A True ‘Test’ament to Cricket
By Palitha Perera
The untimely demise of Bandula Warnapura, a true legend of Sri Lankan cricket, has undoubtedly created an unfillable void in the local cricket arena. The humble man that was Bandula studied at Nalanda College, the same alma mater of mine. In the 1960s, Bandula had already gained some reputation as a formidable school cricketer. Back then the principal of the school was M.W. Karunananda.
One day the principal called Ananda Dharmapriya and I, both of who had already sat for our A Levels. “Instead of wasting time until the results come, take two classes and start teaching,” the principal said. I was given a science class and Bandula was in that same class, sitting at the last row, being a true backbencher. Whenever I turned to write something on the blackboard, the disturbing voices almost always came from this very last row.
This is my first memory of Bandula. Coming into the ‘70s, Bandula was the best school cricketer at the time. Sports sections of almost all daily and Sunday, English and Sinhala papers would be filled with colours Bandula had shown on the field that week. In 1971, Bandula captained Nalanda College cricket team. The Ananda – Nalanda annual cricket encounter or the Big Match was only two days away and back then, I was working at Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation as the Features Producer in the Sinhala Section. I was doing my ‘homework’ readying myself to deliver the live broadcast of the Big Match.
Ananda team was practicing at the NCC while the team Nalanda was practicing at the Oval (P. Saravanamuttu Stadium) where the Big Match was to be played. After interviewing Anandians at the NCC I went to the Oval to meet Bandula and his team. Back then, the record for most runs scored in the Ananda – Nalanda Big Match was held by the Nalandian P. M. Jayathilaka who had scored 111 runs in 1926. In 1950, the record was equalled by Karl Obeysekara. I approached Bandula who was training and asked if he’d be able to break the 111 most runs record that year.
“Let’s give it a try,” Bandula said humbly. In the Big Match Bandula scored an unbeaten 118, rewriting record books and fulfilling expectations many had put on him. Bandula left school that year and started working at a textile mill in Wellawatte as the manager of the welfare unit. Bandula’s home was also in Wellawatte. His father was the consultant specialist Dr. Warnapurage Leelaratne Fernando and his mother was Romlin Rajapakshe. The Warnapura family had five children; Bandula, his two elder brothers, his elder sister, and his younger sister.
Bandula’s father was from Wellawatte but his mother was from Rambukkana. Come every school vacation, the Warnapura children would go to their mother’s hometown and spend the vacation enjoying the vacation away from the hustle and bustle of Colombo. After leaving Nalanda College Bandula started his cricket career at Bloomfield – the small man’s club. Back then lots of English-speaking cricketers from schools such as Royal, S. Thomas’. St. Joseph’s and St. Peter’s joined SSC, NCC, and CCC While the middle class opted for Bloomfield.
Despite being fluent in English Bandula opted for Bloomfield and it should be mentioned that this language skills of Bandula helped him immensely down the line in his international cricket career. In the mid ‘70s, Bandula was one of the best opening batsmen in club cricket. In 1975, Sri Lanka took part in its first Cricket World Cup led by the captain Anura Thennakoon and Bandula was one of the two openers in that team.
In the first 60-over ODI Sri Lanka played Bandula opened batting and scored the first international boundary for Sri Lanka. In 1976, the West Indies team toured in Sri Lanka, led by Alvin Kallicharran, I was one of the radio commentators for the first match which was held in Galle. Sri Lanka batted first and at a time when head gears were not used commonly, it was a huge challenge for Sri Lankans to face the W’indies’ phase attack, the most formidable of the world. I saw how the 100-mile-per-hour bouncer delivered by Sylvester Clarke hit Bandula right on the head, I saw how he fell on the pitch like a cut down tree, and I saw how he was carried off the pitch into an ambulance to be taken to the hospital.
While witnessing all these with a heavy heart I continued commentating. Listening to my radio commentary panicked parents and siblings of Bandula came to Colombo National Hospital to see Bandula. The medical opinion of the doctors who examined Bandula that day was, had the ball been off the mark by two inches he would have not made it. In 1976, Bandula flirted with death and came back to tell the story but he wasn’t so lucky in 2021. In 1979, just before Sri Lanka received the prestigious ‘Test’ status, Sri Lanka played against India and marked a remarkable victory.
Bandula led team Sri Lanka in place of injured Thennakoon and it should be mentioned Bandula’s captaincy which marked a historic win helped the decision makers immensely when granting Sri Lanka the Test status. Soon Bandula matured from a fiery opener of Sri Lanka to the intelligent captain. One of the unique qualities of Bandula the captain was that his ability to take correct decisions at just the right time. In 1980, my fellow SLBCer and old Mahindian Gokula Samaranayaka invited me to do commentary for Mahinda – Richmond Big Match.
For the first time in history I wanted to involve a specialist in the commentary box and both Gokula and I wanted Bandula to be our specialist. When invited, Bandula was apprehensive at first but later agreed to come to Galle with us saying, “Palitha, my Girlfriend is from Galle, I can also meet her and come.” And thus, Bandula commenced his commentary career in his future wife Hemamali Arambewela’s hometown. Bandula slowly but steadily matured into a good, experienced captain from his initial role of the opener.
Leading his club, Bandula managed to win two consecutive inter-club championships to his club, Bloomfield. In 1981, Bandula marked another historic milestone in Sri Lankan Cricket by leading the Sri Lankan team to a huge victory over the visiting Australian team. After losing the first game convincingly Sri Lanka faced Australia on the second match at the SCC Grounds. Bandula’s team managed to limit the strong Australians to 189 runs and along with Sidath Weththamuni, Bandula came to the pitch to chase down 190. Bandula completely disregarded the fiery phase attack of Australia comprising the likes of Jeff Lawson and Rodney Hogg and along with Weththamuni, he posted 100 runs for the first wicket.
Weththamuni departed for 46 but Bandula continued to score a 106 and won the game by seven wickets. His century was coloured with 10 boundaries and three maximums. This magnificent innings forced the international cricket pundit Robin Marlor to eat his own words who was adamant that Sri Lanka should not be granted the Test status. Back then the Chairman of the Cricket Board was Gamini Dissanayake. In 1981 he went to England to take part in the ICC meeting and came back with the Test status for Sri Lanka.
On his return Minister Dissanayake brought two ties; one for him and other for myself as a token of gratitude. The first test match Sri Lanka played was at P. Saravanamuttu Oval on 17 February 1981 against Keith Fletcher’s strong English side. After the coin toss Sri Lanka came to field to bat first. The first international test delivery of Sri Lankan cricket was faced by Bandula who let it hit the guard of the front leg. The power and strength of Bandula’s right-handed batting mostly came from his right leg. Two weeks prior to the game a chunk was surgically removed due to diabetes from this very leg. This surgery played a vital role in the rest of the 40 years of Bandula’s life as well as his cricketing career.
Bandula scored the first test run for Sri Lanka but the shortcomings in batting department cost Sri Lanka the victory of its first test match. After another series with Pakistan Sri Lanka toured India and in the first test match the hosts only needed 175 runs to win in their second innings. I was there in the commentary box giving live TV commentary and everyone thought the 175-target would be a cakewalk for India. However, Bandula had other plans.
Showing true colours of his exceptional captaincy, Bandula rendered mighty India helpless and at one point India was facing a sure loss with seven wickets down for 135 runs. In the end, India managed to crawl past the winning line thanks to their captain Sunil Gavaskar. After the game I went to the India dressing room and Gavaskar was addressing his teammates with one pad still on his leg. “Look at this boy’s captaincy. There is much we can learn from him.” Gavaskar’s words of praise still echo in my ears.
Cricket was becoming hugely popular in the country and the players were getting a lot of spotlight. The captain Bandula was having lots of clashes with the Cricket Board trying to fulfil the needs of his fellow teammates. Later on I got to know that Bandula was not at all impressed with the authorities. This disappointment culminated in a manner of Bandula and a few senior players visiting South Africa, mid-domestic competition. This rebellious act did not sit well with Dissanayake at all and he took a stern decision to give a 25 year ban for all the cricketers involved.
However, the media reporting of this shocking decision was somewhat diluted, courtesy the invisible hand of Dissanayake. Meanwhile, I was invited by the Editor of Kalpana Magazine Gunadasa Liyanage to do an article about this controversial trip to South Africa. Back then Bandula was running a sports equipment shop in Hunupitiya Cross Road. I met him there and received a detailed description about the whole trip. After reading my article Liyanage’s face lit up and he wanted to have some nice photos to go with the article as well.
I remember the article was an instant his and the 1984 February edition of Kalpana magazine was sold out like hotcakes. Soon after the article was published New Zealand toured in Sri Lanka and this was the time when Sri Lanka was under the fear of Richard Hadlee. At Asgiriya, the Sri Lankan team led by Dulip Mendis suffered a humiliating defeat, much to the annoyance of fans that the team had to travel to Colombo for the next match under Police Protection. Amidst this calamities someone had tried to fish in murky waters by telling Dissanayake that it was my article on Kalpana Magazine that had led to this fan unrest.
Dissanayake put CID on the investigation and I was called to the ‘fourth floor’ where I was questioned for over four hours. Throughout the duration of the interview I was directly and indirectly asked how much I had taken from Bandula to do that article. After myself, Liyanage was called in for questioning and he had tabled a letter by Mendis to Tony Opatha mentioning how then Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa had taken the responsibility of the players’ protection. It was not hard for anyone to understand what that letter meant.
This was a time when the competition for the next Presidential Election was getting stiffer. It was apparent that Premadasa had wanted to tarnish the reputation and popularity of Dissanayake who was honoured for bringing the test status to Sri Lanka. After the statement of Liyanage, the investigation was promptly stopped. In 1992, Bandula, Vajira Wijewardena and myself went to Pakistan to cover a cricket tournament.
Our specialist pundit was Bandula. During one ODI an unforgettable incident took place. The commentary box for this gave was on the third floor of a building but unfortunately it was only accessed through an aluminium ladder which didn’t even have a handrail. While Vajira and Bandula quickly went up I barely managed to climb up and the experience was so traumatising that I didn’t even climb down to have a wee, let alone meals.
After the game Bandula and Vajira beat me to go down and when I was about to descend about 15,000 spectators, led by Bandula, had gathered to witness my embarrassing climb down. As I touched ground after much trouble I was greeted by a sound hooting instigated by none other than Bandula. Wherever Bandula was it sure wasn’t boring. He was a master storyteller and had an endless supply of anecdotes at his disposal. Departed untimely last week from us was this beautiful man, friend, and the entertainer. Bandula, may you attain the supreme bliss of nirvana.
(Translated by Sanuj Hathurusinghe)