Arunabha_May 19
England cricketers in Colombo, en route Australia for the infamous Bodyline tour. From left: Eddie Paynter, Hedley Verity, Bill Voce, Les Ames, Harold Larwood © Getty Images

As England and Sri Lanka square up against each other, Arunabha Sengupta looks at the long history of cricket between the two countries. No, the link did not start with Sri Lanka’s first Test in 1982. It goes back a century earlier than that.

The first Test, almost a hundred years after the first ball

It was a sunny February day in early 1982 when Bob Willis ran in.

The shock of thick hair bounced on his head, the right hand bearing the ball was twisted in the characteristic odd angle — now concealed behind the advancing torso, now visible for a fraction of a second. In front of him stood Bandula Warnapura, captain of Sri Lanka, taking first strike for the beautiful island nation in the highest form of the game. The hour of reckoning had arrived. At the P Sara Stadium, Sri Lanka’s first ever Test match had started.

As recorded in detail, for three days the fledgling cricketing nation gave a splendid account of themselves. They ran England neck and neck, only five runs separating the two teams in the first innings, the hosts well placed at 152 for 3 at the end of the third day. And then on the fourth morning, John Emburey produced a 10-over spell capturing 5 for 10. The newcomers to the Test scene capitulated and lost to the professional England side by 7 wickets. They were defeated but not disgraced by any stretch of imagination.

However, that was far, far from being the first time that English and Lankan teams had been engaged in cricketing contests. The history of their encounters went way back, almost an exact century before the just-described initiation to Test cricket.

It started during the first voyage to recover the Ashes. Indeed, the history of Anglo-Lankan cricket is almost exactly as old as the Ashes rivalry.

Halting on the quest for the Ashes … twice

On September 14, 1882, the Peshawur, carrying the merry men of Ivo Bligh, embarked on the historic quest to bring back the Ashes.

They sailed through the Bay of Biscay, halted at Malta, proceeded to Port Said and hastened past the War zone of Egypt where Sir Garnet Wolseley had just led the British army to a famous victory at Tel-el-Kebir. The ship made 300 miles per day along the Red Sea and then slowed down as the temperature went soaring up and the air turned a horrid damp. They had entered the tropics, and the next stop was Colombo.

The secretary of the local cricket club — quite naturally a European one — came aboard as the ship docked. He approached Bligh with the proposal to play a two-day match. The local club would field XVIII men against the XI of the touring party.

Bligh agreed. He, the Studd brothers CT and GB, and Allan Steel, the captain and three excellent amateur cricketers, spent the night at a bungalow belonging to a local man. The man has been identified by Bligh’s diary merely as a Christian. The rest of the team was hosted by the club.

The following day, the first cricket match between an English and a Sri Lankan team took place at Galle Face, Colombo. A thousand people ‘of every variety of colour in dress and complexion’ gathered for the scheduled start at 12 noon. The Europeans won the toss and several ‘hardy fellows’ batted bare feet and wore neither pads nor other protection. The heat was oppressive. The local XVIII were bowled out for 92.

Bligh scored 20 before being bowled and the Englishmen reached 79 for 4 by close of play. The following day, in an attempt to beat the heat the match was resumed at eight in the morning. Perhaps no England team has ever had an earlier start to their cricketing day. The visitors scored 155 and then Steel and Willie Bates had the local side struggling at 16 for 7. However, the match had to be abandoned because the ship was due to sail. That happened often enough in the old days.

Incidentally, Bligh did not feel too well on the second day and did not take the field. An unnamed passenger from the Peshawur substituted for him.

As the ship sailed for Australia, steaming at 12-13 knots, about 580 kilometres off the coast of Colombo, they rammed into Glenroy, an English ship coming in from Mauritius, bound for Madras. (Sidelight: The captain of this ship was named John Wright, although without any cricketing connection. It was deemed his fault and his certificate was suspended for six months.)

The collision could easily have been fatal and the legend of the Ashes could have drowned in the Indian Ocean after the first international match in Sri Lanka. However, only two men on the Peshawur were injured. One of them was, unfortunately, fast bowler Fred Morley, who died two years later, probably due to internal injuries suffered during the accident.

However, as a result of the collision, Glenroy was in a pitiable state and Peshawur had no option but to tow it back to Colombo. Their departure thus delayed by a few days, the English side spent some time on the cricket field, this time at the Colombo cricket ground. They played against the rather unskilled XVIII of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. It was a one-day match and in reply to 184 made by the Englishmen, the Fusiliers ended at 24 for 9.

Grace walks

The sea routes meant that whenever the two oldest Test playing nations visited each other they would have to stop at Ceylon.

Hence, Billy Murdoch’s 1884 Australians to England played matches against the local teams on their voyage out and on the way back. The pearl drop on the Indian Ocean was thus ensured a regular dose of international cricket.

The next England team that played there, however, was not visiting Australia. In 1889-90, GF Vernon led a group of amateur cricketers to India, and they played two one sided games against a Ceylon XI and Colombo Cricket Club.

The next showdown between the English and Ceylon cricketers is rather remarkable because of a standout incident.

It was Lord Sheffield’s England team stopping on the way to Australia in 1891-92, and the captain was none other than WG Grace.

18 Ceylonese cricketers faced 12 Englishmen in the match as the Arcadia moored in Colombo. In that broiling heat, the Ceylon bowlers started running in. Grace had scored 14 when a ball from Tommy Kelaart broke back towards the wicket. The great man managed to keep it out, but in the process dislodged the bail.

Neither wicketkeeper Algernon Whiting nor the bowler saw him hitting his wicket. Nor did the umpires. A muted appeal that followed was negated due to lack of enough evidence to topple the leviathan at the crease.

But, by then Grace had had enough of the heat and humidity. He nodded and said, “That’s all right, I’m going anyway.” And with these words the great man headed for the shelter of the shadows. It remains the only recorded instance of WG walking.

Regular visits

Lord Hawke’s men played three matches on their way to India in late 1892. Drewy Stoddart and his team halted to play a day’s match before leaving to contest one of the greatest Test series in Australia in 1894-95.

However, the Ceylon visits became a regular feature of a touring English team’s itinerary after MCC took over and Plum Warner halted in the island on the way to Australia in 1911-12. Jack Hobbs scored 45 and Sid Barnes took 4 for 30 in a one-innings game. (Yes, one of the best of batsmen and perhaps the greatest of bowlers actually played together just across the Palk Straight. The Indian television commentators may try to keep that in mind instead of trying hard to spell out their names when flashed on TV screens).

After this the tours of MCC became regular. Johnny Douglas and his men played in 1920, Arthur Gilligan’s team in 1924, Percy Chapman’s brigade in 1928 and even Douglas Jardine’s cricketers of Bodyline fame plied their trade there in 1932. Harold Larwood did not play the game, but Bill Voce and Bill Bowes did bowl at the local men.

In between there were other teams as well. Archie MacLaren’s team halted to play a game in 1922-23 on the way to Australia and New Zealand. When Gilligan took the MCC team to India in 1926-27, they sailed down after a game in Chennai and contested four matches before returning to the Indian main land to play at Aligarh.

And in between the country had also started producing home grown cricketers making it big in England. Churchill Hector Gunasekara, a useful medium-pacer, a handy lower-order batsman and an exceptional fielder, studied medicine at Cambridge University. He also represented Middlesex between 1919 and 1922, scoring three fifties and capturing 75 wickets, and gained the reputation of being one of the best fielders in the county circuit.

With India gaining Test status in 1932, there were more international cricketing visits to the island. Stopover matches on the way to Australia continued, and alongside there were other opportunities of facing international sides as they hopped over during their tours of India.

The English sides visited regularly. After playing their third Test against India in Madras in 1932-33, Jardine’s men crossed over to Ceylon. Dionysius Gunasekara, nephew of Churchill Hector, led the Ceylon XI against MCC at Colombo Cricket Ground. Ted Clarke and Stan Nichols blew them away for 106 and Charlie Barnett outscored the local team with 116. The eventual result was a 10-wicket win for MCC. However, the most important outcome was that this was the first time MCC had played Ceylon in a First-Class game.

Down the years cricketing exchanges kept taking place. Not only official touring sides visited the land, even Sir Julian Cahn’s private team played there in 1936-37. The team included star South African cricketer Bob Crisp and the Kiwi maestro Stewie Dempster.


Note: Don Bradman played in Ceylon when Australia visited in 1930 and 1948.

Till the 1960s, cricket teams continued sea-travel and the English and Australian teams continued to stop at Colombo. The stopover games came to a halt after air travel took over completely. The 1965-66 MCC side led by MJK Smith was the last to play in the island on their way to Australia.

By then plenty of local Sri Lankan players were playing for the counties. Laddie Outschoorn turned out for Worcestershire for 13 years, Dan Pichaud played for Oxford University, Hampshire and MCC, also turning out for EW Swanton’s XI and Free Foresters.  Stanley Jayasinghe played for Leicestershire, and he was followed there by Clive Imam. Gamini Goonesena was a champion leggie who turned out for Cambridge University and then Nottinghamshire. His seven consecutive games for Gentlemen versus Players remains a record for an overseas player.

Refuge from violence

With the stopover matches on the way to Ashes encounters coming to an end, the island took on another important role for the English cricketers.

The politically disturbed Pakistan invited MCC for a three-Test series in 1968-69.

With Pakistan’s military government established with the support of United States and Britain, the Western allies were extremely interested in the survival of Ayub Khan. The strategic location of the country from the point of view of the Cold War made it an indispensable ploy. Besides, rival political leader Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had links to the Soviet Union and China, and that increased the importance of Khan.

Hence, even as East Pakistan struggled for independence, the government remained unstable and there were reports of violence from the country every single day, the Colin Cowdrey led team were encouraged to tour by the British Foreign Office. Moreover, one of the three Tests was to be held in the combustible Dacca. The initial First-Class games were scheduled in Chittagong.

However, as the reports of violence streamed in from Dacca, the team was flown in to Ceylon. There, away from the gunshots, they played four matches in Colombo and Kandy before proceeding to Bahawalpur.

Sri Lanka emerges

As the march of time entered the 1970s, the MCC sides continued to visit the island.

By the time Tony Lewis took his men there in early 1973 between the Indian and Pakistan legs of the tour, the country had been renamed Sri Lanka.

Lewis sat out as Mike Denness-led MCC against Sri Lanka at the Colombo Oval. Michael Tissera captained the national side, and the members of the team included Anura Tennekoon, Somachandra de Silva, a young Duleep Mendis and a 19-year-old Bandula Warnapura. The home team lost by 7 wickets, but the blueprint of the side that would take them into the Test-fold was already being constructed.

When Tony Greig’s men played there in 1976-77, things had changed drastically. The national side had toured England and played in the Prudential World Cup in 1975. The talented side of 1973 had been enhanced by the addition of men like Roy Dias, Sunil Wettimuny and Ranjit Fernando.

From there to the Test world was but a small step.

In 1979, the team travelled to England yet again for the World Cup and stunned the world by defeating India. They had become a force to reckon with.

In 1981 Warnapura took the side to England once again to play a number of First-Class matches against county sides. The team included, apart the old pros Dias and Mendis, young recruits like Sidath Wettimuny, Ranjan Madugalle, Ashantha de Mel and Ravi Ratnayeke. The obvious signs were all too palpable. The side was ready for the final step.

And thus, less than half a year after the completion of the tour, Keith Fletcher walked out to toss with Warnapura. And soon the captain had padded up, ready to face Bob Willis.

As already explained, it was not the beginning, but the culmination of a century-long cricketing relationship.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history of cricket, with occasional statistical pieces and reflections on the modern game. He is also the author of four novels, the most recent being Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets here.)