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Two Sri Lankan masters

AS explained in my last column, cricket in Sri Lanka is founded on the schools. And in the honours system in schoolboy cricket, the batsman always takes precedence over the bowler. At that level, to score 50 or 100 is more generously rewarded, by fellow schoolboy and teacher alike, than to take four or five wickets. This background might explain why that beautiful, fractured island has produced so many great batsmen but very few bowlers of true international class.

The doyen of Sri Lankan batsmen was undoubtedly F.C. (Derek) De Saram. He was born in 1912, into a home of sport and privilege. De Saram was an upper class Burgher who studied at Royal College, Colombo, before going up to Oxford in 1932. Here he was treated shamefully by the cricket authorities (as, years before at Cambridge, had been the experience of another brown-skinned aristocrat, K. S. Ranjitsinhji). They would not even give him a net, so he went off instead to the tennis courts. Here the equation was man-to-man, and the colour of one's skin did not matter so long as one beat one's opponent 6-0, 6-0. De Saram got his tennis Blue two years in a row, then tried his hand once more at The Parks. He was picked for the game against the visiting Australians, scoring an immaculate 100, this against Clarrie Grimmett and Bill O'Reilly, who otherwise carried all before them that summer. Of an Oxford total of 216, last year's reject made 128 (96 of these in boundaries), a lowly 16 being the next highest score. Three of his four sixes were hit off Grimmett. De Saram had now to be chosen for the University match, where he stroked a silken 85 in two hours at the crease.

While De Saram played active cricket, he got, on the average, one chance every five years to bat against bowlers of quality (there were none at home). From what he did to them we may consider him to have been a player of high class. In 1936 he played for Minor Counties against the Indian touring side, being "merciless" on Mohammed Nissar and Amar Singh, a pairing almost as deadly with the new ball as Grimmett and O'Reilly were with the old. He returned to Colombo the same year, his Oxford degree safely in his pocket. Then in November 1937 he was invited by the Catholic Gymkhana of Bandra to play for "The Rest" in the Bombay Pentangular. It was the first time this team of leftovers had made its appearance in the tournament. Also chosen for The Rest, and accompanying De Saram on the boat from Colombo, was the Buddhist opening batsman S. S. Jayawickreme, who had once battled with Derek for Royal College. In the winter of 1932-33, while his mate was cooling his heels in Oxford, Jayawickreme was enjoying a fine tour of India with a Ceylonese team, scoring 50 and 100 in the two representative matches, being especially severe on Mohammed Nissar.

When The Rest played the Muslims they were without Vijay Hazare, but even in his presence De Saram would have assumed, as of right, the mantle of leading batsman. He scored 50 in the first innings, his compatriot Jayawickreme contributing 67. When the Rest were set 266 to win in the fourth innings, Jayawickreme was out early for a duck, and the leg spin of Amir Elahi was too much for most of the others. But De Saram stayed till the end, scoring 133 not out with 22 boundaries, drives and cuts in the main, taking his side to within 33 runs of victory. This was the first ever competitive first-class match organised at the Brabourne Stadium, and De Saram's remains one of the finest innings played at that once famous, but now neglected, cricketing venue.

Almost 20 years after he battled Elahi, De Saram came up against another show bowler of quality, Johnny Wardle. With the rest of Len Hutton's M.C.C. side bound for Australia, Wardle had stopped in Colombo to play a one-day match against All-Ceylon. De Saram, by now well into his forties, picked Wardle off his toes for six and then hit him repeatedly over extra-cover: the kind of treatment the Yorkshire left-armer never received from the stay- at-home English batsmen. The poet Alan Ross, who was covering Hutton's tour for The Observer, wrote that "Wardle must have thought himself faced by a species (of batsman) newly arisen from the ocean".

So long as the journeys were made by boat between Australia and England, touring teams bound for one or other country would stop en route at Colombo. Bradman played there, as did Miller, Compton, Statham and Hutton. The talents of the home side in these pick-up matches so impressed Jack Fingleton that he suggested that the best Ceylonese cricketers, like De Saram, be considered eligible for selection to Indian Test sides. The Indians, always patronising towards their little neighbours, offered instead to allow Ceylon University to enter the Rohinton Baria Trophy, and to organise an annual three-day match between the state side of Madras (later Tamil Nadu) and Ceylon (not yet Sri Lanka), played for the Gopalan Trophy, this named after the Madras fast bowler and double international. In the first of these fixtures, played in 1952 at Chepauk, De Saram was captain of Ceylon. He would, in most people's judgment, be skipper of an all-time Sri Lankan eleven as well. This selection would not, perhaps, be based on his batting genius alone. For De Saram was, by both nature and upbringing, an autocrat. In 1962, by which time he had put away his kit for good, he was a key figure in the right-wing, military-aided attempt to unseat the democratically elected government of S.W.R.D. Bandarnaike. The coup failed, and De Saram was incarcerated for a long time in Colombo jail. In the late 1960s he was visited in prison by his fellow Oxonian and batting stylist, Colin Cowdrey. Cowdrey - who had chased some of those hits off Wardle back in 1954 - reported later that for their meeting the old warrior had put on his M.C.C. tie.

A near contemporary of De Saram was Mahadevan Sathasivan. "Satha was from a prosperous business family, yet the elite St. Thomas's College rejected him, possibly because he was a Tamil. He joined the rival Wesley College, then hit a double century against the school which would not have him. Satha was a cricketer who liked the high life, a wanderer who went on to captain no less than three countries at the sport he chose to play in the daytime. Madras cricket lovers still speak in wonder of the 215 he scored in four hours of magical batsmanship at Chepauk for Ceylon against South Zone in 1947, this knock a strong claimant for the title of best innings ever played on that great ground. When Satha went into bat his manager said he would present him a bottle of Scotch if he made 100. He was 120 not out at close of play, then extracted a promise from the manager that he would send him for a week's holiday in Bombay if he achieved a second one. After partying all night Satha went on the next morning to his double hundred. In this innings he would come down the wicket even to C. Rangachari, India's fastest bowler. Like Mushtaq Ali he dressed smartly, sporting a white handkerchief tied around his neck, and, like Mushtaq again, he played on dancing feet. S. K. Gurunathan, writing of his innings in The Hindu, said that Satha played all the shots, most majestically the late cut and a leg glide by which "he waved the ball from his presence". Three years later he scored a faultless 96 against a Commonwealth attack led by Fred Freer, Frank Worrell and George Tribe, three Test bowlers, the last one of the greats.

While still in his pomp as a player, Sathasivam was arrested on a murder charge. He was accused of killing his wife with an ammi, the massive cylindrical stone that Tamils use to grind the batter for their idli and dosai. Satha dipped deep into his savings and flew out a Queen's Counsel from London. The Q.C. was able to get him acquitted, so the Ceylonese batsman escaped the fate of the Jamaican and West Indian fast bowler Leslie Hylton, hanged in 1955 for wife-murder. Satha then settled down in Singapore, captaining its cricket team, and later, after the island's merger with its northern neighbour, led Malaysia as well. When the tempers had sufficiently cooled he returned to his homeland, to become once more a habitue of the bars and pavilions where they discussed great cricket feats, his included.

De Saram and Sathasivan were batsmen of genius and men of will. They would be automatic choices in an all-time Sri Lankan eleven - at any rate, in an eleven selected by men above the age of 50. They were worthy forerunners of those who have come since, of strokemakers and artists such as Duleep Mendis, Roy Dias, Aravinda De Silva, Arjuna Ranatunga and Sanath Jayasurya.

RAMACHANDRA GUHA

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