By Rohan Wijesinghe
Conroy Ievers Gunasekara crashed into this country’s cricket conscience in the year 1949. The rookie emerging with such a bang against the emerging world champs the West Indies, viciously carving up the Carribean pace attack of giant Barbadians Prior Jones and Johm Trim, stroking 11 and 72 in the First Test match and carrying on the carnage into the Second Test with scores of 72 and 22 for an average of 44.00. Come Pakistan the same year, the handsome rookie, coming in at 49 for 4, following a quick tumble of Ceylonese wickets, slammed a quick fire 120 against the swing and cut of Khan Mohammed and Fazal Mohammed. Epic pace was met with epic class. For the record Fazal Mahmood emphatically routed England the following year with a match bag of 12 for 99.
In the year 1953 a Commonwealth side cobbled together with four Ceylonese, consisting of FC de Saram, CI Gunasekara, Ben Navaratne and Ernie Kellart in addition to Mankad, Umrigar, Imtiaz Ahmed, Fazal Mahmood, Miller and Harvey ganged up against an MCC side led by Nigel Haig in Colombo. Keith Miller stroking the ball, with CI trashing it, put on 250 runs for the third wicket, with our legend breasting the tape ahead of Miller to the ton, in one of the most mercurial batting displays this country has seen. Miller referred to our precious legend as the master batsmen for ever after.
Decline of Lindsay Kline
Ceylon was granted another whistle stop game against the 1961 Aussies. Lindsay Kline was a key hopeful in Richie Benaud’s quest to wrest the Ashes from England. CI on this occasion deposited Kline’s hopes and potential among the rafters of the Sara Stadium in a blistering knock of 72, 28 of them in one over, off the hapless Kline. Then Against Ted Dexter’s Englishmen in 1962, flaunting his flawlessly flamboyant footwork against Coldwell, Larter, Illingworth and Titmus CI slammed a good bunch of balls over the ropes, and a couple over the rafters as well, for good measure. Heaven sent wallops these. The right hander also stroked 36 star studded club hundreds with such dazzling stickwork to ram home his class. Memories Are Made Of These.
A Paradigm Shift
This mild mannered Aristocrat displayed fearless brilliance against these star studded sides that toured this country for a work out, each game rather ‘step motherly’ doled out, two years apart. Large crowds rocked the turnstiles to watch the tourists bare their wares, whereas our brilliance mostly huddled back-stage. It is thought that CI was almost single handedly responsible for changing that climate, what with his blazing willow and debonair persona. A paradigm shift in the mindset of local enthusiasts. Those who came to jeer and scoff….stayed to cheer and doff their hats. A profound effect then on the evolution of our game.
A Cut Apart
Conroy Ievers Gunasekara, a cut apart, this priceless asset of yore, bestrode the day in his, day and gave it such vitality, now struts in peace in retirement, at his Residence down Dickman’s Road, clad in immaculate white, buttons flamboyantly askew, an ageing warhorse then, red cheeks sagging a little now, lean frame wobbling a bit, face creased in affability, aristocratic bearing and dignity yet in place. I must confess I have a lingering admiration for this great man, who as a nine year old ceaselessly peppered a garage wall with a tennis ball wrecking his dads precious tennis rackets in the process, and thence going on to represent Royal College in Cricket, Rugby, Tennis and hurdling for them as well, without really setting Reid Avenue on fire. Much later he played Golf to a handicap of 8. Thence as fate and his skipper FC de Saram would have it, the rookie opted for the Army, over books and bats, being drafted in as a Second Lieutenant on a Princely sum of rupees 200. In the year 1949 he kicked off his army boots and happily slipped his toes into the commercial world, in a Managerial capacity for Walkers PLC, to strut the floorboards in step with the British with such inherent ease, what with his grandma being of English stock.
6 Foot 2, broad in shoulder and chest , big heart and stooping gait, size 12 boots and oozing intent, he would march to the middleto bare his two eyed stance. This heavy smoker would thence make his heavy willow smoke,
as he together with his merry posse of SSC’ers churned out those
Lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer, those days of FC and Sargo and Wine. Devotee lines stretched for miles, so rabid was their enthusiasm for the sport. The game so adorable and unspoilt, so unhurried and English. Green meadows with the stumps set up and the creases chalked. Soft thud of wood on leather and the endlessly hollow post mortems at the bus stops and pubs, yummier than the game itself.
Gridlock of the Game
Ci bowled too, and very well. Bounding in off a six yard run, right arm leg spin, long strong fingers exerting their will on the ball off a high action. Ball leaving the bat fairly sharply, he could gridlock the game. The Monarch would field deep in the grass, cutting off buckets of runs with his bucket like hands and covering such an expansive territory in the outfield, oozing anticipation. No crashing into hoarding boards or belly crawling over the boundary ropes.
Flamboyance on Furlough
Characteristically creating currents with his charisma, from the late forties to the early sixties, the class act in fact of the Ceylonese side,CI skippered the country, belatedly though, at 40 years of age in 1960 and thence with his flamboyance on furlough, signed off his international career with a stray appearance against Mike Smith’s Englishmen in 1965 aged 45. Even at 50 years plus, he would push his circuit weary body to swing a little willow, even up until the 70’s or so.
These stellar performances were made against the backdrop of long arduous train travel, venues 600-700 miles apart, to be met in bed by a roach, potty washrooms, bugs dancing on your food, and a tiny coin pressed into your palm for your troubles, as against today’s highly inflated financial rewards, born 50 years too soon. The only stretching drill that generation could have afforded would have been to yawn between railway stations.
Ten Short of Ton
CI is poised to puff out 90 candles on the 14th of july, is mercifully in good health. The National Treasure that he was, is a precious Icon now and should be spurred on to his TON and beyond. With his cricketing days long gone , his comradeship, conviviality, disarming modesty, and deeds with the bat though misted with time, will remain in folklore for years to come or even forever. It is a regrettable tradition in this game that precious history is so shoddily treated and easily forgotten. Hence this tiny salute to a mighty big man, with a mighty big heart, with a mighty few words to say.
The writer is a former Josephian, BRC, NCC and Sri Lanka Under 19 Opener and now a Cricket historian