By Rohan Wijesinghe
An old keepers fingers, so gnarled, so bent; so disfigured and yet so precious. A line I picked up someplace, and which line fits Dr HIK, like a glove no less.
Pride of ST Peter’s
Born on the 4th of January 1933, Herbie, as he is fondly known, spent his toddler years in Jaffna as his father, a Police Officer, was attached to that particular peninsular. Relocated in Colombo, HIK had his early schooling at Holy Family Convent Bambalapitiya and in 1944 was rolled across the Galle Road road to St Peters College Bambalapitiya, that priceless seat of learning by the canal. Dad could not have picked a better school to nurse and nurture Herbie through his first faltering steps. In payback, HIK represented them at cricket with much distinction, eventually leading them in the years 1951 and 52. The Ace Asian Stumper then returned to stalk the canal in the guise of the Peterite coach for a decade or more, up until the 1980’s or so.
On leaving school Herbie cut the cake three ways; betwixt his triple passions of Cricket, Medicine and Army life. That he reached the pinnacle in all three disciplines speaks volumes of his disciplined approach to life.
Sprinting Up the Ranks
In the year 1962 he joined the Army as a Captain and retired his Jackboots having risen to the lofty rank of Brigadier cum Director of the Army Medical Services in the year 1986; having marched for the force for 30 years. Picked for Medical Studies by the Colombo University in 1965, HIK rubbed shoulders with a provocative assembly of names; ML Idroos, HSM Pieris, TB Werapitiya, DH de Silva, PI Pieris and Sarath Seneviratne to name a few. In the medical profession he passed out with an MBBS in the year 1962 from the University of Ceylon’s Medical Faculty and subsequently earned a Diploma in Anaesthetics from the Royal College of Anaestheticians of UK in the mid 70’s.
In cricket whilst yet at school, the stumper made his debut against Lindsay Hassett’s Australians in 1953. HIK represented the country from the mid 50’s to the early 70’s. The Doctor had the distinction of leading the Country; albeit in a stop gap mode, in the absence of regular skipper Tissera against India in 1965.
Pride of NCC
By turning out for Nondescripts Cricket Club with such distinction, he added another gem to the clubs rich tradition of distinguished wicket keepers. The 78 year old Brigadier is the oldest living NCC captain and is now a Patron of the club. In representing NCC, I recollect his dark eyes framed by his perfectly groomed jet black hair, giving rise to his slick appearance and business like movements on the field. I will eternally remember the effortless grace and style in which he would accept a return from the deep, as he bestrode the sacred patch of grass between the stumps, with a swagger and style all his own.
The good doctor had an eerie penchant for drawing blood behind the stumps. He was greased lightning behind the batters back; crisp and concise. The Brigadiers green gauntlets, seemingly stitched together of snake skin would spit venom from behind the sticks. Woe betide the heel that strayed. A crack of lightning would burn the bails, as Herbie hollered his ‘howzaaat’ to square. He would fearlessly stand up to piercing pace, chest, chin and hands behind the ball; Elbows together, which essentially opened up the palms; sensuous pendulum swing of the trunk, moving ceaselessly sideways, perpetually parrarel to the popping crease; from dawn to dusk. Classical stuff that. Pundits perpetually bracketed our stumper with Sir Wally Grout the Aussie Great The ace stumper, in fibre and temperament was undoubtably made up of the stuff of champions; his was a style for the purists and the romantics.
HIK was a splendid bat as well. Usually anchored at number Seven, he could have represented Ceylon on his batting ability by itself had he put in a tad more sweat and thought at the popping crease. HIK made three invaluable contributions in International cricket. Initially at the Colombo Oval against the West Indies with a splendid 42, and then at Ahmedabad with a defiant 38, plus seven catches behind the stumps, which lead the way to our first Unofficial ‘Test Victory’. He followed it up with an ‘Against The Wall’ 31 against Pakistan plus three catches, which brought us victory as well. As I remember, his runs were replete with haughty hooks, dandy drives and screaming square cuts; even clever half hitting, when the field was deep and distant. HIK scored 22 club hundreds as against the 25 hundreds scored by CH Gunasekara and the 24 tons by Clive Inman; two of his glamorous contemporaries of the 60’s, if one were looking for yardsticks.
Board Room Fiasco
In the year 1968 HIK grabbed the headlines for all the wrong reasons. A controversy was precipitated with the ‘Bone of Contention’ being the captaincy of the Ceylon team to tour the United Kingdom, which was eventually called off. Dr HIK a selector himself, was ill advisedly embroiled in that particular selectorial imbroglio; which fiasco was far detached from the Brigadiers customary kindly step and decent manner. He would be ruing his involvement in that particular fiasco, to this day and beyond.
Ace Asian Assassin
Of the Doctors stature in the game there need not be any doubt. Madhav Mantri India’s Chief Test Selector placed him ‘Atop’ the pinnacle of Asia’s wicket keepers, having watched the doctors glove-work of surgical precision, against his countrymen in 1965. Mantri’s statement conferring the status of ‘Asia’s Best Stumper’ on Dr HIK carried with it our pride for years. HIK also gave of his valued time, serving in the capacity of a national selector and even tried his voice behind the ‘Mike’ for good measure.
At the ripe old age of 77 he has mellowed much. Breezing through life, at his residence at 77 Cameron Road Colpetty, studiously guarding his sturdy independence. Quietly introverted, he would enjoy a joke and yet has no huge sense of humor; this Ace Asian Assassin, blissfully single as yet, philosophically cheerful and mercifully in good health.
The pleasure he gave cannot be conveyed by reciting figures.May this tiny essay serve as an ‘Unqualified Salute’ to our Brilliant Brigadier, as feeble as the attempt may be. The particular fusion, of grey matter, elegant athleticism and quiet courage that was seen in HIK Fernando may not be seen in a long long while.
The writer is a former Josephian, BRC, NCC and Sri Lanka Under 19 Opener and now a Cricket historian