As a complete cricketer, successful captain and a leader, who possessed a colourful and charming personality during his playing days, this man resembled Imran Khan, the charismatic former Pakistan Cricket Captain. During the period 1951-1955, he was the most exciting, hard-hitting batting artist who dominated the playing field of Nalanda. I used to watch his heroics under the shady trees of Nalanda as a student. He was an instant hit and became my cricketing hero and idol.
I consider him as one of the best batting stars produced by Nalanda Vidyalaya.
His name is Amarasiri Gunasena.
Out of ‘All the Beautiful Boys’ who excelled at Nalanda – ‘Great Cricketing Thaksalawa’, from 1947-1960, Stanley Jayasinghe, Carl Obeysekera, Ashley De Silva, Amarasiri Gunasena, Chandrasiri Weerasinghe, Richard Lewis and Sarath Silva, my opening partner in 1957, were the best of the best as far as batting was concerned.
The outstanding bowlers that come to mind are D. C. Suriyaarachchi, W. J. Jayasuriya, my team mates Gamini Jayawickrema Perera that fine left arm paceman, who is presently a Parliamentarian, Mahawatte Premaratne and Mahinda Atulathmudali, the best off-spinner produced by Nalanda. Then, in the fielding department Arthur Silva and my team mate Nihal Amaradasa, another fine batsman and cover fielder and wicket keeper A. Dharmadasa, who was Stanley Jayasinghe’s wicket keeper in 1950/51, were outstanding.
Amarasiri captained the Under-12 team in 1946 and then the Under-15 team. He played from 1951 to 1955, captaining the U-15 team in 1955.
The youngest in the family which also included two girls, he was born to S. P. Gunasena and Miulawathie.
His first cricket coach was T. B. Naranpanawa, a teacher attached to Nalanda. Later he came under the watchful eyes of that great teacher, Prefect-of-Games and Master-in-Charge, T. Kandaswamy, our beloved ‘Disapamok.’
The Kandaswamy-Gooneratne Golden Era
The late Mr. Kandaswamy and Mrs. Kandaswamy looked after us like their own children. Mr. Kandaswamy was a strict disciplinarian. I still remember, how Mrs. Kandaswamy used to feed as at their residence. One incident which is etched in my mind is the day one leading cricketer was sent home by Mr. Kandaswamy as he was late for cricket practices. This great teacher taught not only Mathematics, English and Latin, but was also greatly instrumental in building our character. He was a great human being who possessed a golden heart.
Then, we are ever grateful to our ever green beloved coach Gerry Gooneratne, who served Nalanda from 1947-1982. He ushered in the ‘Golden Era of Cricket’ at Nalanda. He produced more than a dozen outstanding cricketers who represented Sri Lanka.
I am positive, all cricketers of our vintage were grateful to the above-mentioned teachers, coaches and administrators. Looking back, I am happy that I too contributed as Prefect of Games and Master-in-Charge, when serving as a Graduate Teacher at Nalanda and assisted in producing a few outstanding cricketers, such as Bandula Warnapura, Lalith Kaluperuma, Jayantha Seneviratne, Yohan Gunasekera, the late Sunil Jayasinghe, Anura Ranasinghe, Daya Sirisena who excelled in Sri Lanka and Canada and Nanda Perera, who excelled in Tamil Nadu and later in Hong Kong, was a fine all rounder.
In 1995, on a request made by the legendary Sunil Gavaskar, I nominated Mahela Jayawardane and Thilan Samaraweera to tour South Africa with the Bombay Gymkhana team, when they were captaining Nalanda and Ananda respectively.
Cricket, Music and Drama
Amarasiri was a man of many parts. His first love was cricket, the second was music and drama. He joined ‘Siriaiyaa’s Lama Pitiya’ as a tiny tot. Later, he sang with Indrani Wijebandara, Sriyani Amarasena and Anjeline Gunathilake and become a Radio artiste.
It was like an Alfred Hitchcock thriller.
Of all the school matches he played in, he considers the 1953 Big Match as the most memorable one.
"Ananda skipper Henry Seneviratne gave us an impossible target to get 165 runs in 120 minutes. We took up the challenge.
The openers, especially Chandra Mendis - who later joined the police and retired as a highly respected Deputy Inspector General of Police - gave us a good start. I put on two productive partnerships, one with Gamini Seneviratne and the other with Chandrasiri Weerasinghe. I hoisted one or two sixes. We chipped in with useful 30s and 40s. I believed that attack was the best form of defence. We had to beat the clock. Anyway, the last act was beautifully performed by Ananda de Zoysa, who later became a distinguished planter.
Ananda hit the winning hit in the last over. The ball whistled past the slip cordon to the boundary. Ananda De Soyza will be forever remembered for his boundary. Incidentally, that was the last Nalanda victory recorded. From 1953, for 56 years, Nalanda could not register a win against Ananda.
Amarasiri was a born cricketer. He was a natural. His knocks were incomplete without a couple of sixes. Whenever he played in an inter-school match at Nalanda Grounds, he used to deposit one or two balls at the adjoining premises at the All Saint’s Church end.
In one of the Big Matches at the Colombo Oval, he whacked a massive sixes that crashed into the scoreboard. The batsman at the non-strikers end was Richard Lewis, who later became a reputed and successful cricket coach at D. S. Senanayake MV, Colombo.
One day my good friend Richard related this story to me.
"Premasara, I am yet to see a hard-hitting batsman like Amara in the school cricket circuit. The beauty was that he picked the ‘Peach of a Ball’ and dispatched it over the boundary. I will never forget how he thrashed Nimal Jammita in the Big Match."
"The experts would suck in the breadth, shake their heads and tell me that I was hitting across the line. What is wrong with that, when I constantly hit the ball for four or six. I play my shots the best way I can for maximum effort. We must follow our natural instincts," stated Gunasena.
Who is a Great Player?
I presume there is a big difference between good players and great players. The great player may look unorthodox to good players, because they are able to improvise. Therefore, the great player can do what the good player cannot. The good player always relies on bad balls, while the great player takes good balls and turns them into bad balls. To ‘lesser mortals’ it looked unorthodox, but to a great player, it is normal.
Amarasiri Gunasena belongs to the distinguished category of great players.
He was a successful school cricket captain. Further, he skippered Nationalised Services with great success, when he was employed at the Petroleum Corporation. A captain has to be half a dozen men, all rolled into one. He has to have the nerve of a poker player; the poise of a financier; the human understanding of a psychologist; and the patience of a saint. Amarasiri possessed all these ingredients as a leader and his 1955 Nalanda team was a champion outfit.
The Fastest Century
From 1955-1960, Amarasiri Gunasena played Division One cricket for Nondescript Cricket Club. He played under players of the calibre of Malcolm Spittle and Vernon Prins. Some of his contemporaries were Stanley Jayasinghe, K. M. T. Perera, Malcolm Franke, Rienzie Perera, to name a few.
During the period he was playing for NCC, he recorded the fastest century of the season. His innings included five sixes and 10 fours. For this achievement, he was awarded the VVT Trophy.
Another interesting incident occurred at the NCC grounds. In this Sara match, Amarasiri was unbeaten on 65 at the end of the first day.
The following day, he had to record a duet with a female artiste at Radio Ceylon at 11.30 a.m.
"I told my skipper Vernon, that if I make it to three figures, I will retire and come to the pavilion. Vernon told me, Amarasiri, you cannot do that. Your first priority is the match. Once you get your hundred, take a fresh breath and continue. I obeyed his instructions. I hammered the ball all over the park. I never felt the time go by. By 11.20, I had scored 156 runs before I got out. Immediately I rushed to Radio Ceylon and recorded the song."
Amarasiri was not only a fine singer, but also a fine actor. He played a role in Sesha Palihakkara’s ballet ‘Mood and Movements’ and ‘Irida Pola’.
After leaving school, he joined Shell Company Limited. Ceylon skipper Sathi Coomaraswamy provided him employment at Shell. He was a tower of strength to Amarasiri Gunasena.
Titus Homer was another cricketer at Shell who helped Amarasiri Gunasena in his cricket career.
"Premasara, I must tell you frankly that Sathi Coomaraswamy helped me immensely to improve my standards. I am really grateful to that fine gentleman. I played for Shell under Coomaraswamy and it was really an experience."
Later, he played for Petroleum Corporation and captained the team with distinction. He captained the Nationalised Services cricket team later.
His two sons are Rajinda Gunsena, a reputed Graphic Designer in Canada and Milinda, who is in Sri Lanka attached to IBM.
It was rather unfortunate that during Amarasiri Gunasena’s era, there was no limited overs cricket played in Ceylon. If there were ODIs then, Amarasiri Gunasena would have been an automatic selection and he would have got his Ceylon colours.