it was a real challenge for me because Roy Dias, Duleep Mendis and I were fighting for the middle-order positions. I was unfortunate to be left stranded on 98 because my partner Ajith de Silva ran himself out,” recalled Seneviratne. “I drove the ball to mid-on and before I could start off for a run Ajith was already at my end. I thought the ball would go for a four and I would get to my century but it was not quite so.”

Seneviratne was also involved in another notable partnership with Mendis when Sri Lanka beat West Indies by seven wickets in the first match (limited overs) played after the Moratuwa Stadium was renamed Tyronne Fernando Stadium in 1979. Sri Lanka chased down West Indies’ total of 166-7 in 35 overs reaching the target in the 32nd over. Seneviratne (31 not out) and Mendis (78 not out) added 116 for the fourth wicket.
Then in 1974 against Ajith Wadekar’s Indians, Seneviratne helped his captain Anura Tennekoon to his century at the SSC, batting for two hours with a broken finger. “I got hit by a ball and when Anura was on 89 he came and asked me whether I could bat. I told him I will manage until he got to his hundred. Dr Sivaratnam who was the team doctor gave me a pain killer and I hung around to make 31.” Tennekoon went on to score a memorable 169 not out.
Throughout his school career at Nalanda College, Seneviratne was a hosteller because his parents were from Attanagalla. Football was his favourite game but he was forced to take to cricket after an incident that took place during a school match.

“I shot a goal and one spectator came and abused me. I didn’t take it seriously and ignored him. He abused me again and when I didn’t respond they threw a half brick at me which hit me on the back. After that incident I thought football wasn’t the game for me and I switched onto cricket,” said Seneviratne.
“My father GWG Seneviratne was a cricketer and he played and captained Nalanda from 1941-44. They didn’t have the ‘Big Match’ against Ananda during that period because of the War. Players of that era say my father was a better bat than me. He played for Kurunegala SC and also captained them. He really encouraged me and my brother Palitha to play cricket. Palitha captained Nalanda in 1970,” he said.
Having started in the under 10 age group Seneviratne progressed to the Nalanda first eleven side and played from 1968-71. While at school he was selected to play for Sri Lanka Schools against Australian Schools in 1970.

Seneviratne was the first Nalandian to score a century against S Thomas’ College, Mt Lavinia in 1969 when he made 116 not out. The match played at Campbell Place was drawn. In his first Ananda-Nalanda encounter in 1968, Seneviratne and his brother Palitha figured in a hundred runs partnership which is a series record of two brothers figuring in a century stand.

While at school Seneviratne joined Bloomfield at the age of 16 and started playing for them in the division III tournament. He graduated to play in the Sara trophy tournament in 1971 and continued with the club till 1990 captaining the club on several occasions and winning many titles for them under his leadership.
“In the ’70s and ’80s decades we played against the cream of Sri Lanka cricketers. All these cricketers evolved around the 12 clubs that played division I cricket. We played matches against the top 12 clubs and all of them had grounds to practice and play matches on. We played the game the hard way and in a gentlemanly sort of manner,” said Seneviratne.

“Sledging has come in because the game has become more competitive. They try to get a batsman out by any means. Money is one of the reasons. Even a club player today is trying to get a contract from the Cricket Board to earn a buck and they do it by abusing umpires and casting remarks at players on the field to try and get them out. We didn’t have that kind of attitude for after a match both teams got together and over a beer there is a lot of fellowship. Today the ground boy has to carry the cricketers’ bag even of those not representing the country. During our time we had to do everything on our own,” he said.

“We are losing the character we had but at the same time we must be very proud of Sri Lanka cricket because in a short time we’ve won the World Cup in 1996 and we have since then had a good team. To achieve that most of the past cricketers have sweated it out. But there is a way of achieving things. Today they are trying to achieve it at any cost. That is bad in a way. Today they appeal about five times not once and the umpires and the players are abused on the field. As a result to curb this menace match referees have been introduced. We appealed only once and if the umpire says no we carried on with the game. It was more a disciplined game then. It has become very competitive because of the money.”
Seneviratne stated that this kind of behavior has also crept into junior cricket and he blamed the coaches and the masters in charge for not stamping it out.

“They are always trying to grab a wicket not earn or achieve a wicket. To grab it you have to resort to other tactics like casting remarks at batsmen or abusing the umpires. This is one of the reasons why junior cricketers are not focused on their game. It is also the reason for some very good cricketers going astray. When that happens in my team I drop them and pull them up. If you don’t discipline them you can’t get them to properly focus on the game,” said Seneviratne. “Meditation is very important. If you can’t focus for 10-15 minutes how can you concentrate in the middle and build an innings. It is something like teaching in a school. Coaches must look at all aspects of a pupil not only teaching them the basics and skills of cricket.”
Stanley Jayasinghe, a former Nalanda cricketer and stalwart of the Ceylon sides of the fifties and sixties played a big role in shaping Seneviratne’s career at school.

“When I started at Nalanda Mr CGP Pathiraja was the master-in-charge of cricket. In those days there were no coaches for age group cricket it was the master-in-charge who coached. After junior cricket I was coached by Nelson Mendis. Gerry Gooneratne, Chandrasiri Weerasinghe and Stanley Jayasinghe who were the men really behind me,” said Seneviratne.
“Stanley helped me a lot. I had weakness against the lofted drive and I was getting caught at mid-on. Jayasinghe who was coaching the Police team at the time watched me bat and one day he asked me to come and see him at 8 am at the Police grounds. He told me to come with my batting kit and that he would organise the bowlers,” Seneviratne said.

“When I went to the grounds he wanted me to get into pads but when I looked around there was no one to bowl. I told him I was ready and he said, ‘you can bat and I am going to bowl at you’. He started bowling at me for 2½ hours. I was driving from one end to the other and after bowling six balls, Stanley would run back and pick the balls up and bowl at me again. He really helped me.”

Since retiring from the game Seneviratne’s time has been divided between coaching Nalanda and running his private coaching school at Bloomfield. He coached Nalanda for 18 years from 1986-2002 and was asked to return and take over the coaching once again last year at the request of the Principal and the Junior OBA after ‘there was a big decline in cricket at the school’. He started his private coaching school in 1995 having qualified as a Level 4 coaching instructor in 1992. He was chairman of Sri Lanka Cricket coaching committee for seven years when he had to resign last year after being appointed a national selector. He also went to England as the Sri Lanka team coach in 1991 and for the Asia Cup to Sharjah the same year. He also managed the Sri Lanka under 19 team to the World Cup in South Africa in 1998 and the Sri Lanka under 15 Asia Cup team to Dubai. In 2002 he was assigned by the Asian Cricket Council (ACC) to introduce cricket in Bhutan.

Whilst praising the coaching structure in the country Seneviratne admitted that 25 percent of the coaches in Sri Lanka were incompetent. “I have come across these coaches at school and club levels. They get the Level 1 coaching certificate and the licence and they just start coaching. They only know the basics and they are not convincing with what they do. Schools that cannot afford fully qualified coaches go for the lowest paid coach and it leads to poor quality coaching. The incompetence in coaching has to some extent damaged the game. It will have an overall impact on Sri Lanka cricket in time to come.”

Another threat that is prevalent among junior school cricket is the interference of parents.
“There was an incident about a month ago in an under 13 match when the father of a boy of a particular school who was in the Army abused the umpire and over an argument the entire ground was surrounded by Army personnel. The school is taking action against the parent. School cricket has gone to that extent at under 13 and 15 levels. The master in charge and coaches must be very strict on discipline at this level because at club level you will not be able to handle them,” said Seneviratne.

“There are also parents who try to select the team and appoint captains as well. I can understand a father who has played cricket getting involved but mothers are also at times trying to interfere with selection. I have come across this experience even at Nalanda. They are more enthusiastic to get their children to play cricket for Sri Lanka. I have not come across any father who has played the game coming and interfering with his son. Most of the parents who create these unnecessary problems are those who have not played the game,” he said.
Seneviratne said that winning the World Cup in 1996 opened the doors for rural youth to take to cricket.
“Cricket really spread out to the paddy fields and they looked at the game with a lot of purpose and try to attain the standards which would make them comfortable in life. I have worked with outstation schools and schools in Colombo and the suburbs and I have come across players in the outstation who are hardier. They gather information in no time much quicker than the Colombo boys. The Colombo boy will persist only if there is something that comes their way. The outstation boys learn the hard way with no facilities like in Colombo. That is the reason why we have about 80 percent outstation players in the Sri Lanka side today,” said Seneviratne. “It is not difficult to promote cricket in Sri Lanka because there is a lot of interest for the game. In some countries there is no interest in the sport.”

Seneviratne said that he took to coaching after abandoning the idea of becoming an umpire. “I had an idea of umpiring. I thought it was a thankless job because every batsman you give out is not happy with the decision. So I thought I’ll take to coaching and contribute something back to the game. I do coaching as a hobby. I don’t like to do any physical exercise this is the way I overcome it. I don’t have this habit of walking to keep fit.”
Apart from running his private coaching school and coaching his alma mater, Seneviratne is also a land proprietor and does some heavy equipment business. He is married to Mekala Dissanayake from Haputale and they live at Kohuwela with three daughters, the eldest who is working in a bank, the second who is a teacher at an International school and the third who is still schooling.

“What I have learnt from cricket is that it is a gentleman’s game and you must have a lot of patience to play it. There are so many things to abide by. You must wear the correct attire which is most important (today they don’t care so much for it), have interest, commitment, punctuality, team work, you respect people and your coach, you associate with people and travel as a team. All these things I am proud to say I’ve learnt from cricket. I don’t think there is any other sport which will teach you all that,” said Seneviratne.