Monday, August 1, 2011

A short history of Australian cricket in Sri Lanka, part 1

By Balanced Sports columnist, Ben Roberts.  The second part will be published later this week.

Sri Lanka, like most former and remaining British colonies, accepted cricket from the earliest time of colonisation as its national sport. Like most British colonies as well they have eventually turned over their former colonial masters at the game closest to their heart. Australia visits Sri Lanka this August and September for the 5th time for a full test series. However for almost 100 years prior to Australia's first visit for test matches in 1982-83, Australian teams of various forms were regular visitors to Sri Lanka (Ceylon until 1972).

During International crickets formative years - the late 19th century - both the traveling Australian and English cricket teams would stop off at the island nation to stretch the legs and take in some cricket against the local teams and representative sides. The local cricketing scene is also well established in history. The Colombo CC, still part of the first class structure today, has a formation date prior to Australia's Melbourne Cricket Club by five years.

In 1884 the Australian tourists stopped in at Ceylon on the way to England and played an 'odds' match as a XI against a Ceylon XVIII. This first match saw Australia take first innings honours in a single day match that was drawn. The tourists also called in again for a return match later in the year on the way home, this time playing as a XIII in a single day match against a Ceylon XVIII with a consistent result. Some sources have identified Australia as 'winning easily', though the scorecards available only point towards both results being draws. Given that both encounters were at odds, and Australia at the very least had the better of them, it is reasonable to deduce that the Ceylon cricket team required improvement at this stage.

This improvement however did not take long. Infamous for its misbehaviour, the 1890 Australians stopped in at Ceylon on their route by sea to England playing for the first time a non-odds match against Ceylon. Once again Australia had the better of a single day encounter forcing Ceylon to follow-on after the first innings before the match was drawn. Neither of these first three matches against Ceylon were considered first-class.

Somewhat traditionally Australian teams kept visiting Ceylon en-route to and from England; the years 1893, 1896, 1912, 1926, 1930, and 1934 had the Australians visit. But it wasn't until 1935 that a match was played that was considered first-class. New South Wales had toured itself during these earlier years and beaten the national side to the punch. In 1935 a unique tour was conducted by an Australian XI of both India and Ceylon.

This tour was unique in that it wasn't the full strength Australian team - it was in the process of touring South Africa at the time. Not only this but the team also was limited to selecting players not involved in the Sheffield Shield during the same season. The team ended up an invited group (by the Maharajah of Patalia) of lower grade cricketers together with retired former greats including Jack Ryder, Bert Ironmonger and Charlie Macartney. So strange (and perhaps controversial) was this tour that this team of Australians were under strict instructions to not entertain any ideas of a 'test-like match' against an All India side.

Kandy Stadium, courtesy:
In the only first-class match against Ceylon, a three day encounter in Colombo, the Australians triumphed by an innings and 127 runs. Replying to Ceylon's first innings of 96 the Australians were bowled out for 334 before bowling out Ceylon again for 111. Overall this cobbled together team of former greats and cricketing nobodies played 17 first class matches in India and Ceylon.

In ensuing years the world was again at war and first-class cricket was soon suspended. Players from all countries joined up to contest a fight on fields far different from those they had played cricket on. Soon upon the conclusion of hostilities the authorities in England were quick to arrange top quality cricket for the benefit of a nation's spirit wrecked by war. These encounters famously were known as the 'Victory Tests' between the Australian and English Services teams.

To show the appreciation of a nation to its colonial outposts the Australian team continued to play fixtures considered first-class on their way home through the colonised subcontinent and when arriving in Australia. In the Australian Services match against Ceylon the great but as yet uncapped Keith Miller stroked 132 in an innings victory. Miller was lauded by team mates, opponents and Wisden for his play throughout the entire series of services matches. Miller's attitude, borne out in later rhetoric, removing all similarity one might have made between war and sporting pursuits, granted Miller freedom to make his mark on world cricket before he had played a test.

Continued visits occurred throughout the 50s and 60s by Australia, but all non first-class. The lack of willingness to invest time and money in an extended match potentially reflected a lack of faith in Ceylon's ability to compete as well as the financial desire to play as much cricket in England as possible therefore limiting any time spent in Ceylon.

The season of 1969-70 saw Bill Lawry lead Australia on an ill-fated tour India and Ceylon, and then onto South Africa where the first of the final nails for his captaincy coffin were hammered in. This was the final time Australia opposed a team named Ceylon. Albeit overshadowed by the test matches to come, Jack Pollard noted in his 'Illustrated History of Australian Cricket' that a belief existed among the Australians that Ceylon were rapidly improving. The result was Australia and Ceylon playing out a drawn three day match.

This improvement was noted by world cricketing authorities as they began to invite the now Sri Lankan cricket team to more international tournaments. The advent of international one-day cricket saw Sri Lanka invited to the first two World Cups despite having not as yet been granted test match status. With the draw card of South Africa removed from cricket for its apartheid policies, there was a need for international cricket to expand beyond its limited membership.

Having not visited at all since 1969 the Australians on their way to the 1981 Ashes series stopped over in Sri Lanka for some limited over international matches and one first class test. In the four-day match Sri Lanka had the better of a draw with the Australians bowled out for 124 and the hosts taking a first innings lead with a total of 177. Australia didn't redeem itself in the second innings being dismissed for 178 before time ran out. This was just months before Sri Lanka were admitted as a full test playing nation.

The 1982 volume of Wisden heralded the granting of Sri Lanka full test status with praise. Even with their admission the total number of test playing nations was only seven (with South Africa still excluded). The early comment by Wisden of the Sri Lankan's cricket was of it being engaging, open, and ultimately welcome in the cricket world. Australia toured for test cricket for the first time with a one-test series in the season of 1982-83.

Despite much appreciation for the style of cricket that the Sri Lankans played, their first test match against Australia was memorable for the beating they received. Australia won the toss and batted at Kandy, declaring their first innings closed on 513 for the loss of only four wickets. The late David Hookes scored the only century of a career that never lived up to expectations. Hookes was joined in the runs by Kepler Wessels as the other centurion, by the end of the innings it became very much a mismatch as Australia took apart a tiring bowling attack.

The pitch at Kandy was slow, with Australian spinner Bruce Yardley taking five wickets in Sri Lanka's first innings of 271. Of great irony is that Australian cricket's mid-nineties nemesis, Arjuna Ranatunga, was in the formative stages of his career at this point and top scored for the hosts in the first innings with 90. In the second innings it was the left arm orthodox spin of Tom Hogan that took 5 wickets as Australia bowled themselves to an innings victory by dismissing the Sri Lankans for 205.

To be continued ...

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