Aruna Ranasinghe – Wayward Brilliance
Given life on the 13th of October 1956, in the then quiet little city of Kirillapone, besides the shadow of the Kirillapone Municipal Park – putting his little ‘tennis’ bat to ball; was like a hit in the park for him even at six years of age. Oh heavens, the little chap was blessed with such precocious talent… ‘twas like riding a bike for him – and downhill all the way.
Built to thrill
Thence as fate would have it, in the Summer of ‘69, the bright eyed bushy tailed 12 year old was ‘put’ under the astute tutelage of that ‘Super Guru’ Gerry Gooneratne. As Gerry Sir told me much later, his larger task was to ensure that Anura remained unspoilt and to keep the tiny fellas’ huge ego well under ‘muzzle’. His precocious cricketing ability was ‘not’ to be tinkered with. For ‘there lay’ much of the charm of Ranasinghe’s game, was Gerry Sir’s assessment – entirely.
Smouldering schoolboy star
Cometh the early 70’s… and who was this Ranasinghe chap anyway, cartwheeling my leg-stump behind my back, twice or thrice, as we locked horns in junior cricket. So stealthy, the left armer – what with his varied bowling armory. Swinging the cherry both ways and as the ball aged he would ‘off spin’ the ball – to burst upon landing. Rational prediction was impossible – a most feared schoolboy opponent for sure. I used to bump into the fledgling star, within the bus stands of High Level Road, Kirillapone, 12 or 13 years of age, as we trudged our rickety little cricket bags to junior school matches – Nalanda versus St. Joseph’s College to be specific. By 16 years of age, the all-rounder had come to ‘grips’ with the art of swing, cut, spin, length and line. The scowling Nalandian would let fly a flurry of bouncers, if ever his young hackles were raised. And that then was supposed to be junior school cricket – so to speak.
Widely spaced internationals
Anura Ranasinghe, as expected, bagged a heap of titles that were on offer in school cricket – pinnacling as the ‘Schoolboy Cricketer of The Year’ in 1975. That very year he led Sri Lanka Schools to victory in the Ali Bhutto Trophy against Pakistan, getting the better of his erstwhile rival Javed Mianded. Being a part of that squad, I found Anura’s presence in the dressing room more awesome than inspirational. He seemed a tad too remote. Whence skippering the Combined College’s, he would fiddle just a little with the field and grab the cherry as if to finish the game himself, shirt tails flapping – such was his confidence. Poor form saw him ‘hung out to dry’ for our baptismal Test against England at the Oval, all rounder Lalith Kaluperuma preferred over him. That episode broke his heart – I know. Drafted into the Sri Lanka side in 1982, Anura tonked a quick fire 51 against England and followed it up with a rear-guard action 77 against India’s Kapil Dev and Dilip Doshi. Just the ‘Two Tests’ and a couple of ‘One Dayers’ were all he got for his sweat.
Stubborn jaw line, rasping voice, deep-set brooding eyes, stooping rangy gait and a tad over five foot ten, Anura Ranasinghe had no ‘particular’ style, but then again he was all style – a style and swagger all his very own. I well remember him ‘put-putting’ away so proudly in his Tobacco Company sponsored Volkswagon, strutting his company’s wares, in his capacity of a cigarette sales rep. I was beside him on one of his sales rounds, whence he dumped his ‘Dicky Load’ of Bristols, Capstans – butts and all, on the immaculate counter of the outlet’s hapless Mudalali. I couldn’t help but notice the Mudalali’s deeply desperate look as he stuck as many pencils he could find, behind his enormous ears.
To begin with – bat beating a wicked tattoo on the popping crease, so flippantly fidgeting and tinkering with his ‘box’ – knuckles, eye and ankles in such perfectly powerful harmony, for his screaming square cuts, dandy drives, haughty hooks and those flamboyant flicks off his hips. “Wham bang thank you ma’am,” he seemed to say, as he tugged down so wickedly on his radiantly emerald ‘Bloomfield’ cap – after each thumping whack of the cherry. Anura would have simply revelled in today’s hotch potch programme, so top heavy with ‘one day’ scrambles.
Showcasing joyous spirit of cricket
Anura won much applause for his fielding as well. Like a tightly coiled spring leaping open, legs scurrying – a tad bandy legged, he would speed around the ropes like a gazelle – arms as long as an orangutans – as he picked up and ‘arrowed’ in his return. Then again, he could crouch within pick-pocketable distance of the batter and catch most anything that popped. And blessed if you ever beat that Bloomfield off side cordon – a ‘wall of bricks’ if you like – made up of Anura Ranasinghe, Jayantha Seneviratne, Leslie Narangoda, Bandula Warnapura and Sunil Jayasinghe behind the sticks. ‘Twas Mr. Shelley Wickremesinghe; the very soul and soil of Bloomfield C and AC who was instrumental in luring Anura to that club – to revisit the club’s faded glories, as it were, whence they held sway with the likes of Noel Perera, Charlie Warnakulasuriya, Bonnie Wijesinghe and W.A.N Silva among others – peddling the cherry.
Veils lead to tears
Wedded to a deeply demure lass – she being an ace accountant by profession – the ‘mid 80s’ were a particularly ‘painful’ period for the dashing all- rounder, as marital troubles weighed so heavily on his Nalandian heart. He had reached the crossroads of his life. Disgruntled with the scrappy international outings and the puny greenbacks that were doled down – the lure of easy bucks saw him follow the sun to South Africa, on an utterly ‘ill advised’ rebel tour. To allow his team mate, Hemantha Devapriya to pick up the story “Anura Aiyya was a revelation in South Africa, as he knitted together a string of lovely 50s and tonked the only Lankan ton of that ill fated ‘shindig.”
Career was kaput
Banned, mocked and maligned on his return from the Cape, the brilliant all-rounder even ‘stooped’ to play some low-fat soft ball tournaments – starved as he was of the game. The pros and cons of that particular ‘banning’ – is not for me to judge.
All of Anura’s God-given gifts were eventually consumed in his passion for a glass of beer or two, or even a tad drop ‘more’ of the amber liquid; the effects of youthful confusion coupled with a huge ego. The ‘sinister depressant’ – as was expected – heaved him over the edge, just 42 years of age on the 9th of November 1998, as they drove the nails into his restless casket.
He’s gone to dust as we all must. Here’s hoping that he’ll gallop away into the golden sunset – galloping as flamboyantly as he did over here.
(Rohan Wijesinghe is a former St. Joseph’s, NCC and Sri Lanka Schools Opener)