Today marks a week for the Easter Sunday terror attacks in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa that killed 253 and injured at least 500 people. It’s also a week since Sidath Wettimuny, the former Sri Lanka opening batsman arrived in Mumbai on a visit. “We …
Today marks a week for the Easter Sunday terror attacks in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa that killed 253 and injured at least 500 people. It's also a week since Sidath Wettimuny, the former Sri Lanka opening batsman arrived in Mumbai on a visit. "We still can't get to grips on how, why and where this came from. It's an absolute shocker. I console and comfort myself by thinking terrorism can never win. I am sure we Sri Lankans will get over this; we have to get over his," he says on the verandah of the Cricket Club of India.
Wettimuny, 62 is accompanying his wife Sharmini (chairperson of the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka) who was involved in Friday's South Asian Symphony Foundation concert at the NCPA. It is learnt that Sharmini helped former diplomat Nirupama Rao identify musicians from Sri Lanka.
He played 23 Tests, scored 1221 runs with two centuries at 29.07. The first of his three-figure scores came against Pakistan in a drawn Test in 1982 at Faisalabad. Two years after he became Sri Lanka's first Test centurion there, Wettimuny scored a glorious 190 in the one-off Test against England at Lord's where he batted for more than 10 hours.
Sidath Wettimuny during his memorable 190 against England at Lord's in 1984. Pic/Getty Images
Carrying his bat through the innings in the 1983 Christchurch Test for 63 against an attack comprising NZ's Richard Hadlee, Martin Snedden, Ewen Chatfield and Lance Cairns in swinging conditions was another commendable feat. Thanks to his 190 at Lord's, Wettimuny was named one of Wisden's five cricketers for 1984.
Silloo Medhora, his old friend in Mumbai, says he does a great rendition of Frank Sinatra's My Way. "If you want to call me that, yes. But I don't consider myself a singer," Wettimuny says with a chuckle when asked if he is a social singer.
No board ambitions
There is nothing to smile about when I ask him if he is involved in Sri Lankan cricket: "At the moment, no. I was involved in eight interims boards and I never wanted to contest cricket board elections. There is an elected board at the moment and I have no desire to be involved."
He reckons his country's cricket is reeling under poor administration. He emphasises, "The politics of cricket management has not brought out the best in our cricket. We have not nurtured our young talent at the 18, 19 and 23 age groups in a systematic way. We have lost a lot of good talent due to a lack of a good system.
"A lot of us (former players) have been insisting for the last 15-20 years that we must have a level which is better than club cricket, like your Ranji Trophy. But the people who are interested in the politics of the game have not worked to foster that system. We have a club-based voting system. To protect that voting system, no body has had the courage to make changes."
Wettimuny was one of the selectors who picked Sri Lanka's victorious 1996 World Cup team and though the islanders have made two World Cup finals (2007 and 2011) after that, Wettimuny believes the state of the game is, "rather worrying." He elaborates: "We have been sitting on our laurels for the last 10-15 years, thinking our cricket is good enough. Because we won the World Cup in 1996, we believed our club cricket was good enough to take us to where we needed to go. We have forgotten that the world is evolving, competition is evolving. We have stood still; not bothered to change with the times and make the necessary changes in our domestic cricket to facilitate and make sure that cricketers play at the right level domestically to compete at the international level."
Sri Lanka have been poor on the ODI cricket front, enduring a 0-3 defeat in New Zealand before a 0-5 shellacking in South Africa recently. Their performance across their last 25 ODIs is unflattering and is at the heart of their World Cup worries – won 6, lost 18 with one game abandoned. "I think we have been suffering from what I call the Jayasuriya syndrome. We try and bat as if we have a Jayasuriya up front, but we don't. If you look at our recent games especially in South Africa, we were often four down before the score reached 100.
'Batting like idiots'
"The batsmen are playing shots which shouldn't be played and we are just batting like idiots if I may use that word," says Wettimuny, who is glad to see the inclusion of batsman Dimuth Karunaratne as captain. "In England, you need a guy who can bat through. We need to get to 150 without losing more than two wickets, or maximum three. Then, do your best and hope for the best. Don't aspire to get 320. If we get 270-280-plus then we have a chance because there could be something in it for the bowlers on those wickets. We need to reverse our thinking and understand that losing wickets is the worst thing we can do," he says.
Wettimuny hails from a cricketing family. Like the Chappell family in Australia, the Wettimuny clan in Colombo had three brothers who represented Sri Lanka at the highest level — Sunil, Mithra and Sidath. Sunil opened the batting for Sri Lanka in the 1975 and 1979 World Cups. In 1975, he had his instep smashed by Jeff Thomson at the Oval. Duleep Mendis, who was struck on the head by Thomson, was admitted in the same London hospital as Sunil. "He (Sunil) spoke so much about that 1975 experience... he said he had never faced a spell of fast bowling like that.
A policeman arrived in Sunil's hospital room saying that he'd heard a certain Mr Thomson had assaulted him and asked if he wanted to press charges," Wettimuny laughs. Mithra, the second of the Wettimuny brothers played two Tests and led a Sri Lanka schoolboys team to India in 1969-70. While Sunil was an airline pilot, Mithra excelled in accountancy. Sidath did a bit of accountancy too before deciding to pursue his cricketing dreams. After his cricket retirement he ended up in the clothing industry. Mithra passed away earlier this year.
"Sunil was a huge inspiration. He was a fantastic opening batsman. He played cricket for the sheer joy of it, but the greatest inspiration was my father. He built the first indoor cricket net in Sri Lanka for us to play cricket. He got Bertie Wijesinghe, who was one of the best coaches in the country, to coach us in that indoor facility. Dad was that crazy over cricket," says Wettimuny, before passing on some pearls: "Dad said, 'Learn to play this game because it will teach you a lot about life.' He also said, 'Play the game and play it clean.' Unfortunately, he passed away the year before I captained my first XI team, in 1974 at the age of 49."
A six for his girlfriend
Wettimuny lived up to his father's teachings but one day he forgot about his 'keep the ball along the ground' advice. Sri Lanka were playing England at Taunton in the 1983 World Cup. His girlfriend was in England too and he told her if he sees her in the crowd, he'll hit a six. And that's what happened. He says: "Maybe I should not have done that. We were not professional cricketers in that sense. There was a lightness to which we played the game. I think we had more fun playing the game than (today's cricketers). Maybe, I did a crazy thing like that because I was enjoying the game."
Wettimuny may well arrive back home with a lump in his throat considering the recent terror attacks. But as a batsman, he knows that Sri Lanka needs to take fresh guard.
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