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Michael Tissera © Getty Images

 Michael Hugh Tissera, born March 23, 1939, was one of the architects of Sri Lankan cricket in 1960s and 1970s. Unfortunately, his international career started late, for Sri Lanka did not get a chance to lock horns with the big guns in official matches till World Cup 1975. His leadership qualities and all-round skills on the field made him stand out among Sri Lankan cricketers of his era. To honour him, West Indies-Sri Lanka Test series were named Sobers-Tissera Trophy after him and Sir Garry. Abhishek Mukherjee remembers a forgotten man of Sri Lankan cricket.

When they decided to name West Indies vs Sri Lanka Test series after Garry Sobers and Michael Tissera, quite a few eyebrows were read. Tissera’s name may be familiar to those who have had a browse of World Cup 1975 scorecards, but he never enjoyed the stature of the mercurial prodigy Mahadevan Sathasivam or the Cambridge Blue Gamini Goonesena who captained the University, had an impressive career for Nottinghamshire, and also played for New South Wales. He was not even a Frederick de Saram, an Ievers Gunasekera, or a Sargo Jayawickreme.

Who, then, was Michael Tissera?

The Nation (Sri Lanka) introduced him as “wonderfully gifted cricketer and captain”. Sa’adi Thawfeeq added: “Tissera, a stylish right-hander and leg-spin bowler also played in the same era as Sobers but unfortunately his cricket was confined to playing unofficial tests as Sri Lanka were then not a full member country of the ICC.”

Rohan Wijesinghe wrote: “Indeed his deft late cuts, his silky drives and gentle nudges past square were in complete harmony with the soft murmur of the sea … Michael adorned this lovely game, displaying enormous flair and innate style in just about anything he touched, which had anything to do with the game. He was an aristocrat in an era where aristocrats thrived, especially during the early part of his career.”

Of his bowling, he added: “Michael’s modus operandi in unleashing his leg-spin had enthusiasts in raptures. The ritual bordered on eccentricity, as he laboriously coiled to strike, heaps of fuss and subtlety, spinning his web against the lush tree fringed parks of Maitland Crescent or wherever. He could curl his googly into the pads or spear in his flipper and uproot a stump.”

Forget being the babies, Tissera played in an era when Sri Lanka were not even conceived as a Test-playing nation. He took over a group of young Sri Lankans and mentored them to form the fulcrum of the team that went on to qualify for the World Cup in the 1970s before achieving Test status in 1982.

Tissera was unfortunate, for a mere 30 of his 76 recorded matches were granted First-Class status. In these 76 matches he scored 2,930 runs at 31.84 with 4 hundreds and claimed 66 wickets with his leg-breaks at 23.68 with a couple of fifers. At First-Class level he scored 1,394 runs at 28.44 and had 27 wickets at 31.70. But more of that later.

Schoolboy star

Born in Colombo, Tissera went to St Thomas College, Mount Lavinia, and led them from his fourth season. He won school colours in hockey, tennis, athletics, and rugby, and had a larger-than-life image even at that age — a hero in the eyes of budding youngsters.

Ajit Jayasekera wrote in the college’s 2008 souvenir: “I still remember the day when Michael Tissera walked out to bat from the old pavilion, through an adoring group of small Thomians when his bat accidentally struck my head. He touched my head and said ‘Sorry, son’. When I got home, I refused to obey my Mother who wanted all of us brothers in the showers. She asked me why I disobeyed her, to which I replied that Michael Tissera had touched my head and I did not want to wash it off!”

The rise of Ceylon

Tissera joined Nondescripts Cricket Club (NCC) after his St Thomas days, and made rapid progress through the ranks. He was a part of the side that won the Sara Trophy in 1957-58 and 1960-61; over a decade later, he led them to the Saravanamuttu Trophy in 1969-70 and 1970-71.

During this period Tissera had established himself as one of the foremost young talents in the country. He was named Caltex Sportsman of the Year in 1960 and Horlicks Sportsman of the Year in 1962.

He made a couple of appearances in the MJ Gopalan Trophy before playing a spectacular innings against Australians: after the tourists were bowled out for 249 in a one-day match, Ceylon finished on 103 for 3, Tissera batting at No. 5 and scoring 51 not out against Grahame Corling and Neil Hawke with 12 fours — in a mere 31 minutes.

He was named captain for Ceylon Board President’s XI against a strong Pakistan A. It was a historic moment, for Pakistan A were no pushovers. Led by Imtiaz Ahmed, the side boasted of Javed Burki, Intikhab Alam, Pervez Sajjad, Asif Iqbal, Farooq Hameed, and Shafqat Rana.

Norton Frederick and Ian Pieris bowled Pakistan A out for 157, but the tourists hit back, reducing Tissera’s men to 84 for 6. Then Tissera took control, carving out 53 in 131 minutes with seven hits to the fence, top-scoring with the side. Bolstered by 37 extras, the hosts managed a lead of 19.

Nine Pakistan A batsmen failed to exceed 7 as Pieris and Sylvester Dias restricted Pakistan A to 112. Farooq struck twice, but Tissera remained till the end to ensure an 8-wicket victory. A week later he was named captain of Ceylon against the same team.

Once again he top-scored with 33 as Ceylon reached 152 before Pakistan A collapsed to 99. Set 191 to win the tourists never recovered, and conceded a 41-run victory. It was not a full-strength Pakistan side, but Tissera’s men showed they were a force to reckon with. They were to achieve bigger things.

[Note: To give an indication of the role St Thomas played in Ceylon cricket in the 1960s, it may suffice to mention that the Ceylon side consisted of six Thomians — Trevelyan Edward, Manoharan Ponniah, ‘Buddy’ Reid, Neil Chanmugam, Pieris, and Tissera himself. The list has been provided by Stephen Wagg.]

The big win

Ceylon toured India next season, and were thrashed in the first two unofficial ‘Tests’, first by an innings at Bangalore, then by 7 wickets at Hyderabad. Against Maharashtra at Poona they were 7 down with only 17 ahead when stumps were drawn.

Nobody gave them a realistic chance in the final ‘Test’ at Ahmedabad. India, led by Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, had 9 men who had, or would go on, to play Tests. They also had Ranji giant Rajinder Goel and young medium-pacer Chandroth Bhaskaran.

There was almost no play on the first two days. After a mere 90 minutes of play, India were 51 for 3 in the first innings at stumps on Day Two. India folded for 189 the next day, Ramesh Saxena top-scoring with 63 not out with Frederick and Stanley Jayasinghe sharing all the wickets.

Unfortunately, bespectacled Ceylon opener Trevelyan Perera picked up a serious injury while fielding at slips. An edge broke his glasses, injuring him gravely and ruling him out of the match. Ceylon was, thus, reduced to ten men.

In response, Umesh Kulkarni and Bhaskaran scythed through the top-order, reducing them to 25 for 5. Tissera stood amidst the ruins with 28, but once he fell the score read 57 for 6. Anurudda Polonwita and Herbert Fernando then added 85, and at stumps Ceylon were 144 for 7, trailing by 45. There was no question of a result with a single day’s play left.

Darrell Lieversz, who bowled the first over of the match, later told Nirgunan Tiruchelvam of The Island: “At the end of the third day, Michael summoned a team meeting and informed us that he was thinking of declaring our innings at the start of play the next day even though we were 45 runs behind. Michael felt that the condition of the pitch after the overnight dew would suit our bowlers better.”

But Tissera declared overnight, and India were soon reduced to 4 for 3. The Frederick-Jayasinghe-Polonwita trio hit India harder than the hosts expected: Ambar Roy and Saxena were the only ones to reach double-figures as India were skittled out for 66.

The chase was not easy against a rampant Goel, who combined his legendary accuracy and subtle variations to take the Ceylonese batsmen out one by one. Ceylon were cruising at 77 for 1 before Goel reduced them to 98 for 6. They still needed 14, but once again, Tissera stayed till the end to ensure victory.

Tissera, thus, led Ceylon to a victory on Indian soil (that, too, with ten men) — something the Sri Lankan Test side are yet to achieve. Under him Ceylon had finally established themselves as a unit.

The ascent continues

Opportunity of locking horns against major sides was scant in those days, and when Ceylon toured Pakistan in 1966, they were thrashed 0-3 in the unofficial ‘Tests’. However, when the West Indies came to India in 1966-67 (they won 2-0) they touched Ceylon as well.

Against an attack consisting of Wes Hall, Lester King, Lance Gibbs, and Sobers, Ceylon were reduced to 61 for 4 before recovering 400 with six of the last seven going past 45 (Tissera scored 52). The amazing stand of the innings came for the last wicket, with Chanmugam and Pieris adding 110.

The West Indians declared on 549 for 8, but Ceylon played out to an honourable draw, finishing on 163 for 3. They had put up a show to match anything the Indian sides put up when the West Indies toured them.

Tissera also played against the same team in a Daily Mirror match, the scorecard for which is not available. However, Leslie Fernando described it in Sunday Observer: “He hit over 20 boundaries. Tissera hammered the great Hall for 20 runs in two overs. When Tissera was at 96, Hall gifted with a simple full toss to Tissera to get his richly deserved century.”

Strange selection

In 1968 Micky Stewart led an International XI (Goonesena featured in the side, as did names like Dennis Amiss and Derek Underwood) to Sri Lanka. What followed was somewhat curious. Sally James wrote in Diplomatic Moves: Life in the Foreign Service: “Neither Ian Pieris nor Neil Chanmugam were chosen because of their English-speaking backgrounds and they both should have been. And an awful doctor, HIK Fernando, who is one of the selectors, made himself captain instead of Michael Tissera, who is the best player here and has been an excellent captain for two years.”

As things turned out, Ceylon Board President’s XI, led by wicketkeeper Fernando (who played a crucial role in the India ‘Test’ earlier), lost by 194 runs, for they were no match for Underwood: with 8 for 10 and 7 for 33 he bowled the hosts out for 42 and 98.

Tissera was back at the helm, and rightfully so. By this time players and fans had accepted him as the natural leader of the side. Astute on the field, unflappable under pressure, and extremely popular among his peers, Tissera was the obvious leader.

The first of many

Colin Cowdrey’s men toured Pakistan in 1968-69 for a series that probably had more to do with Ayub Khan’s politically driven agenda than with cricket. They spent their time in playing cricket in Ceylon, waiting for the situation to improve.

In one of these matches, MCC batted first and scored 236 for 6 in 60 overs. By then the nucleus of the side had been formed: Reid (57) and Ranjit Fernando (58) added 121, and Anura Tennekoon and Dhansiri Weerasinghe, 66 more. With the asking rate mounting, the Ceylon batsmen went for big hits, and when play was called off, they finished on 234 for 7 from 56 overs.

Ceylon won on run rate. It was the first of their many chases against a major side. It would certainly not be the last. That year Tissera was named Elephant House Sportsman of the Year.

A name is born

Ceylon became a republic in 1972. ‘Free, Sovereign and Independent Republic of Sri Lanka’ was born. And Sri Lanka took new strides in the world of cricket.

By then a new generation had started emerging. Duleep Mendis (who started as a wicketkeeper), David Heyn, Mevan Pieris, and Somachandra de Silva would all emerge as future stars. In 1972-73 they held Pakistan to a draw: led by Intikhab, the side boasted of 11 Test players including greats like Mushtaq Mohammad, Zaheer Abbas, Majid Khan, Sarfraz Nawaz, and Wasim Bari.

The same season witnessed Sri Lanka triumph over MCC again: after the tourists scored 158 for 5 in a 45-over match (Amiss alone contributed with 102 not out), Ceylon chased it down with 11 balls to spare. The side featured Tony Opatha, who would later bowl Sri Lanka’s first ball in international cricket.

The era of Anura, and the World Cup

As age caught up with Tissera, the mantle passed over to Tennekoon. By that time the team was ready. When West Indies came in 1974-75 (months after they won the World Cup) they were bowled out for 119 by Opatha and de Silva before Sri Lanka piled up 305 for 9. West Indies reached 213 for 3 before Tissera struck thrice. De Silva then ran through the rest. Sri Lanka needed a mere 121, but there was no time.

Sri Lanka started their England campaign of 1975 on a high: Opatha (6 for 18) bowled out Finchley for 85; Tissera top-scored with 75 not out against Berkshire; and they even beat Surrey, with Fernando, Warnapura, Heyn, and Tennekoon crossing 40.

Unfortunately, Sri Lanka were completely outplayed in their first match: Andy Roberts, Bernard Julien, and Keith Boyce bowled them out for 86 at Old Trafford, and West Indies cruised to a 9-wicket victory with almost 40 overs to spare.

Thus, when Australia piled up 328 for 5 at The Oval, nobody thought Sri Lanka would fight back against Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson, and co.

As Sunil Wettimuny held one end up, Fernando and Warnapura took Lillee, Thomson, and Ashley Mallett to the cleaners. Mendis kept the tempo up, and Sri Lanka reached 150 for 2 in 32 overs. They needed 179 from 168 balls at this stage.

Desperate to stop them, Thomson had unleashed a lethal bouncer barrage, reminiscent of what he had done to the hapless Englishmen in the antipodean summer. Wettimuny and Mendis had never flinched, cutting and pulling their way back into the match.

Then came the lethal bouncer: the diminutive Mendis was felled as the ball — estimated at close to 100 mph —hit him on his head. Mendis was in his tears when he was carried away.

Thomson then hit Wettimuny with one of his toe-crushers. As the batsmen hobbled around, Thomson even threw the stumps down and appealed, but his teammates did not respond. Following a phase of treatment, Wettimuny stood up, but Thomson hit his insteps again. This time the batsman left.

But the steam had not gone out of the chase as Tissera joined Tennekoon: both men put up a spirited show, getting behind the ball despite the cause by Thomson, supported by Lillee. “Tennekoon and Tissera, like their predecessors, got behind the line of the ball and refused to be intimidated,” wrote Wisden.

Tissera kept on counterattacking, adding 82 with Tennekoon and 32 more with Ranasinghe before falling to, of all people, Ian Chappell. His 52 had come off 72 balls, and had included 7 fours. They applauded him off the ground as Sri Lanka finished on 276 for 4. It remained the highest score for any team batting second in an ODI till 1982.

The last match at Trent Bridge turned out to be an anticlimax: Pakistan piled up 338 for 6 before bowling Sri Lanka out for 138. Tissera rounded the tour well, with 2 for 51 and 5 for 95 in a three-day match against East Africa at Taunton. On the way back they also thrashed Denmark, Tissera taking 3 for 40.

He did not play for Sri Lanka again, but at 41 he led Colombo Cricket Club (CCC) to the Sara Trophy. Even at 45 he made three appearances for Colombo Cricket Club in the Lakspray Trophy.

Post-retirement

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February 4, 2006, Perth. From left: Muttiah Muralitharan, Michael Tissera, Bruce Elliott (Professor of Biomechanics), and Jacquie Alderson (Bio-Mechanist) explaining outcome of Murali’s action tests to media © AFP

Tissera worked at Brooke Bonds, and helped form a strong team that consisted of Channa Gunasekera, Noel Perera, and H Juriansz. He set a Mercantile Cricket record, slamming 212 not out against Walters.

He played a major role in Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) administration, serving as Head of the Cricket Committee before it was mysteriously disbanded. In 2002 he became Chairman of Selectors for Sri Lanka. He managed Sri Lanka A in 2004, and the international side from 2005 to 2007, playing a part in mentoring the side that came runners-up in World Cup 2007, and played a crucial role in the clearing of the action of Muttiah Muralitharan.

He has been vocal in support of provincial cricket in Sri Lanka. For years, clubs have formed the backbone of Sri Lankan cricket, and have formed the only rung in the ladder to the Sri Lankan international team. Tissera demanded cricket at provincial level (involving five times, pitting the best against the best) as the bridge between the two levels that to improve the quality of domestic cricket.

He was also part of MCC’s World Cricket Committee. In 2015, SLC honoured Tissera by naming the Test series between West Indies and Sri Lanka the Sobers-Tissera Trophy.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor at CricketCountry and CricLife. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)