By Rohan Wijesinghe
The wires were literally set on fire….early in the year 1920. A solitary cable ‘fired’ by the Colombo based Dr John Rockwood to Dr CH Gunasekara – which emphatically read; ‘Contact Marleybone Cricket Club and Get Them To Force a Fixture Our Way’….may well have paved our way to eventual stardom; aeons later in ‘lahore’. As that particular message hit the ‘letter box’ of Dr CH….the former Royal College skipper was happily stalking the hallowed cricket fields of Lords and the wards of London’s National Hospitals, brandishing his bat and scalpel with utter abandon…. his thoughts set on eventually settling down in Old Blighty.
Takes two Doctors to tango
Cultured, Pedigreed and a Practicing Physician of Tamil nobility – Dr John Rockwood was perpetually peering over the periphery, burning with intent and resolve to elevate our game to greater heights. Prior to that particular ‘wire’ our cricket was ‘grand’ for sure; and yet was cloaked in obscurity and anonymity – barely known beyond our reef….so to speak.
British bats land here for business
Dr CH for his part lost no time in passing on ‘that’ cable to the ‘Kingmaker’ as it were of English cricket – Ex England Test Captain and the then President of MCC, Sir Pelham Warner. The English Knight, no doubt bowed by the steep esteem he held for our good doctor….virtually diverted SS ‘Marlboro’, the vessel carrying the English cricketers to New Zealand that particular year….the ship emptying her precious cargo of Jack Hobbs, Walter Hammond, Wilfred Rhodes, Percy Fender and Patsy Hendren – on the lush frangipani scented meadows of Maitland Crescent. The ‘first flowering’ of our cricket had emerged – the dawn of our development – so to speak.
Dr CH had comprehensively won for us the right to prove ourselves. At the Maitland Crescent Grounds….on the 11th of October 1920, All Ceylon notched up a score of 122 all out – to which Dr CH contributed 29….and to which the ‘Best and the Beefiest of British Batting’ replied with 108 for 9….hanging on to their dear ‘British Lives’….when bad light stalled play.
Prior to considering that landmark game, the MCC had categorically insisted on a democratically elected controlling body for cricket in Ceylon – and ‘our’ Dr Rockwood set about the task with characteristic gusto. Thus hastily hatched, The Ceylon Cricket Association set about tightening the archaic administrative codes and selection policies – and the rules…. as drafted by Dr Rockwood received much applause – from those that mattered at Lords. This country thence saw a spate of Test Teams, brandishing their bats and balls…. on this green green grass of ours.
English nobility by the arm
Truly – our cricketers of the 1920’s, could unload whatever ‘insecurities’ they ‘harboured’ within their hearts – on the shoulders of the Doctors mighty achievements at Cambridge and Middlesex CCC – he being the first Ceylonese to play county cricket –the first Ceylonese to have added a hard won ‘county cap’ to his cricket coffin – the first Ceylonese to have played in a championship winning county side – and the first Ceylonese to have been honoured with a membership of the utterly prestigious MCC. In addition to his ability with the bat and the scalpel, Dr CH was habitually hobnobbing with the English nobility and gentry, all within the ‘oh so elegant’ ambit of his aristocratic stride, his haughtily stubborn jawline and dark brooding eyes – his great sense of style and ceremony adding ‘miles’ to his height in ‘British Eyes’. A delightfully nonchalant and Imperial approach towards the Imperialists….so to speak. More English than the English?….entirely. The ‘Royalist’, transcending the cavernous social chasms that existed between the….Whites and the Coloureds…. the Amateur and the Professional…. the Scholar and the Larrikin – at that particular point of time.
Proudly Royal College & Middlesex CCC
Having scored shoals and shoals of runs for Royal, and with the scorer running out of chalk…. he was elevated to the school’s leadership in the year 1912, and thence took the single ‘sterling step’ of sailing to London in pursuance of his ideals – Cricket and Medicine. He played for Middlesex between 1919 to 1923, scoring 664 in 70 innings. Sadly his ‘county’ game was smudged by World War 1 – which probably robbed him of his coveted Cambridge Blue…. his fate, would so sadly have it. His batting could be as crisp as anyone’s, as he – so elegantly stepped inside the line to ‘corner’ it around square….and would drive with such a lovely swing of the willow. For good measure; he would late cut off the wicket keepers bootlaces….for such silky, succulent, runs galore.
Passing the baton
As said, Dr CH was resolutely aided and abetted by Dr John Rockwood and his buddies DL de Saram and Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu in the formation of our fledgling foundation – The Ceylon Cricket Association. Having thus laid the base – Churchill Hector with the passage of time, duly passed on the ‘Baton’ to the artistry of De Saram, Jayawickreme, Sathasivam and Gunasekara – who in turn tossed the precious legacy to Tissera, Tennekoon, Mendis, Dias and Madugalle – for Ranatunge to pick the plums at Lahore. Such resplendently rich cricketing history – from the beginning of time – if ever.
Scholarly pen & flying keyboard
Dr CH was a man of wide horizons. In addition to his passion for cricket and the study of medicine, he would indulge in his pet passions for horse racing and tennis….his cabinets bursting with trophies….and was a highly accomplished pianist as well. When not thumping the keyboard, CH turned his fist to play-writing…. penning some eloquent prose of immense depth and beauty.
Electronic soles & telescopic arms
The ‘medicine man’ bowled ‘slow curvy seam’, with a late inward dip in flight – snaring 75 county scalps for good measure. It was his fielding though that caused such a flutter across the British Isles – with ‘cover point’ being his ‘strong point’…. being perpetually bracketed with Sir Learie Constantine the West Indian skipper and Sir Patsy Hendren, as the ‘Best In The Catching Business’. The Cambridge undergrad would cover such expansive grassland….picking up just about everything in his path with such ‘Oriental Brilliance’. A single swell swoop and his wrist would be all ‘cocked’ to rip up the stumps – to thy kingdom come. Thence, lurking around the ‘hip pockets’…. he would snap up the merest whiff of a chance.
Leading the SSC
On his return to Ceylon in the year 1924…. bedecked in his harlequin cap of red, blue and gold, as pictured above; he captained Sinhalese Sports Club and concurrently; Ceylon in two priceless stints; initially from 1926 to 1930 and then again from 1932 to 1934, and then was rightfully bestowed with the honor of leading Ceylon in her first Un-official Test against Indian opposition in 1932.
Creating a rumpus with his racket
Between wielding the bat and the scalpel with such dexterity, he also wielded his tennis racket with much élan, winning the country’s ‘mixed doubles’ in 1928 and 1930 and the tennis ‘doubles’ partnering OLM Pinto in the years stretching from 1924 to 1929….besides which he represented Ceylon in the ‘Davis Cup’, locking horns with the best of rackets served up by, Australia, England and New Zealand. In the year 1947, Dr CH retired from active sports at 48 years of age, having chalked up ‘22 Tons’ in Club Cricket, as against FC de Saram’s 63 tons…. and Satha’s 45 tons….serving as yardsticks.
After retirement and well past 50 years of age….he made a stray appearance for his beloved SSC, putting on 215 for the first wicket with Sargo Jayawickreme, 17 years his junior….both batsmen blazing to their tons in about equal time.
It was obviously evident though that the legendary ‘electric soles’ and ‘telescopic arms’ had been reduced – to all but a flicker – by then.
Never sought honor
He gave so much – and yet had so much more to give. The ‘Grand Old Man’ of ‘Our’ cricket somehow never sought honour in our ‘Committee Rooms’, as stooping to flatter authority was never a part of his make up. Alas – his immense knowledge on the ‘nuances’ of the game should have received much wider respect. The Doctor did pen a splendid book though….on the intricacies of the game titled ‘ what every cricketer should know’
Professionally Dr CH was attached to the Colombo Municipality as their ‘Chief Medical Officer’ and was singularly responsible for the introduction and installation of ‘Electronically Fired Crematoriums’ in this country.
Bow our heads in reverence
As the shadows darkened on him, ‘the proud and principled man’, who would lean into his booming cover drives, began to lean so heavily on son Channa, daughter Dr Rohini and his much loved daughter-in-law, the ever efferverscent Shanthi….as he pursued what little was left of his illustrious life.
A ‘Founding Father’ of our cricket; thence, passed away peacefully to infinity, in the summer of 1969….aged 74, leaving Channa and Shanthi with a ‘million melancholy memories’. Thence, sadly, Channa - Dr CH’s only son passed away as well, following a prolonged illness; but only after he had filled his ‘Famed’ father’s heart with immense pride, having established himself as one of the ‘finest top order’ batsmen to have stalked this land….in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
My ramble over and done – lets bow our heads in reverence – to this monumentally incomparable son of the soil; Doctor Churchill Hector Gunasekara.
Twas penned to perpetuate his memory….as the grass strives so valiantly….to forget his bones beneath.
The writer is a former Josephian, BRC, NCC and Sri Lanka Under 19 Opener and now a Cricket historian