Bertie Wijesinha - Last of the Mohicans


Bertie Wijesinha

by Mahinda Wijesinghe


It was US author James Fennimore Cooper (1789 – 1851) who wrote the ‘Last of the Mohicans’ in 1826; A historical treatise referring to life in the American frontier during the 18th century. Cooper relates the tragic story of ‘Hawkeye’ (nothing do with DRS!) growing up with the native American Mohican people – after his own parents were killed- and who were fast diminishing in numbers and hence the title of his book.

Reginald Bertram Wijesinha (best known as Bertie), an icon of our country’s cricket who passed away, aged 96 on April 8 was laid to rest on April 12. Just a few weeks earlier Bertie and Dorothy celebrated their 68th wedding anniversary on March 30.

Bertie’s gentle character, is reminiscent of one of the characters in Cooper’s narrative, namely Tamanend or Tammy, a popular personality in 18th century in Philadelphia who "assumed mythical status as an icon for peaceful politics of negotiation."

Thankfully Bertie did not dabble in politics of any sort but despite being a player, coach, writer, and radio commentator. He was just like Tamanend or Tammy, a lover of peace and friendship all his long life.

When Bertie passed away he surely was last of the Mohicans after the likes of Sathasivam, Derrick de Saram, Sargo Jayawickrema, C.I. Gunasekara, Mahes Rodrigo, Ben Navaratne, ‘Koo’ de Saram, D.S. Jayasundera, Malcolm Spittel, Vernon Prins et al, who must now be gracing the Elysian fields up yonder.

As a right handed batsman and bowler, he first played for S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia, in the ‘Big’ Match against Royal College in 1936. Coming in to bat at No.8, when his College was teetering at 65/6, the teenager (57) supported Norman Siebel (151*) in a partnership of 136 runs and helped STC to save face with a total of 286. Of course Siebel established an individual batting record, but legend has it to mention less about the first ball he faced! In 1939 Bertie came up with twin fifties (63 & 70) and opened the bowling too with success and STC coasted to a five-wicket win.

In effect here was a young cricketing all-rounder capable of brushing shoulders with the best. From the 1940’s, after joining SSC he was an almost automatic choice to represent Ceylon when Australia or England passed through to stretch their ‘sea-legs’.

As a player (and man) not for him to blaze away with the bat just as ‘CI’ did not bat with panache as ‘Satha’ did; no he was his own man. The gentle Bertie was a stalwart though his supreme services to cricket were as a coach.

A doyen of our cricket, Michael Tissera enthused: "Bertie was a very fine all-rounder and technically he was very good. All his life he coached with his heart."

Sidath Wettimuny related: "Whatever skills we learnt from cricket we owe it to him. He was a fabulous coach, the best in the business. His knowledge and the way he transferred that knowledge to us was fantastic."

Former Sri Lanka and SSC captain Anura Tennekoon described Wijesinha as a gentle person who in his own way taught the fundamentals of the game properly.

"He helped me to brush up my technique from school to club level. He was very good at putting the basics right of a cricketer whether it be batting or bowling, that was his main strength," said Tennekoon.

These are high encomiums indeed from players who were an ornament to the game.

There would have been scores more who benefited from this gentle giant. Along with that versatile raconteur, Lucien de Zoysa can we ever forget the pioneering duo on the commentary box saying: "Over to you Bertie" Or "Over to you Lucien?"

Sadly there aren’t any more of his ilk and now sadly somebody has broken his mould as well.

May the grass lay gently over you Bertie.

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