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A Historic Flight Revisited!



George Steuarts hierarchy  S. Skandakumar, Bernard Wijetunga, R. Muralidharan and Cricket Board Secretary Anura Tennekoon address a media briefing organized to promote another event ahead of the 1996 World Cup.

by S. Skandakumar 

The semi-final was over around 10 pm at Eden Gardens in Calcutta. Unruly crowd behaviour by shocked fans, when all was lost for India , ended in the Match Referee Clive Lloyd awarding the game to Sri Lanka on that Tuesday night,   the 14th of March 1996. I managed to get through to Cricket Board’s President Ana Punchihewa in the players dressing room, to convey congratulations and retired to bed truly happy! 

We had qualified to play Australia in the Wills World Cup final, in Lahore on Friday the 17th. Shortly after midnight, I heard a knock on my front door. Bernard Wijetunge and Channa Wijemanne, two of the Directors of our Travel subsidiary had woken me up for a reason. “Boss, we must do a charter for the Final.” 

I wiped my eyes to make sure I was not dreaming! 

“Let’s call G.T Jeyaseelan,” who was Head of Commercial for Air Lanka then. Thankfully he took my call at 1am. I put it to him. His response was positive. “Let’s meet at my Office at 9.”  

The meeting was a success. A turn around charter leaving on Friday was confirmed. That left us with just a day and a half to secure the visas for those interested while UL [Air Lanka] sorted our landing rights.  The public response to the opportunity was overwhelming and the Pakistan Embassy bent over backwards to issue the requisite visas in record time! I suspect that our beating India to make the final added to their enthusiasm! 

Much as I would have liked some members of our staff to make the trip for the amazing  work put in to make the flight a reality, the demand was so heavy that we decided to make way for the public and the clients of another travel Agent  Ceylon Carriers. 

For the return flight nearly 20 of our passengers were off loaded with generous incentives, to accommodate the winning team and officials who in the elixir of a phenomenal achievement went from the ground to their hotel and direct to the parked plane. 

Captain Sunil Wettimuny, the elder brother of Sidath Wettimuny, flew the Sri Lankan team back home after their World Cup win in Lahore. Sunil played in the 1975 and 1979 World Cups and in fact scored Sri Lanka’s first ever half-century in an international encounter – against Australia at The Oval.  

Sunil Wettimuny as Captain in charge of the flight generously opened the bar . The traditional bailas  soon took sway as the merrymaking  moved to the back of the plane . Inevitably the plane began to tilt and Sunil had to appeal to the frolicking passengers to return to their seats to restore balance ! 

For the team it was a heroes’ welcome home, with the players knowing that these were memories that would last forever! 

For the Sri Lankan Cricket fans both at home and the world over, there was unprecedented joy bordering on magical! 

For George Steuarts the flight was another page in our rich history. 

Sadly, the sheer brilliance of our on field performance was not matched by what took place at Maitland Place two weeks later! 

Ana Punchihewa the proud incumbent President was inexplicably dethroned by an ungrateful membership at the AGM that followed. Yes a President who had the vision to bring in a foreign coach in Dav Whatmore and appreciating the value of physical fitness, an outstanding physio in Alex Knontouri  that made a difference was unceremoniously voted out ! 

In his own words He had this to say. “Two weeks exactly after we won the World Cup, I was voted out at the AGM. Initially I was very distressed but slowly managed to get over it by reflecting on it philosophically ” 

The fact that barely three years later Her Excellency President Kumaratunga had to sack the entire Board to appoint the first ever Interim Committee in June 1999 to run the affairs of the Cricket Board told its own story of the shocking decline that ensued in that area. 

Twenty one years later a period that has seen no less than seven Interim Committees appointed for the same reasons, a long overdue reform to the Constitution is still awaited while our on field performances plunge to possibly their lowest! 

Yes the climb to the top was a hugely challenging one.  

The bottom is only a slide away!

Sports Editor’s note: This writer was one of our finest cricket captains in First Class cricket. He went onto become the Chairman of George Steuarts, the oldest mercantile firm in the country. He was also a former Secretary of the Cricket Board and more recently served as Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to Australia.

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Angelo Mathews bats during training at Suriyawewa ahead of the third ODI against Afghanistan.

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