Rohan Wijeyaratna, in Island, 13 June 2020, where the title reads “Goonesena’s Match”
Among the hordes of inconsequential trivia received via WhatsApp during the lockdown days, a picture of the 1957 Cambridge team caught my eye. There was Gamini Goonesena seated in the middle of the front row with Ian Pieris (already a Ceylon ‘cap’) standing at the back. There was also Ossie Wheatley, Bob Barber and Ted Dexter – all players of no mean repute and consequence. That photograph served as the catalyst for this essay through which I will attempt to recount the Varsity match of 1957, whilst dwelling on its central figure– Gamini Goonesena, of whom too little has been mentioned in print.
F.C.’s hunch: Goonesena was born on 16th February 1931 in Colombo. Although a mere ‘net’ bowler at the time, F.C. de Saram the Royal coach relying on his famous sixth sense, insisted on playing the untested leg spinner in the ‘Royal – Thomian’ of 1947. Goonesena didn’t disappoint, vindicating his selection by capturing 4/46 in a match which Royal easily won. In the 1948 fixture, he enhanced his growing reputation with match figures of 10/80. Leaving school he enlisted with the RAF College at Cranwell in 1950 to train as a pilot. The College enjoyed a strong cricketing tradition which included an annual fixture against Nottinghamshire. Soon however, it was decided through mutual agreement that Goonesena and the RAF must part. Notts recognizing Goonesena’s cricketing potential, quickly enlisted him.
Dooland and Goonesena
Cricket-wise, Nottinghamshire had been at the foot of the table in 1951. Managing only one slot better in 1952, the county decided to break with tradition and look beyond its boundaries for a quality spin bowler. They settled on Bruce Dooland, the Australian leg spin and googly bowler to join Gamini Goonesena, the spindly Ceylonese. Both were expected to qualify for championship cricket in 1953.
Goonesena made his first class debut for Tom Pearce’s XI against Essex in May 1952 taking 8 wickets and later that season made his Notts debut against the touring Indians at Trent Bridge in July. Playing as a professional in his first year for Notts in 1953, he took 47 wickets and 379 runs in 21 appearances. Then in 1954, he turned amateur.
Dooland’s influence played a major part at Notts as the county jumped to 8th place from 16th, the year before. People watching Nottinghamshire often saw two leg spinners bowling in tandem, baffling the best batsmen in the counties. In 1954 Notts advanced to 5th position when Dooland captured 172 wickets for the season while scoring 1,012 runs. Not only was his own performance outstanding, he had a tonic effect on his side, which by now had dispelled its previous gloom.
The ‘double’ in ’54 and ’57
Goonesena entered Cambridge in 1954 to read for a degree in Law while playing for Notts and Cambridge both. Although they did not play much cricket together owing to Goonesena’s University commitments, there was no doubt the little Ceylonese benefited hugely through Dooland’s influence. Goonesena enjoyed an outstanding 1954 season, capturing a combined haul of 92 wickets at 23.08 while scoring 664 runs at 22.13 and won his Cambridge ‘Blue’. In the following year, he achieved the coveted ‘double’ with 134 wickets and 1,380 runs and in 1957 he repeated the feat capturing 110 wickets and scoring 1,156 runs while representing both Cambridge University and Nottinghamshire, in the county championship.
In the Varsity match of 1954 Goonesena made 39 and 26 batting at no 6, while taking 2 for 79 in 31 overs and 6 for 71 in 19. Wisden records ‘’Goonesena enthusiastic in all phases of the game, followed bright batting with skillful leg spin bowling in Oxford’s 2nd innings”. In the Varsity match of 1955 batting at no 3, he made 23 and 21 while grabbing 6 wickets in the match, bowling 39 overs. Putting his networking skills, winsome ways and playing abilities to good use, he made himself well known in the right circles. He toured the West Indies with E.W. Swanton’s team that winter, but a chest illness reduced his total appearances in England in 1956. In the Varsity match of 1956 going in at no 9 and batting only once, he remained unbeaten on 18. Yet he bowled 45 skillful overs and grabbed 7 wickets in the match (31-8-77-5 and 14-9-21-2).
First Asian captain
In 1957 Gamini Goonasena became the first Asian to captain Cambridge University. The University Match was the oldest known first class fixture in England. Since 1838 the two sides met in an unbroken sequence, barring the war years. The first Varsity match was played at Lord’s in 1927 and from 1851 the match and the venue became a fixture, seemingly for all time. From 1830 for over a century, it was among the most important fixtures of the season, attracting large crowds. Despite receding glamour after the 1950s, the Varsities produced some outstanding cricketers and even as late as 1983 when Middlesex became the runners up in the county championship, they played 3 members of the then Oxford side.
The first Varsity match was drawn but it was another 44 years before another drawn game was witnessed. This was possibly owing to the agreement reached in 1870 to play each game until a result was achieved. In what was referred to as ‘Cobden’s match’, Cambridge were 28 behind in the first innings and were 40 for 5 in their second. And although 9 batsmen managed to muster only 31 between them, one player was involved in a lengthy stand in the 2nd innings which left Oxford to make 179 to win. By 7.30 p.m. Oxford needed only 4 runs to register victory with three wickets remaining. That was when F.C. Cobden bowled his famous over which brought him immortality. At a time when an over was only 4 balls instead of 6, Cobden conceded a single off his first and finished the match with his last 3 balls to give Cambridge victory by 2 runs!
The Varsity Match of ‘57
1957 was a disappointing year for Cambridge at home. Of the twelve matches played at Fenner’s, they lost seven and won only five. When playing away however, Cambridge were a different side. After drawing with Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge, they scored a convincing win over Lancashire who were dismissed twice on the 2nd day and were soundly beaten by an innings and 31 runs. Similar success against Gloucestershire put the side in good heart as they fronted Oxford at Lord’s on July 6,8 and 9th.
In overcast conditions and despite a green top, Oxford chose to bat. Soon half the side was out for 33 in 90 minutes. Ossie Wheatley who later captained Glamorgan and was considered by Cyril Coote (the legendary groundsman at Fenner’s) as the best undergraduate bowler of his era at Cambridge, captured three of the first 4 wickets to fall for 4 runs in 7 overs. He then took 2 more to finish with figures of 15-8-15-5. His accuracy and liveliness bowling at medium-fast, allied with his ability to make the ball move off the pitch, made him near unplayable. Oxford’s last-wicket pair showed courage and no little skill in scoring some useful runs. Ian Pieris also played his part in dismissing Oxford in just under 3 hours by taking two wickets with consecutive balls.
When it was Cambridge’s turn to bat, the green tinge had gone. Yet despite some attractive strokeplay from the early batsmen, they lost four men including Dexter, before taking the lead. By the end of the first day, Cambridge were 16 in front with five men gone for 108.
Goonesena holds the stage
Goonesena, 17 not out overnight, held the stage when play resumed, making Oxford toil until after tea to capture their next two wickets. Variations of the drive, crisp cuts and powerful pulls showed up the Cambridge captain in good light against the bowling. Goonesena spent 4 hours over his first hundred which he reached with an off drive which grazed a fielder’s fingertips. Thereafter he scored with such abandon, the rest of his runs came in only a hour and a half. Caught eventually at mid-wicket attempting to pull, Goonesena hit one 6, one 5 and twenty one 4’s in a record breaking innings of 211. It fell only 27 short of the Nawab of Pataudi’s all-time record individual score of 238 not out, made in the University Match of 1931. At the fall of the 7th wicket Goonasena declared, making Oxford face a mountainous deficit of 332.
Resuming at 44 /0 on an overcast final day, Oxford suffered an early setback. Goonesena’s masterly flight tempted his rival captain forward, only to be summarily stumped. Although five men were out by lunch, saving the game was not an improbability, given the imminent possibility of rain. However an injury to one of their key players soon sent Oxford’s hopes plummeting.
Even another hour long stoppage for bad light failed to save Oxford. When play resumed just after four o’clock, Goonesena brought the match to a close by cleaning up the last man himself. With that, Oxford were inflicted with their heaviest defeat in the history of the Varsity Match, losing by an innings and 186 runs.
Despite their enthusiasm, Oxford were completely outplayed throughout. Their batting was mostly below standard and their bowling had neither the hostility nor the craft needed to break the stranglehold Goonesena and Cook had on them during their marathon 289 run stand. Wheatley was exceptional on the first day, while Goonesena by reason of his splendid batting and bowling was unquestionably the ‘Man of the Match’, had such an award been in existence. Instead, the Cambridge captain and his men received a well earned standing ovation as they left the field.
Being the oldest first class fixture, the Varsity Match at Lord’s was a great sporting and social event in English cricket’s halcyon days. As society turned more egalitarian, it became increasingly evident that the Universities were first class only by name with university games being used by others to merely buff up on their averages. Soon the Varsity Match will lose its first class status, allowing reality to overtake tradition. Also, since 2001 it has ceased to be played at Lord’s, signaling the end of another iconic Lord’s fixture. Today the venue alternates between Fenner’s and the Parks.
Retirement from county cricket
For only the second time since 1953, Goonesena enjoyed a full season at Trent Bridge in 1958, scoring 592 runs and taking 68 wickets. 9In 195 he retired from the game to take on an assignment related to the tea trade in Sydney. In 1960/1 and in 1963/4, he played briefly for New South Wales, a side depleted through many Test s. Back in England in 1964 on another tea trade related assignment, Goonesena made a reappearance at Trent Bridge, and in nine matches took 22 wickets. Given his all-round skills and abilities previously mentioned, he was picked to represent the International Cavaliers in 1965, besides playing several consecutive years for Gentlemen versus the Players in the 1950’s. He also captained Ceylon once in 1956 against the visiting Indians in Vernon Prins’ absence. In 1965 he served as Ceylon’s representative to the International Cricket Conference and subsequently managed the Sri Lankan Test side on a tour of India.
In his later years he distinguished himself in the commentary box as a highly listenable commentator. He joined BBC’s Test Match Special team during Sri Lanka’s inaugural English tour of 1984 and also in 1988. With his mellow, cultured tones, and excellent delivery, he would have made a fitting corollary alongside John Arlott, had the great Hampshire man not retired a few seasons before.
P.I.’s farewell Encomium
Goonesena died in Canberra aged 80, in August 2011. Upon hearing of his passing, his one time Cambridge colleague Ian Pieris had this to say in farewell. “Gamini was easily the best leg-spinner I have seen…. He had a keen cricket brain, and as a captain, stood heads and shoulders above his contemporaries in England at a time when there were captains in the counties such as Peter May (Surrey), Colin Cowdrey (Kent) and Cyril Washbrook (Lancashire) to name a few. He always led from the front be it in bowling, batting or fielding. Gamini would throw himself totally into the game and never gave up. Sadly, Sri Lanka was not able to make proper use of his cricketing brain.”
Scoreboard of the 1957 Varsity Match.
Oxford University 1st innings 92 all out. (J.A.Bailey 21, Bowman 17, Wilson not out 17)
Fall: 1/0, 2/12, 3/16, 4/16, 5/33, 6/33, 7/36,8/44, 9/60 (Wheatley 15-8-15-5, Pieris 14-4-31-2, Goonesena 5-2-12-1)
Cambridge University 1st Innings 424 for 7 decl. (Bob Barber 36, G.Goonesena 211, G.W.Cook 111)
Fall: 1/20, 2/67, 3/67, 4/80, 5/97, 6/135, 7/424 (Bailey 36-5-146-0, Bowman 39-10-101-2, Woodcock 13.5-2-40-2, Gibson 17-4-48-3)
Oxford University 2nd innings – 146 all out. (Gibson 63, Scott 22)
Fall: 1/56, 2/82, 3/89, 4/93, 5/104, 6/123, 7/123, 8/130, 9/146 ( Smith 30-13-42-4, Wheatley 13-4-17-0, Pieris 7-4-16-0, Goonesena 17.2 – 6- 40-4