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Monday, 30 April 2012

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The legends

C. I. Gunasekera - darling of the spectators

In the early 1980s, when I was attached to Bank of Ceylon, as the Head of Public Relations and Marketing Division, I opened batting for the bank. As Nationalized Services champions, BoC was invited to play in a prestigious quadrangular cricket tournament organized by Maharaja Organization.

Winning the toss, BoC skipper, Kingswoodian keeper batsman, Asoka Perera, quite correctly elected to take the first lease of SSC wicket. The champion side SSC was a formidable one and we were under-dogs on paper.


C. I. Gunasekera

Legendary C I Gunesekera, Wettimuny brothers - Mitra, Sunil, Sidat, T M S Saldin, Kushil Gunasekera, Michael de Zoysa and the 'king of swing' H S Mevan Peiris were some of the leading players who represented SSC.

If memory serves me right, I opened with Jayantha Udukumbura, former Antonian opener. Pace attack headed by Mevan was fearful. I concentrated, put down my head, collected a patient 77. I drove C I Gunasekera, for three consecutive fours in one over, through the covers. Over ambitious, I tried to dispatch the fourth, with an on drive. It brushed my bat first and then the pad. CI, never appealed.

A solitary slip appealed and up went the dreaded finger. The maestro patted my back, said, "Epasinghe fine knock." What a compliment! I will cherish this in my life, as it came from no lesser person than C I Gunasekera, one of the great cricketing sons that this country produced.

CI was a fearless genius with the bat. He is the most hard hitting batsman I have ever played against. I was fielding at covers and tried to stop a 'bullet' from CI's bat. Believe me! My right palm was blue for a week.

Conroy Ivers Gunasekera, was born on July 14, 1920. His first Royal-Thomian was the 59th encounter in 1938. Royal skipper was P C D McCarthy. Thomians were led by Bertie Wijesinha, who later represented Sri Lanka, with C I Gunasekra. Bertie Wijesinha, was one of the finest all-rounders produced by Sri Lanka. In 1936, Royal-Thomian played at the NCC grounds, Norman Sieble, scored an unbeaten 151 for the Thomians. Bertie Wijesinha, played a fine supportive role with a superb 57. The alliance between them was 136 for the 7th wicket.

Later, Bertie joined SSC and played with such greats like Sargo Jayawickrema, F C de Saram, C I Gunasekra, wicket-keeper Ben Navaratne, Mahes Rodrigo, Gerry Gooneratne, C H Gunasekera, Hector Perera, Lucien de Zoysa etc. He later coached St Benedict's, Trinity and S Thomas College. He was a fine disciplinarian and a philosopher, guide and a teacher to many cricketers. Lucien de Zoysa and Bertie Wijesinghe, the duo were brilliant cricket commentators, who never missed the ball. They were fantastic, knowledgeable, pleasing to listen.

In 1938, Royal-Thomian, C I Gunasekera fell a victim to Bertie Wijesinghe's pace bowling.

In this match, Wijesinha scored twin half centuries. They played club cricket, represented Ceylon together. These two greats were life long friends.

After leaving Royal, CI joined the Army. F C de Saram probably motivated him. He served the country as an Army officer.

C I Gunasekra was a great disciplinarian, a man with a golden heart and a man of honesty and integrity.

CI was a born athlete. He was a versatile sportsman. He excelled in rugby and tennis too. In 1940, he joined the Law College. But, his first love was cricket and he gave priority to cricket. From 1940s to 1960s he blossomed as an outstanding all-rounder, a dashing right hand bat and a fine leg-spin bowler.

This majestic personality, representing Ceylon, blasted Pakistanis to the tune of 125. In the trials to pick Ceylon side against Bradman's Australian XI, CI and Sargo Jayewickreme shared a massive partnership of 166. CI's personal score was 84.

His real baptism in cricket for Ceylon was in 1949, against the mighty West Indies. The West Indies, pummeled Ceylon attack and scored 462 for 2, with Everton Weekes (133), Clyde Walcott (125 n.o.) and Alan Rae 116, George Carew 77 at the Colombo Oval - Sara stadium. Mahes Rodrigo scored 135 n.o., against Windies, in this match.

C I Gunasekra joined Mercantile sector - Walker and Sons Limited as a manager.

In playing for SSC and Ceylon, CI became the 'darling of the spectators'. Whenever SSC played a match, people in thousands flocked to see their hero in action. When this lovable great cricketer who enthralled thousands and thousands of spectators, cricket fans and the Sri Lanka cricketing fraternity, died, it was a pity only very few people were present to bid farewell to this gentleman at Jawatte cemetery, Colombo. I was there to pay my last respects to this great cricketer. Any way that's how it goes! Anyhow, CI played the game in the true spirit.

There were three memorable incidents that I remember in the field of cricket in Sri Lanka. They are still etched in my mind.

In 1961, CI, thrashed poor Lindsay Kline, Australian bowler for 27 runs in one over, with three towering sixers. It signalled the end of Kline's career.

Incident number two was how Arjuna Ranatunga, hammered the daylights out of an Indian spinner, Sivaramakrishnan, round the park, with 'mighty sixers', which ended to a certain extent the future cricketing career of the Indian spinner. Then in the 1996 World Cup, master blaster Sanath Jayasuriya ruined the career of Indian speedster Prabhakaran. C I Gunasekera, while playing for Commonwealth XI against MCC scored a magnificent century. He was associated with a massive partnership with Miller. They balanced the innings beautifully and scored neck to neck. Miller allowed CI to get his hundred first and in another three balls, Miller reached the three-figure mark.

Sometimes, the present day Sri Lanka cricketers may be unaware of the great sacrifices that the great past cricketers made to saddle them to the present position. They were amateurs. They never went in search of financial gains.

He loved old crocs - cars.

C I Gunasekera was one of the finest gentlemen that I met. He was a fine conversationalist, a charming human being with full of humour. He was a dutiful husband and a dutiful father. Someday, Conroy Ivers Gunasekra's name will be written in gold in the cricket chronicle of Sri Lanka, as a fine gentlemanly cricketer.

I salute this cricketing legend.

Good night sweet prince!

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