How Tissera masterminded Sri Lanka’s only ‘Test’ win in India


Michael Tissera was appointed Ceylon’s captain for the 1964 tour of India at the age of 25. Some smart decisions by Tissers saw Sri Lanka win the third unofficial Test match in that tour played at Ahmedabad. (Picture credit, The Papare)

by Rex Clementine

Can Dinesh Chandimal record Sri Lanka’s maiden Test win in India remains the question in all cricket fans’ minds. Before him, many Sri Lankan captains like Bandula Warnapura, Duleep Mendis, Arjuna Ranatunga, Marvan Atapattu and Kumar Sangakkara have tried and failed. India remains Sri Lanka’s impregnable final frontier. In fact, Sri Lanka’s record in India is awful. Of the 17 matches they have played in India, seven have been drawn and ten have ended in defeats. The only captain to win a ‘Test’ match in India is Michael Tissera.

When Tissera was appointed captain of Ceylon in 1964, there were quite a few murmurs. Tissera was only 25 and several other seniors like H. I. K. Fernando, Abu Fuard and Stanley Jayasinghe had been overlooked for captaincy.

There was silent opposition for him being named the successor of C. I. Gunasekara. The elite versus non-elite clash was predominant those days. While Tissera was from the posh S. Thomas’ College the others who were overlooked were from St. Peter’s, Wesley and Nalanda respectively.

But once the team landed in India, everyone supported the captain.

It was clear why the selectors had opted for Tissera. He wasn’t the most outstanding batsman at school level, but he was an excellent leader.

His employment in the tea trade had given him an opportunity to make trips to far off places like New Zealand where he had played First Class cricket. As the captain of NCC, he had brought in professionalism and a new culture. Prior to him, things such as team meetings were hardly heard of in domestic cricket.

The two-month tour to India comprised three unofficial Test matches and five First Class games. Ceylon had lost the first two Tests but the final Test in Ahmedabad was a memorable one.

"The entire first day’s play was lost due to rain. The play got underway only in the afternoon on day two. India won the toss and batted first and it was clear that the wicket was going to deteriorate fast. On the third day, we were batting in our first innings and were still 48 runs behind India when Michael decided to declare overnight," Mano Ponniah, who opened batting in that game said in an interview with Sunday Island.

"It was a superb decision," Ponniah recalled.

"The play was to start at 9:30 a.m. on the final day and Michael knew our fast bowlers, Norton Fredrick and Darryl Lieversz, would enjoy the conditions as there was dew. He was proved right as India were shot out for 66 before lunch. By the time we went out to bat, the sun had come out and it wasn’t that difficult," Ponniah added.

"India were a far superior side. It was a great learning experience for us on how to play four-day cricket. Our domestic cricket those days lasted one and half days. We were flamboyant and would go for our shots, but that tour gave us a good taste of real First Class cricket," Ponniah, who later went onto play First Class cricket for Cambridge University, pointed out.

"As a youngster, I had looked up to these Indian players. Playing against them was priceless. Nawab of Pataudi was India’s captain. He was a huge name by then. Great wristy player he was and an outstanding leader. He had become Indian captain by the age of 21 and certainly one of the finest captains produced by India. His father had played Test cricket for both England and India," Ponniah further said.

Ranjit Fernando, the wicketkeeper batsman, was the youngest player on tour, aged 20 then.

"It rained heavily and unlike the modern day they didn’t have covers. So the pitch was like a mud hole. Trevelyan Edward was fielding at short leg and he got hit in the second ball of the Indian innings. He had to be carried off the field and we had to play the game with just ten players," Fernando recalled.

"Stanley Jayasinghe was playing for Leicestersihre those days and he joined the tour with a massive reputation. He murdered the bowling those days," recalled Fernando.

"We had a problem as our opener Edward was injured. So Michael decided to open batting with Abu Fuard. Having Abu open the batting was a blessing in disguise as he was a superb leaver of the ball. He knew if the ball was half an inch outside the off-stump. So on that kind of deteriorating wicket, his skill was crucial for us. He made a fine 40 when we were chasing 112 for victory," Fernando recalled.

At 77 for one, Ceylon needed 35 runs to complete a historic win. Jayasinghe was perhaps complacent and was dismissed playing a rash shot. Then there was a mini collapse as Sri Lana slumped to 96 for six.

With Edward unable to bat, there was real danger that Sri Lanka couldn’t get to the target, but Tissera kept his composure and brought up the victory with a boundary.

"Nawab of Pataudi was a wonderful man. We as youngsters could learn a lot from him. There was great camaraderie between the two teams. There were some big names in the Indian side like Dilip Sardesai, Farrokh Engineer, B. S. Chandrasekhar, M. L. Jaisimha, Chandu Borde and Hanumant Singh."

"That was the first step towards us gaining Test status, I would say," assessed Fernando.

Jayasinghe scored 318 runs in the three Tests at an average of 53.00. He took nine wickets in the Ahmedabad Test. Tissera finsihed the series with 249 runs at 49.80.

What happened after that -

Impressed by Ceylon’s excellent show in India, MCC offered the country a two-month tour of United Kingdom. Ceylon were to play 17 First Class matches on that tour. Twelve of those games were against all the county sides, two against Cambridge and Oxford, and three games were against Ireland, Scotland and MCC.

But there was a problem. At a selection committee meeting, the selectors Danasiri Weerasingha and H. I. K. Fernando got themselves selected into the team. Another member of the selection panel, Chandra Schaffter, one of the respected voices in cricket even these days, disagreed and resigned as a selector.

Weerasingha and Fernando weren’t prepared to change their minds. All hell broke loose and the tour never happened.

Had Ceylon made that tour, the country could have received Test status much earlier.

After that incident, a new rule was introduced. All teams that were selected to represent Sri Lanka had to be approved by the Minister of Sports.

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