Doctor C.H. Gunasekere:
Bedrock of our cricket
Dr. C.H. Gunasekere - did a lot for cricket
CRICKET: In the year 1920, a solitary cable to Dr. Churchill Hector
Gunasekere from Dr. John Rockwood which read "contact the Marleybone
Cricket Club and request a game in Colombo" may well have paved our way
to eventual stardom in Lahore eight decades later. Dr. C.H. Gunasekere
was stalking Lord's cricket ground and the Middlesex National Hospitals
brandishing his bat and scalpel with gay abandon when the message hit
his letter box.
Dr. John Rockwood for his part was a cultured and capable man, a
practising physician in Colombo, oozing with intent and resolve to
elevate our cricket to greater heights. Prior to that wire, our cricket
was of a very good standard and yet was cloaked in anonymity, hardly
known beyond the barriers of our reef.
Doctor CH for his part lost no time in contacting the kingmaker as it
were of English cricket, Ex-England captain and President of MCC Sir
Helham Warner. The knight no doubt bowed by the steep he held for our
good Doctor, virtually diverted the vessel carrying the English
cricketers to New Zealand in the year 1920, the ship unleashing its
precious cargo consisting of Jack Hobbs, Walter Hammond, Wilfred Rhodes,
Percy Fender and Patsy Hendren among others, on the lush meadows of
Maitland Crescent. The first time flowering of our cricket had emerged,
the dawn of our development so to speak.
Dr. C.H had won for us the right to prove ourselves. At the Maitland
Crescent grounds, All Ceylon scored 122 all out of which Dr. C.H.
notched 29 to which MCC replied with 108 for 9 when bad light stopped
play, surely heralding our rise to power.
Our cricketers could shed their insecurities and uncertainties riding
on the doctors accomplishments at Cambridge University and Middlesex, he
being the first Ceylonese to play county cricket, the first Ceylonese to
date to have played in a championship winning county side, first
Ceylonese to be honoured with a membership of the utterly prestigious
MCC and the first Ceylonese to add a hard to grab county to his cricket
coffin. In addition to his ability with bat and scalpel he was
perpetually hobnobbing with the English nobility and gentry, all within
the easy ambit of his aristocratic stride, haughtily stubborn jawline
and dark brooding eyes, besides his great sense of style and ceremony.
CH senior had good backing
He was resolutely aided and abetted by Dr. John Rockwood and
subsequently by D.L. de Saram and Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu in
reinforcing the resurgence of our cricket, with the formation of the
Ceylon Cricket Association. The good Doctor laid the base entrusting the
brickwork to the artistry of F.C. de Saram, Sargo Jayawickreme,
Mahendran Sathasivam, C.L. Gunasekera, Michael Tissera, Anura Tennekoon,
Duleep Mendis, Roy Dias, P.I. Pieris, Neil Chanmugam and Ranjan
Madugalle among others and leaving it to Arjuna Ranatugna to climb the
pinnacle at Lahore.
Dr. C.H. was a man of wide horizons. In addition to his passion for
cricket and the study of medicine, he indulged in his passion for horse
racing and tennis, his Cabinets bursting with trophies and was a highly
accomplished pianist as well. He also turned his hand to play-writing,
penning some eloquent prose of immense depth and beauty.
Having scored shoals of runs for Royal College, he led his beloved
school in 1912 and then took the single sterling step of sailing to
London in pursuance of his cricket and studies. He played for Middlesex
from 1919 to 1923, scoring 664 runs in 70 completed innings. Sadly his
career was smudged to a large extent by World War I which deprived him
of a coveted Cambridge Blue. His batting could be as crisp as anyone's
and he could so elegantly step inside to whip it off his hips past
square and would drive with a lovely swing of the willow, and could be
classed as an accumulator.
He bowled slow curvy seam, snaring 75 county wickets for good
measure. It was his fielding that caused a flutter across the British
Isles with cover point being his strong point, being bracketed with Sir
Learie Constantine as the best in the business. He could cover expansive
territory picking up just about everything in his path with such
oriental brilliance. A single swell swoop and he was all poised to rip
up the stumps. Lurking around the pads he would wrap his palms around
the merest whiff of a chance.
Captain of SSC
On his return to Sri Lanka in 1924, he captained Singhalese Sports
Club and subsequently Ceylon in two priceless stints. Initially from
1926 to 1930 and then again from 1932 to 1934. He rightfully had the
honour of leading Ceylon in the first unofficial Test against Indian
opposition in 1932. Between wielding the bat and scalpel, with such
dexterity, he also wielded the tennis racket with much elan winning the
country's mixed doubles in 1928 and 1930 and the doubles partnering
O.L.M. Pinto from 1924 to 1929.
Further, he represented Ceylon in the Davis Cup, locking horns
against Australia, England and New Zealand. Professionally he was
attached to the Colombo Municipality as their Chief Medical Officer. He
did write a splendid book on the nuances of the game in 1950 titled what
every cricket should know.
In the year 1947, Dr. CH retired from active sports at 47 years of
age, having chalked up 22 'ton' in club cricket as against F.C. de
Saram's 63 'tons' and M. Sathasivam's 45 centuries which maybe used as
yardsticks. After retirement he made a stray appearance for SSC putting
on 200 for the first wicket with Sargo Jayawickreme, both batsmen
notching 'tons'. It was obvious though that his legendary electric soles
and telescopic arms were reduced to all but a flicker by then.
Never sought honour
He gave so much and yet had so much more to give Dr. CH never sought
honour in our committee rooms, as stooping to flatter authority was not
a part of his make up. Alas his immense knowledge on the nuances of the
game should have received much wider respect.
As the shadows darkened the proud and principled man, who would lean
into his booming drives, began to lean so heavily on his only child
Channa Hemasiri. Only Shanthi's charm could breach this self made
aristocrat sturdy independence as he pursued what was left of his life.
Dr. Churchill Hector Gunasekere passed away peacefully in the year
1969 aged 74 leaving Channa and Shanthi with a melancholy and
imperishable blend of memories. Channa, Dr. C.H. Gunasekere's only
offspring passed away following a prolonged illness in 2008. But not
before he had filled his fathers heart with immense pride, having
established himself as one of the fines batsmen that stalked this land
in the 1950's and 1960's. Had the good doctor lived a little longer he
would have been prouder still of his only grandson Chanaka who is a
reputed geotechnical engineer domiciled in Sydney. On Channa Hemasiri
Gunasekere, another bulky page, another day then surely, for it is a
regrettable tradition of our game that those who paved the way are so
flippantly swept aside, to be forgotten. My ramble over and done, lets
bow our heads in reverence to the memory of this monumentally
incomparable son of the Lankan soil.