Weerawansa, Jayasuriya and the Battle of the Mangosteens

The Battle of the Mangosteens, the annual cricket encounter between Kalutara Vidyalaya and Tissa Central which is named after the fruit the Kalutara area is famous for, has seen a number of national cricketers including current players Thilakaratne Dilshan and Malinga Bandara taste their first serious cricket experience in their school days. Apart from the national cricketers, Somawansa Amarasinghe and Wimal Weerawansa are probably the most famous figures who have played the annual battle which will be 50 editions old today. Now fighting a crucial political battle with his own party leader ship, the JVP strongman Vimal Weerawansa had his first battle experience when he opened the batting for Tissa Central in this Big Match.

"I played for Tissa Central for three years. First it was under the captaincy of Palitha Alwis in 1986. And then I played for two more years under the captaincy of B. Priyadharshana and P. Fonseka," Weerawansa gave a brief preface to his short cricket career when ‘The Island’ met him recently.

"I played as the opening batsman for Tissa Central under the captaincy of Palitha Alwis."

"The opening batting position," Weerawans said, has taught him many lessons which has helped him to make the right decisions. "An opening batsman builds up sharp intelligence. He has to take decisions quickly. Correct decisions. That experience has helped me immensely to take decisions in my political career as well."

Representing a political party that is critical of Colonialism and its effects on Sri Lanka, it is surprising that the JVP strongman has developed his sharp decision making skills in the field of cricket. When asked about his party’s stand on cricket, the Colonial gift to Sri Lanka, he said, "There was no ideology against cricket. The JVP was not against cricket. Though the JVP opposed many bad things that the Colonial ruling had left rooted in Sri Lanka we never opposed its good. We never said that the rail tracks should be removed. It’s the same with cricket. Different individuals of the party might have had different opinions about cricket, but the JVP as a political party never opposed cricket."

His performance as a top order bat was crucial to his team (Tissa) but Weerawansa regrets that he couldn’t play the match winner’s role. "As an opening bat, I couldn’t play a significant role for Tissa in the Big Matches, which I still regret. I got out for low scores, I couldn’t provide good stands for my team during my first years as a batsman." Tissa Central couldn’t win a match during Weerawansa’s tenure and they are still trailing 22-6 in the series.

"I could have done better had I continued my education. My best years in cricket were yet to come when I abruptly gave up my education. The killing of Dr. Sathyapala Wannigama and students shook us at that time and we were compelled to leave school ahead of time and I joined forces with the Socialist Student Movement."

"Had I remained in the school I would have not only played cricket but most probably would have become the head prefect of the college."

His ascend to the batting opener position has come in a surprise to Weerawansa who was still learning his basics in cricket.

"I got the opportunity to open for Tissa when the opening batting slot got vacant. I was yet to play in a First XI match when coach Sumith Silva invited me to open batting and I scored 49 runs against Ananda Sastralaya on my debut. That score cemented my place as an opener."

The two popular schools in the area, Kalutara Vidyalaya and Tissa Central are struggling to meet the huge financial demands of cricket. And the days of Weerawansa at Tissa was no different.

"Money was collected to meet the day to day expenses of cricket and I was one of the few players who couldn’t even afford that. I never paid that money. The MiC attended to that. In fact, my first bat too was a gift from school officials."

Though it is in to its 50th edition, the Battle of the Mangosteens is still played on a matting wicket. "Most of the time, we played on matting wickets and it is still the case with these two schools. To play on a turf wicket was a fantasy and even to see a turf wicket was a luxury. We had a worn-out matting to practice. It had more patches than good areas. It is regrettable that the two schools are still facing the same problems that we faced."

"There is a great inequity in the way the resources are allocated for infrastructure development in cricket. The SLC, which has more money than the national treasury can sort-out these matters if it has the will to do so," stated Weerawansa.

The Battle of the Mangosteens has seen a number of national cricketers excel in the annual battle but the ground the match is played has remained in the same old situation, struggling to breath for some extra space. Surrounded by several Public Institutions in Kalutara, the Public Ground is probably the smallest cricket ground in the whole of the Western Province. With the coastal railway tracks to its west and a court house to its east the ground doesn’t seem to expand for yet another half century. Wimal Weerawansa blamed the political authority of the area for keeping a blind eye to this problem.

"Not a single politician in the area who held the political authority could give an answer to the problem. The problem has lasted for decades. Those who have held the Political Authority of the area should be responsible for this problem," he said.

Although Weerawansa doesn’t have fond memories of the Big Match he cherishes so dear to his heart one school match he played.

"I still remember a match where we met St. Servatius’ College Matara. St. Servatius’ scored over 300 runs and we could manage only to score over 200 runs in the first innings. One Sanath Jayasuriya scored quick centuries in both innings. We were at the receiving end but we admired the way Jayasuriya batted. We thought what an asset he could become for Sri Lanka. He scored his runs effortlessly. With minimum effort and not tiring his body, he scored runs quickly."

While admiring Jayasuriya, Weerawansa, whose career best score is a just 70 runs has a unique performance against the cricket icon Jayasuriya which he can proudly relate to his offspring.

"Jayasuriya was not a spinner then. He was a medium pacer. And I had the liberty of scoring four fours against him in one of his overs. I still cherish that moment. I scored all the boundaries in the same fashion. Though we couldn’t win the match, I scored 40 runs in the second innings and put up over 150 runs for the first wicket."

A politician and now a rebel within his own party, Weerawansa had his rebellious acts as a schoolboy too. "When I first played cricket my parents didn’t know it. I didn’t have their consent to play cricket. I did tell them that I was playing cricket. I only told them after I had cemented my place in the team. Many things have happened in life in that manner," said Weerawansa.

Hailing from Kalutara, Weerawansa is in a unique club of elite politicians along with former president J. R. Jayawardena who have played Big Match cricket. There is a vast difference in the characters of the two and the battles they played in. While J. R. Jayawardena played in the historic Battle of the Blues Big Match which has well passed 100 editions now, Weerawansa played in the Battle of the Mangosteens which could be classed as a battle of the underprivileged. However, very few politicians have played Big Match cricket. Wimal Weerawans and J. R. Jayawardena are elite members of that club and Weerawansa has no regrets of being in that club with a past politician of a rival political party for one reason. "As long as that doesn’t categories me politically in one group with J. R. Jayawardena, I don’t regret being in that club," said Weerawansa adding more emphasis on the word ‘Politically’.

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