Down memory lane with Ronnie Guneratne
Ronnie Guneratne perhaps is not a household name in Sri Lanka. It’s no fault of his as he was a sportsman in an era when there was no TV, no email, Facebook, Twitter, etc. and only the newspapers carried news, be it politics, social or sports. But this was no bar to his popularity among the school boys of that era particularly alumni from St. Peter’s.
Now the CEO of Sri Lanka Tennis (SLT), the writer caught up with this multi-faceted sports personality at SLT where his office is.
Sports was not only in Ronnie’s blood but his whole family were top class sportsmen and women. With his brother Chris Guneratne being the champion Table Tennis player from St. Peter’s and later the national champion and brothers, Franklyn representing St. Peter’s at cricket (now a doctor in the USA), Noel playing rugby for his alma mater (now in the US Army), Hilary and Buddy taking to TT and Rex now a veterinary surgeon while his sister Jean is also an ex Sri Lanka national TT Champion.
Though his versatility as a sportsman at St. Peter’s was never in question it was cricket and rugby that came to the fore in the discussion the writer had with Ronnie and obviously those are the two games that he stuck with beyond his schooldays. In school he was very much a part of cricket, rugby, tennis, badminton and athletics but favourite or not it is Sri Lanka Tennis that is now profiting from his wide sporting knowledge, being its CEO.
“Let’s start with cricket”, said Ronnie and so first we looked back over his cricketing days at St. Peter’s, which had spanned 3 years from 1966 to 1968. The 1966 season, captained by Darrel Wimalaratne – an astute captain both in cricket and rugger – did not evoke memories in Ronnie. As a fresher he had bowled only 17 overs during the entire season capturing 3 wickets at an average of 19.66.
However, Ronnie had plenty to say about the 1967 season. “We were captained by Tony Opatha (who went on to represent Ceylon) and won against Wesley College” was Ronnie’s opening remark. “I got 4 wickets for 11 runs in Wesley’s 2nd innings in that match which enabled us to win. Earlier on, in a 3rd term match against the Sebastianites I had a match bag of 6 for 44, though it was a drawn game. Our 2nd win of the season was when we beat St. Anthony’s, Katugastota. I got 3 for 26 in the Antonian 1st innings and with Denham Jurianz also capturing 3 for 11 the Antonians were bundled out for a mere 68 runs. Thereafter having got 208 in our 1st innings we bowled out the Antonians for 131 and I bagged 3 wickets for 16 runs – a match bag of 6 for 42.” Upbeat about the performance in the season with two wins to their credit, according to Ronnie, the Peterites had come to the Big Match against the Josephians, to be played on 31st March and 1st April, brimming with confidence. Ronnie Continued “After bowling out the Josephians for 142 in their 1st inning our reply turned out to be a nightmare. We lost our first 9 wickets for 35 and were in danger of following on. The No. 10 batsman Nihal Gunawardena was at the wickets when I joined him and together we managed to put on a partnership of 46 valuable runs for the last wicket. I got 33 while Nihal ended being 11 n.o. At the end of the 1st day the Joes had commenced their 2nd innings and were 4 for no loss”. Describing the match conditions, Ronnie reminded the writer that schools matches started at 12 noon with a “milk interval” at 1.50 p.m. and the “tea interval” at 3.40 p.m. with the last session being 4.00 – 6.00 p.m. The newspapers had banner headlines about the pathetic batting display of the Peterites. The Daily Mirror (a tabloid then published by the Times Group), led with an apt headline “Peterites Sunk in Beira Blues”.
Let’s hear Ronnie continue with his description. “In their 2nd inning the Joes didn’t do too well being all out for 102, with our captain Tony Opatha bagging 4 wickets for 22 runs. This left us a target of 164 runs to get in a little over 180 minutes. We had our top order getting runs, all getting into double figures though no one managed a 50, but getting out at crucial moments. Many a run was stolen with the ball played to the close in fieldsmen but the Josephians were unable to hit the wickets most times. However, they did manage to run out three batsmen including me for 16. When I was out the scoreboard read 161 for 8 with 3 more runs to get Lalith Silva (wicketkeeper) and Nirmalendran were at the wickets. They got singles and brought the score to 163 and when the next run was scored there was pandemonium. The Joes in their eagerness to grab souvenirs ran away with the stumps and the crowds invaded. When the umpires looked at the scorebooks to sign them off they found the scores were tied at 163. However, after a discussion between the umpires and the captains the match was awarded to St. Peter’s”.
Let’s look at reports that were carried in the papers the next day. T M K Samat in the Sunday Observer had written under the headline “Umpires award Peter’s Victory”. He had said “St. Peter’s won the 33rd Battle of the Saints. But how? They were declared winners after a conference between the umpires and the captains in the Peterite dressing room. The umpires decided that the Josephian fielders in removing the stumps even before the umpires had removed the bails, had acknowledged that the Peterites had won”. The Daily News, Times of Ceylon, Mirror, all had their say. The Times of Ceylon of 3rd June 1967 carried the headline “Umpires were correct in Josephian-Peterite decision”, a conclusion of sorts to a controversy.
The 1967/68 was another season in which Ronnie had been able to get the second match bag of 6 wickets (6 for 49) against the Sebastianites, which match was won by the Peterites by an innings. However, it was the Royal match that Ronnie spoke of with pride. That’s because he scored a century in that match. Let’s hear him “Royal had declared their innings closed at 192 for 6 and at the end of the first day we were down in the doldrums at 97 for 6 with me not out on 16 and Roy Dias not out on 8, this was his first year in the 1st XI. The next day I got my century (102 n.o.) and Roy 30 and we declared at 219 for 7 and then it was Royal’s turn to blush as captain, Rodney Patternott got 7 wickets for 19 runs to have the Royalists all out for 92 leaving us an impossible target of 66 to win in 19 minutes. Though a drawn game it was a memorable one.” The Benedictine-Peterite match had also been a thriller that season though without any significant contribution from Ronnie and ending in a draw. SPC 168 and 119 for 8 declared and SBC 117 and 153 for 8 at the close of the 2nd day, with 12 runs to win for the Bens and for the Peterites 2 wickets to get for a win, that was never to be. Regarding the Big Match for the season, Ronnie concluded “unfortunately the Joe-Pete was a wash out that year”.
Asked who his team mates were during his cricketing days at St. Peter’s Ronnie mentioned the captains, Darrel Wimalaratne, Tony Opatha and Rodney Patternott and remembered Peter and Stephen De Nise, Shabir Asgerally, C Nirmalendran, Rory Inman, Dhayan Madawala and Roy Dias. Of these Tony Opatha and Roy Dias went on to represent Ceylon and later Sri Lanka. Ronnie also mentioned the coach Old Peterite, Dr. H I K Fernando who was also a national cap, describing him as a good coach and also remembered the Master in Charge, Mr. Austin Fernando.
Ronnie’s rugby career at St. Peter’s spanning from 1965 to 1968 was longer than his cricketing career and perhaps filled with more achievements than on the cricket field.
Ronnie’s captain in the 1965 team was Darrel Wimalaratne, who was, as mentioned earlier, his cricket captain in the following year. The 1965 season had been a very good team with 9 coloursmen in the side. He made it a point to mention the differences in the rules that applied then as against the current rules. A try scored was worth 3 points and not 5 and only a converted try (goal) would earn you 5 points, no lifting was allowed in the line outs and the ball bouncing in your hands would be considered a knock on. Ronnie described the season’s matches as wins against St. Mary’s, Dehiwela (no longer in the rugby scene) 25:0, St. Benedict’s 32:0, Isipathana 14:0 Royal (a hard-fought win) 3:0, St. Joseph’s -though he could not recall the scores-, S. Thomas’ 3:0. Zahira 21:0 and closed the season with the only loss being against Trinity. “However, with Trinity and St. Thomas’ drawing one match each in addition to a loss each, we ended the season at the top. But, sadly there was no official tournament that could have enabled us to be official champions so we had to be satisfied with being unofficial champions” Ronnie declared.
Speaking about game plans and coaching, Ronnie spoke of Archibald Perera as a good coach who put his theories to practice. He added that the team members did not wait for the coach to give them plans all the time. He recalled how the team members planned the scissor pass before a match during the lunch break and how for the first time it was executed to perfection against the Joes (this story was also mentioned on an earlier occasion when the writer met some of Ronnie’s team mates Rodney Patternott, Hamzie Hameed, Shakir Anverdeen and Mindzy Gomesz).
The 1966 season had M A (Hamzie) Hameed captaining and had beaten St. Anthony’s, Thurstan, Isipathana, St. Benedict’s, S. Thomas’, St. Joseph’s and Wesley drawing with Zahira and Trinity and losing only to Royal. “In fact,” said Ronnie, “we should have won that match against Trinity, played in Kandy, when at one point, David Joseph touched down but to everyone’s horror, he had gone beyond the dead ball line. During this match there was also a point at which we won a line out through our tall jumper Mohan Jayawardena (remember you couldn’t lift players then), who got the ball and sent it down to Shakir Anverdeen to Herman Gunasekera, Rodney Patternott, to me and to Hamzie Hameed and then back to me. I scored the try and converted it by myself. A pleasing move to watch admired by the spectators that thronged the ground”. Since there was no official tournament for schools back then, the Peterites became unofficial champions though losing to Royal as Royal had lost to Trinity and Trinity to St. Anthony’s, Katugastota.
Ronnie’s description of the 1967 season was “we won our matches against the Antonians (22-0), Marians (11-3), Isipathanians (8-6), Thurstanites (22-0), Royalists (9-3 – this match was billed as the game of the season by the press and I scored one try in the match), Anandians (45-0), Bendictines (14-5) and Josephians (23-3) but lost to the Trinitians in a close game (6-8) and to the Thomians (6-16) but I had a good game. Though losing to the Trinitians and Thomians, we had a good season, a season in which Rodney and I experimented successfully with the “scissor pass”. Even in the match against Trinity we led them but a penalty kick within kicking range was missed by our captain and a last minute try by the Trinitians which gave Trinity the 8-6 win.”
Speaking about the 1968 season Ronnie said “I commenced the 1968 season but had to leave half way through the season as I turned 20 and Sunil Perera (coach, Archibald Perera’s son) took over. Under my captaincy we won our games against Thurstain, Royal, Zahira, St. Benedicts but lost the season opener to St. Anthony’s. I joined CR thereafter and played till I left Colombo and started work in the plantations.”
Recalling his achievements in athletics Ronnie said that he had participated in the St. Peter’s team in the 1968 Relay Carnival with Nimalendran and Dadlani and one other whose name he could not recall.
Coming to matters of academics, he recalled some of his teachers held in high regard and among those he mentioned were – M/s. Kingsley Jayasinghe (presently the Principal of Wicheley’s College), Jeganathan, Morel, Manoranjithan, Ekanayake (who also handled cricket coaching), Sueter Peiris, brothers Primson and Heracules Jayasekera, Victor Abeygunawardena, Joseph and Arthur Fernando.
Post School Sporting Career
Speaking about his post school sporting career, which was no less sparkling than his school career, Ronnie said that at CR & FC, the Club he had joined 1968 immediately on turning 20 halfway through the school’s rugby season, he has now been a member for the last 51 years. He had celebrated his golden membership anniversary last year and has also served Committee from 2003 to 2009 and as Vice President from 2005 – 2009. He had been instrumental in putting up the new building with the help of Mr. Manilal Fernando, the then Deputy President of the Asian Football Federation and had had the support of Mr. Hemaka Amarasuriya the then Chairman of the Committee.
Recalling his playing days at CR he said that in 1968, CR had won the All India Tournament (played that year in Ceylon), beating Maharashtra Police and Nepal and receiving a walkover from Bengal Tigers. Having beaten the CH & FC in the semi-final, the final of the tournament had been against their arch rivals, the Havies. Led by Tony Sirimanne, CR had beaten the Havies 8-6 to annex All India and South Asia Rugby Trophy. The 4 Peterites in the victorious CR team had been Ronnie himself, Didacus de Almeida, Hamzee Hameed and Rohan Abeysuundera.
In later years Ronnie had played cricket, rugger and tennis for JEDB, Uva, Kandy and Badulla. The first move had been from CR to planting at Opanayake with Carsons and then to Uva’s Tonocomb Estate and from Namunukula to Matugama. One of his unforgettable memories while serving in Matugama was when playing for the Kalutara Town Club in 1974 in a match against the Army he had hit a six into the Kaluganga, which fete he later learned, was the first time anyone had done so, after the great P Sara had done it in 1924.
From Matugama Ronnie had moved to Galaha (Kandy) played for Kandy Sports club and then gone to Uva and played cricket for UVA and also Badulla CC and Badulla DCA. He had also played rugby for Uva and Up Country and played for UVa against Black Heaths from England.
His 1969 team mates in rugby had included Mike Boyd-Moss (from English parentage, with estates in Bandarawela), Aubrey Patternot, Franklyn Jacobs, Mike de Alwis, Brian and Cedrick Munaweera and in cricket Dayan Madawala, Srilal Samarasekaera, Viji Johnpulle and Carlyle Silva. Ronnie also recalled that he played in the very last Capper Cup match played between Up Country and Low Country.
Being the versatile sports personality that Ronnie was and maintaining his versatility and fitness through the years, he had represented Sri Lanka Masters – the team touring as the ‘Sri Lanka Islanders’ – in the Masters tournament in Herning, Denmark in August 1989. The team captained by Anura Tennakoon had emerged champions and who but Ronnie headed the batting averages with an average of 105, the next best being 52.66 by the skipper. He was also the highest wicket taker grabbing 11 wickets in the tournament and though not the having the best average it must be said that he had been the workhorse bowling the highest number of overs in the tournament among the Sri Lankan bowlers.
Ronnie was elected to the Cricket Board in 1990 and served 8 years and in 1993 he was the Manager of the under 20 cricket team to Malaysia and Singapore. Some of those who made Sri Lanka proud in later years included in that team were Mahela Jayawardene, Russel Arnold, Mario Villavaryan, Indika de Saram, Navin Nawas and Ravindra Pushpakumara.
Presently (in 2019) SLT is the beneficiary of Ronnie’s acumen as a multifaceted sportsman and administrator, being its CEO.
Though this interesting interview could have gone on for many hours, the Editor (who was also at the interview) and I had to leave Ronnie to carry on with his CEO duties for SLT. But before concluding this interesting tete-a-tete his advice to sportsmen in general was to practice, practice and more practice and forget energy boosters. Practice, he opined, enables one to have less or no injuries and play full matches. He added that during his playing days he had watched how the greats played via films provided by the British Council and the Australian High Commission and trained twice a day (morning and evening), with no alcohol or energy boosters.
For rugby players his advice was to play the run and pass game.