C I Gunasekara – Mercurial Monarch

By Rohan Wijesinghe

Conroy Ievers Gunasekara crashed into this country’s cricket conscience in the year 1949. The rookie emerging with such a bang against the emerging world champs the West Indies, viciously carving up the Carribean pace attack of giant Barbadians Prior Jones and Johm Trim, stroking 11 and 72  in the First Test match and carrying on the carnage into the Second Test with scores of 72 and 22 for an average of 44.00. Come Pakistan the same year, the handsome rookie,  coming in at 49 for 4, following a quick tumble of  Ceylonese wickets, slammed a quick fire 120 against  the swing and cut of Khan Mohammed and Fazal Mohammed. Epic pace was met with epic class. For the record Fazal Mahmood  emphatically routed England the following year with a match bag of 12 for 99.

Commonwealth Star

In the year 1953 a Commonwealth side cobbled together with four Ceylonese, consisting of FC de Saram, CI Gunasekara, Ben Navaratne and Ernie Kellart in addition to Mankad, Umrigar, Imtiaz Ahmed, Fazal Mahmood, Miller and Harvey ganged up against  an MCC side led by Nigel Haig in Colombo. Keith Miller stroking the ball, with CI  trashing it, put on 250 runs for the third wicket, with our legend breasting  the tape ahead of Miller  to the ton, in one of the most mercurial batting displays this country has seen. Miller referred to our precious legend  as the master batsmen for ever after.

Decline of Lindsay Kline

Ceylon was granted another whistle stop game against the 1961 Aussies. Lindsay Kline was a key hopeful in Richie Benaud’s  quest to wrest the Ashes from England. CI on this occasion deposited Kline’s hopes and potential  among the rafters of the Sara Stadium in a blistering knock of 72, 28 of them in one over, off the hapless Kline. Then Against Ted Dexter’s Englishmen in 1962, flaunting his flawlessly flamboyant footwork against Coldwell, Larter, Illingworth and Titmus CI slammed a good bunch of balls over the ropes, and a couple over the rafters as well, for good measure. Heaven sent wallops these. The right hander  also stroked 36 star studded  club hundreds with such dazzling stickwork to ram home his class. Memories Are Made Of These.

A Paradigm Shift

This mild mannered Aristocrat displayed fearless brilliance against these star studded sides that toured this country for a work out, each game  rather ‘step motherly’ doled out,  two years apart. Large crowds rocked the turnstiles to watch the tourists bare their wares, whereas our brilliance  mostly huddled back-stage.  It is thought that CI was almost single handedly responsible for changing that climate, what with his blazing willow and debonair persona. A paradigm shift in the mindset of local enthusiasts. Those who came to jeer and scoff….stayed to cheer and doff  their hats. A profound effect then on the evolution of our game.

A Cut Apart

Conroy Ievers Gunasekara, a cut apart, this priceless asset of yore, bestrode the day in his, day and gave it such vitality, now struts in peace in retirement, at his Residence down Dickman’s Road, clad in immaculate white, buttons flamboyantly askew, an ageing warhorse then, red cheeks sagging a little now, lean frame wobbling a bit, face creased in affability, aristocratic bearing and dignity yet in place. I must confess I have a lingering admiration for this great man, who as a nine year old ceaselessly peppered a garage wall with a tennis ball wrecking his dads precious tennis rackets in the process, and thence going on  to represent Royal  College in Cricket, Rugby, Tennis and  hurdling for them as well, without  really setting Reid Avenue on fire. Much later he played Golf to a handicap of 8.  Thence as fate and his skipper FC de Saram would have it, the rookie opted for the Army, over books and bats, being drafted in as a Second Lieutenant on a Princely sum of rupees 200. In the year 1949 he kicked off his army boots and happily slipped his toes into the commercial world, in a Managerial capacity for Walkers PLC,  to strut the floorboards in step with the British with such inherent ease, what with his grandma being of English stock.

Lazy Summers

6 Foot 2, broad in shoulder and chest , big heart and stooping gait, size 12 boots and oozing intent, he would march to the middleto bare his two eyed stance. This heavy smoker would  thence make his  heavy willow smoke,

as he together with his merry posse  of  SSC’ers  churned out those

Lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer,  those days of FC and Sargo and Wine. Devotee lines stretched for miles, so rabid was their enthusiasm for the sport. The game so adorable and unspoilt, so unhurried and English. Green meadows with the stumps set up and the creases chalked. Soft thud of wood on leather and the endlessly hollow post mortems at the bus stops and pubs, yummier than the game itself.

Gridlock of the Game

Ci bowled too, and very well. Bounding in off a six yard run, right arm leg spin, long strong fingers exerting their will on the ball off a high action. Ball leaving the bat fairly sharply, he could gridlock the game. The Monarch would field deep in the grass, cutting off buckets of runs with his bucket like hands and covering  such an expansive territory  in the outfield, oozing anticipation. No crashing into hoarding boards or belly crawling over the boundary ropes.

Flamboyance on Furlough

Characteristically creating currents with his charisma, from the late forties to the early  sixties, the class act  in fact of the Ceylonese side,CI skippered the country, belatedly though, at 40 years of age in 1960 and thence  with his flamboyance on furlough,  signed off his international career with a stray appearance  against Mike Smith’s Englishmen in 1965 aged 45. Even at 50 years plus, he would push his circuit weary body to swing a little willow, even up until the 70’s or so.

Arduous Travel

These stellar performances were  made against the backdrop of long arduous train travel, venues 600-700 miles apart, to be met in bed by a roach, potty washrooms,  bugs dancing on your food, and a tiny coin pressed into your palm for your troubles, as against today’s highly inflated financial rewards,  born 50 years too soon. The only stretching drill that generation could have afforded would have been to yawn between railway stations.

Ten Short of Ton

CI is poised to puff out 90 candles on the 14th of july, is mercifully in good health. The National Treasure that he was, is a precious Icon now and should be  spurred  on to his TON and beyond.  With his cricketing days   long gone , his comradeship, conviviality, disarming modesty, and deeds with the bat though  misted with time, will remain in folklore for years to come or even forever. It is a regrettable tradition in this game that precious history is so shoddily treated and easily forgotten. Hence this tiny salute to a mighty big man, with a mighty big heart, with a mighty few words to say.

The writer is a former Josephian, BRC, NCC and Sri Lanka Under 19 Opener and now a Cricket historian

  • Priyantha Bryan Wijeratne

    Rohan Wijesinghe’s piece on “C.I.” is a little gem. The flavour of the article complements other great efforts by Sri Lankan writers who wrote in an especially exquisite style.
    The portrait of “C.I.” is beautifully presented and I for one was very moved to read another’s rendering of not only a great cricketer but a truly remarkable ambassador for Sri Lankan cricket. I believe that most of the players who encountered “C.I.” when playing in Colombo over the years that he was active would say that he was a fine cricketer with outstanding talent as batsman and bowler, while at the same time, being a true gentleman, displaying great character and friendship whether on the field or off it.
    It was a great privilege to have played with “C.I ” for the SSC in the mid 1960s and I sometimes reflect fondly of my playing experiences with him. Having lived in England during the last 40 years or so, I can confirm that players like Colin Cowdrey, Ted Dexter, Tom Graveney, Conrad Hunte and Brian Close thought very highly of “C.I.”. It would be fitting to end my comment by placing a well worn Latin tag in “C.I.” s honour: ‘Eadem Mutata Resurgo’ {changed though I am by death, I shall arise the same}.

  • Prasantha Dias

    He was an all time great. likes of which we will never see again, both on the Cricket Field and the Tennis Courts

    I was a small boy and was fortunate enough to bowl at him at the SSC nets while I was waiting for my father to finish his game of tennis.

    I was warned by fellow cricketers like Lucien de Soysa, Bertie Wijesinghe “Son, be careful he is the hardest hitting batsman Sri Lanka has”

    More recently I was privileged to have a chats with with him while he stood outside his home at Dickman’s Road, which was close to where I worked. He was immaculately dressed in white.

    He remembered with fond memories the good old days

    May the turf lie softly over him

  • http://awarenow.com.au Stefan Abeysekera

    I remember CI hitting five fours off an Illingworth over at the Sara Oval. His aggression had a savage beauty which I hope has been caught on film. Does anyone have any footage? He made todays professionals look timid and rigid, and watching him on the screen would open the eyes of youngsters to a style of play that was joyous, free-flowing and precisely brutal in execution.
    Stefan Abeysekera.