Living Legends - Tony Opatha

Opatha living with the stigma

By Sa’adi Thawfeeq
For almost 30 years since October 1982, Tony Opatha the former Sri Lanka fast bowling all-rounder has lived with the stigma of being branded as the main figure behind the illegal tour to South Africa undertaken by 14 Sri Lankan cricketers. He remains the bad man of Sri Lanka cricket even today because he has refused to reveal the names of the other cricketers involved in organising the tour.

“I am partly responsible, not 100 percent. Because I don’t give the names of the people who organised it they think that I am the guy totally responsible for organising the tour - which is not. There were four other cricketers all of them Test players which included a Sri Lankan captain and vice-captain. I was only 25 percent involved with the tour but I will take the blame because I will not let my friends down,” Opatha told The Nation.

“The reason for undertaking the tour was purely money it was an attractive offer and we couldn’t refuse. That kind of money was not in Sri Lanka because there were no Test matches going on. Even the players were getting old and frustrated. I had just retired from international cricket straight after the second World Cup in 1979. I didn’t know what the consequences were going to be, if I knew I wouldn’t have gone. That’s the gospel truth. After I went there I was asking myself ‘what am I doing here’,” said Opatha.

“Top politicians were also involved. They initially gave me the greenlight to go ahead but when I returned from South Africa they took me to the fourth floor and questioned me for eight days. They were going to take my money away but when I threatened to take them to courts they exempted me from tax. When I asked why we were being banned for 25 years they said it was all done for politics and they had to take a stern decision to make the rest of the world happy,” he said.

“The funny part is Sri Lanka Cricket engaged virtually all the rebel cricketers in Cricket Board administration. They hammer us for 25 years not allowing us to play or coach in the country and then all the rebel cricketers are employed in the Board. What is the Cricket Board’s mentality?
Opatha admitted that a former Sri Lanka cricketer presently holding a top position in the Cricket Board was not in talking terms with him because he was not taken to South Africa. “We were roommates for 10 years but because he couldn’t go to South Africa he doesn’t talk to me. I had nothing to do with the selection of the team. It’s very sad. All the players who joined did so at their own wish and they had to take the blame themselves,” said Opatha.

What led Opatha to organise a cricket tour to South Africa who was banned from international cricket because of their apartheid policies was the raw deal given to him by the national selectors at the time.
“Before the first official Test I had retired from cricket but the selectors picked me for a trial. I asked them why they were picking me because they had young fast bowlers like Rumesh Ratnayake, Vinothen John, Ashantha de Mel and Ravi Ratnayeke. They said, ‘No, you are bowling well and you are getting wickets in club cricket. I said, ‘if I do well will you pick me?’ They said ‘yes’. The selectors were (Anuruddha) Polonowita, KMT Perera, Abu Fuard, Sydney Perera and WAN Silva, they all agreed,” said Opatha.
“In the trial match played at the Sara Oval I took five wickets and scored 47 not out but when it came to the selection of 20 players I was not in it. I asked the selectors why they had called me for a trial and told them that they shouldn’t have done this to me because I had never been dropped in my whole life. It hurt me. When I went back to Holland I thought for myself to do a tour to South Africa. I contacted certain top cricketers who organised the team. I had nothing to do with the picking of the team. The South African Cricket Board came to Holland and we discussed the tour. It all started from there,” he said.

Opatha was one of the finest fast bowlers produced by Sri Lanka before the advent of Chaminda Vaas. He was the spearhead of the Sri Lanka bowling for a decade from 1970 till his retirement from international cricket after the 1979 World Cup. He had some outstanding performances with the ball taking 6 for 91 (match bag 8/168) and scoring a useful 33 in the drawn first unofficial test against Pakistan at Lahore in 1974. In the second unofficial test at Karachi, Opatha took four wickets and nearly steered his team to victory. Sri Lanka chasing 176 runs for victory fell short by 17 runs with Opatha being last man out for 32 battling against heavy odds like sandstorm which made batting extremely difficult.

He followed this up with a sensational bowling performance against a strong West Indies side led by Clive Lloyd at the P Sara Oval in 1975. Opatha took four wickets for 35 runs off 13 overs to reduce the powerful batting line up to 119 all out in the first innings. Amongst his victims were four of the top five batsmen – Roy Fredericks, Alvin Kallicharan, Viv Richards and Lloyd. The match ended in a draw. Touring India that same year Opatha hit his career best score of 61 to help Sri Lanka avoid an innings defeat in the first ‘test’ at Hyderabad. He scored another unbeaten fifty (55) in the second ‘test’ at Ahmedabad.

“I have bowled every first three batsmen in the world. It doesn’t bother me whether it is Zaheer Abbas, Majid Khan, Viv Richards, Alvin Kallicharan, Roy Fredericks or Clive Lloyd when I play I think the batsman is just another cricketer. I’ve always had loads of confidence and if you play today you must always think that you are selected to play for your country because you are good out of about 200 cricketers,” said Opatha. “If you are a good cricketer you must be able to bowl on any batting or bowling wicket. The state of the wicket never bothered me. When I got onto the field my job with the new ball is to get the first three or four batsmen out which I often did. I have been always a cocky and confident cricketer in whatever I do.
“I bowled both inswing and outswing. If I see that a batsman likes to cut or drive I keep on bowling outswingers making him play that shot by packing the field. I always ensure that I don’t waste the new ball. Every ball I make sure the batsman plays it. Today when I see on television a bowler will bowl two balls down the leg side; two wide of off stump and the batsman will play at only two balls. I got the discipline into my bowling by sheer hard work. We didn’t have gyms my gym was chopping wood and at 62 I am still strong and can still play cricket. Unfortunately I had two knee operations,” he said.

“You must have confidence and to gain confidence you must be physically fit. At 5.30 in the morning I do the road run every day then I go to the beach. I finish all that and come at about 8.30 have a wash and run to work. We were not professionals we were self-made cricketers. I never had a coach I was my coach and after practice for about half an hour to 45 minutes I take catches throwing and catching. I come about one hour before practice and keep a handkerchief on a good length and bowl with the help of the ground boy whom I give Rs. 20 for returning the balls to me. If you want to become a good cricketer you have to go that extra mile for yourself which a lot of cricketers don’t do. Hard work and determination always pays. I made sure nobody took my place in the team. Until I retired at 29 after the second World Cup I was never dropped from the side.”
Opatha was of the opinion that Sri Lanka got Test status about ten years too late. “We had some brilliant cricketers at the time. If I compare them with today’s team only a few cricketers like (Kumar) Sangakkara, Mahela (Jayawardene), (Tillakaratne) Dilshan, Murali (Muralitharan) and Sanath (Jayasuriya) would fit into the side. From 1965 to 1980 we had a tremendous team we had players to match any country.”

Opatha in fact was the workhorse of the team having sometimes to shoulder the brunt of the bowling alone. “If I had Chaminda Vaas as a back-up bowler we would have really being an effective pair. I had to bowl alone because DS de Silva, Ajith de Silva and Lalith Kaluperuma all finished their overs in two minutes.”
“It was a coincidence that I became a fast bowler because when I was under 12, I started as a wicket-keeper,” recalled Opatha. “I kept wickets in the under 14 and under 16 teams for St Peter’s College. When I got into the second eleven I started bowling off-breaks because they had a better wicket-keeper. When I was 15 I was selected to the first eleven and Dr HIK Fernando was the coach. He said, ‘you are a tall guy why don’t you bowl fast’. I said I haven’t done it but I will try. David Heyn was batting at the nets and off the second and fourth balls I bowled him. HIK said, ‘you are a fast bowler why are you bowling spin’. From there on I started to bowl fast. Herbie showed me how to grip the ball. He was the person who changed me into a fast bowler.
“I continued from there and I enjoyed being a fast bowler because I had immediate success. The very first match I played for St Peter’s I took six wickets for nine runs against Thurstan who were bundled out for 19. I captained St Peter’s in 1967 and won the Big Match against St Joseph’s taking seven wickets in the match. From there I went to play for Sri Lanka Schools for three years,” he said.
“While I was in school I got an offer to play for Saracens. It was my first club and Talat Ismail was captain with Mohammad Macan Markar as president of the club. I was 17 years old at the time and I got special permission from Father Rector Rev Mervyn Weerakkody to play because Saracens was a Muslim club and there was no alcohol involved. Peter de Neise also joined me.”

Opatha played two seasons for Saracen then switched over to SSC who got him a job at Don Carolis. “The side was packed with Sri Lankan players at least ten and I was just a schoolboy. Their final match was against BRC which would decide the Sara trophy championship. Sarath Wimalaratne who was the Sri Lanka opening bowler along with Stanley de Alwis and Mevan Pieris were the fast bowlers for SSC. PI Pieris was captain of SSC and I learnt a lot from him as a bowler. He taught me how to bowl inswing and outswing and worked with me. I had the backing from other SSC stalwarts like Neil Chanmugam and Anura Tennekoon.
“Before that particular match I was given the new ball at practice. Sarath saw me with it and took it from saying that he was Sri Lanka’s opening bowler and that he should be bowling and not a pup like me who had just joined SSC. After a few minutes PI asked where the new ball was and I told him that it was with Sarath. He took it back. On the morning of the match I was selected and Sarath was made 12th man. He left the club straight away. In that match I got 7 for 39 and we bowled BRC out for 59. SSC won the Sara trophy,” said Opatha.
“I played two seasons for SSC and joined CCC for one season. We had a tremendous season with cricketers like Dan Piachaud, HIK Fernando, Abu Fuard, Brian Obeysekera, Kanthi Johnpillai and Darrel Wimalaratne. We bowled out Tamil Union for just 9 runs, the lowest score in domestic cricket. I had six wickets for 2 runs,” he said.

Opatha then joined the Air Force because “I was crazy over the uniform and I liked the Forces. It was a fantasy of mine to join a Force and I was only 21.” He captained Air Force and played for them for about nine years. It was while he was at Air Force that he played for Sri Lanka at the age of 24. From there it was a roller coaster ride playing in the first two World Cups in England in 1975 and 1979. He also played club cricket in Ireland for one season in 1979 and the following year Holland offered him a job as coach.
“I continued for 22 years in Holland playing and coaching. I had a great cricketing career in Holland. Every club I joined (there were five) won the championship. I also started getting involved with the Dutch Cricket Board as advisor and coach. I went back to South Africa to coach the black townships and underprivileged children, coached in Bangladesh for six months before coming back to Sri Lanka in 2003,” said Opatha who runs his own sports travel company in Holland and in England.

“I’ve put all my efforts on the job side and not on the cricket side because there is so much of club and cricket politics in Sri Lanka which I didn’t want to get involved in. I don’t think I will ever fit into the Cricket Board it’s not my place. I am different I cannot accept wrong things,” he said.
“I am a person who always helps poor cricketers. I have taken almost 20 cricketers abroad and given them contracts to play in England, Ireland and Holland. Even today my travel company is a charitable organisation. Although I am doing cricket tours I bring loads of sports equipment and distribute it to the poor schools. Recently a school from London St Paul’s donated 18,000 pounds sterling to a poor school. I have done this charity work since 2003.”

Getting married to Indrani two years ago has changed Opatha’s lifestyle completely. They have an eight-month year-old daughter. He also has three daughters from previous marriages.
“Since I married Indrani she showed me a lot of charity and helping the poor. It has changed my life style. I do a lot of charity work and I am making a chaitiya at Weligama. Although I am a Catholic my wife is Buddhist,” said Opatha who resides at Colpetty.

Opatha also coached his alma mater for three years. “I was very successful because we became the best all-island team under the captaincy of Rohan Buultjens.” He also had the distinction of coaching his rival school St Joseph’s for three years. “I was the only coach in Sri Lanka who removed the captain at tea time. Lakshman Aloysius was not listening to me. Against S Thomas’ at Mt Lavinia I told him to take the new ball two overs before tea to get one of the bowlers called Paiva to bowl left-arm natural inswing coming from the pavilion end where the ball dips in. Aloysius said, ‘I do what I want to do’. At tea time I removed him and put another captain and also dropped him from the Big Match making him the 12th man.”
One observation Opatha has made is that a lot of the present day fast bowlers are having wrong actions and that is why there are so much of injuries.

“I don’t know what a muscle pull is. I played for Sri Lanka and bowled 15-20 over spells and I never had a muscle pull. I have never gone off the field in my life,” said Opatha. “That is because we trained. We didn’t have gyms as today’s cricketers. We were natural cricketer’s not artificial cricketers with those machines inside a gym. It’s a short-sighted affair and the results are shown today.

“Especially our quick bowlers are not fit. They can’t bowl a 15-over spell which I did. In Pakistan I bowled three hours nonstop to save the match and make it a draw. How many cricketers today in the Sri Lanka team can bowl a 20-over spell? I don’t think there are any with their normal run-up. I regret I couldn’t play Test cricket. If I knew we were getting Test status I wouldn’t have retired at 29. I was not enjoying and there was nothing to look forward to,” he said.

Living Legends held over
The on-going Living Legends series will be continued in April after the ICC Cricket World Cup.