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Ranjit Fernando: Sri Lanka’s first international ’keeper

Ranji
Ranjit Fernando amassed 47 runs in three ODIs © Getty Images

Cricketer-turned-commentator Ranjit Fernando was born on February 22, 1944. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at Sri Lanka’s first international wicketkeeper.

Edward Ranjit Fernando was not a class act with the bat, but he was more than efficient behind the stumps. He was one of Sri Lanka’s stalwarts when they strived for Test status in the 1970s, keeping wickets and earning a name as an extremely hard-hitting, fearless but erratic batsman. In a way, he was the predecessor of the likes of Romesh Kaluwitharana.

A lack of exposure to First-Class cricket meant that Fernando’s career remained largely confined to club matches. He played 38 First-Class matches, scoring 1,349 runs at 22.11 with five fifties. He also finished with 50 catches and 15 fifties. His three One-Day Internationals (ODIs) — all in the first World Cup — returned him 47 runs at 15.22.

Early days

Born in Colombo, Ranjit and his younger brother Sunil (who was good enough to play for Ceylon Board President’s XI) took to cricket at a relatively early age. Ranjit was an ardent fan of Frank Worrell, and had written a letter to Vijay Merchant asking for an autograph when he was young: it is another story that the letter went to Vijay’s brother Uday, but his request was fulfilled anyway.

The Fernandos were keen school cricketers, and Ranjit went on to win the Schoolboy Cricketer of the Year in the early 1960s. He was also named the Best Batsman (which says something about his pedigree, since the pool contained future stars like Anura Tennekoon — the first international captain of the country) and the best wicketkeeper.

He made his First-Class debut at 20 against Pakistan A at Colombo; batting at three he was bowled by Farooq Hameed for a duck. He was nevertheless chosen for Ceylon’s tour of India that year, where he played four matches — and continued to play competitive cricket for numerous sides against various opposition, including a home 108 against Hong Kong in 1970-71.

A few months later he got a call-up from Kent to play for the Second XI. In the match against Surrey Second XI at Norbury, however, Fernando failed with scores of one and eight. He played for the Nondescripts Cricket Club and Mercantile Cricket Association but unfortunately, Sri Lankan domestic or corporate matches did not have First-Class status at that point of time. When India sent a team for unofficial Tests to Sri Lanka in 1973-74, Fernando played in all ‘Tests’, albeit with limited success. He also toured Pakistan later that season.

Clive Lloyd’s mighty West Indians touched them on their way back home after their tour of India: opening the batting against the likes Andy Roberts, Keith Boyce, Vanburn Holder, and Bernard Julien, Fernando made a name for himself by scoring 26, 48, and 51 in the three innings.

The World Cup

Along with East Africa (which consisted of club cricketers from Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia), Sri Lanka were selected to take part in the inaugural World Cup. In the first warm-up match against New Zealand at Eastbourne, Fernando carried his bat with a destructive 98 out of a team score of 183 against the Hadlees (Dayle and Richard), Richard Collinge, and Lance Cairns.

He failed in the second match against the same opposition. The final warm-up match was scheduled against Surrey at The Oval; after the hosts batted first and put up 219 for five Fernando went at the bowlers with Bandula Warnapura for company. Warnapura and Fernando added 105 before both succumbed to Intikhab Alam’s wiles; a third-wicket stand of 89 between David Heyn and Tennekoon then helped script an easy win for the tourists.

Sri Lanka’s first ever ODI match turned out to be a disaster for them: at Old Trafford Roberts, Julien, and Boyce came at them with menacing pace to bowl them out for 86 in 37.2 overs with only three batsmen reaching double-figures (two of them in the bottom three). Fernando was the first to go, caught-behind off Julien for a six-ball four. West Indies cantered to a nine-wicket victory.

The match against Australia at Kennington Oval seemed to be going on a similar line after Rick McCosker (73) and Alan Turner (101) added 182 for the first wicket. There were quick fifties from Greg Chappell and Doug Walters as well, and Australia piled up a seemingly unassailable 328 for five in 60 overs.

One would not have blamed Sri Lankan batsmen, if they had given up hope. Instead, they decided to go for the chase. Fernando started off things by giving Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson an unexpected charge: by the time he was bowled by Thomson for an 18-ball 22 with four fours, the chase was on.

Warnapura played a few attractive strokes, and with Sunil Wettimuny holding one end up and Duleep Mendis batting playing a dazzling innings at the other end, Sri Lanka reached 150 for two. However, Ian Chappell brought Thomson back, who bowled with pace the Sri Lankans had never encountered before.

Mendis was hit on the head and Wettimuny on the chest; off the next ball a Thomson yorker crashed into Wettimuny’s instep, which made the opener join Mendis at St Thomas’ Hospital. Sri Lanka did not give up, with Tennekoon and Michael Tissera going behind the line and hooking, pulling, and cutting with panache: when they eventually finished on 276 for four, they had won an entire ground of fans.

Emboldened by that performance, Sri Lanka went to Trent Bridge for the last league match against Pakistan. Sadiq Mohammad (74) and Majid Khan (84) put up 159 while Zaheer Abbas scored 97, and Pakistan finished on a huge 330 for six. This time there was no spirited chase: Warnapura fell early to Imran Khan; Tennekoon brought himself up the order to join his friend; but after Fernando was caught and bowled by Javed Miandad for a 42-ball 21 with three fours, Sri Lanka collapsed from 44 for one to 138.

As a continuation of the tour, the Sri Lankans played a three-day match (that was given First-Class status) against East Africa at Taunton: Fernando scored a career-best 81 in the match as the Sri Lankans won by 115 runs. On their way back, they also won their matches against Netherlands at The Hague and against Denmark at Herning quite comfortably, though Fernando could not make an impact in these matches.

Back to domestic cricket

Enriched by the experience Sri Lanka toured India that winter, where they did a reasonable job. Fernando himself scored 187 runs at 31.16. He continued to play on, but a very small proportion of matches he played were given First-Class status. In 1978, he also played for DH Robins’ XI against Oxford and Cambridge Universities.

Ranjith Fernando dropping Gundappa Vishwanath's catch
Ranjit Fernando dropping Gundappa Vishwanath’s catch off Tony Opatha

Fernando played his last First-Class match on his 35th birthday against the West Indians who were on their tour of India. The attack boasted of Malcolm Marshall and Sylvester Clarke, but batting at six Fernando managed 22. The tourists declared with a 136-run lead, and Fernando found himself at the crease with the score on 40 for four (effectively 40 for five, since Anura Jayasinghe had retired hurt).

Fernando was run-out just before the match ended, scoring 49 and dominating a partnership of 89 with prodigal stroke-player Roy Dias, the new kid on the block. By the time Sri Lanka played their first Test, they had decided to replace the 38-year-old Fernando with the 30-year old Mahes Goonatilleke.

Post-retirement

After retirement, Fernando went on to become the manager of the Sri Lankan cricket side. With the boom of television broadcasts, however, Fernando was influenced to take up commentary by Sunil Gavaskar. He became one of the earlier Sri Lankan television commentators with some repute.

His style, however, was not really popular among viewers for reasons that were, well, somewhat valid. He could never obtain the respect his countrymen Ranil Abeynaike, Roshan Abeysinghe, Saliya Ahangama, or of late, Russel Arnold could, and has been criticised severely among viewers (especially his countrymen).

In fact, his poor commentary has become an order of such ridicule that he has attained a cult status among Sri Lankan viewers. The Ranjit Fernando Sucks blog that had originated in 2007 became very popular during the World Cup, especially after his much talked-about reaction after Sri Lanka’s victory over England in the Super Eights match at North Sound.

With oft-quoted Fernando lines like “one would say that the team that scores more runs should go on to win the game,” “if they can get eight or nine quick wickets they could be in with a chance,” “what’s important in this partnership is that they have not lost any wicket,” or “what he will be trying to do is to hit the ball with the bat and get runs”, it is not surprising that he has been out of favour among cricket channels off late.

 (Abhishek Mukherjee is the Deputy Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in and can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)

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