Bertie Wijesinha cricketer nonpareil | Daily News

Bertie Wijesinha cricketer nonpareil

Bertie Wijesinha the cricketer
Bertie Wijesinha the cricketer

Bertie Wijesinha and cricket are synonymous. There is hardly a role in cricket this octogenarian has not fulfilled. Wijesinha was the oldest living Sri Lankan cricketer at 96 until his demise yesterday. C Ievers Gunasekara who passed away at the age of 90 in 2010 and Wijesinha were of the same age with Wijesinha being older by just two months. Wijesinha was born on May 24, 1920.

Whenever these so-called ‘Big Matches’ are played between two time-honoured schools Royal and S. Thomas’, the name of Wijesinha is bound to surface for the impact he made as a schoolboy at S. Thomas’ between 1936 and 1939. In those four years he distinguished himself as an all-rounder par excellence and it was due to the lack of international competition during the forties and fifties that cricketers of his calibre failed to get the due recognition and failed to be ranked with some of the world’s best all-rounders of that period like Keith Miller and Vinoo Mankad.

Playing in his first Royal-Thomian encounter at the age of 15 in 1936 is a memory which Wijesinha cherishes very much even today. “We live on those memories. I remember I happened to go in when 6 wickets were down for 65 and Norman Siebel was batting at the other end. When I got out at 57 we had passed the 200-run mark. Siebel went onto score 151 not out,” Wijesinha said in an interview.

“That innings set off my career. From there onwards I never had to look back. I went on getting better and better because the love for the game was always there. It had not so much to do well but to be a part of the team was the greatest joy we had. It gave me a lot of satisfaction and to perform well was a bonus,” he said.

The following year (1937), Wijesinha scored yet another fifty (55) and then proceeded to bowl the Thomians to a three-wicket win taking a match bag of seven wickets, baffling the Royal batting with his right-arm medium-pace and spin. Royal hit back in 1938 to avenge that defeat thrashing S Thomas’ by an innings. Wijesinha’s contribution was 0 and 22 with the bat and two wickets. In his final year (1939) as captain, the Thomians defeated a strong Royal team comprising CI Gunasekara, the Kretser brothers EF and RL and Edward Kelaart by five wickets. Wijesinha signed off in style hitting twin fifties (63 and 70) and capturing four wickets in the match. Wijesinha’s other contemporaries at Royal were Lucien de Zoysa, Pat McCarthy and Sathi Coomaraswamy.

While at school Wijesinha also played cricket for SSC. One of the matches which stand out in his memory is against Tamil Union in the forties. “SSC had lost six wickets and I joined CI Gunasekara and we carried the total to 212. I happened to get a 100 and we managed to get 300 in the end. We won that game and it is one innings that stands out.”

Looking back over the years Wijesinha said the game gave him a great deal of pleasure. “It was an honour in those days to play for the country. We had no monetary inducements and we found it very difficult to combine work and play.”

“My first international match was against West Indies in 1948 and I was teaching at S. Thomas’. When I asked for permission to leave for the match from the warden of the school he said, ‘oh yes, Bertie you can go but you must teach two periods before you go’. I was living in Mt. Lavinia and after teaching two periods I had to rush with my clothes and bag to the main road to catch a bus to go to Bambalapitiya and from there another bus to go to Borella. Then walk from Borella junction to the P Sara Oval (Colombo Oval then). We thought nothing of it in those days, occasionally we got a lift from somebody but it was part and parcel of the days work,” said Wijesinha.

Another incident Wijesinha recalled was when he was employed as Sports Editor of the ‘The Daily News’ at Lake House. “We played in an era for the love of the game. We went through a lot of hardships. Being a newspaperman I had unusual hours of work. I used to play in matches and go back and complete the sports pages.

After playing in an international match I had to return to Lake House and look after the work there and sometimes I didn’t finish till 10 pm. I had to go back the next day and play cricket. We had no transport in those days and we travelled on bicycle or public transport. Even to go for cricket practices I had to take an hour off from work, go for practice and come back and continue the work. It was generally a hard life.”

Wijesinha had a desire to not only play the game but also to write about it. So when the post of Sports Editor fell vacant in 1953 he applied for it and got the job. He held it till 1972 and quit when the establishment was taken over by the government.

“I had a desire to write something about the game which seemed to have been neglected in those days. There were no essays on cricket only the scores and description of play. I felt there was something lacking there which I would like to rectify and when I got the opportunity I seized upon it. The response was very good I never had any feedback so I gather what I wrote was acceptable.”

Wijesinha also coached his alma mater from 1946-1953 and Trinity College from 1971 to 1976 before migrating to England where he spent ten years doing a clerical job at NAAFI (Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes). Along with one of his contemporaries Lucien de Zoysa, they formed a unique partnership providing ball-by-ball cricket commentaries on radio for 30 years on the Royal-Thomian and international cricket matches played by Sri Lanka.

Reflecting on the game then and now Wijesinha said the game had improved in leaps and bounds and it was more professional today. “We played as amateurs entirely for the love of the game. Now it has become professional and so the standard naturally has improved.

“We had an international match once in two years or when a team was passing through. Players like FC de Saram, Sargo Jayawickrama, M Sathasivam, CI Gunasekara, Sathi Coomaraswamy didn’t get the opportunities that the present day cricketers enjoy. If the opportunities were given at the time our cricket would have improved naturally because we were willing to learn. Whatever standards we achieved we were always willing to learn and improve on it so we used to read a lot,” said Wijesinha.

“We just went and practiced there was no coach or support teams. When we stepped onto the field we try to remember what we had read about them, their strong points and so on. The only way of information about the opposition was by reading about them. I would stress that during our time we did a lot of reading. We read everything about cricket that was available and newspaper cuttings of articles written by international writers.

“We sometimes went into a match without having met many of the players in the team. There were times the captain didn’t know the names of some of the players. It was ridiculous the captain hadn’t met some of the players till he got onto the field of play. Once you got onto the field we got to know each other.”

If there is one form of cricket that Wijesinha detested it was the limited-over and Twenty20.

“I don’t like limited-over cricket in whatever form. It is a travesty of the game. Twenty20 is a mockery of the game. It is the greatest tragedy that has happened to cricket. Of course there is a lot of money in it that’s why they are all playing,” Wijesinha said.

“Limited-over and T20 cricket has made bowlers to become more defensive, they are bowling not to get wickets but to stop getting hit and therefore the standard drops whereas in a normal game you try all your tricks to get wickets.

I hate to mention names but see what has happened to Ajantha Mendis. He’s been found out and he is not as effective as he has been because he has been exposed to the limited-over and T20 games. He has to bowl defensively whereas in a normal game he bowls to attack.

“People might say that I am old fashioned then I would say the difference between listening to classical music and to a baila. I am old fashioned listening to good classical music and not liking the baila that doesn’t make me old fashioned, does it? It’s a matter of taste,” Wijesinha once said.


 

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