Bens’ cricket thrived on leadership and team ethos
In the history of cricket at St Benedict’s College, Kotahena, the best captains ever produced were Lovelyn Rayen and Sunil Fernando. Both were captains incomparable and natural, born leaders; and then there was the best-ever Prefect of Games A. Gnanapragasam.
The school with the green, white and green colours, had from the time of its inception produced good cricketers who could have held their own against the best that the other schools threw up. In the 1950s, cricketers of the calibre of T. Shanmuganathan, Neville Ponniah and Anton Sethupathy emerged, with all three of them sporting national colours. Shanmuganathan and Ponniah were top class leg spin/googly bowlers who would have made Australia’s Shane Warne look second best.
As a leg spinner, Ponniah was the first to get a hat-trick. I was the next leg spinner to emulate Ponniah’s feat. Sethupathy was a stylish left-hand batsman and after a successful domestic cricket season, in which he made big runs, he was selected to play for Ceylon led by the Prince of Captains Vernon Prins against Peter May’s Englishmen who were Australia-bound to defend the Ashes in 1958.
In that rain washed out game, where only play was possible in the first session, Sethupathy who managed to get a batting turn exquisitely cover drove the great off spinner Jim Laker for three successive fours which is still vivid in my memory. I watched that game in the company of my friends, Cosmas Perera, Kenneth Dabrera, Edward Sumanasekera and Patrick Perera at the Sinhalese Sports Club Ground.
From the threesome who made waves in the late 1940s and early 1950s I move to the two best captains produced by SBC in the mid-1950s and early 1960s – Lovelyn Rayen in 1957 and Sunil Fernando in 1964.
Rayen, after having apprenticed under captains Toto Abeyedeera in 1955 and Augustine Alles in 1956, led the school in 1957. Sunil Fernando, after debuting under his brother Ranjith Fernando in 1962 and playing under Quintus Perera in 1963, captained the school in 1964. It was under Rayen in 1957 with the guidance of Rev. Bro. Alban Patrick the director of that era, coached by former All Ceylon cricketer Edward Kelaart and kept together like a family by that best ever Prefect of Games A. Gnanapragasam that the game at SBC began to raise its head. Over the year, the Bens had good teams and excellent cricketers, but while they were individually brilliant, they rarely played as a team. The threesome, Bro. Alban, Kelaart and Gnanapragasam having watched the stagnation of cricket in the school, put their heads together and were determined to see that the Bens played as a team.
Until 1958, cricket was played on the matting wicket at Bloemendhal Road. It was only in 1958 that the Bens cricketers were presented with a turf wicket and an imposing pavilion which is about the best in the school scene. Appropriately, the pavilion has now been named the Rev. Bro. Alban Patrick pavilion after much haggling.
Now to the captain of the 1957 cricket team Lovelyn Rayen. A right- hand batsman with strokes all round the wicket and an off spinner of no mean repute, he was blessed with a fine cricketing brain. He was put in charge of a team that had a blend of youthful and experienced cricketers and also had brilliant performers.
Rayen was a strict disciplinarian. He saw to it that every player was prompt and present at practices. He had the charisma needed from a captain. He led by example and from the front and when a player feared to field in a position like silly mid-off or silly mid-on, he would volunteer. Such was his courage.
That team that helped cricket at Bens rise like from the Ashes and needs reiteration comprised Lovelyn Rayen (Captain), Neville Casie Chetty (Vice-captain), Cecil Waidyaratne, Anslem Ludowyke, Ranjit Jayawardena, Lasantha Fernando, Elmo Rodrigopulle, Benjamin Silva, Lionel Fernando, Neville Wickremasinghe, Anton Abeysekera, Fritzroy Ponniah, Douglas Fox and Allan Gunesekera.
Rayen led a team that had top batsmen, bowlers and fielders. Rayen got every
member to contribute and above all to play as a team. He insisted on team spirit and every member was ready and willing to do the captain’s bidding.
In a season where only seven inter-school matches were played unlike today, the team played good cricket to beat S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia, at Mount Lavinia and then beat all other teams on the first innings to be adjudged the unofficial inter-school cricket champions.
Remaining unbeaten had never before been achieved in the history of Benedictine cricket. Inspired by this grand effort, Rev Bro. Alban order the installation of turf wickets and it also sounded a renaissance of Benedictine cricket which culminated with Sunil Fernando’s 1964 team winning almost all the matches they played and emerging inter-school cricket champions.
Rayen was the best all-round sportsman produced by St Benedict’s and won colours in cricket, football, hockey, table tennis, athletics and basketball – a feat not equaled today. He was a marvel. And it is a pity that he has not been honoured.
From Rayen we move on to the captain of captains Sunil Fernando. Fernando had a very young team and had what it takes in a former skipper in his brother Ranjith Fernando who captained the team the year before.
With his brother’s influence and inspiration, Sunil took every challenge that was thrown at him head-on and based his success on the adage that “Those who dare win”. Like in life, he had luck on his side which was a great ingredient for success. He was captain of innovation.
Fernando was a stylish right-hand batsman and a superb cover fielder. He had the God-given gift to spot the weakness of a batsman and would work out strategy and plans to outthink opposing batsmen and lure them to destruction.
He led with great aplomb and after leading his team to championship honours went big in club cricket, sporting the colours of the Nondescript Cricket Club, scoring heavily which saw him play for the Board President’s X1. He was a stylist with the willow with the elegant cover drive and square cut being from the copy book and which earned him a bag full of runs. His crowning glory was when he led SBC to beat the Josephians at Kotahena after 47 long years. The previous captain to lead Bens to victory over the Joes was Norman Koelmeyer in 1917.
For posterity that record breaking team that Sunil Fernando led comprised: Sunil Fernando (Captain), Ranjit Fernando, Felix Dias, Mervyn Fernando, Selva Perumal, Jeyakumkar Perera, Harold Sirisena, Anura Withanachchi, Sinclair Perera, Maxwell Anandappa, Mahen and Srirajan Fernandopulle. Prefect of Games Bede Puvimanasinghe. Assistants Felix Fernando and N.D.G. Reginald.
From the two Captain Marvels I move on to undoubtedly the best Prefect of Games the college was fortunate to have had in the bespectacled A. Gnanapragasam.
When the 1957 team came under the wing of Gnanapragasam, along with Director Rev. Bro. Alban, coach Edward Kelaart and captain Rayen, there was realisation that the squad was talented and all the cricketers required were inspiration and guidance.
Bro. Alban would frequently come to watch the squad at practice. After practice the Director and Gnanapragasam would lecture to the boys on various aspects of the game. Gnanapragasam even went to the extent of printing copies of that famous poem by Rudyard Kipling ‘IF’, to distribute among the players and explain the goodness of it after practice.
Gananapragasam was a stickler for discipline and punctuality. He would lay down the time for practices to begin which was usually 3.30pm and God forbid those who came even a second late.
A little anecdote would be of importance to the cricketers of today and those to follow and it involved me. Once, I came a minute late for practice and “Gnana”, as he was fondly called, looked at me, gave me a stare and looked at his watch.
He called me up and said he would like to have a chat with me after practice. I was the baby of that team, not yet turned 16 and I realised what was in store for me. He then called our captain Rayen and told him that I was to be posted to fine leg, no batting or bowling for Rodrigopulle for the day. That was the punishment for coming one minute late.
After practice he kept me for nearly 30 minutes and lectured me on what discipline and punctuality was and what it meant to me in future life. At the end he told me: “Look son, if I wanted you to come at 3.31 I would have told you. I told all players that practice begins at 3.30pm and you came at 3.31. By your action you made me look a fool. Don’t do that again.”
Believe me that was a lesson I would not forget and which is still etched in my memory.
That lecture held me in good stead. I would be nearly an hour early for work or for a match, which made my office mates ask me whether I had come to open the office or my club mates to ask whether I came to lay the matting or roll the turf wicket. Even now, whatever the endeavour I am there very early. For that I owe it to the likeable and lovable P.O.G. Gnanapragasam.
That was the time when Gnanapragasam would visit the homes of players and see that they were in bed early and not have late nights. He would even call up players individually and inquire from them about the home front and if there were any domestic problems.
One day, my vice-captain Cecil Waidyaratne, who later went on to become the Army Commander, teammate Neville Wickremainghe and friends, Malcolm Lord and our vociferous cheer leader Kenneth Dabrera, went for a late show of Rekawa at the Gaiety Theatre.
Walking out of theatre at about 12.30 I was blissfully unaware that curator Rogus Perera had also been at the show. The next day Gnanapragasam called me up and asked me how I enjoyed the show at the Gaiety. I was flabbergasted. Obviously Rogus had leaked the information. Did I not get another ear-splitting lecture!
Those are incidents that memories are made of.