From rugby to cricket and a World Cup special | Sunday Observer

From rugby to cricket and a World Cup special

12 July, 2020
Ashantha de Mel
Ashantha de Mel

Ashantha de Mel was not just a fast bowler and chief cricket selector, he was a crack fly-half and rugby fullback from which he showcased gifted talents that few have ever been able to match more than four decades down the line

Ashantha de Mel bowled the first ball and pocketed the first wicket for Sri Lanka in Test cricket. He took two five-wicket hauls in the World Cup in 1983 and also represented Sri Lanka in Bridge in the Commonwealth Games.

De Mel started his academic career at Isipathana and played First XI cricket where he was named the Best Schoolboy Bowler while at the same time representing the team at First Fifteen rugby in 1976 and 1977.

Speaking exclusively to the Sunday Observer he said: “We had a brilliant three-quarter line with the likes of Ajith Thilakasiri, Neomal de Silva, Anurudda Bowela, my self, Bharatha Mendis, HK Sisira, Aruna Samarajeew and KD Nanayakkara.

“If I can recall correctly in the 1977 inter school rugby match against Vidyartha College at CH ground at Maitland Crescent, I got a cut out pass from fly half Neomal de Silva and hit the gap going through three to four defenders finally sending my winger Aruna Samarajeewa to score a fine try.

“At Isipathana I was occupying both fly half as well as centre position according to the opposition teams. Frankly speaking in my school days, rugby was my number one sport as a schoolboy at Isipathana.

In 1976 while still at Isipathana, De Mel attended cricket practice sessions at Petersons Sports Club, Wellawatta as an off-spinner.

Under Makin Saleih, De Mel shifted to fast bowling mostly because Petersons was in desperate search of speedsters.

He played for them for a couple of years as a fast bowler before moving on to SSC. With SSC he continued till 1986 and joined Moors in 1987.

Recalling his memory De Mel said: In fact due to reasons best known to them Isipathana did not nominate name me to the Sri Lanka cricket board to play against the touring Australia national under-19 team.

“But I was really grateful to Salley for nominating me through Peterson”.

De Mel made it to the home series against Australia Under-19s (one that included David Boon, Dirk Wellham, and Greg Dyer) where he picked up 6 for 95 at St. Anthony;s College ground in Kandy and 5 for 98 at the P Sara Oval.

He later moved on to Royal College and in 1978 and 1979, De Mel had been a part of the Royal College First XI cricket team and the First XV rugby team.

Going through memory lane De Mel said: “In rugby we (Royal) were unbeaten in the league tournament and we won the Bradby as well but unfortunately we were held to a 6-6 draw by Shane Pinder’s Thomian outfit at Havelock Park.

“In the centenary schools knock out tournament, we met S.Thomas’ again in the semi finals at Longden Place but unfortunately lost the game to the Thomians.

“I was playing full back in that match and we planned a move for me to join the line and have a quick pass from my centre and run in-between the Thomian pack and the scrum half.

“Finally I got the ball from Rohantha Peiris but Thomian second row Diren Hallock came and knocked me and ultimately the ball popped out of my hand and lobbed into S.Thomas’ center Christo Jordash’s hand and he darted down 60 meters and touched down for a brilliant try.

“I was so happy that Jordy being my childhood friend scored that try which gave him immense fame after all”.

De Mel was also one of those rare exponents to be able to kick with both legs, an indication of the immense and gifted talent he had which is something that can rarely be seen these days at any level of rugby.

“As fly-half and fullback I was able to kick with both legs and that was because I played soccer. Actually let me recall, there was a touring foreign national under-19 rugby team called Dulwich College of UK and they beat both Trinity and S.Thomas’ and then came the final match against us (Royal). I pulled off the win by putting over a difficult penalty in the end.”

Going down memory lane De Mel said: “In the centenary cricket match we had to take just one wicket to win in one full session after tea, but could not due to Mahinda Halangoda who came in and played a super knock. In fact after tea the whole session from the new ball, I got to bowl total of only two overs.”

De Mel was picked for the Sri Lanka Under-25s (at age of 20) against Tamil Nadu Under-25s at Salem, where he scored 27 and 37 not out in his First-Class debut.

He first grabbed attention on Sri Lanka’s tour of England in 1981, slamming a ferocious 94 against Gloucestershire and the attack boasted of Mike Whitney, Alan Wilkins and Mushtaq Mohammad.

He followed this with 2 for 88 and 3 for 70, along with a swashbuckling linings of 56, against Liecesterhire. It was evident that De Mel was easily the finest, the most penetrating and the fastest bowler of the side.

Nobody expected Sri Lanka to do anything major in the 1983 World Cup, and they ended with a single victory from six matches. De Mel finished joint second on the wickets tally with 18 wickets in six games at 15.58 with India’s Roger Binny 18 in eight games at 18.67).

He was also the only one to finish with two five-wicket in the tournament and was the second to do so in a single World Cup after Gary Gilmour.

Thereafter De Mel underwent a serious knee injury and was forced to retire from all forms of the sport with immediate effect. He was only 28 years old at that time and it was a great loss for Sri Lankan cricket.