The last of the Gunasekaras

Venkat Ananth
Venkat Ananth
cricket blogs for Yahoo Cricket Columns

I vividly remember that rainy day in Colombo, sometime around the second week of May of 2007, when I walked past my hotel in Bambalapittiya, turned left on Dickman Road (now Lester James Peiris Mawatha) and arrived at - if I remember correctly - house number 85.


An old Maruti 800 car was parked right outside the steps; a man in whites came out and opened the gates for me. He was Conroy Ievers Gunasekara, then 87 and possibly one of Ceylon's, and Sri Lanka', best batsmen of all time, alongside his colleague Mahadevan Sathasivam and modern-day greats like Aravinda de Silva, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara.


Gunasekara, like most 'Ceylon' cricketers, represented an era which saw the island nation's cricketing foundations only getting stronger. The Gunasekara I met was reclusive, after the death of his wife six months earlier, and was living in conditions unimaginable for someone who had served Ceylon cricket passionately and tirelessly. His diet: a LKR 50-60 worth of a 'lunch packet' commonly sold by roadside vendors, and a few bottles of beer to boot.


He sat me down and handed over a photocopied piece on his career by Bruce Maurice, a journalist who lived bang opposite his place. The conversations ranged from his career, his past colleagues, modern day Sri Lankan cricket, and interestingly, the English language.


He was honest enough to admit that he never spoke Sinhala, didn't intend to do so, because he felt the Ceylon he knew was the Queen's country and not quite the one run by Rajapaksa & Co. today.


During some of my background research before interviewing Ievers, I read that he was one of the most hard-hitting batsmen of his times - an opinion seconded by none other than Keith Miller, alongside whom he had played for Commonwealth XI in a game against the MCC in 1949.


When I asked him about his batting style, he said, "I used to play tennis regularly, and that's where I learnt my shot-making from. My strength in tennis was hitting the ball as hard as I can, because I was gifted with powerful forearms." That's the unusual story of how one of the most ferocious strokeplayers of Ceylon cricket learnt his trade. "People call it slogging these days, but no, I wasn't quite slogging. I just saw the gap, and if the ball was there to be hit, I hit it as hard as I could, so that the velocity of the ball could beat the fielder and make it difficult for him to catch."


From what his peers and colleagues told me, he was a tentative starter, preferring apprehension over bravado, liking to gauge the bowler like a predator and out of nowhere, as his cousin Channa describes Ivers' batting in his book "The Willow Quartette", "would he unleash an upstanding straight drive of super velocity past a terrorised bowler's head, who prompted by instinct of self-preservation takes swift evasive action away from its murderous flight - all the earlier diffidence evaporating now."


Channa writes further, "Blessed with powerful forearms blended with steel wrists sans velvet, the delicacy of a late cut or a leg-glance were not for him, he rather trusted the full meat of his 3lb bat. Some of his forward defensive jabs more often than not were wont to streak past an astonished mid-off for boundaries. Sixes straight and square, lofted drives and pulls kept the scoreboard in a state of perpetual motion, and it was not just indiscriminate slogging, but an operation of clinical precision." That was the original 'Master Blaster'.


He played at a time when Ceylon cricket was blessed with some of its best talents, batting-wise. The likes of Mahadevan Sathasivam, Derek de Saram and Sagaradaththa Jayawickrama were Ievers' colleagues and that just speaks highly of the standard of cricket played in Sri Lanka in that period. Ievers said, "The cricket we played was like international cricket. The standards were really high, and the level of competition helped us in playing against strong visiting teams who toured us."


Right from the 40s to the 70s, many teams - representative and invitational in nature -- toured Sri Lanka for the odd game. For some of the Ceylon cricketers, this was their occasional shot at international glory and somewhere, as Channa Gunasekara said, "It went a long way towards us getting Test status."


In 1949, the visiting Pakistanis bore the brunt of Ievers' ferocity, when he pumelled 120 in a memorable counter-attack after Khan Mohammad and Fazal Mohammad had Ceylon down to 49/4. He single-handedly took on the swing and the pace of the Pakistanis, producing one of his most memorable innings at the time.


One of Ievers' finest moments as a cricketer came against an MCC side in 1952 for a Combined Commonwealth XI led by FC de Saram which included 4 Ceylonese, 2 Pakistanis, 2 Indians and 3 Aussies (including Neil Harvey, Keith Miller and Graeme Hole).


A rare Indo-Pak combine (Imtiaz Ahmed and Vinoo Mankad) opened the batting and got off to a sound start - a 50-run partnership, followed by a brilliant 74 by Neil Harvey in just 80 minutes (13 fours). Then, in walked Ievers and along with Keith Miller, added 207 for the fourth wicket.


Channa's description of the partnership goes, "Given the head start of very nearly thirty runs, CI closed the gap rapidly, and then began to challenge Miller in a neck and neck race for their respective 100's. It was a rare cricketing fiesta to see two of the hardest hitters in the game in harness together and the sparks were really flying.


CI caught up with Miller in the 90s and Miller, the magnanimous showman he was, then let up and CI raced to his hundred ahead of him to the wild delight of the local crowd." Ievers later fell for 135, with 20 ferociously stroked boundaries and a six. The Commonwealth XI went on to win the game by an innings.


Following that inning by CI, this is what Keith Miller had to say about Gunasekara, "I was fortunate enough to have a close look at two great innings, those of my Australian colleague and Ceylon's own CI Gunasekara. I can say that very few top ranking players put as much power behind their strokes as Gunasekara does. His secret lies in the heavy bat he uses (I will not be able to use it) and his perfect timing when he hit the ball, it travelled like a bullet."


His bowling is often the less talked about facet regarding his cricket, but make no mistake, Ievers was a lethal leg-spinner with a seemingly unplayable googly. Channa writes on Ievers' bowling, "At the end of a short 5 or 6 yard run, he would brace his sturdy frame just prior to delivery and using his entire body, propel the ball at near medium pace and bounce with the click of strong fingers or turn of wrist. He could spin his googly or leg-break a yard or so on a faintly responsive surface, but I think he rather fancied operating on a hard strip, where he could trap the unwary with fizzing top-spinners." And most importantly, he was an excellent fielder, who more often than not held on to his catches.


Ievers was a special sporting personality. Someone who not just mastered three distinct sports but perfected them and excelled in them. His glorious tennis career included 8 national titles in the Mens Doubles and Mixed Doubles, and he told me about his "double-handed forehand", an unusual shot during those days, which originated from striking a tennis ball with his father's racket, which was heavy and hence he had to use both hands to derive maximum power.


Ievers played golf with equal skill and commitment, thereby managing to make it to the National semi-finals during the early 60s. For the record, he turned up for the iconic Royal College in no less than five sports - rugby, cricket, golf, tennis and hurdling.


The story came to an end this Thursday July 29, with the passing away of Conroy Ievers Gunasekara at 90 - the last of the Gunasekaras as I choose to call him, a man who not just belonged to the first family of Sri Lankan/Ceylon cricket, but also ensured that he lived up to his surname.


In 2007, during my conversations with him, he often spoke about his will to stop living, and every third sentence had a reference to Kanattha, a cemetery in Colombo's suburbs. Three years later, Ievers Gunasekara left us all -- a lonely man yet one of the most celebrated sportsmen in Sri Lanka's history.