If memory serves me right, in 1984/85, the Board of Control for Cricket organised a Quandrangular ODI Tournament - Champions, Rest, Mercantile and Nationalised Services. At that time, I was attached to the Bank of Ceylon as Public Relations Manager.
BOC were the Nationalised Services cricket champions. They were invited to play in this prestigious tournament. Our team was captained by former Kingswoodian Asoka Perera and I opened the batting for Bank of Ceylon.
The champion SSC versus Bank of Ceylon match was played at the picturesque Sinhalese Sports Club grounds.
Winning the toss, Bank of Ceylon took first lease of the wicket. SSC boasted a formidable, star studded team. Some of the players who represented SSC were C. I. Gunasekera, the Wettimuny brothers, Mitra, Sunil, Sidat, ‘King of the Swing’ Mevan Peiris, Kusil Gunesekera, T. M. S. Saldin, and Michael de Zoysa are some of the players who come to mind.
This encounter was my Swan Song. I really enjoyed my three decades of cricket, playing the role of wicketkeeper/opener at Nalanda, University, the club circuit, Education Department and Bank of Ceylon. I was determined to end my career on a memorable note. I put my head down, concentrated and started building my innings. I faced 32 overs, scored 77 runs. Unfortunately, I was ruled out, LBW, off the bowling of ‘Maestro’ C. I. Gunasekera. The ball touched my bat and hit the pad when I tried to drive it to mid-on. While I was walking back to the pavilion, C. I. Gunasekera patted my back and said, "well played, timely knock."
I was on cloud nine, as this compliment was paid by no lesser person than one of the greatest of cricketers produced by this country – C. Ivers Gunasekera, who was my cricket idol.
C. I. Gunasekera was a colossus. He was the most attractive, charming, hard hitting batsman I have seen.
He was born on July 14, 1920. He joined Royal College, played his first Royal-Thomian match in 1938 and scored 26 runs batting at number five. The following year, in the Royal-Thomian, he scored 59 in the first innings.
C. I. was a born athlete. In addition to cricket, he was an excellent rugby and tennis player. He joined the Law College in 1940 and played cricket for SSC. However, he did not pursue law but joined the Army as a Second Lieutenant. In 1946, he played occasionally for SSC. Later, CI played for SSC under the captaincy of F. C. de Saram. He really started to blossom during that 1947/1949 period, with three centuries. He scored 104 against B. R. Heyn’s XI, playing for F. C. de Saram’s XI and made 125 retired versus Saracens. Representing Ceylon, he blasted Pakistan, scoring 120 runs.
He was called to play in a trial game to pick the All Ceylon XI to play Bradman’s ‘Invincibles’ who were on their way for an Ashes series in England.
In the trial, he was associated in a massive partnership of 166 with Sargo Jayawickrama and scored 84 in the second trial. Due to bad weather, CI did not get the opportunity to bat against Bradman’s Aussie team.
C. I. Gunasekera first real baptism against fire was against the mighty West Indies in 1949. West Indies in their run spree amassed 462/2 (Everton Weekes 133 n.o, Clyde Walcott 125 n.o, Alan Rae 116 and George Crewe 77) at the Colombo Oval, which was a batting paradise.
Mahes Rodrigo, who captained Royal in 1946 missing half a century by two runs, in the ‘Battle of the Blues’, scored 135 n.o. against West Indies. He was associated with C. I. Gunasekera in a partnership of 114 runs. In the second essay, C. I. hammered 72 in 95 minutes which included eight hits to the ropes. In 1949, he scored a brilliant 120 against Pakistan.
He joined Walker & Sons Limited as a Manager, where he served with distinction. He was a gentleman of the highest order; unassuming and always stood for fairplay and justice.
Attack is the best form of Defence
I presume his eye, quick footwork and his batting philosophy, ‘attack is the best form of defence’ made him the number one blaster in cricket at the time.
While the Bank of Ceylon - SSC match was in progress, CI and Kushil Gunasekera, former Anandian and today a dedicated cricket and Social Service promoter, who developed the Seenigama area on a massive scale, were at the wicket, building a big partnership. If my memory serves me right, CI made a power-packed 78 and Kushil a half a century for SSC. I was fielding at point. I stopped a powerful square cut of CI and my palm was blue for a week. His defence was sound and he always dictated terms to the bowlers.
While I was playing for Saracens under Gerry Gooneratne, my beloved coach at Nalanda, in his team meetings, he used to tell the team, that when playing against SSC, to get CI early.
"If we get CI, half the battle is won," he used to say.
I still remember how he hoisted my college team mate Mahawatta Premaratne (off-spin) over the rail track at Rifle Green grounds, for a massive six.
CI was a fastish leg spinner, who used to mix his googlies. He was the most difficult spinner I have ever faced.
Darling of the spectators
In his distinguished career, playing for All Ceylon for nearly two decades, he became the ‘Darling of all Spectators’. People used to flock to the SSC to witness his heroics.
In early 1960s, the England team skippered by Ted Dexter, on their way to Australia. played a whistle stop game in Ceylon. In that match CI thrashed Ray Illingworth and Fred Titmus, hitting five sixers over the sightscreen.
In 1961, Ritchie Benaud’s Australians played Ceylon at the Oval. He had a left-arm spinner in Lindsay Kline. CI hammered Kline for 27 runs in one over, with towering sixes which he deposited over the sightscreen and ended poor Kline’s Test cricket career. He played only 13 Test matches. It reminds me of Arjuna Ranatunga, who ended Indian leg-spinner Sivaramakrishnan’s career by thrashing him all around the wicket. Today, Sivaramakrishnan is a cricket commentator.
C. I. Gunasekera had the prime distinction of playing for the Commonwealth XI which included Graeme Hole, Neil Harvey (Tests-79-innings-137, 10 not outs, 6149 runs HS-205-Average 48.41) and the late Keith Miller;
Tests-55-innings 87, 7 n.o, 2958 runs, HS 147, Av. 36.97).
It was one of the best batting displays witnessed by the fortunate ones present. Miller and Gunasekera blasted the MCC attach to pieces.
Miller and Gunesekera were in the 90s. Gunasekera beat Miller in the race to the century, when as usual, he hammered a six over mid off and reached the magical three figure. Later, Miller got his century.
If you think for a moment, it was men like C. I. Gunesekera, F. C. de Saram, Sargo Jayawickrama, Bertie Wijesinha, Gerry Gooneratne, Malcolm Spittle, Vernon Prins, Stanley Jayasinghe and Abu Fuard who helped Sri Lanka gain Test status in 1981. We obtained Test status due to the efforts of all the past cricketers.
He was a man of many parts. He was a fine conversationalist. He was a lover of vintage cars. He captained Ceylon and was a gentleman par excellence.
His beloved wife Doreen, who passed away in January 2007, was the wind behind his wings. He was a dutiful husband and dutiful father.
Some day or other, Conroy Ivers Gunasekera’s name will be written in gold in cricket’s ‘Mahavamsa’.
I salute the Living Legend! Sir, may you live long and may God Bless you!