Another epic battle, unearthed thanks to veteran writer and our Quadrangle columnist Neil Wijeratne. As we were looking for “Great Escapes” he mentioned having watched this match and making short notes of the game, especially the bowling brilliance of multi-talented Benedictine Ravi Irugalbandara. He was one of my childhood heroes. He was equally good or better in hockey and football.
Hailing from Mattakkuliya, Irugalbandara left a lasting legacy at Kotahena which we may cover later. In fact, this was the year 1983, I first started following cricket matches. As an eight-year-old living in a multicultural and colourful environment in Modera, Aluthmawatha and studying at St Benedict’s College, I first started going to the grounds at Kotahena with my elder brother whenever there was a big “big cricket match”.
Soon I made it a habit to spend my Fridays after school watching matches alone or with a few buddies and then returning on Saturday morning wearing my best suit. Sitting near the boundary line, eating pineapple or achcharu for snacks, I used to cheer the cricketers in the middle during the entire day. For my dedication, soon I was to get a promotion, with a cup of tea and a biscuit, to be inside the scoreboard and change the scores. It was a truly enjoyable experience and a chapter of my life that to-date I cherish. Though I don’t exactly remember this “Great Escape” which belongs to that era I managed to put together the story with the help of my childhood hero Ravi Irugalbandara now domiciled in Australia and Kennedy Michael (Head of Marketing, DFCC). Both played in this particular match.
The 1983, the Benedictines under the captaincy of Denzil Perera hosted St Sebastian’s College, Moratuwa,at Kotahena on February 11 and 12 1983. Batting first, the strong Sebastianites batting line-up was restricted to 155 runs, with Benedictine spinners Ajith Perera and Kalum Perera sharing six wickets among them. At one time, the Sebs were down at 113 for 7 and their tail started to wag which enabled the Moratuwa lads to put up a somewhat decent score of 155 runs on the board. If not for Priyalal Rodrigo’s (44 runs) and Heshan de Mel’s (17 runs) partnership of 31 runs for the last wicket, the Sebastianites would have folded for a much lower score.
In their turn, the Benedictines got off to the worst possible start. Sebastianite paceman Ajith Cooray, who came into the match with 69 victims already, ran through the top order of the Kotahena school as he trapped Nirmalan Joseph for a duck in the very first ball of the inning and then returning to capture three more wickets in his second over. He got Ranil Perera’s (5) wicket in the first ball and M Vignarajan the fifth ball and Ravi Irugalbandara in the sixth ball. Vignarajan and Ravi fell without disturbing the scorers. However Kennedy Michael and Balraj Rajaratnam put on a valuable 36-run partnership for the sixth wicket taking Bens to 48 for 5. Once the partnership was broken, the Bens continued to struggle and they ended the first day’s play at 57 for the loss of 8 wickets with Ajith Cooray capturing 5 for 19 for Sebs.
On the second day, the Benedictines lasted just over half an hour as they folded their inning for 62 runs as Cooray increased his wicket tally to 6 for 21. The drama began when the boys from St Sebastian’s returned for their second innings with a lead of 93 runs. By this time, the Benedictines were staring at a big defeat. Using the conditions to perfection, Benedictine opening bowling pair of Ravi Irugalbandara and S. Bhagirathan made sure they did not go down without a fight. They did more than that by running through the Sebastianites’ top order as they performed what could be termed as a record, perhaps a world record that had never been witnessed in schools cricket at that time.
Irugalbandara started by taking the first two wickets that were of Harendra Fernando and Susith Fernando within the first over after bowling a very tight over. Then Bhagirathan joined in with another tight over and he took the third wicket to fall which was of Dinesh Fernando. Ravi returned to take three more wickets in his second over as the Sebstianite batsmen found both bowlers to be unplayable. By the time they lost their sixth, they were yet to have any runs on the board. Yes, it was 6 for 0. Then their tail wagged again with middle-order batsman Gratian Karunaratne who remained not out on 33 runs.
They put up couple of partnerships with tail-enders enabling St. Sebastian’s to end their second innings at 51 runs. The newspapers reported there were seven ducks but according to the score card, it could be eight ducks in the St Sebastian’s second innings. Opening bowler Ravi Irugalbandara ended with 5 for 6 and his partner Bhagirathan though taking only one wicket, kept a tight line and troubled the batsmen many a time. Once almost down and out, the Bens found new life as they sensed they could muster 145 runs in two sessions to record a win against the Sebs.
The Benedictines started the run chase cautiously with Niramalan Joseph (41) steadily building the inning with M. Vignaraja (16), and looked on track to reach the target. Then at 66 for 2 due to careless running between wickets, they soon slumped to 93 for 5. Then with fading light the Benedictines started to put their shutters up in an effort to save the game though the Sebastianites sensed they had found a backdoor entry to the game once again and they pushed for a win, with Ajith Cooray capturing three wickets and Bens having four run outs. The Benedictines were down at 114 for 8 when the umpires called off the game due to bad light. This was a game where pendulum swung both ways giving both teams chances of victory and fittingly it ended in a draw, with honours shared evenly by the brother schools.
Ravi Irugalbandara recalls: “If I am not mistaken, according to late M. Gerry Waidyasekera, an Old Ben who was the Wisden correspondent, this feat was mentioned or recorded in Wisden then, I can also recall some of the key highlights of that match.The first runs scored by the Sebastianites in the second innings were courtesy of an overthrow as one of our fielders aimed for a direct it to run out the batsman who was way out of his crease. If it had hit they would have been 0 for 7 wickets.
“Then the top scorer for St Sebastian’s Gratien Karunaratne who was unbeaten on 33 out of a total score of 52 batted with a leg injury and he was given a runner in true sportsmanship by the Benedictines. If we didn’t allow that, he could not have batted and you could imagine their plight. “I remember Ajith Cooray, a well reputed fast bowler who destroyed us in the first innings was the fastest pace bowler that year among schools and accounted for more than 125 wickets that season. He broke the record of Rumesh Ratnayake (St Peter’s) and Gamini Perera (Dharmapala) for the most number of wickets in one season established previously. It was a very exciting game, which I cherish to date. After conceding a 90-odd run lead in the first innings we were determined not to lose the match and fought an epic battle with a very formidable and strong Sebastianite team to draw the game with a remarkable record.”
Kennedy Michael who also played along with Ravi in the same team said: “I remember going into the match with skipper Denzil coming into the side carrying a suspected appendix-related condition. Medical advice meant he would not take the new ball as he customarily does. The second unusual thing going into the match was Denzil donning the wicket-keeper’s gear in order not to aggravate his condition by bowling or running in the outfield. “The second day, when the Sebastianites went in to bat the ground conditions were somewhat soggy and the skies were overcast. Having seen the youth speedster Ajith Cooray in full swing where he ran through our batting line-up on day one we stepped into the field with a spring in our heels. The new ball was shared between Ravi and Bhagirathan, or Bagee as we called him, and after a tight first over by Ravi, Bagee started to make the ball talk by generating a fair amount of pace and extensive swing. Ravi kept it tight from the other end.
“The Sebs were all at sea and in hindsight I feel though the wickets went to Ravi, the true hero was Bagee who actually mesmerised the batsmen with his long arm attached to his 6 ft 6 inch lanky frame delivering those stealthy deliveries . Having got the Sebs at a world record setting of 6 for 0 we tried our best to run through the rest, but Gratian Karunaratne proved to be our nemesis returning to the crease after having retired hurt earlier, stroking a stubborn 33 to thwart a definite win . By the way, Bhagirathan has since been totally out of the picture and his whereabouts are not known.”