Long before Sanath Jayasuriya, Romesh Kaluwitharana, Arjuna Ranatunga and ‘Mad Max’ Aravinda de Silva captured the imagination of the Indian public with their pyrotechnics in the 1996 World Cup, cricket lovers of Tamil Nadu enjoyed the privilege of watching some wonderful cricketers from Sri Lanka. The island nation was not an official Test nation until 1982, but the MJ Gopalan Trophy held annually — with the venue alternating between Madras, as it was called then, and Colombo — allowed us to watch these entertaining and classy cricketers from our southern neighbour. FC de Saram led the Ceylon team that beat Madras in the inaugural three-day match of the tournament, which started on February 7, 1953. Stanley Jayasinghe, a stylist who also represented Leicestershire in the county championship, made 79 in the second innings.
The Gopalan Trophy is where we watched class players such as Michael Tissera, Anura Tennekoon, Duleep Mendis, Roy Dias, Asantha de Mel, Rumesh Ratnayake and Ravi Ratnayake, many of them products of the famed school cricket system of Sri Lanka. Several top-notch players came from Royal College in Colombo or S Thomas’s College in Mount Lavinia, fierce rivals who have contested a famous annual match since 1879. As early as 1955, two schoolboys ACM Lafir (107) and B Claessen (64), played stellar roles in Ceylon’s third consecutive win in the Gopalan Trophy. The relevance of school cricket to the national team is, however, now being questioned, following the spread of the game into rural Sri Lanka.
The tournament, which lasted three decades, was a tribute to the double international MJ Gopalan, who strode the cricket and hockey arenas with talent and charisma for decades, beginning in the 1930s. A magnificent allrounder who could bowl fast but chose to focus on swing, and who batted with freedom, Gopalan was a discovery of Conrad Powell Johnstone of Kent and Madras fame, who employed him in Burmah Shell. Gopalan’s daily routine involved cycling from petrol bunk to petrol bunk, checking the volume of the stock there with a dipstick, and pedalling straight to Chepauk, where eager crowds would roar ‘Gopala, Gopala’ before he changed into his hockey shorts and ran on to the field. He missed out on a possible Olympic gold medal in 1936, when he preferred to tour England with the Indian cricket team rather than have a shot at selection for the national hockey team.
The tournament was suspended after 1982-83, with Sri Lanka acquiring Test status. Subsequent attempts to revive it were intermittent and eventually given up in the new millennium.
The islanders had been for quite some time too strong for Tamil Nadu, though this had not always been the case. For one thing, in VV Kumar and S Venkataraghavan, Tamil Nadu had a pair of world-class spinners for nearly two decades. While both of them enjoyed several outstanding matches in the series, Venkataraghavan’s strike-rate in the championship was unparalleled. The offspinner took ten wickets or more in a match on four occasions, and was the bowler most responsible for Tamil Nadu’s victories in Gopalan Trophy matches. Kumar’s best figures of 8 for 60 came in 1957-58. The Sri Lankan bowlers to capture ten wickets or more in the Trophy match were John Arenhold, Dayananda Sahabandu, Lalith Kaluperuma and Sarath Wimalaratne. Kaluperuma’s offspin netted him 8 for 43 in 1975-76, which remains by far the best individual bowling performance in the Gopalan Trophy.
CI Gunasekhera, who made 212 in 1958-1959, was the highest scorer from either team in the tournament. Michael Dalvi, Tamil Nadu’s star batsman of the 1970s, had two centuries to his credit, and the other Tamil Nadu century makers were SVS Mani, the stylist, Najam Hussain, the allrounder, and S Vasudevan, the left-arm spinner. Duleep Mendis made three centuries for Sri Lanka, while the other three-figure innings for the Lankans were by Gunasekhera, Lafir, HIK Fernando, David Heyn and de Mel.
Besides getting my college to buy me my first cricket bat, an Autograph that cost Rs. 110, from the Lankan offspinner Abu Fuard, in Madras for the Gopalan Trophy sometime in the 1960s, I enjoyed several moments of competitive cricket against Sri Lankan players a decade later, when they visited Hyderabad to play there. Playing for State Bank of India, I came up against a mini-powerhouse of talent in Heyn, Tennekoon and Mendis, who were part of the Hindustan Breweries XI, our opponents. Only Heyn (73 not out) made runs in that match, but the other two were to play brilliant cricket on later visits to Hyderabad. With his sledgehammer blows all around the wicket, Mendis could have walked into the mighty West Indies side of the period, while the likes of Tennekoon and Roy Dias, the stylist supreme, were truly world class batsmen. Not much later, opener Sunil Wettimuny (53 retired hurt), Tissera (52), skipper Tennekoon (48), Mendis (32 retired hurt), and Bandula Warnapura (31) were to cover themselves with glory in the inaugural World Cup with their brave batting against the hostile pace of Jeff Thomson, Dennis Lillee and Max Walker.
For us Hyderabad cricketers, it was a most pleasurable experience to meet the friendly cricketers from Sri Lanka, though the poor bowlers among us often suffered at the hands of their highly accomplished batsmen. Tony Opatha and Ranjan Gunatilleke, the pacemen, Sridharan Jeganathan, the left-arm spinner, Somachandra de Silva, the legspinner, Anura Ranasinghe, the allrounder, and Russell Hamer, the wicketkeeper, are among the others I remember as fine cricketers and gentlemen from the amateur era. As yet unacquainted with the frenetic pace of one-day cricket, most of the Sri Lankan cricketers of the period played with style and panache. We expected great things from them in the future, and they did not disappoint us.