By Rohan Wijesinghe Snr
(Former Josephian, Sri Lanka Under 19 and NCC opening batsman)
It is with the heaviest heart that I pick up my quill to pen a few lines on the head and heart of my late skipper Gary Melder. Gary, of Dutch Burgher extraction, born to Errol and Beryl Melder on July 15, 1954, lived just a short distance from my abode.
I can remember the little chap peddling his wares amongst the junior hopefuls at St Joseph’s College, Colombo, besides the tranquil waters of the Beira Lake, in the mid 1960s or so. The quaint little Beira grounds was the cradle of Josephian cricket so to speak, where house cricket reigned supreme – no holds barred – Melizan, Coudert, Marque and Bonjean, house whence Gary, shy and reticent, saturated with natural ability, spindly and wiry, tottered in to fascinate all and sundry, for well nigh a decade or so.
I still remember Gary walking in for Coudert House, all gloved and padded up, in the typically clumsy knock-kneed, groggy-footed, a gawky-eyed manner of a 10-year-old, tottering and taking his first tentative steps. Tottering only till he took guard. A booming off drive would crash into the “urinals” behind the woodwork class; a succulent square-cut was intercepted by the “takarang” protecting the Home for The Elders. And then the little chap knelt and played his trademark “sweep”, this time towards the “kottang” trees bordering the basketball court.
The boy had arrived. Debonair batting this, and left-handed to boot. Then began the bustling run, little fingers wrapped around four and a half ounces of shiny leather, to cartwheel a stump, followed up with his fizzy leg spinner, delivered with his posterior jutting out a mile. As if that wasn’t enough he would stand on the matting and catch virtually anything that hit the bat. Demolition complete he’d smile his disarming smile through his windscreen-large lenses.
SUCH SWAGGER AND STYLE
Mr Fairlie Dalpathado, our utterly endearing coach, who always gave youth its head, allowed Gary the freedom to flourish, forever maintaining that Gary was the best he cradled in his coaching career of a decade or more, at Darley Read. From then onwards I watched in awe as Gary stalked the length and breadth of Darley Road, with a swagger and style of his own, emerging from those juvenile games with wrists of steel and biceps of concrete, seducing all and sundry with the bat, ball, physique and charm.
Besides, Gary cruised airily though our spacious classrooms, plucking fruits of virtue and knowledge, and gathering peace and power as was expected of him by his beloved Alma Mater. Disarmingly modest, unassailably dignified, a man of quiet charm, intelligence and humility, a deep simple Christian faith ran through the length and breadth of him. In our teens, we often heard mass together at the little parish at St Joseph’s, Nugegoda, eyes only straying occasionally to the divine Nugegoda lassies at prayer, to be followed by Gary’s trademark grin and wink, as and when he had spotted a lass of his choice.
CREST ON HIS HEART
Gary was fortunate in that at SJC he woke up each day to be inspired by the Obeysekeras, de S Wijeratnes, Sozas, Croners, Ranchigodas, Dalpathados, and his biggest buddy Ranjan de Silva, they who truly symbolised the Josephian banner from 1965-1975. From the moment Gary was picked short-trousered and unrazored by that endearing of all Josephian skippers Hector Perera to reinforce the triumphant “Joe” side in the year 1970, he played with the Josephian crest on his head and heart. Albeit sartorially untidy, flannels an inch too short, blue cap going saffron at the edges, shirt sleeves unevenly rolled up and frayed at the collar and yet the majestic Josephian flag, fluttering never too far from his soul.
Four consecutive 90s announced his arrival in First XI cricket at 14 years of age. Four further hundreds against the fancied Colombo Schools underlined his class. The five-wicket hauls are too numerous to mention. Gary then came under the wing of another redoubtable Josephian leader the soft-spoken, suave Rohan Fernando now guiding Aitken Spence Plantations with such panache.
Accolade after accolade chased after Gary around this point of time. Going on to skipper the side in both 1973 and 1974 he walked away with the best fielder of Sri Lanka Schools in 1973 and 1974 and crowned it all with the coveted Schoolboy Cricketer of The Year Award in 1974. He was picked to play for Sri Lanka Schools captained by Asitha Jayaweera against the Australian Schoolboys in 1972. In 1974, he captained the Sri Lanka Schoolboys in the Robert Senanayake Trophy. Amongst his many hundreds his 125 against Ananda College was outstanding. His 72 not out against Royal college in the Exide Trophy Final – the sweetest runs of this life, ensured that the coveted schools award came Darley Road way and stayed there for a further two years.
MISSING NATIONAL HONOURS
National honors were only a whisper away, when Gary seemed to give it all away. I for one could never comprehend how Gary, born to uproot cricket stumps, took to planting tea barks, stolen by the distant mountains of Balangoda Tea Plantations. Was it the salubrious climes or perhaps the gains were better. Whichever, Gary was comprehensively lost to cricket.
The only instance whence knives were sharpened against Gary was when he won the toss and lost the match, having put St Peter’s into bat on a good wicket, and lost the big match of 1973 No I cannot remember Gary being impaled by a critic, pundit or classmate ever, other than a liquor laced lout from our very own. “Darley Army” of Forbes Road, haranguing Gary to “lift” yet another six. Cricket came so easy to Gary just like riding his battered bike and for me it was a truly exhilarating experience to play alongside him for SJC.
My effort would be richly rewarded if little Arranya reads this one day and is inspired to excel, just like her grandpa did, in such an exemplary fashion, so many moons ago. And to his gracious spouse Odile and two precious children Andrea and Dion, fear not, for Gary will watch over you – until the mountains disappear.
Mrs. Melder reminisces about her husband….Gary
She started with a big laugh when asked to share what she thought of Gary as a person. Presumably, there are plenty and it is such a joy to rekindle memories of a great personality ‘He was a humane and kind person, very generous and one can say he was not meant to be born to this world. He was a totally non materialistic person and very hard to define. He was someone with exceptionally good qualities and very honest. If anybody confided in him, which many people did, the secrets would also be mine and they still are. He would share it with me and never kept any secrets from me’
About Cricket and Gary, Mrs. Melder though clueless about his achievements, as she never followed the game when Gary played for St. Joseph’s College or later she very well knew what Cricket meant to him. ‘Oh he always talked about Cricket with me, especially when he comes home. He was very passionate about it and would share stories with me. I don’t know whether it was his first love but he loved Cricket so much. He loved coaching, especially the boys he coached. I still remember once he took me to St. Joseph’s College in his motorbike and told me to keep an eye on a particular boy. I think Gary was coaching a senior side and this particular boy was not under him or he was yet to be taken under his wings. Nevertheless, he was so impressed about this boy and his talents he told me…watch him, he will someday represent Sri Lanka. He was none other than Chaminda Vaas. Frankly speaking I did not know head or tail about Cricket. It was a slow and boring sport to me. But since Gary insisted on me watching him, I just sat near the Chapel end at the College Grounds and watched him play. Gary was going on and on about him and I knew he had really big hopes about this particular boy.’
When asked about how they met, she couldn’t help herself but laugh out loud. Then she shared the story ‘We didn’t really meet like that. He used to be my brother’s friend. Used to come to our place very frequently. Once Gary lost his girlfriend, he did have many and later used to tell me about all. So when he was down and out and he used to look up to my mum and dad and spend a lot of time with us. We all knew he was a heartbroken man. So we used to be very nice to him as we all knew what kind of a person he was. It was the friendship that turned into a marriage later. Though he loved Cricket, I was his entire world and all those who associated Gary knew this’.
Talking about Gary being a family man ‘He was such a wonderful father, a husband and family man. He loved children and spent lot of time with them. He did lot for them too. I still remember, when I used to come home after teaching (Mrs. Melder was teaching at the Colombo International School then and now she is at Lyceum College), how he used to spend time with our son Dayan and daughter Andrea and get them to do their studies and helped them caringly and with so much love. Children loved him so much. It was very difficult for all of us when we lost him. Our children were in their mid-teens then and they were very close to him. We all carry very fond memories of him’.