Sri Lanka’s First Test Match: A Landmark Event at the Colombo Oval, 17 February 1981

Dion Schoorman,  in The Island, 17 February 2022, recalling a historic moment under the title  “Rekindling memories of Sri Lanka’s inaugural Test – 40 years on”

Today, 17th February, is the 40th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s inaugural Test match and marked a special milestone in the history of Sri Lankan cricket. That game against England began at the Colombo Oval on 17th February 1982.

On the day of the inaugural Test, the country came to a virtual standstill, with everyone being at the game, including the then-President J. R. Jayewardene, Senior Minister and Cricket Board President Gamini Dissanayake and almost the entire Cabinet (of course the cabinet was not nearly as big as the present day!). Cricket administrators from around the world and former Sri Lankan ‘greats’ were all assembled in the main pavilion of the Colombo Oval – known today as the P Sara Stadium.

In attendance was also a spritely young Percy Abeysekera, who entertained everyone with his theme song of those days: ‘ICC, Sir, when can we call you friend?’ The song referred to Sri Lanka’s long struggle to gain Test status, and ended in typical Percy style: ‘NOW, we can call you friend!’

There was a carnival atmosphere at the grounds – a special coin had been minted for the occasion and was to be used at the toss. The sponsors Hatton National Bank had produced a special range of souvenirs – the most popular one being the cap with the words “Inaugural Test Match – I WAS THERE!’

It was then time for action and Sri Lankan umpires Herbie Felsinger and Kandiah Francis strolled out to the middle signalling the start of play.

When play began, Sri Lankan captain Bandula Warnapura immediately notched up a set of unique records – he became the first skipper to win a toss, he then faced the first ball and scored the first run. He missed out on the chance to get the first boundary and then had the unfortunate record of being the first dismissal. Sadly, the two players involved in that first ball – the bowler Bob Willis and batsman Warnapura have passed away – Willis in December 2019 and Warnapura just four months ago in October 2021.

Banduka Warnapura

The Test followed England’s incredible Ashes triumph of 1981 and opening the bowling were the heroes of the famous Headingley Test – Bob Willis and Ian Botham. The pair bowled with great hostility and gave the Lankans a baptism of fire soon reducing the hosts to 34 for four, with the cream of the batting back in the pavilion, and the team’s two youngest members – Ranjan Madugalle and Arjuna Ranatunga – at the crease.

Old doubts began to surface… Was Sri Lanka ready for Test cricket? Can two schoolboys do what their more experienced seniors could not?

Thankfully, those doubts were soon dispelled, as Madugalle (65) and Ranatunga (54) first dug themselves in playing watchful but steady cricket. As they grew in confidence, the youngsters unfurled a range of attractive strokes all around the wicket. Madugalle hit Sri Lanka’s first six and added three more boundaries whilst Ranatunga struck seven fours as the pair notched up Sri Lanka’s first two half-centuries in Tests in a stand of 99 for the fifth wicket to lift the home spirits. The stand ended when Ranatunga shouldered arms to a ball from Derek Underwood which nipped back into the stumps. Ashantha de Mel (19), and wicketkeeper Mahes Goonetilake (22 not out) helped Madugalle add useful runs and Sri Lanka was eventually dismissed for a slightly disappointing 218. Left armer Underwood was the chief destroyer for England with five wickets.

  Sri Lanka were 34 for four in the first innings having elected to bat
first in the inaugural Test match. Schoolboy Arjuna Ranatunga posted the nation’s maiden half-century.

That score was made to look much bigger when the hosts – led by a fiery Ashantha de Mel – rocked England with some early strikes to have them at 40 for three. David Gower (89) and skipper Keith Fletcher (45) then added 80 for the fourth wicket to restore some order. However, the hosts were not about to give up. Showing great determination and character they maintained the pressure on their more experienced opponents and when Underwood was dismissed first ball England were 216 for nine and in real danger of conceding a first innings lead. That they were able to avoid that ignominy was thanks to wicketkeeper Bob Taylor who remained unbeaten on 31 as England crawled to 223 – a lead of just five runs. De Mel was the pick of the bowlers with four for 70, and was ably supported by veteran legspinner Somachandra de Silva and left arm spinner Asoka de Silva with three and two wickets respectively.

When Sri Lanka batted a second time, skipper Warnapura (38) struck five fours and shared a second wicket partnership of 83 with the elegant Roy Dias who weighed in with a typically silken 77 including 11 fours, and the hosts were strongly placed at 152 for 3, at the end of the third day. At the wickets were Duleep Mendis on 16 and first innings hero Madugalle who had just come in and was yet to open his account. The Sri Lankans clearly had the upper hand and their fans were jubilant and dreaming of a sensational win to mark their entry into Test cricket. Another 150 runs would leave the visitors a tough task on a wearing wicket.

Ranjan Madugalle top scored in the first innings with 65 runs and added 99 runs for the fifth wicket with Ranatunga as Sri Lanka recovered after a poor start.

Sadly for Sri Lankan fans, the fairy tale was not to be and instead the fourth day turned into a nightmare for the hosts.   The day began well enough as the overnight pair of Mendis and Madugalle moved sedately along and took the score to 167 when suddenly everything started to go horribly wrong. Madugalle who had made just three off 52 balls edged Emburey to Cook and shortly afterwards the other first innings hero Ranatunga was snapped up by Fletcher off Emburey for two. Underwood then had Somachandra de Silva caught by Fletcher for one. Mendis who had made 27 with a six and two fours, tried to hit his way out of trouble but was caught by Willis off Emburey. The hosts lost their last seven wickets for a mere eight runs, to slide from 167 for 3 to 175 all out.

Off spinner John Emburey who went wicketless in the first innings, was virtually unplayable on a wicket assisting spin and grabbed a rich haul of six for 33 off 25 overs whilst Derek Underwood bagged three more wickets to add to the five he took in the first innings for a match bag of eight wickets. England were left a target of 171 for victory and although De Mel dismissed Geoff Cook for a duck, to briefly excite local fans, Chris Tavaré atoned for his first inning duck with a stolid 85 and Gower weighed in with 42 not out to ease their side to a seven-wicket win and break the hea

Dion Schoorman covered the nation’s first Test match 40 years ago. Later he went onto become the Bureau Chief of Reuters in Colombo

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One response to “Sri Lanka’s First Test Match: A Landmark Event at the Colombo Oval, 17 February 1981

  1. Lam Seneviratne

    Thank you for this recap. I was there and starting from 152 for 3 on that 4th morning, although it seemed too good to be true, was hoping for some resolute batting to consolidate our position . Emburey bowled a nagging line
    and our immaturity just made us cave in. This was a reality check against hard nosed professionals

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