By Rohan Wijesinghe
Hushed silence…on the fall of the second Lankan wicket – as tub thumping fans, packed to the ruddy rafters, would set aside their flags and rattles…. with the dapper destroyer, rolling down the hallowed SSC stairway, swinging his tree trunk of a willow, with such an imperial swagger in his chunky pads.
Thence down to the ritual of chalking the guard…. a glance around the grass for gaps – and off he would go – with his rat-a-tat, cut and swat, rifle-fire like panache. Short, stocky and dusky – Duleep Mendis took on such ‘stature’ with a sliver of wood in hand.
Never one to ‘nibble’ at a ball…and no silly ‘half hitting’. A spunky back and across step – for the ‘woodcutters’ square cut of his…. followed by a blistering swing of the willow – for his sledge-hammer drives. Anything marginally short would be invariably ‘tonked’ over the rafters, to burst besides Independence Square. His ‘up and under’ over long-on was majestic and yet a tad risky – I recollect. Especially adept off the back foot and equally fruity off the front foot. Glory-be as we ‘drank’ in the glory of his shots.
Can Do-Gung Ho
Louis Rohan Duleep Mendis ‘came out’ in the late ‘60s, touring India, firstly with Jagath Fernando’s Ceylon School’s, and thence later that year he represented Combined School’s – under Asitha Jayaweera against Robert Goldin’s Aussie Schoolboys. The three unofficial three-day ‘tests’ drew crowds of 7000-8000, so rabid was the enthusiasm – with ham-fisted brilliance pouring out from Duleep. He was ‘potentially’ and soon ‘actually’ the finest batsman in the country. Making 64 n.o on his Test debut, in the year 1972, against Pakistan, the dasher then amassed 986 runs in the 1973 Sara Season to surge past D.P. De Silva’s record, for the highest run tally in a Lankan first class season.
Block Knocked Off
The dashing Duleep made ‘heady headlines’ in our baptismal World Cup shindig of ‘75’ – getting pole-axed by Aussie ‘slinger’ Jeff Thomson – whence he was batting so beautifully on 32. It was one of the sorriest spectacles for Lankan fans. What with our star ‘bleeding and reeling’ in pain under the stumps – the Aussies gloating over their ‘kill’…. and the ‘piranha’ of a Western press ridiculing and mocking our game.
Before the injured dasher could step off the stretcher for stitches, Anura Tennakoon and Michael Tissera ‘wrapping’ their bats in Thomian flags – filled our humiliated Lankan hearts with pride, as they marshalled the chase, to end up with a glorious 278 for 4. Thomson and Lillee knew all about the ‘Ashes’ and sledging – and obviously knew nothing about ‘Thomian Grit’ – till then.
Stitched Up Star
A couple of days later a ‘stitched’ up Duleep led the Lankan batting from the front with a ‘fruity’ 66 – which enabled Sri Lanka to clinch the ‘Must Win’ – ICC Trophy. Hours later into the World Cup march, he fired the English landscape with a 68, as Lanka trounced Kapil Dev’s Indians at Old Trafford. Back in his beloved home town of Moratuwa in ‘76, he marshalled the chase against West Indians Marshall, Clarke and Holder, tonking an unbeaten 79 – a good bunch of boundaries ending in the gutters of Galle Road – batting for the Board President’s IX that time.
Steely Wrists And Biceps Of Stone
By 1982 Mendis had been elevated to skipper the country – against Zimbabwe to begin with. He batted well there, but we lost the plot, and the crucial Second Test, in Harare. Later that year, he hammered two tons 105 in each innings, against India at Chepauk. In the year 1983, Mendis missed ‘chunks’ of the Aussie tour ‘down under’ due to injury. His flamboyance seemingly on hold against New Zealand in ‘84 – the dasher was booed, mocked and heckled mercilessly by our rabid enthusiasts. He came back with a vengeance though – spark plugs sparkling in 1984, to hammer the English in England, with 111 and 94, in ‘Sidath’s Test’ – so to speak
With that particular ‘Lords’ knock, the beefy batsmen had ploughed – barrel chested and bare headed to his 2000 runs at an average of 34.14 – the first Lankan to do so. Despite all the razzmatazz, Mendis was blessed with just 24 tests – and they were ‘oh so’ widely spaced. By way of comparison Sunil Gavaskar, two years older, was capped 125 times for India. Of the eight Tests under Duleep we won 3 and lost 5. Of the 26 ODIs under his rule, we won 15 and lost 11. For the record ‘Dulla’ knocked 4 tons and 8 fifties in those Tests. To return to the groove, Duleep Mendis continued to lead us, as we trounced Kapil Dev’s Indians in 1985 to chalk our first ever Test win – the dasher having waded into that Indian attack with glee, for 51 and 61 not out, respectively.
Fat Lad To Sturdy Bat
Having first ‘laced’ on his little cricket boots – tennis shoes if you like – to be coached by the redoubtable Ernie Dias – despite which he batted as ‘he liked’ and not as ‘they liked’ – even at 8 years of age! He did his dear parents, Julian and Doris proud as he went to town; peppering the town of Moratuwa, with some rasping square cuts and wicked hooks – batting for St. Sebastian’s College.
For the record the dusky right-hander chalked 10 first eleven school hundreds between 1968 and 1972. Thence as fate would have it, the ‘chunky’ schoolboy was lured further-north-of-the-coastline by S. Thomas’ College Mount Lavinia. The salty old ‘Thoras’ were soon serenading their adopted son, as he dynamited the ‘Big Match’ batting record off the books, with a blistering 184 runs – against arch rivals Royal College, in the year 1972. He was lured to ‘Mount’ for a ‘cut and polish’ and ended polishing off the Royalists with his cuts and hooks.
Flat Out Glory Hunting
Whence he put on ‘weight’ around the ‘midriff’ – he put all his ‘weight’ around cricket administration. Having taken on the mighty mantle of managing the Lankan National side in 1991, Mendis cracked the whip by ensuring his lads were in bed by ten – literally. It was Dulla who introduced….’filming’ to fix the flaws…. team meetings…. and tactic trash outs – a timely effort to preserve the country’s dignity – for our game was getting horribly politicized, with results lurching between ‘okay’ and ‘awful’…. even losing some games inside four days.
With ‘intent to amputate’ the problem – and armed with his flair for public relations, the choice of ‘putting’ Mendis at the helm of management – proved inspired. In harness with coach Davenall Whatmore – Lanka enjoyed one of her ‘fruttiest’ semesters at cricket – 1994 to 1996 to be specific. Mendis was Manager when we lifted the World Cup – venomed vengeance for that pole-axing in 1975?
Early this year, Duleep Mendis handed over the reins of Sri Lanka Cricket to that other decent piece of diplomacy, and well-loved human being Captain Ajit Jayasekere – and thence sank without a trace, till I tracked him down at his abode at Ratmalana – in late December 2010. Champagne stickwork would flow – whence Duleep joined Roy Dias at the wicket – truly. With Dias stroking the ball and Mendis thrashing it – the two comprehensively show-cased the very splendour and essence of Sri Lankan cricket. The double barreled attack – if you please. A fabulous flurry of majestic shots from both ends – with four separate ‘Papara’ bands belting four diverse tunes – in perfect harmony – reverberatingly pulsating Lankan Rhythm. A good slice of ‘zing’ went out of our game – as the two aged together and hung up their boots in tandem. For the record Duleep hammered 49 hundreds in club cricket in comparison to Warnapura’s 35 and Roy Dias’ 25.
Tiny Gallery Of Immortals
It is my line of thinking – that despite all the ‘razzmatazz’ – twas only a handful of our batsmen, that had the ability to comprehensively dominate international bowling – of those who ‘padded up’ for us between 1928 and 1996. F.C. de Saram, Sargo Jayawikreme, Mahadevan Sathasivam, C.I. Gunasekere, Michael Tissera, Anura Tennekoon, Sidath Wettimuny, Aravinda de Silva, Roy Dias and Duleep Mendis himself. making up the select band. I had to leave out Arjuna – after tons of thought. Arjuna was ‘Moodily Majestic’ and a tad too tardy with his consistency. I ‘put’ Sanath Jayasuriya after Lahore, where he belongs.
From Batting To Gardening
Two duskily-vivacious smiles were ‘wed’ in the year 1979 – Dulla and Dilhara de Zoysa. Dulla got the ‘year’ wrong by a ‘year’ and was swiftly and emphatically corrected by Dilhara. Their kids are doing them proud. Niru and Sanjeev are flying our flag so flamboyantly ‘down under’, and daughter Meneka is ‘deep’ into her books, on Business Administration. And the legend? Prone to put on weight with just ‘one’ chocolate biscuit…now potters about the garden – gauging the pace of the wicket…. as he looks around for a fruity business proposition – of sorts.
Bald figures can only tell half the story. The pleasure he gave cannot be conveyed by reciting figures. We of the cricketing fraternity entirely appreciate Duleep’s awesomely monumental contribution to the game. Besides which – ‘feeling good’ was easy with ‘Dulla’ at the crease. And ‘feeling good’ – was ‘good enough’ for those who thumped the tubs – with me.
(Rohan Wijesinghe is a former St. Joseph’s, Sri Lanka Schools and NCC opener.)