Reminiscing the brilliance of Gamini Dissanayake

Gamini Dissanayake arrives home after winning Sri Lanka Test status in 1981

In‘s new segment ‘Legends’ that was aired last week, Sri Lanka’s first Test centurion Sidath Wettimuny recalled with gratitude the immense contributions of former President of the Cricket Board Gamini Dissanayake to the game. 

Dissanayake, an ultimate people’s man was a maverick who had a unique way of achieving his means.

Dissanayake entered Parliament at the age of 28 in 1970. He became a powerful minister of the J. R. Jayewardene government that came into power in 1977. He was brought into cricket administration by Abu Fuard in a bid to bring every stakeholder of the game together.

Those days the cricket establishment was divided into two camps. Those from the elite schools and prominent clubs who were running the game formed one group while the lesser affluent ones were trying to break that stronghold without much success.

Dissanayake lived at Fifth Lane in Bambalapitiya. So did Fuard. They were neighbours. So Fuard managed to convince Dissanayake to take up the Cricket Board. There was firm backing from President Jayewardene, who himself was a former President of the Cricket Board from 1952 to 1955. Dissanayake was elected as President uncontested in 1979.

Sri Lanka’s appeals for Test status in the 1960s and 1970s were continuously vetoed by either Australia or England, not due to the lack of  quality players, but due to the lack of infrastructure. This Dissanayake addressed promising the governing body that the standards will be improved drastically.

“You give us the Test status and I will give you a personal guarantee that the infrastructure will be taken care of,” Dissanayake said at Lord’s in 1981. 

Having gained Test status in 1981, Dissanayake ensured that for the inaugural Test match the next year, P. Sara Oval was given a facelift. Then Asgiriya Stadium, the private property of Trinity College was upgraded to international standards. The task undertaken by Dissanayake was finished within 150 days and Asgiriya became Sri Lanka’s second Test venue when Greg Chappell’s Aussies visited the island in April 1983.

Dissanayake had studied at Trinity and later attended Cambridge University. A fine speaker, he often kept the audience spellbound.

He also brought in the best man in the world to coach the Sri Lankan team – Sir Gary Sobers.

His appeal to leading businessmen to come forward to help the sport was received with warmth and several leading companies promoted the sport by providing employment or through sponsorships. Some of these capable businessmen eventually joined the board like Mr. Raja Mahendran, Managing Director of the Maharaja Organization, who served the Cricket Board as Vice-President.

>>For more Legends Interview Click Here<<

Dissanayake managed to get other key cricket figures like Nuzki Mohammad, Nisal Seneratne and Neil Perera to work closely with him to raise the standard of cricket.

He had a clear vision as to where he wanted to take the game and his eight year tenure was a highly successful one. He saw future leaders in men like Ranjan Madugalle, Ravi Ratnayake and Arjuna Ranatunga and groomed them.

Arjuna recalls how some days the Board President would call him and request him to read a particular article in a newspaper. By evening he would call up again to check whether the ‘homework’ had been done. If Arjuna had failed to do it, the paper cutting would be sent to his home the following morning to read and understand.

Dissanayake was brought in for a second term in 1994. It was a time where cricket was getting stagnated and not moving in the right direction. There were very few inbound tours. Dissanayake had some ambitious plans.

 But he was taken away from us at the prime of his life, aged 52. Dissanayake was the Opposition Leader at the time of his death in 1994. He was contesting the Presidential election and was addressing an election rally at Thotalanga when a he met his end at the hands of the LTTE.

Sri Lanka were in Zimbabwe at that point. They had fared badly in the second Test in Bulawayo and were facing defeat. David Houghton had smashed a double hundred to help Zimbabwe post 462 for nine declared. Sri Lanka were blown away in their first innings – all out for 218 and were forced to follow on. They were left with a tall order to save the Test match.

On that wretched night when Mr. Dissanayake was assassinated, captain Ranatunga was not getting any sleep. Was it a premonition? He was changing television channels and accidentally saw news channels reporting the assassination of the Board President.

Ranatunga immediately contacted Ranjit Fernando, who was Manager cum Coach on that tour. They discussed whether the tour should be abandoned and consulted the board. Eventually they decided to continue the tour.

The next day, Sanjeeva Ranantunga scored an unbeaten hundred to save the game for Sri Lanka.

After the World Cup win, the first thing Arjuna did after touching down in Colombo was to go straight to late Gamini Dissanayake’s residence with the trophy to meet his family and showed his gratitude. Cricket wouldn’t have been what it is today if not for Gamini Dissanayake.