It is by a strange coincidence that in the 30th anniversary year of Sri Lanka playing their inaugural Test match at the P Sara Oval (then known as the P Saravanamuttu Stadium) that England whom they met on that occasion are once again here to play a Test match at the very same venue starting April 3.
The Test which is the second of a short two-Test series will certainly bring back nostalgic memories to those who were fortunate enough to witness it. I had the privilege of reporting the Test match on all four days (it didn’t go to the fifth day) for the prestigious English morning daily ‘The Ceylon Daily News’.
It was an exciting occasion for everyone, the players, the administrators, the sponsors, the spectators and journalists from the foreign and especially the local media. The build up towards the Test was fantastic. To commemorate the occasion every spectator who entered the ground on the first day was handed a cloth cap from the sponsors of the Test, Hatton National Bank with the words, “First-ever Test Match – England v Sri Lanka” printed on the cap and “I was there” on the peak of the cap. It was a souvenir worthwhile treasuring for after 30 years I have still preserved it carefully and it is as good as new. A commemorative plaque was unveiled by the President JR Jayawardene and a commemorative silver coin was presented to members of both teams. For the toss a special gold coin was used by the captain Bandula Warnapura. Each of the players was insured for Rs. 1½ lakhs for the tour and the contracts were duly signed by the players. Compared to what cricketers earn today, the pioneer Lankan Test cricketers were paid Rs. 600 per day for the Test. As the match ended in four days they forfeited their payments for the last day and were paid only for the first four days!
The England team captained by Keith Fletcher arrived in Sri Lanka after playing a six-Test series in India which they had lost 1-0 (5 drawn) and were keen to assert themselves against Test cricket’s minnows.
They opened the tour with a three-day practice game against a Sri Lanka Board President’s XI at the newly built Asgiriya Stadium in Kandy. Ranjan Madugalle, a local hero from that area thrilled the crowd that was present by scoring the first hundred at the venue, a beautifully constructed knock of 142 not out which enabled the home side to recover from 33-3 to 273. In that match an 18-year-old schoolboy Arjuna Ranatunga impressed everyone with an unbeaten innings of 33 in the second innings. England played two One-Day Internationals at the SSC, one of which they won by five runs and the other they lost by three runs where opener Sidath Wettimuny carried his bat out for 86 and Ranatunga again displayed his potential with a stroke-filled 42 before getting run out. These two knocks helped the young Ranatunga to be included in the final Sri Lanka 12 announced for the inaugural Test which was to be played on February 17, 1982. The final choice was between off-spinner Lalith Kaluperuma and all-rounder Anura Ranasinghe. The latter was unlucky to be left out as Sri Lanka opted to go with a three-prong spin attack comprising Kaluperuma, DS de Silva and Ajith de Silva. Ashantha de Mel was the only genuine fast bowler in the side and he shared the new ball with skipper Warnapura who bowled three overs of medium-pace before the spinners took over.
Winning the toss Sri Lanka had no hesitation but to bat first because they wanted England to bat on the last innings on a pitch that was expected to turn from the fourth day onwards. Warnapura was to recall later that his main concern was not facing upto the pace of Willis and Botham, but not to get out to the first ball in Test cricket. Thankfully Warnapura hung around for 35 minutes and faced 25 balls before being dismissed for two. The swing of Botham and the steep bounce that Willis generated unsettled the top order and Sri Lanka was soon 34-4 when Ranatunga walked out to join Madugalle in the middle. These two youngsters had played together often and had a perfect understanding. They also had a good look at the England bowling having scored runs in the practice game at Asgiriya. So it came as no surprise when they forged a 99-run partnership for the fifth wicket with both batsmen scoring half-centuries. Ranatunga being left-handed also helped for England could not bowl on one side of the wicket but had to alter their line and adjust their length all the time as the two batsmen ran their singles very well. Ranatunga was the first batsman to score a Test half-century for Sri Lanka as he took the attack to the bowlers while Madugalle was prepared to play a passive role. Thanks to their partnership Sri Lanka reached a respectable 218. Left-arm spinner Derek Underwood ran through the bottom half of the Lankan batting to capture five wickets.
Sri Lanka fought back strongly to deny England a big lead and had them all out for 223 after being 151-4 at one stage. Left-hander David Gower played a graceful innings of 89 punctuated with a dozen fours and a six. But apart from 45 from Fletcher none of the other England batsmen contributed as De Mel removed four of their top six batsmen and the rest was taken by the spinners. By the end of the third day there was a lot of excitement generated and talk of a win when Sri Lanka ended at 152-3, an overall lead of 147 with seven wickets in hand. The general talk was that Sri Lanka was in with a chance of pulling off an unlikely victory if they could set England a target which would give their spinners a chance to attack their batsmen. Warnapura made 38 which was to be his highest Test score, and Roy Dias hit a majestic 77 with 11 perfectly executed fours.
Going into the fourth day, the Sri Lankan batsmen’s inexperience began to show. They simply had no idea how to go about in their second innings and pace it out so that the longer they stayed at the wicket it would wear and tear. The batsmen brought up playing two-day and three-day cricket succumbed timidly on the fourth day to the spin of John Emburey. In 80 dramatic minutes of the fourth morning seven wickets fell for just eight runs as Sri Lanka were bundled out for 175, leaving England to chase 171 for victory.
“Being tall Emburey was able to make the ball bounce more than our spinners and that made all the difference,” said Warnapura.
De Mel removed debutant Geoff Cook for a duck, but the target was never beyond England’s reach. Chris Tavare got stuck in and forged two eighty plus partnerships for the second and third wickets to see England home comfortably by seven wickets. There was disappointment all around but Sri Lanka had done enough in their inaugural Test to prove that they were worthy of their Test status.
“At least this Test has taught everyone a lesson like grafting for runs and fighting when under difficult circumstances. We can gain some consolation that on the first three days we gave England some worry,” Warnapura said.
“My main concern was that we should not at any stage, like so many other countries that got Test status after us, let people say that Sri Lanka is not a good enough country to have got Test status. In the first Test we wanted to prove to the world that we were a good enough country. I am happy that nobody has so far said that we are not worthy of Test status,” he was to recall later.
The two teams Sri Lanka and England pose with Sri Lanka President JR Jayewardene and Sri Lanka Cricket president Dissanayake prior to the start of the Test match.