By Rohan Wijesinghe
Dainty elegance on the field, unassailable dignity off it. Winning was fine, but losing gracefully was even finer. Inspite of that philosophy we didn’t lose much during his reign. That’s Anura Tennekoon for you, epitomizing the very spirit of cricket. Anura, a cricketer and a gentleman in the widest sense of the phrase is a class act by any yardstick indeed, from his thoroughbred stride to his unbridled charm and his exquisite stick work at the crease.
Anura PB Tennekoon, born on the 29th of October 1946 at Anuradhapura, followed the scent of success to Colombo and surfacing at Mount Lavinia was swiftly booked in at the Thomian hostel aged about 6 years. With his tiny bunk bed within arms length of the hallowed dressing room, the boy lost no time in being bewitched by the wizardry of Michael Tissera, Mano Ponniah, P I Pieris and the Reid brothers, who were turning out for the schools first eleven.
Besotted by cricket, the spindly colt was honed on the nuances of the game by that redoubtable quartet of Thomian super gurus, Lassie Abeywardene, Lester Gauder, Orville Abeynaike and the doyen of them all, BertieWijesinha, who guided him for a large part at the SSC.
Saturated with Thomian Grit that wafted in from the “Thomian Sea” and lacing his cricketing philosophy with a good deal of commonsense, Anura by the year 1958 was well on his way to stardom. Whilst captaining St. Thomas College in 1966 he was whisked off to the Colombo Oval, garbed in his Thomian cap, to bolster Ceylon against Ted Dexter’s Englishmen, to be subsequently poached by SSC, for whom he scored a torrent of classy runs. In first class cricket for Ceylon, Ceylon Board President’s Eleven and subsequently Sri Lanka, Tennekoon stroked approximately 4,000 runs in 61 outings and wrapped his palm around 60 catches, fielding besides the bat.
Elevated to the country’s leadership in 1974, his blade continued to carve runs and carve them with a flourish. The relatively small build, dancing feet, exquisite timing and ramrod straight bat, Anura batting everything except his eyelids, established supremacy over the bowlers within seconds of having scratched out his guard. His cover drives held one transfixed and he could clip a ball off his ankles with that wristy authority of his.
Anura captained Sri Lanka in 16 unofficial Tests and For the record he scored 1792 runs in those unofficial tests averaging 48.8 in 25 matches with 5 centuries which includes a game against Bangladesh as well.
I remember Anura prancing down the pitch with leisurely insolence to hammer the Indian spinners into a giddy spin, an attack led by the legendary Venkatraghavan, no less. For good measure he sank twice to his knees to sweep ace medium pacie Madan Lal, against the ivy that sheathed the famed Oval scoreboard, in stroking 145 of the loveliest runs. To buttress the point further he notched an even better 169 runs in the Second Test of that series against Ajith Wadekars celebrated Indians in 1974. Tennekoon collected memorable hundreds off England and the West Indies as well, off the smattering of international contests that were tossed at him. The classy right hander also notched 18 and 54 n o against the West Indies in 1967, 42 against Cowdreys Englishmen in 1969, an epic 221 against Malaysia in 1972, and 48 against Chappells Australians in 1975. To add to the misery, players of that era had to contend with long arduous tours, travel by road or train, clumsy politics, selectorial lunacy, pedestrian administrators and a tiny coin pressed into their palm for their troubles.
That the little man’s big heart considered those travails as trivial, is obvious, judging by the exemplary trail he left behind. One cannot recollect Anura being impaled by critic, colleague or opponent for well-nigh four decades or more.
We were fortunate that on appointment to the leadership, Anura slipped so sweetly into top gear, as Tissera did before him and CI did before that, continuing where they left off, to add charm, dignity, elegance, honesty and even a measure of innocence to our game, the type of cricket the purists and romantics ached for. Adopting an utterly democratic brand of leadership and forging a happy and contented dressing room, he gave his players the freedom to flourish and flourish they did, winning by a canter, among many accolades, the all important ICC Trophy in 1979, comprehensively paving the pathway to winning Test Status in the year 1982. That Tennekoon nurtured and motivated young exotics such as Warnapura, Mendis the Wetimuniys, Dias, Kaluperuma, Mahes Gunatillake, Anura Ranasinghe and Ajith De Silva, among a host of others, who were instrumental in our elevation to that exalted grouping, is cruelly forgotten.
The virtuoso, now 63 years of age relaxes with a good book or soft music. He has made a graceful transition from tossing a coin to cricket administration, managing our “A” Team and traveling around the nation picking fresh talent in his capacity of a national selector. He remains genial company, sought by many and retaining as yet that twinkle in his eye even in adversity, unassuming and almost apologetic, disarmingly modest a precious slice of our cricketing history, beside having been one of the nicest gentlemen to have swung a willow.
Thus ideally equipped, Anura has been elevated to the mantle, that of manager of the Sri Lankan cricket team. I cannot think of a better trinity at the top of our dugout ,Anura, Kumar and Mahela. A boquet then to Sri Lanka Cricket for bringing the heady mix together.