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Beaten, but unbowed!



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by Rohan Wijeyaratna


The English summer of 1975 will be best remembered for two special reasons. Firstly, it was the year of the inaugural Prudential World Cup competition. Next, it was a summer of glorious sunshine. Not a single minute’s play was lost through bad light or rain, through 15 World Cup games spread over a fortnight. The West Indies were the ultimate champions since they played the better cricket on the day. The competition made the world’s top teams pit their skills against each other and also brought two Test aspirants -Sri Lanka and East Africa -to compete alongside. Apart from the cricketing benefit for the last two mentioned, the influential friendships and goodwill generated, were expected to stretch far beyond the cricket fields of England.


• A caning


A shell-shocked Sri Lankan side arrived at the Kennington Oval on June 11th, after having received a caning at the hands of the West Indians on the 7th of June at Old Trafford. Bundled out for 86 in 37 overs, the Windies knocked off the deficit by half past three, off 21 overs. Despite the glorious sunny conditions and a good batting wicket, the Lankans-possibly overawed by the occasion and troubled by Bernard Julien’s late swing, lost their way and fell in a heap. To add insult to injury a 20 overs - a- side match was then arranged, to appease the disappointment of the large crowd present. Given such a backdrop, the Lankans weren’t exactly overflowing with any joie de vivre, as they arrived at the Oval, to take on the Australians. No one thought the game would unfold any different to the one of four days before.


• Saving face in defeat


Possibly with the intention of prolonging the proceedings, Sri Lanka won the toss and put Australia in first. This led to a flood of runs as Turner and McCosker toyed with the bowling. By lunch time, Turner was on 100 and the score was an intimidating 178-0, off 34 overs. Although the bowling was pedestrian, the fielding alternated between the brilliant and the ordinary. At this stage to all those at the ground and beyond, there seemed no reason to believe the outcome would be any different to what was previously imagined.


And so thought the Australians too, given the manner of their approach on resumption. Within the space of 9 runs they had managed to lose 3 wickets, and it was now left to Greg Chappell and Doug Walters to steady the ship. Their partnership of 117 in 19 overs helped to boost the score to 328 for 5 in 60 overs. It was a sizeable total by the then prevailing standards. To most spectators present and listeners beyond, scaling that target was never a consideration. What mattered was how best Sri Lankans could save face in defeat.


• Bright start


Lillee began with 4 slips and a gully to Wettimuny. With the third ball of the innings, Wettimuny managed to thread a boundary through the packed slip cordon. Soon Ranjit Fernando began striking some handsome blows of his own, and by the end of the 5th over, 23 runs were added. That bright start however, wasn’t to last long. With his personal score on 22 and the total 30, Fernando dragged on a Thomson delivery, paving the way for Bandula Warnapura to join Wettimuny at the crease.


Having got the measure of the bowling, Warnapura soon settled down and the pair began to produce a steady stream of runs. The score at one point moved from 51 in 14 overs to 84 off 18, and just as things seemed poised to take off, Warnapura on 31,was lured out of his crease by Mallett for Marsh to complete the stumping. Together they had added 54 for the 2nd wicket, and by tea time, Sri Lanka were a respectable 115 for 2 off 25 overs, with Duleep Mendis batting alongside Wettimuny in the middle.


• Duleep Mendis


To those who are uninitiated, a few words on Duleep Mendis might not be out of place. Mendis was one of the best exponents of uninhibited stroke play Sri Lanka ever produced. He was of singular mind, firmly believing that the ball was there to be hit; not slogged, but hit. Utterly fearless against fast bowling, he wouldn’t hesitate to get in line and play each ball on its merits; never mind how fast they came. Pace neither deterred nor intimidated him. Be it pace or spin, he was never found wanting for a stroke. Short in stature, Mendis had an eye of a hawk and a penchant to put away balls which others might have played down or got out of the way. When in such a mood it was often difficult to bowl at him. On that superb Oval wicket that day, Mendis was in exactly such kind of a mood.


• The hand of fate.…


Thomson resumed after tea and began with a leg side wide that would have challenged a barn door for width. The batting prospered at a furious clip and the runs began to gush. By the 30th over with the score at 144, the elegant Wettimuny had reached 50. It was an inning of caution and enterprise, as was his wont. Sri Lanka had reached 150 in the 32nd over, and were now going like a house on fire. None seemed capable of stemming the flow as cuts, pulls and hooks exploded off Mendis’ bat like rifle shots. He raced to 32 in characteristic vein, sending the crowd into delirium. And that was when the hand of fate intervened.


• Mendis’ demise


Battling mostly with balls that were cannoning at high speed towards his upper body, Mendis received a lightening delivery from Thomson which was slightly short of a length and rising. Given only a split second to decide, Mendis went for the hook but couldn’t get sufficiently inside the line. The ball caught the outer edge of his bat and cannoned on to his head, felling him like an ox. Those being pre-helmet days, many feared for the consequences. As a stunned crowd watched in silence, a deeply concussed Mendis was stretchered off to hospital, never to be seen again on the field of play that day.


• The second crippling blow


Mendis’ exit upset the giddy momentum of the innings. Tennekoon replaced him but Sri Lanka’s charge towards their target soon suffered another crippling blow. Wettimuny who had been steadily holding the fort despite copping several painful blows on his body, now accidentally chopped a rising delivery from Thomson on to his right instep. The pain was so intense, he needed a runner to continue. A short while later precisely the same thing happened again. The batsman’s agony was indescribable!


• Despicably


unsporting….


As Wettimuny was hopping about writhing in pain, Thomson in a reprehensible act of poor sportsmanship picked up the ball and threw down the wicket. Although the rest of the team quickly annulled the appeal Thomson’s action won the Australians no admirers. The crowd now began to make known their displeasure in no small voice. Unfortunately for Wettimuny, he no longer could continue and thus became the second Sri Lankan casualty needing hospitalisation. It was a double debilitating blow and fate could not have been unkinder to the Sri Lankans. Given the quality of the bowling and the bravery he showed against the most hostile attack in the world, Wettimuny’s knock was good enough to win him the ‘Man of the Match’ award. But that was no to be. Laurie Fishlock the adjudicator singularly lacked the imagination to add to the romance of the occasion.


• The chase continued....


Thomson – as the Aussies would say – was now getting a lot of ‘curry’ from the crowd each time he ran into bowl. The new pair of Tennekoon and Tissera gamely fought on, and soon settled into their usual elegant rhythm. The wicket held no terrors and some fearsome names were seen off the attack. In a desperate bid to make some inroads, Chappell rang the changes but none cut any ice. Lillee and Walker couldn’t get a wicket in 24 overs between them, while the spin of Mallett cost him plenty for just one wicket in return. Yet, despite the smooth sailing, there was a gnawing feeling that the asking rate was creeping up on the Lankans. The two veterans gamely struck out for victory with some vintage batting and it might have been a close finish had they remained till the end. But they didn’t. And with the advent of the lower middle order, the required tally kept getting further and further away until it was beyond the Lankan’s reach.


• Had fate been kinder….


Record books will never tell the complete story of any match. Sri Lanka on the day were beaten, but not disgraced. Having conceded 328 runs, they had come within 52 runs of creating a major tournament upset, despite two of their early order batsmen being debilitated in the prime of their form. Given the reputation of their opponents, this was no easy task for any cricket team; let alone a non-Test team. Taken in the context of their horrible showing in their opening match, this was a capital performance. It was no fluke. Instead, it was a true reflection of what the Lankans were capable of, given fair playing conditions and the sun on their backs. Had fate been kinder on that fabulous summer’s day at the Oval, the game might have even recorded a sensationally different outcome.


• Glorious in defeat!


Sri Lanka ended the match glorious in defeat. In the process they won the hearts of all those present, and did no harm to their quest for full Test status. That was a quest which began no sooner they gained Associate Membership of the International Cricket Conference in 1965. And that was a quest which continued through performances such as this, until the island nation was finally accorded that great honour in July 1981.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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