By Rohan Wijesinghe
Equally adept with the mason’s spoon as with a cricket bat; he could mix cement and dent a new ball with equal elan. That’s Mano Ponniah for you. Given life on the 3rd of May 1942 at Kalutara, his doting Dad, an Edinburgh educated agricultural expert and Mum Jane, subsequently settled down to life at 10 Flower Terrace, Colombo 8, with their two sons David and Mano in tow. When Mano was around 7 years of age they literally tilted him over their wall to the adjoining Ladies College Colombo, and thence rolled him over to St Thomas’s College Mount Lavinia, as the boy’s fate would have it. Another page some other day on the illustrious David Ponniah; ex warden of St Thomas’s College Mount Lavinia.
Raising dust by the sea
Perpetually anchored at number eleven, bolstering the batting at the bottom of the order, eight year old Mano was raising dust then for the little Thomian hopefuls, way back in the year 1949 or so; the little right hander eventually stroking his way to the top, to open the batting for St Thomas’s College, Colombo University, Tamil Union, Cambridge University and All Ceylon, with much distinction.
Coveted Thomian Batting prize
Sandwiched between the Sea, the Chapel and Lassie Abeygoonewardene, the Thomian coach of that vintage; Mano, cloaked in defiant determination, dour reliability and infinite patience for one so young, coerced his way into contention, to perch himself atop his beloved niche; that of opening the batting for the school by the sea; batting so well so as to annexe the much coveted FL Goonewardene batting prize in the year 1962, having found his feet the previous year under the leadership of ML Idroos.
Batting along text book lines
Tall and erect, his batting ran along text book lines, all ideas and angles, besides which he entered the portals of Colombo University, to wind up proudly plumed in an Engineering Degree in the year 1965. That he had the requisite ‘grey matter’ to extract and adopt the – clever bits – from the batting manuals, was very evident. Between those years of 62 and 65 he rubbed bats and pens with the likes of Carlyle Perera, ML Idroos, Buddy Reid, HIK Fernando and DH de Silva; starry eyed intellectuals all, to annexe the coveted Sara Trophy in 1963.
Flourishing under Tissera
Capped fror Ceylon in 1964, Mano coupled up with his classmate and buddy TCT Edwards to assist Ceylon rout the Pakistani Test side in Colombo and was picked again for Ceylon under Tissera’s rule that went on to trash Pataudi’s Indian’s in their own den at Ahmedabad. A feat not repeated to date, despite all the hype and hullabaloo. Mano also represented Ceylon against Bob Simpson’s Aussies under CI Gunasekere in 1964. Ponniah did not make huge scores for the country; perennially the 20’s and 30’s – defiantly denting the new ball though, with time and occupation, paving the way for the flamboyance to follow – that of Tissera, Inman, Reid, Jayasinghe and Lafir among others
Abandoning International career
In 1964 abandoning his international career, Mano followed the passage to prosperity aboard the SS Strathbourne, anchoring at the immaculately manicured Fenners and her hallowed seat of learning Cambridge University, to pocket an Engineering Degree. Drafted into the Cambridge Cricket Eleven in 1967; county cricket stiffened his sinew and resolve. Mano chipped in at that point to state that he had worked ruddy hard at the nets, till his muscles had memorized the dictum of getting into line with the ball, in grim light and near artic weather, till the last weary net bowler turned home for supper..
Opening with Brearley
In the year 67, the stoic opener missed the batters dream of – a thousand runs in a county season – running up a tally of 869 runs with 108 against Lancashire, on a pudding of a pitch, as his highest and finishing above Sir Colin Cowdrey in the County averages.
Those runs mind you, were carved against the likes of Trueman, Statham, Brown, Snow, Shuttleworth and Higgs, who were cheerfully dynamiting stumps across the British Isles. He would roll his arm over once in a while with a tad bit of leg spin; boasting of his 5 for 20 against Tony Lewis’s Glamorgan as his best. Mano donned Cambridge colours in Forty Five First Class matches, rubbing biceps with the likes of RDV Knight and our own Vijay Malalasekere, for good measure. The architect assiduously modeled himself on his hero and Cambridge skipper – Mike Brearley. Readers will be pleasantly surprised to learn that Brearley’s daughter Lara lives and works in Sri Lanka.
Member and Trustee of MCC
By the early 1970’s Mano was fully entrenched in the British way of life.With the lines for it’s membership winding for miles, Mano Ponniah was embraced with a life membership and trusteeship of the utterly prestigious Marleyborne Cricket Club on the recommendations of Sir Colin Cowdrey and Roger Knight.
Besotted by the lovely Indian lassie Radhika, the architect wooed and veiled her in 1971, and his two boys Rahul and Mohan quickly followed. Mano is proud of his two sons and is even prouder of his two grandchildren, little Amy and Yogi. Grandpa Mano is absolutely certain that Yogi has all the makings of a first class batsmen. The little chap is only 7 months old.
Back to base
British recession brought Mano back to Sri Lanka in 1990. His buddies P I Peiris, Kumar Boralessa and R Sivaratnam, armed the ace architect with mega building contracts at Arpico, Magpek and Aitken Spence. Thence launching and spearheading his company – Mano Ponniah Associates – he specialized in floating ‘water bungalows’ in the Maldives; spreading his charm and smile for miles and cementing his trade, in the Indian ocean region; for which he has won a multitude of highly coveted Global Awards. This man of quiet dignity and much intelligence, also annexed the much sought after – world travel award – and in addition, three Sri Lanka Institute Of Architecture awards for good measure.
Baring his wares where it mattered
Its often forgotten that the exploits of the likes of Mano Ponniah, Vijay Malalasekere, Inman, Jayasinghe and Piachaud had a profound effect on the evolution of our game; for they dared to bare their wares where it mattered most; in the vicinity of the Mecca of cricket and its environs. Truly they carried our cricketing pride with them – atop their county caps. I for one was enamoured by their emboldened names emblazoned across the county cricket score sheets of our local dailies. Twas sweet summer wine.
Dancing the night away
Come dusk this phlegmatic right hander – who says he never ever ‘ swept’ a ball in his life to get runs – now sweeps the floor at the dancing school of Prins Ratnam, our legendary ‘guru’ of dance, indulging in his pet passion for ball room dancing, boyish disposition still intact, enthusiasm for life undimmed at 68 years of age.
The writer is a former Josephian, BRC, NCC and Sri Lanka Under 19 Opener and now a Cricket historian