Would you be surprised to hear of a Sri Lankan who taught a thing or two to the MCC and the ICC? Well don’t be, we have a cricket enthusiast, historian, recorder, player and a prolific writer (on cricket of course), a veritable encyclopedia on cricket, in Mahinda Wijesinghe who has done just that. Unfortunately for the present generation of readers of cricket, he has taken leave from writing about cricket because he says “now the game of cricket has degenerated to an industry.”
I’m sure the readers would be curious about what actually he taught the ICC. So let me begin at least with one. In fact it was the all important third umpire concept which seems to be taken for granted by the present generation players and of followers of the game. So you’d next ask why you have not heard of him as its author. But that’s because Sri Lanka Cricket messed up the matter and the TCCB (Test and County Cricket Board of England) and the South African Board implemented a similar concept subsequently which later the ICC adopted officially.
Let’s get the story from the horse’s mouth. Said Mahinda, as he sat comfortably in his lounge room after seeing to it that my colleague and I were also comfortable, “I had prepared the concept of cameras being placed strategically so that an umpire in the pavilion seated in front of a TV can advise the field umpire – via a walkie-talkie system of communication – in case of any doubts in the mind of the latter. Firstly I published my views as a letter to the newspaper in the early 1980’s.”
Continuing Mahinda said “it must be noted that an individual cannot send suggestions and/or proposals direct to the ICC. Such proposals should be, in the first instance, channeled through the Cricket Board of one’s country. After a further protracted process the other Full Members’ acquiescence has to be obtained whether such a proposal is worth being placed in the agenda of the ICC Annual General Meeting for discussion. And it is only thereafter that a matter can be tabled at the ICC .“
He added “it was the Secretary of the Board who attended the ICC Annual General Meeting in London in 1984 when this paper was presented but unfortunately he had not studied the proposal properly, or probably not at all and when questioned were put to him by other delegates at the meeting he had not been able to provide the necessary explanations. With no explanations coming forth from the Sri Lanka Cricket Board representative who presented the paper, the ICC naturally dropped the idea.”
But the enterprising South African Board had used much of the thoughts expressed in Mahinda’s proposal and their version had been later implemented in South Africa. On his return to Sri Lanka, when Mahinda had met the bungling Secretary of the Cricket Board, he had said “what could I do Mahinda, I did not know enough about the concept to answer their questions” and Mahinda’s response had been “instead of the cricket conference you should have gone for a sales conference on how to sell tea”.
The upshot of all this was that credit that should have been Mahinda’s or more importantly Sri Lanka’s, was earned by South Africa. But those who value the truth and fair play, persons like Christopher Martin Jenkins, a well respected cricket scribe, acknowledged Mahinda as the one who originally proposed the concept. The fact that it was Mahinda’s thought that was plagiarized is borne out by the fact that his publication about the concept in the “Island” appears on 11th October 1982 while the first discussions about this at the ICC AGM comes up in 1984.
“The Test and County Cricket Board’s idea for a walkie-talkie link with a third umpire was first suggested in a written paper to the International Cricket Board (now Council) nine years ago. Credit for this basic concept …… has been claimed by South Africa and the TCCB but belongs instead, it transpires, to a Sri Lankan cricket journalist and administrator, Mahinda Wijesena …..” [Christopher Martin Jenkins in a article published in The Daily Telegraph on 18th May 1993]
This is but one matter that Mahinda taught the ICC on how to improve cricket on the field. Before I write about the other matter I owe it to Mahinda to mention something about him and his prolific writings. When you have treaded though the well manicured lawn and entered the very orderly and tastefully arranged living room of Mahinda’s home at Battaramulla you get a measure of the man’s well trained and meticulous cricketing brain. And through the living area when you go into the open area which serves as a library cum memorabilia room, you are wowed. Well, you would have probably been awed had he not parted with a lot of other items including a whole collection of Wisden Almanacs and valuable books which arguably, would have been the best cricket library in the country. Today, Kumar Sangakkara is the proud owner of his treasure trove of cricketing books. Although Mahinda has no regrets one cannot help but notice the empty cabinets.
From what is left, impressive though they all were, there was one picture that stood out where the writer was concerned and that was a picture of cricket’s demi-god Don Bradman being carried off the field on the shoulders of the fielding side. I did not think much of it until Mahinda explained the significance. He said: “Bradman had just scored 452 in a Sheffield shield game against Queensland in 1930. It was the world’s highest first-class score at that time. Despite being made to field during this mammoth innings yet the fielders very graciously carried Bradman on their shoulders which is an indication of the spirit in which the game of cricket was played in those times.”
“I fully understand and appreciate your concern on certain aspects of cricket as you have set out”. [Sir Donald Bradman – writing to Mahinda on 19th August 1986]*
Another item that still hangs on the wall among the memorabilia is a T Shirt autographed and gifted by the grateful Muttiah Muralidaran to Mahinda who assisted greatly to solve his problem of being wrongfully accused of ‘chucking.’ It had been Mahinda who had first suggested that Murali should bowl with a brace on his bowling arm to prove that he could bowl that “doosra” and his entire repertoire without bending the elbow. Going back to his school days, Mahinda had started his primary schooling at Nalanda College but after a competitive exam in 1951 he had entered Royal College at Grade 6 or Prelim Form and has been a confirmed Royalist ever since.
About his school cricketing career Mahinda reveals that he had first played as a 15 year old in the Royal first XI, under Fitzroy Crozier. His debut match had been the first occasion the 15-year old Mahinda wore long trousers to school. This was a third term match against St. Sebastian’s Moratuwa in 1955. In fact it had been a memorable match for Mahinda though it had been a 1-day match (limited-overs cricket had not existed then). Playing as a bowler he had captured 3 crucial wickets for 7 runs and helped Royal win the game by a mere 6 runs. His skipper, Crozier, had asked Mahinda to lead the victorious team back to the pavilion which for a 15 year old on debut was obviously a rare honour indeed. Next morning the newspaper had carried a banner headline referring to “deadly bowling…. However he had not been selected for the next game, and as a result, had given up attending first XI cricket practices in disgust.
Returning to cricket in 1957, in a first-term match in January, Royal had played Ananda at Campbell Place. Reminiscing about this match Mahinda said “finally the hosts (Ananda) had to score a modest 70-odd runs for a comfortable win. They were cruising at 45 for 3 with sufficient time when our skipper, Michael Wille, brought me on. Unlike today in school cricket, the ground was filled to capacity with spectators. The yelling and the cheering by the Ananda supporters – sensing a win – was deafening.
Then unfolded the amazing drama, dampening the cheering Anandians as with the first 4 deliveries I bowled I captured 4 wickets!
Now the scoreboard plummeted to 45 for 7 and there was now a deafening silence on the ground except for a few cheers from the handful of Royal supporters present at the grounds. Then the Ananda batsmen ‘closed shop’, though losing another wicket and drew the game.
The famed journalist cum historian, sometimes referred to as the ‘Wisden of the East’, S. P. Foenander, had not only complimented Mahinda as having created a Ceylon record (being the first schoolboy to achieve this feat in a school game) in his newspaper column but had also came to the Royal College general assembly and presented him with some rare books on Ceylon cricket. Next, Foenander had invited Mahinda to his home in Bambalapitiya for a luncheon as well.
The 1957 school season was a sensational one for Mahinda and for the next three years Royal had remained unbeaten. After the four-in-four against Ananda, the left-arm leg-spinner captured 12/35 against Zahira in the next game resulting in an innings win for Royal. Success followed success, and along with Lorenz Pereira bowling right-arm off-spin from the other end, spearheading the Royal bowling attack, the duo had been referred in the media as the best-spin combination in schools. Mahinda was also selected for a Combined Colleges XI and in those years, the Schoolboy Cricketer of the year was not picked on the basis of the number of coupons sent by readers. The senior umpires who officiated in the games were given that task to ensure that the best was picked. Mahinda, remember he was a ‘fresher’ in the side, was in the first lot of 26 players selected for this signal honour. At the next stage, the group was pruned down to 16, and Mahinda remained. Next, the group was reduced to 10 when Mahinda was eliminated. Finally, Ronnie Reid from S. Thomas’s was the winner while Chandrasiri Weerasinghe from Nalanda was the runner-up. But for Mahinda to be recognized, as one the best 16 cricketers in schools in his very first full season was an achievement indeed.
Sadly, with a potential to making it to the national side as a left-arm spinner, a debilitating and a life-long injury to his bowling arm put paid to his aspirations. In fact he was ‘dropped’ form the school side in the very next year (1958). However, he struggled and made a come-back in 1959, as a bit of an all-rounder. On two occasions, after having been sent in as ‘night-watchman’ he was successful. In 1957, against St. Benedicts at Kotahena, Mahinda helped Royal save the match with a fighting 39 runs and against Ananda he made his top-score in school cricket of 70 runs. Since bowling left-arm spin was not possible with an injured left-arm he decided he would “learn to bat.” Well, he did not too badly either. Mahinda has the distinction of being adjudged the Best Batsman in Mercantile cricket in divisions ‘A’, ‘B’ ‘C’ & ‘’D’. After all, he captained Bloomfield in the Saravanamuttu Trophy series and when Bloomfield became champions in the 1963/64 season he was vice-captain to skipper Noel Perera. It should also be remembered that when Bloomfield became champions Bloomfield they did not even have a ground of their own! Yet he modestly claims: “I was no batsman but I knew how to accumulate runs”!
Going back to his school cricketing days, while praising his captain of 1957 Michael Wille who according to Mahinda was a strategist, he recalled his vice-captain, Lorenz Perera as a versatile sportsman who also excelled in rugger, tennis and athletics. The other members of that team he recalled were, Daya Sahabandu, Nanda Senanayake, Sarath Samarasinghe, Michael Dias, Nihal Kodituwakku and Dr. Harsha Samarajeewa. From teams of opposing schools in that era, he singled out for mention, Ronnie Reid, Michael Tissera, Nihal Gurusinghe and Lareef Idroos from S.Thomas’, Lionel Fernando, Neville Casiechetty and Cecil Waidyaratne from St. Benedict’s, Kirti Caldera, Priya Perera and Ranjith Malawana from St. Joseph’s, Anuruddha Polonowita, Yatagama Amardasa, and Sonny Yatawara, (against whom he had lasted only 2 balls but it had been in that same match that Mahinda covered himself in glory by taking 4 wickets in 4 balls) from Ananda, Jayantha Fernando, Lakshman Serasinghe, Anton Perera from St. Peter’s, Nimal Maralande and Malsiri Kurukulasuriya from Trinity, Ranjith Doranagama and S.W. Seneviratne from St. Anthony’s, Kandy, Chandrasiri Weerasinghe and Sarath Silva from Nalanda and M. Devaraj and Sylvester Dias from Zahira.
Having spoken of this era, Mahinda proudly reiterated that Royal was unbeaten in the years 1957, 58 and 59 of which he thought 1957 as the best team which had ended the season with 3 wins under their belt.
After his successful school career he joined Bloomfield and couldn’t help mentioning Shelly Weerasinghe as one man who deserved praise for his single handed contribution to ensuring the success of Bloomfield as a club.
An Accountant by profession Mahinda had given up his accounting career in 1981 to be the first Executive Secretary of the Sri Lanka Cricket Foundation and the indoor cricket nets introduced had been designed single-handedly by Mahinda.
Simultaneously he became a freelance writer which writings were eagerly awaited by the discerning cricketing public who appreciated his forthright opinions expressed in such a readable style. He was also the local correspondent for the prestigious English monthly, “Cricketer International”.
Mahinda can mesmerize you when he talks on cricket and with one story following another I enjoyed the conversation to the extent that I was able to jot down only a few notes. No wonder his writings were so popular in the days before he gave up. Hopefully, Sri Lanka can make use of his expertise to improve Sri Lanka cricket.
There was, if you recall, I mentioned a second matter on which Mahinda advised the MCC. This was when he detected an arithmetical error in the 250 – year old Cricket Laws which thankfully has now been corrected by the MCC – after being forced to admit the error.
“I am also aware that it was you that had brought to MCC’s attention the inaccuracy in the Laws regaring the weight of the ball, so well done there.” [Denis Richards, Chief Executive of the ICC in a letter dated 2nd February 1996]*
“I would like to thank you for pointing this error out to MCC and can assure you when the next reprint in undertaken it will be corrected” [ Roger Knight, Secretary of the MCC in a letter to Mahinda, dated 23rd January 1996]*
His wife Neelani works for Sri Lanka Sumithrayo while Mahinda has taken complete retirement. He has a daughter, Manique, who is a medical doctor in Sydney, Australia, and a son Devinda, living with his family in Melbourne. Devinda is a Chartered Accountant, and is currently the Technical Director of the Accounting Professional and Ethical Standards Board in Australia while a second son had died at 31 years of age.
Mahinda has also written two books on Sri Lanka cricket. With comments by the President of the Cricket Historians and Statisticians, David Miller – who calls Mahinda a “remarkable man” for his many achievements – and letters by the President and secretary of the MCC, CEO of the ICC, Sunil Gavaskar, et al makes for interesting reading.
As we were taking his leave I asked if he would offer any words of advice for youngsters taking up cricket, but he said he’d prefer not to offer advice unless requested.
*[Quotes from Mahinda’s book At the High Table – Sri Lanka Cricket]