Gamini Goonesena; an illustrious inning comes to an end at 80

By Mahinda Wijesinghe,

How many can lay claims of having captained his native land, played first-class cricket in England and Australia, captained Cambridge University, M.C.C.? and, then, on top of that, how many other than the three Indians (Ranjitsinhji, Duleepsinjhi and the Nawab of Pataudi Sr. who represented England no less) can lay claim to being the only Asian who represented the Gentlemen of England? That was our own Gamini Goonesena (b.16-2-1931) who passed away on First August 2011 in Canberra, Australia, aged 80 years.

Gamini Goonasena (standing extreme right) while playing in England.

Gentlemen of England
Right-arm leg-spinner, Goonesena first made his presence felt in the world of cricket at Royal College, Colombo, having celebrated his 16th birthday a bare two weeks previously. The Royal College first XI squad was hard at practice in the final week preceding the annual Royal-Thomian encounter. Goonesena was a mere ‘net bowler’ and had not been selected for a single game during the season. Conducting practices that fateful evening was coach F.C. de Saram, a percipient observer of the game and its players. In an inspired move, breaking with all traditions, de Saram insisted that Goonesena be picked for the ‘Big’ match to be played over the weekend.

This was an unprecedented move in the long history of the tradition-steeped Royal-Thomian encounter, when a player was making his debut in the ‘Big’ match. Many eyebrows were raised, traditionalists were shocked, and the dreams of a few young hopefuls shattered. Goonesena played and climbed the first steps on the ladder of fame by capturing 4/46 in the match – dismissing both Thomian openers in the crucial second innings – as Royal cruised to a comfortable 9-wicket victory. In the following Royal-Thomian, in 1948, he announced his burgeoning potential by snaring a match-bag of 10/80.

Having left for England to pursue a career in the Royal Air Force, a scheme that proved subsequently abortive, the cricket-crazy Ceylonese was signed up by the English county of Nottinghamshire. Beginning as a professional in 1953, he turned amateur the following year and represented the mid-county continually until 1964. His appearances were interrupted between 1954-57 since he began his stint at Cambridge University where he was awarded his Cricket ‘Blue’ each year, whilst developing as a capable middle-order batsman.

It was as captain of Cambridge University, in 1957, that Goonesena made the final stride from being a middle-of-the-road cricketer to somebody special. Incidentally, his deputy was a future England captain, Ted Dexter, while two fellow-countrymen, P.I. Peiris (captain of S. Thomas’ in 1953) and M. Kasipillai, who captained Royal College, in 1947, when Goonesena made his dramatic entry to the side, also played for the Light Blues though the latter did not win his cricket ‘Blue’.

It was during the 1957 ‘Big’ match, against the Oxford University, that skipper Goonesena carried all before him and left an indelible mark as an outstanding all-rounder which no doubt was a trail-blazing effort for his countrymen to follow in his wake. As the Wisden Almanack (1958) commented: “…………Goonesena by reason of his splendid batting and his bowling in the second innings, was the match winner……….The Cambridge captain and his men received the ovation they deserved as they left the field.” Batting first, Oxford was dismissed for a paltry 92 (Wheatley 5/15) on a green pitch.

In reply, Cambridge lost 4 wickets, including Dexter (7) for 80, when Goonesena walked in. After losing two more wickets, the skipper and Geoffrey Cook (111) put on 289 runs for the seventh wicket thereby registering the highest partnership for any wicket by either side in this series. This was also the record partnership in first-class cricket for the seventh wicket at Lord’s. Goonesena was finally dismissed for 211 (21 fours, one five and a six), which remains the highest score ever by a Cantabrigian. Enjoying a lead of 332 runs, Goonesena made a judicious declaration with theCambridge total at 424/7 and Oxfordwas duly bundled out for 146. Goonesena (4/40) was the most successful bowler, resulting in the Dark Blues suffering a loss by an innings and 186-runs – the biggest margin of defeat since the series began in 1827. The same year, three Cantabrigians, Goonesena, C. S. Smith and Dexter were included in the prestigious Gentlemen of England team to meet The Players at Lord’s. Ten years later, he was invited to lead the M.C.C. at Lord’s, against a combined Cambridge University and Irelandteam. It is to his eternal credit that both games Goonesena captained at Lord’s ended in victories.

The trail of records left by the Ceylonese all-rounder at Cambridge is indeed astonishing. During his stint at Cambridge (1954-57), Goonesena remains the only player from either University to have scored 2000 runs (2,309 runs at 29.2) and captured 200 wickets (208 at 21.8) in first-class cricket. In fact, the tally of 208 wickets by a bowler is the highest-ever by an Oxbridge player. Without doubt, Goonesena has been the most outstanding all-rounder produced by either institution since this contest first began way back in 1827.

Goonesena performed the ‘double’ of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets twice for Nottinghamshire between 1953 and 1964. His all-round contributions, when invited by E.W. Swanton and by the Cavaliers, amongst a galaxy of international stars, for the tours of the West Indies(1955/56) and the sub-continent (1964/65) were outstanding. Indeed, during the tour of the West Indies the team comprised players of the caliber of Colin Cowdrey (capt.), Frank Tyson, Tom Graveney, Mickey Stewart, Robin Marlar, Hubert Doggart, Alan Oakman et al. However, it is to Goonesena’s eternal credit that the Wisden Almanack (1957) stated: “Goonesena proved himself an all-rounder of near Test-class, he and Tyson being the only bowlers whose dismissals reached double figures.” Swanton himself commented that “Goonesena, Tom Graveney and Frank Tyson were the most successful members of the party.”

owever, the most complimentary comment was offered by Clyde Walcott who was a member of the strong opposition that comprised other players of the calibre of Everton Weekes, Garfield Sobers, Conrad Hunte, Alan Rae, Rohan Kanhai, Collie Smith, Wesley Hall, Sonny Ramadhin et al: “Goonesena was the most popular and a very successful member of an extremely popular touring party.”

Whilst working for the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board in Australia, during the early 1960’s, he played a few games for New South Wales in the Sheffield Shield tournament. As an all-rounder, maybe C.I.Gunasekera – who also happened to have been to the same school, played for the same club and was also a leg-spinner – was Goonesena’s superior as an explosive batsman, but both were ornaments to the game and gems of the first water.

Ian Pieris, a contemporary who played under Goonesena at Cambridge, said: “Gamini was easily the best leg-spinner I have seen, and probably the best all-round cricketer this country produced after the War. He had a keen cricket brain, and as a captain, stood heads and shoulders above his contemporaries in England at a time when there were captains in the counties such as Peter May (Surrey), Colin Cowdrey (Kent) and Cyril Washbrook (Lancahsire) to name a few. He always led from the front be it in bowling, batting or fielding. Gamini would throw himself totally into the game and never gave up. Sadly, Sri Lanka was not able to make proper use of his cricketing brain.”

Indeed it is one of the greatest tragedies that befell Sri Lanka cricket that Gamini Goonesena’s vast reservoir of cricketing expertise and experience could not be tapped, due to various reasons, for the advancement of the sport in the land of his birth. Perhaps he may have been successful in unearthing a leg-spinner to bowl in tandem with Muttiah Muralidaran!

May the turf lie gently over him.

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