A gathering of family, friends, former schoolmates and members of the Australian cricketing fraternity assembled at tile South Chapel of the Rookwood Cemetery on Friday 12 August 2011 to bid farewell to the legendary Gamini Goonesena and one of the greatest achievers Sri Lankan cricket has ever known. Former Australian test cricket and all rounder Alan Davidson, a close friend of Gamini delivered the eulogy reflecting on his long and distinguished cricketing career and of his gentle and friendly countenance which endeared him to all who made his acquaintance. There were no religious obsequies at the funeral-something which typified the man and his life.
Much has been written about Gamini Goonesena’s unique career in cricket which in itself is a mélange of records, unique achievements and trail blazing feats. To name just a few of his accomplishments, he was cricket captain of Ceylon in the pre-Test era, the first Asian to Captain the MCC, was the first Asian Captain of Cambridge University and the player who represented the Gentleman of England for the longest period of seven years. To cap it all, his innings of 211 when he led Cambridge to an innings victory over Oxford in 1957, stands as the highest ever score by a player in the Oxford-Cambridge series which originated in 1827.
Gamini Goonesena was born in Colombo on 16 February 1931. His elder brother Kalidasa (named alter a 5th Century Sanskrit poet) who later came to be known as Karl and went on to become a well-known broadcaster, was born nine years before him - the age difference not getting in the way of a close bonding between the two. Gamini spent his early childhood in Kenya where his father worked and returned to the land of his birth at the age of nine and attended Royal College, Colombo. He cut his cricketing teeth at the Royal-Thomian match of 1947 when he was just over 16 years of age. In a book published by him in 1.959 titled Spin Bowling he recalled:
“I was the smallest boy in my form at school and it wasn’t much use trying to bowl fast: the bigger boys could do it so much better and more successfully. At the same time I found that spinning the ball to leg came easily to me”.
The Royal College coach Col. F.C. de Saram who had an excellent eye and an unrivalled nous for spotting cricketing talent immediately recognized the potential in Gamini after watching him at a practice match almost at the end of the 1947 school cricket season. De Saram. who Gamini always acknowledged as his cricketing mentor, insisted on his inclusion in the Royal team in their blue riband annual match against S. Thomas’ despite the fact that he had not played in any of the run up matches up to that time. De Saram’s faith in the 16-year old paid rich dividends with the youngster taking four prized Thomian wickets and enabling Royal to score a great win over the fancied Thomians. The diminutive Goonasena was described by sporting scribes as the ‘mighty atom’ from Royal.
In the following year, Goonasen.a reaped a match bag of 10 wickets at the Royal- Thomian which was described most aptly in the following day’s Sunday Observer as “Goonasena’s Match”.On leaving school Goonasena joined the Royal Air Force in Cranwell in England as a trainee jet pilot, but abandoned that career to play regular county cricket with Nottinghamshire as a professional. In 1954, he reverted to amateur status on joining Cambridge University which he represented till 1957. His final year at Cambridge was as Captain of the team which included, among others, the future captain of England Ted Dexter. His tenure as a cricketer for Cambridge University was marked by unrivalled success. He remains the only player from either Oxford or Cambridge Universities to have scored 2000 runs and taken over 200 wickets and is easily the best all-rounder produced by either of the universities.
With a law degree from Cambridge under his belt, Gamini was appointed to the Ceylon Tea Board and later to the Diplomatic Mission in Canberra and continued his cricket playing for NSW in the Sheffield Shield. In 1966 he represented Sri Lanka on the International Cricket Council in London and in 1981, when Sri Lanka achieved test status he represented the country in Australia.
Gamini Goonasena lived the last five decades of his life in Australia where he met and married his first wife Phillida Douglas-Robertson in 1961. He had three children by that marriage – David, Rohini and Simon. After the failure of that marriage, he wedded Carole Swan in 1977 by whom he had two daughters Krishni and Lilani. The last years were dogged with ill health, mainly with mobility issues hut he was always within the beam of the watchful eyes of his doting daughters Krishni and Lilani and their families, who were at hand for care and support.
Gamini was an affectionate father to his children and even the difficult days of his last years, compounded by his fondness for a tipple, did not test the strength of family bonds. Despite his ill health, he attended Karl’s funeral in England in 2007, a personal loss which would have had a profound emotional impact on him. Although he had his share of the vicissitudes in life, he was always gregarious and charming company, very humorous, easy going and endearing to everyone who came his way. An excellent raconteur, he was well spoken and as a conversationalist, had that stamp of elegance which distinguished him from the ordinary. It was a treat to listen to him especially when recounting his halcyon days in the cricketing world where he was an unforgettable icon.
The Ceylon Society of Australia was privileged to have him address the Society in August 2000 when he spoke of “Cricketing Reminiscences”. On that occasion, he recounted several interesting incidents in his career including tips he received on how to play Sonny Ramadhin, regarded at the time as the world’s best spin bowler. He spoke of the tour to the West Indies with E.W. Swanton’s team of international cricketers and his amusing experiences sharing a room with pukka sahib Sukhinder Singh, a reluctant carrier of drinks as twelfth man! West Indian cricketer Clyde Walcott later refers to Gamini as the most popular member of the very popular visiting team.
Gamini continued to be a member of our Society for several years and would ring me, especially during the Society’s early days, to offer words of encouragement. At the Annual Dinner in 2001, when there was an unforeseen gap in the programme for the evening, he readily agreed to make an impromptu presentation; drawing on his cricketing memories. Needless to say it was received with rapturous applause.
Gamini’s life has been described as a “good innings” but with his passing Australia has lost its only surviving captain of cricket from Cambridge University and the game of cricket one of its outstanding personalities.
May the turf lie
softly on him.
- Hugh Karunanayake