Dandeniyage Somachandra De Silva © Getty Images
Dandeniyage Somachandra De Silva © Getty Images

Dandeniyage Somachandra (DS) de Silva, born June 11, 1942, was a crafty leg-spinner who was way past his prime when Sri Lanka entered the Test match arena. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the career of the man who bowled Sri Lanka to their first major win in international cricket, and also captured the nation’s first five-for in Tests.

Manchester magic

Old Trafford, World Cup 1979. The minnows of the day had posted a decent total. Sunil Wettimuny and Roy Dias had added 96 delightful runs. It had been followed by the exploits of the pint sized dynamo, Duleep Mendis, who had struck Kapil Dev, Mohinder Amarnath and Karsan Ghavri for a six apiece to score 64 off just 52 balls. Schoolboy cricketer Sudath Pasqual had enjoyed the time of his life as 52 runs had been plundered in 7 overs.

In the end 238 was a commendable score, especially given that captain Anura Tennekoon and had missed the match after damaging his hamstring at nets. But, the Indian batting was full of formidable names. It being a 60-over match, the required rate was a shade below four. Besides, they would come back after a refreshing Sunday’s rest — the late start on Saturday evening had ensured only one innings in the afternoon.

Sunil Gavaskar and Anshuman Gaekwad started sluggishly, but put on 60 for the first wicket. And when India went into lunch, the total stood at 117 for 2. Dilip Vengsarkar and Gundappa Viswanath were striking the ball well, and 122 needed to be scored from 25 overs.

Two runs after the interval, Viswanath was run out. And then the wily Somachandra de Silva produced a spell of sorcery. Cannily varying his leg-breaks, he bowled Brijesh Patel for 10. Fifteen runs later, he snared the set Vengsarkar for 36.  Kapil, promoted ahead of Mohinder, struck a couple of boundaries before falling to the medium pace of Stanley de Silva. And the last glimmer of Indian hope was switched off when a wicked wrong ’un slithered past Mohinder’s bat to hit the stumps. India had collapsed to 162 for 7.

They never recovered. As de Silva blocked one end with remarkable accuracy and guile, Tony Opatha, who had done precious little with new ball, skittled out Ghavri, Surinder Khanna and Bishan Singh Bedi.

Somachandra de Silva ended with 3 for 29 off 11 overs as Sri Lanka pulled off a major upset, beating India by 47 runs. It was a moment to savour for the veteran leg-spinner. Every batsman who played him over the years swore by his skill and subtle cunning. But, on this memorable day he was already 37 and it would take three more years for Sri Lanka to get Test status. There was a chance that he could end up as one of the finest spinners who never got to play Test cricket.

Making the most of little

For years de Silva had been a constant feature in the Sri Lankan side, but owing to the fledgling status of the country as a cricketing power his exposure to top class cricket had been limited. Yet, whenever opportunity had presented itself he had grabbed it with his leg-spinner’s grip. His flighted leg-breaks, abundantly mixed with wily googlies, had for long been respected by the best of batsmen.

In early 1973, a strong MCC side had toured the island that had changed its name from Ceylon to Sri Lanka the previous year. De Silva had bagged 5 for 40 in the first innings at Colombo, including the wickets of Mike Denness, Tony Greig and Roger Tolchard.  A year later, a Sri Lankan team had toured Pakistan. At Mirpur, de Silva had taken 10 in the match to snatch a win against a formidable Sind side including Javed Miandad, Intikhab Alam, Aftab Baloch and Wasim Bari.

A year later Viv Richards, Roy Fredericks and Clive Lloyd had piled up runs for the visiting West Indians, but de Silva had held his own with 5 for 150. In the next match, he had picked up ten wickets as the supreme Caribbean team had been brought to the brink of a defeat and had been saved by the clock.

When the Indians had toured in late 1975, de Silva, now a seasoned veteran, had spun out nine men in a closely fought game. His wickets had included Mohinder Amarnath in both the innings. A couple of months later, he had taken 8 wickets in a memorable win against a full-strength Pakistan side including Zaheer Abbas, Javed Miandad, Wasim Raja, Imran Khan, Haroon Rashid, Intikhab Alam and Sarfraz Nawaz.

His form had continued after the World Cup win against India. Ten Sussex wickets had been captured later that summer at Horsham, Kepler Wessels and Javed Miandad among his victims.

Coming of age at 39

Finally, in July 1981, ICC bestowed Test status on Sri Lanka. And seven months later — a period full of preparation as befits a country with a long history of cricket — the island nation took on Keith Fletcher’s Englishmen at P Sara Stadium, Colombo. Somachandra de Silva was a few months shy of 40, but was in excellent form. He had turned out for Shropshire in the Minor Counties Championship the previous summer and had taken time off to take seven wickets for the touring Sri Lankans against Lancashire.

Like most new entrants, Sri Lanka’s first session was nervous, with the side soon down to 34 for 4 against Bob Willis and Ian Botham. But, they recovered through the delightful teenaged heroics of Arjuna Ranatunga and classy elegance of Ranjan Madugalle. The final total of 218 was hardly encouraging, but the Englishmen soon discovered that they had to fight every inch of their way.

The leg-breaks and googlies of the 39-year-old Somachandra de Silva, aided by left-arm spin of Ajit de Silva, delivered like the mirror image of Lance Gibbs, made for some superb cricket on the second afternoon. The purchase from the wicket was significant and countered with masterful footwork of David Gower, and some resolute defence of Keith Fletcher.

The first Test wicket for de Silva took some time in coming, but it was a huge one. On the third morning, with the score on 200 for 5, Gower edged a ball which — according to David Frith — was delivered with corkscrew flight. Paul Allott slashed at one to be caught at cover.  And Derek Underwood, playing his final Test, cut one straight to point. de Silva’s long-awaited first innings in Tests yielded figures of 27.5-11-54-3. England managed 223.

With Roy Dias driving magnificently, Sri Lanka ended the day at 153 for 3, and with the two de Silvas itching to bowl, the hosts indeed looked the favourites to win. However, on the fourth morning, inexperience took a heavy toll. John Emburey bowled from round the wicket and Sri Lanka lost their last 7 wickets for 8 runs. DS de Silva sent down some tight overs, but could not break through and England triumphed by 7 wickets.

The lone crusader

During the first few Tests of Sri Lanka, one often found de Silva the lone crusader with the ball. In the second series in Pakistan, he took four in the first innings and three of the four wickets to fall in the second at Karachi. The team lost but the guile and experience cast its spell. And in the following Test at Faisalabad, he became the first Sri Lankan to take a five-wicket haul — ending with 9 for the match. If even one bowler had supported him from the other end on the final day, Sri Lanka might have snatched an unlikely victory. Somachandra took 3 wickets in an over that was punctuated by the tea interval. However, Pakistan clung on to draw the match, finishing at 186 for 7, with de Silva’s solo heroics yielding 5 for 59.

Across the Palk Strait, he was not that successful against Gavaskar, Vengsarkar and Sandeep Patil in the only Test, but proved a tenacious batsman in the bargain. Always useful with the bat, he scripted two crucial forties in the Test. And when India chased against the clock in the final innings, his 1 for 29 from 9 overs went a long way to ensure a draw.

In the tour to New Zealand that followed, an injury to Duleep Mendis suddenly put de Silva at the helm. By now, although he was bowling as tightly as ever, his wicket-taking had been reduced to a trickle. However, as captain he walked in as high in the order as number six and scored his first fifty at Christchurch even as Sri Lanka folded to an innings defeat.

At Wellington, he went in at six again and scored his career-best knock of 61. Some spirited bowling by Rumesh Ratnayake and Vinothen John ensured a first innings lead for the Lankans and the youthful hopes of the cricketing nation soared again. And yet again lack of experience was the heavy burden that pulled the fancies back to earth and a second innings collapse ensured defeat.

With the immensity of experience being counter-balanced by the fraying effects of age, De Silva did not do much in the few remaining Test matches that he played, but he did have another incredible moment in the 1983 World Cup. Bowling with parsimonious accuracy he tied the New Zealand batsmen into knots at Derby and ended with incredible figures of 12-5-11-2. It gave Sri Lanka the only win in the tournament.  We need to remember that he was past his 41st birthday during the game.

The farewell

A year later, at Lord’s, de Silva played his last Test match. With Sidath Wettimuny and Duleep Mendis piling up runs, Sri Lanka more than held their own in their first ever Test in England and even managed a 121 run first innings lead.  Somachandra de Silva was his old canny self, giving nothing away, bowling 45 overs to capture 2 for 85. He called it a day after playing in the 1985 Benson & Hedges World Championship in Australia.

Sadly, he could not last until the nation’s first win in Test cricket that came in Kandy later in 1985. De Silva’s final figures read 37 wickets in 12 Tests at 36.40. He also finished with a batting average of 21.36 with two half-centuries. Had he been born a decade later or had played in a stronger team, he would surely have been a force to reckon with both as a leg-spinner and a bowling all-rounder.

He started his career in the days of Bhagwat Chandrasekhar and ended while Abdul Qadir was bamboozling batsmen around the world. He could have been a much needed addition to the roster of those rare practitioners of the difficult and tantalising art of leg-spin.

De Silva has since then remained in touch with cricket through coaching and administrative positions. From 2009 to 2011 he served as the chairman of Sri Lanka Cricket. And he will be remembered as the first world-class spinner of the country which went on to produce Muttiah Muralitharan.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)