Cricketing Stalwarts farewell Vijaya Malalasekera

Item in The Island, 8 February 2022 ….

A large gathering was present yesterday at Kanatta to bid farewell to former Sri Lanka Cricket chairman Vijaya Malalasekara. Malalasekara represented Royal College and then Cambridge in cricket. He opened batting in the varsity match of 1967 against Oxford. Incidentally, Malalasekara and Mano Ponniah became the first Asian pair to open batting in a varsity match. Ponniah was one of the pallbearers at the funeral.

Along with family members, friends, parliamentarians, leading figure of the corporate and legal field attended the funeral. Former cricket captains Michael Tissera, Sanath Jayasuriya, Kusal Janith Perera were also present along with Sidath Wettimuny and Kushil Gunasekara, Malalasekara’s right hand man during his tenure as Chairman of SLC.

(Pix by Nimal Dayaratne)

Rex Clementine’s Appraisal,

Late Vijaya Malalasekara’s heroics on the cricket field for Royal and Cambridge are well documented. What’s less known is his remarkable tenure running cricket in the country. Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga did not trust her Sports Ministers much. It was she who appointed the first Interim Committee and handpicked reputed banker Rienzie T. Wijetilleke to fix the cricket mess. Two years later when the sport suffered setbacks again, she chose Vijaya Malalasekara, one of her contemporaries (both were born in 1945). Vijaya with his cricketing pedigree and corporate background was of course the ideal choice to take the game forward.

Vijaya’s leadership style was unique. Soon after assuming office, he had to deal with a major crisis. WSG Nimbus who owned Sri Lankan television rights were delaying payments and after legal advice he took the bold decision to terminate the contract. This set the stage for a new company to enter the fray breaking the television monopoly. Dubai based Taj Sports that later became Ten Sports had a very good working relationship with SLC and later went onto acquire television rights of other cricket boards as well. Vijaya’s leadership style and legal background stood SLC in good stead in a moment of crisis.

Vijaya faced another major challenge as most leading employees of SLC were loyal to the members of the sacked Executive Committee and it was obvious that they were pulling in different directions. Vijaya didn’t take revenge from anyone or harboured grudges. In his own style, he appealed to the top executives to pull in the same direction. However, when he had to be firm, he didn’t waver. Eventually, everyone fell in line.

One of the main reasons for the Executive Committee to be dismissed was the construction of the Dambulla Cricket Stadium. Vijaya was a far-sighted man. Instead of going on a witch-hunt, he convinced his colleagues that now that the stadium is here, we should make use of it. During his tenure, matches were played at Dambualla and international audience were spellbound by the new cricket ground.

In July 2001, the Bandaranaike International Airport came under a terror attack. At the same time two cricket teams were in the island – India and New Zealand. While India gave a firm assurance to continue with the tour, the Kiwis were nervous and were in two minds. Had they cancelled the tour and gone back home, it would have been a killer blow for Sri Lanka as the tri-nation tournament would have been halted. Vijaya then appealed to the head of New Zealand contingent. Former captain Jeff Crowe was the Manager of the team. With Vijaya assuring security that is provided to a head of state to the visiting teams, the Kiwis stayed on and the series went uninterrupted.

During Vijaya’s tenure, a record number of teams toured Sri Lanka. He was quite keen on the development of a second string as well and provided lot of exposure for Sri Lanka ‘A’ team. So much so, Kenya’s national team comprising quality players like Maurice Odumbe and Steve Tikolo played a bilateral series in Sri Lanka.

Vijaya was also a simple man. At stumps on day three of the Galle Test between Sri Lanka and India, there was a reception for the teams at Light House Hotel. Sri Lanka were on the verge of a famous Test win. Vijaya spoke to each player encouraging them. He went up to Ruchira Perera, the young left-arm quick. He had said something to Ruchira on the lines of playing a supporting role to the team’s two premier bowlers – Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan. Ruchira quietly listened to everything and then inquired, ‘Thamuse Kauwda’ which means (who are you). Then Ruchira went to captain Sanath Jayasuriya, pointed at Vijaya and had inquired about the ‘stranger’ giving him tips. Only then he realized that he was in fact chatting to the Board Chairman. Vijaya had a laugh and shared the story with other board members.

Under Vijaya’s stewardship, Sri Lankan cricket reached new heights. The national cricket team won ten Test matches in a row in this period culminating in winning the Asian Test Championship beating Pakistan in their own den on a greenish Lahore track.

After leaving SLC, Vijaya did not think it was a come down for him to serve in the Royal College Cricket Advisory Committee, which he headed. Many are the players from outstations that he offered scholarships. The most prominent of them being Kusal Janith Perera.

Vijaya loved Sri Lankan cricket. He was there when Kumar Sangakkara delivered the Cowdrey Lecture at Lord’s in 2011. That night, he was in tears, like most Sri Lankans who were fortunate to be there. If there was anyone who could match Sanga’s eloquence, it was Vijaya Malalasekara. May he attain the supreme bliss of nirvana.


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