By Suhela Abeynaike
Conroy Ievers Gunasekara was born an athlete meant to change sports history in Sri Lanka. He was a colossus, a gentleman of the highest order; unassuming and always stood for justice, a hard hitting batsman and a local maestro on the tennis court. Born on July 14, 1920 to a long lineage of sportsmen, he was third in a family of four, with his brothers Dallas and Desmond who were also great sportsmen alongside him. Ten years since his demise his legacy still lives on within the hearts of all sportsmen today. Most people know C.I. as a Sri Lankan cricketer who played first- class cricket for our nation from 1949 to 1964, in the period before the country gained Test status. Yet it should also be known that he excelled at rugger, golf and was a tennis champion as well.
His father Edwin along with his brothers who was none other than Dr. C. H. (Churchill Hector) Gunasekera, D.B. (SnR), and Victor were all known as renowned cricketers who played for Royal and SSC. Following the footsteps of his father, Ievers was educated at Royal College Colombo where he played in the Royal-Thomian encounter, starting from 1937 – 1939. It should be noted that seventeen members of the Gunasekara family represented their school in the celebrated Royal-Thomian match of which seven of them captain the team and five of them went on to play for Ceylon.
Thereafter C.I. entered Colombo Law College in 1940, but interrupted his legal studies to join the Ceylon Defense Force as a Second Lieutenant during World War II. A not so common fact about his career in the forces was that his battery was positioned in the Colombo harbour and was responsible for shooting down a Japanese plane during WWII. Yet his career in the army ended in 1946 with him retiring as a Major. Parallel to this he met the love of his life Doreen and married her whilst serving in the army.
He then went on to start playing cricket for the Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC) under the captaincy of Fredrick C. de Saram. Thereafter Gunasekera commenced playing for the Sri Lanka Cricket (then Ceylon) teams, and the greatest highlight of his nearly two-decade career was when he played for the Commonwealth XI, representing the nation, scoring a hundred in the match Commonwealth v MCC, when he took part in a partnership of 207 with the Australian all-rounder Keith Miller, getting his century score and going on to end his innings with 135 runs in under two hours. He won his first national cap at the age of 27 against Don Bradman’s ‘Invincibles’, and at the age of 40 he captained Ceylon in the early 1960 and represented his country against international teams until 1964, making his last appearance also against the Australians. In 1978 in the First Maharajah Super Tournament, C.I. scored 80 runs against Ceylon Tobacco. Yet he continued to play for SSC up until the 1980’s, and ended his career in cricket having scored 36 centuries. Known for his legendary scores, with his twin 72’s in the 1st and 2nd unofficial Tests against the West Indies in 1949, and his highest being a first-class score, 212 for Ceylon against Madras in the annual Gopalan Trophy match in 1958-59. He scored 120 and 30 against Pakistan in 1948-49. With his leg-spin he took 8 for 69 and 2 for 78 for a Ceylon team against a strong Pakistan Combined Services team in 1953-54 and 7 for 63 and 3 for 91 for Ceylon against Mysore in 1957-58.
Alongside his cricket career, his other great passion was tennis which he competitively pursued well into his 40’s, winning nine National titles and was runner-up on seven occasions at the National Tennis Championships. The Gunasekera family had an affinity with Sri Lankan tennis, then known as lawn tennis, which was based in the upcountry clay courts then. C.I. like his uncle, he excelled in tennis and represented Ceylon at the highest level, becoming a Double International which was a rare feat. It was known that his tennis forte lay in playing doubles where he won the Men’s Doubles three times and the Mixed Doubles six times. In 1939 at the age of 19, he won his first tennis title when he and his brother Dallas beat F. C. de Saram and A.J.D.N. Selvadurai at the Men’s Doubles in Nuwara Eliya. A key feature he was known for on the court was that he would always play the game wearing long pants and had a devastating double handed drive on both his forehand and backhand.
Gunasekera then joined Walker & Sons Limited as a Manager and went on to serve as a Director and he worked there until 1974. In January 2007 his beloved wife Doreen passed away, who was known as being the wind behind his wings. Following the death of his wife, he became a virtual recluse and his son Christopher currently lives in England.
Yet having led his life to the fullest on the 29th of July 2010, at the age of 90, C. I. Gunasekara passed away. Known to be a fine gentleman who was a lover of vintage cars, Ievers was a rather shy and usually soft spoken person who was always modest and quick to change the subject if anyone were to try and speak to him about his performances at cricket, tennis and golf (beating Pin F’do as a single handicapper) so much so that he stated, “I don’t know why they consider me as a good batsman. I played only a very few matches. Look at the number of matches these cricketers play these days.”
It has been a 100 years since C. I. Gunasekera’s birth and his legacy will be long remembered not only as a sportsman of great repute but above all as a gentleman of the highest caliber.