Sportstar Archives - Ranjit Fernando: Thirsting for exposure

In a chat with Sportstar, Ranjit Fernando recalls Sri Lanka's memorable days in the 1960s-1970s and takes stock of the present situation in the island nation.

Ranjit Fernando featured in three ODIs for Sri Lanka.   -  N. Sridharan

Ranjit Fernando was Ceylon's No. 1 wicket-keeper and represented his country in unofficial Tests in the 1960s and 1970s. It was during this decade that Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, developed its cricket and laid claims for full membership of the International Cricket Council (ICC).

It is the Michael Tisseras, Anura Tennekoons and the Ranjit Fernandos who gave Ceylon an identity as a cricket playing nation. As an understudy to Jackie Fernando, who Ranjit feels, "was Asia's best wicket-keeper," he developed his skills behind the stumps and with the bat. He opened for Sri Lanka in the inaugural Prudential World Cup in 1975. Dropped for the 1979 Cup, Fernando retired from first class cricket and had been a selector for five years.

Twice assistant manager, in England and Australia, Fernando was the manager of the Sri Lanka team at the Benson and Hedges World Cup. He also managed the team which toured Pakistan prior to the World Cup. In a chat with Sportstar, Fernando recalls Ceylon's memorable days in the 1960s and 1970s and takes stock of the present situation in Sri Lanka.


Can you recall your active years with Ceylon and say something about the crucial phase when Ceylon sought ICC's recognition?

My first tour as such was in 1964 when I came to India under Michael Tissera's captaincy. And I was second wicket-keeper to Jackie Fernando. That was long, long ago. 

We had an interesting tour and India was led by the Nawab of Pataudi. We got quite a hiding in the first two Tests when the present manager Abbas Ali Baig and Hanumant Singh got runs. But we managed to beat India in the final Test. That was a sort of a beginning of Sri Lanka's claim to obtain full membership of the ICC. It was in the late 60s that I got into the team as No.1 ‘keeper and scored three 50s against Colin Cowdrey's Englishmen. I then became a regular in the Sri Lankan side. But we had our best years when Tennekoon was captain and I was his deputy in the latter part of my career.

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We had an excellent tour of Pakistan in 1974. I still remember we got the better of Pakistan in the drawn first Test and lost the second one by 17 runs. This led to India and Pakistan lobbying vigorously for our admission. We did not get recognition till 1981, but our Board was aware that there had been intense efforts by India and Pakistan before that.

In 1975 I played the World Cup and I retired in 1979 after not being picked for the second World Cup. They preferred a younger player and I thought the time was up and made way for the others.

But since that day I have been involved in a lot of coaching. I was also the selector for five years and took over as manager for the Pakistan tour.

David Gower, Ranjit Fernando and Michael Holding during their commentary stint.   -  The Hindu Archives


Do you think the Sri Lanka team of the 1970s would have fared better than the later ones in international cricket?

It would not be fair to make a direct comparison. But looking at the players on paper the team of the 1970s was one of the best we have had purely because it was a talented, all-round side. It had immense depth in batting.

We had Bandula Warnapura and Sunil Wettimuny, an excellent player of pace. Then there was Tennekoon. To my mind Tennekoon was the most accomplished Sri Lankan batsman, ever. If one looks at the number of centuries he made and the number of runs he scored, he was as good as any batsman in the world then. He was a really good on side player and an accumulator of runs.

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Then there were David Heyn, Tissera, Duleep Mendis and myself. Then the bowling revolved entirely on the spinners. There were Somachandra De Silva, Ajith De Silva, Kaluperuma and Sahabandhu. The only drawback was ip the area of pace. Tony Opatha was short of pace, but he was a marvellous bowler. I think he carried the pace attack entirely on his shoulders. And that was one of the reasons he did not perform as well as he should have.

The fielding of today is far better and that's because of the one-day games. There is a uniformity in this aspect in all the teams. No team can claim to be better than the other. There is no comparison. We had a few fine fielders like Heyn, but today it is definitely of a higher calibre.

What about the subsequent period? Did Sri Lanka depend too much on Duleep Mendis and Roy Dias?

Yes, they started their career in the 70s. They had the technique and flair. The unfortunate part today is apart from Ranatunga and Aravind none has the same flair. Cricket in the 1970s was attacking cricket and Mendis and Dias had that bent of mind. And because of good coaching they were able to bring refinement to their batting and did well. Mendis was one of the best batsmen we have had in recent times. What a marvel he was! He could really maul any attack.

I am sure if Heyn, Tennekoon, Tissera, Ajith De Silva and Kaluperuma had had the same kind of exposure as their successors, they would have performed as well, maybe even better. It's very difficult to make a hypothetical assessment, but they would have made a lot of runs. In the 1970s Tennekoon played 12 or 15 unofficial Tests and he may have scored five to six centuries. He got hundreds against India. England and West Indies. This consistency shows he would have been a great success as much like Mendis. Maybe he would have been among the top players of the world.

Did the game suffer with so many players going on a rebel tour to South Africa?

That took us a few steps backwards... it pushed back our cricket. We banned as many as 10 to 12 players for 25 years. That proved a really strong deterrent. If there had been another tour to South Africa we would have really struggled. Fortunately Wettimuny, Mendis and Dias did not go and we managed to survive that period. But the enthusiasm and application of the players were very high, inspite of little monetary gains.

Former Sri Lanka captain Anura Tennekoon.   -  C.V. Subrahmanyam


How strong is school cricket now? It produced plenty of cricketers in the 1980s…

Yes. we had a very good system in schools. But those were the days when we had eight schools with solid cricketing background. But over the years the number of schools has gone up. The system produces good cricketers, but not many brilliant ones are coming through. That's where we have fallen off. Now we have average players coming out of school. It may be due to too much coaching, too much emphasis on perfect technique, thereby making the player lose his flair. This is the area we have to look into because it is players with flair who perform at international level.

You must be desperate to play a home series now. Is it not?

The main area where the strife has affected us is we have not had a series for five years. Since the Kiwis left Colombo due to a bomb blast we have not had any tour of Sri Lanka, which means all our cricket is played abroad. It was vital to sustain the interest. Secondly, most sides win at home. A lot of good cricketers came from the North and as a result of this strife we have lost many. If we had had a few series maybe we would have chalked up a few victories as well.

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But there is good news... we are to get eight Tests by this year end. New Zealand, England and Australia will visit Sri Lanka. West Indies is the only country we have not played in Tests. What I feel is England and Australia should give us more than one Test. That will give the youngsters the exposure. And I also feel there should be more junior tours amongst India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. But one thing is sure. This year is going to make or break Sri Lanka cricket. I am certain it will revive the enthusiasm and make it.

The greatest thing that happened was the last tour of Pakistan. We lost but it was an experience which helped us prepare for the World Cup. A lot of younger players developed very quickly playing against some good fast bowlers. So the eight Tests are going to be of great help in playing competitive cricket.

You had Frank Tyson at Colombo before the World Cup…

Tyson has been extremely useful. We have decided to get Tyson whenever he comes to India. The greatest advantage is he is a fine communicator, being a teacher. Having played at that level he communicates well. That's vital and it is rare to get that type of person. There has been a definite development in our bowlers after his visits.

(This interview was first published in Sportstar on March 28, 1992)

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