Preparing for Cricket in England in 1975 … with Raja Wickremasinghe in Key Role

Michael Roberts

 The recent news conveying news of Raja Wickremasinghe’s departure from this our world prompts me to highlight his central role in conditioning the Sri Lankan cricket squad that was selected to tour England to participate in the ICC tournament in 1975 – itself an important step in the country’s progress towards full Test status (finally achieved in 1981).

His participation in this process was known to me via a photograph in Captain Anura Tennekoon’s stock – one placed before the public in Roberts, Essaying Cricket (Colombo, 2006, Plate 35).

 

 

 

 

What requires underlining is the foresight displayed by the cricketing authorities[1] in Sri Lanka in early 1975 in deciding to condition the potential squad to the rigours of cricket in the cold climate of England in the early summer months, while also sharpening their skills. Raja Wickremasinghe’s work as physical taskmaster was pivotal to this work and, as a fellow Gallilean and friend, [2] I delight in placing this record in the public realm as my epitaph for Raja…………….. Michael Roberts

An Essay from HSM Pieris (in Colombo) responding to my invitation, 16 March 2021[3]

“A squad of sixteen players had been selected to undergo training at Nuwara Eliya a few weeks before the tour from which the final squad of fourteen players were to be picked. Apart from the fourteen players seen in the picture, Michael Tissera and Sunil Wettimuny made the journey by car and I think Sunil drove up in his own car. The training period was about a fortnight and we were located in a small building of the army camp, which though not a luxury was more than adequate to keep body and soul together.

Raja Wickremasinghe, an outstanding athlete in his day, was entrusted with the task of making the team battle fit, which responsibility he undertook with glee, as that could have been a stepping-stone to be the Manager of the team to England, or at least he had been made to feel so.

Of those in the photograph, Neil Perera, seen standing fourth from left, was the then Secretary of the Board, and at the very right corner is KMT Perera, the Chairman of the Selection Committee and next to him standing is Raja Wickremasinghe. Both Neil Perera and KMT Perera did not board the bus.

Training at Nuwara Eliya was said to have had three objectives. A taste of the cold and dewy air of Nuwara Eliya, was thought necessary to taste a bit of England in Ceylon, as in the old days Welimada was known as little England, although for entirely different reasons. Next it was thought that Raja’s athletic skills and experience would trim the physical sails of the guys, and thirdly it would help to build team spirit by packing the guys together. All this Raja had to achieve, and that indeed he set about with purpose.

Each day, at the crack of dawn, the players were taken by Raja to the racecourse and made to run breathing the bitter cold air. We soon realised the chilly air and the high altitude which made breathing so difficult, scorched our throats and a few of us, including myself, developed a sore throat the very next day, but soon recovered. Running a couple of rounds at the racecourse indeed improved the fitness immensely. The running was followed by the players having to do many novel exercises which Raja introduced, and that too helped to tune the muscles.

After a nice breakfast, we were taken by bus all the way to Radella for cricket practices on the centre wicket of those grounds, and we were pleasantly surprised to find Bertie Wijesinha awaiting us. Now, as Bertie confessed to me in later years, he had been asked to be the coach at Radella and was also told that he would be made the tour manager. That was Raja’s aspiration as well — for the same carrot had been dangled before Raja (as confessed to me by Raja). The cricket practices went very well and Bertie, the quiet, gentleman, did his part as best as he could.

After returning to Colombo, the tour squad continued to have training sessions at the Nondescript Cricket Club, in the boiling sun and heat of Colombo, with Raja Wickremasinghe yet in attendance; but Bertie had been shunted out and Graham McKenzie the Australian fast bowler had stepped in. About the same time, KMT Perera, was seen more than ever at the practices. Three limited over trial matches had been also fixed. The first was at the Colombo Oval, and I remember coming against Graham McKenzie and Denis Chanmugam, and with God on my side I made a half century before being asked to retire.

The next game at the SSC was even more crucial, when the team from the tour squad captained by Anura Tennekoon took on a powerful team captained by D. Hema de Silva, which included that great left arm bowler Daya Sahabandu. Anura’s team beat DH de Silva’s and I cannot forget the two straight sixes I hit off Sahabandu, and was once more unbeaten on fifty when the innings closed. The third match was a game again played on the SSC between Mchael Tissera’s team vs Anura Tennekoon’s team. I was in Tissera’s team which won, and remember having Ranjit Fernando bowled, when he attempted a big hit.

The great quality of Raja, one which I shall always remember, was that he never forgot to congratulate a player who did well, and always encouraged me. He was a tower of strength to me in those stressful days. I considered him to be a true, honest, reliable person, who stuck to his task with determination and purpose. In the end the best of Raja was got and he was left in the lurch. Finally, KMT Perera joined the players as the Manager of the team that went to England in May 1975.

May God grant Raja Wickremasinghe his rewards in Heaven in recognition of all the selfless sacrifices he made in helping others. May he Rest in Peace.”

ALSO NOTE

Thuppahi: “Sri Lanka at War at Kennington Oval, London, on 8th June 1975,” 1 August 2016,  https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2016/08/01/sri-lanka-at-war-at-kennington-oval-london-on-8th-june-1975/

Michael Roberts:  Tamil Demonstrations and Thommo’s Thunderbolts: Sri Lanka at Kennington Oval at the 1975 World Cup,”  12 February 2019, …………..  https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2019/02/12/tamil-demonstrations-and-thommos-thunderbolts-sri-lanka-at-kennington-oval-at-the-1975-world-cup/

Duleep Mendia being carried to the pavilion by HSM Pieris & Dennis Chanmugam with KMT Perera & Anura Tennekoon as anxious bystanders …after Duleep was ‘felled’ by Jeff Thompson

SPECIAL NOTE = all four Sri Lankan cricketers are Thomians !!

END NOTES

[1] I believe that Robert Senanayake headed the BCCSL at this point and was assisted by such individuals as Neil Perera and KMT Perera.

[2] Raja was educated at Richmond College and played for its team as pace bowler –so that I saw him bowling against our Aloysian senior team when I was in the Under 16 squad. After I entered Peradeniya in 1957, I was a rookie in the Peradeniya squad where Raja was a leading paceman; while I had to face him when Ramanathan Hall competed with Arunachalam Hall. Raja bowled medium-pace with a relatively short-runup.

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One response to “Preparing for Cricket in England in 1975 … with Raja Wickremasinghe in Key Role

  1. Lam Seneviratne

    Raja joined Royal College in 1954 and played in the cricket team in 1955.
    He won the Discus Throw event at the Royal Sports Meet and later excelled for Ceylon. BTW K.M.T. Perera was also a Thomian in addition to the four cricketers.

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