Pakistan has always have had extremely cordial relations with Sri Lanka, the lovely island famous as a holiday paradise for tourists. Cricket is Sri Lanka’s main sport and it has played a prominent role in binding these two South Asian countries. With the Sri Lanka team recently visiting Pakistan for a series of limited-overs fixtures, it is appropriate to recall the immeasurable contributions of Neil Perera, who is regarded as the unsung hero of Sri Lankan cricket.
Now a member of the nonagenarian club, after his 90th birthday was recently celebrated with a lot of fanfare in Colombo — where a host of Sri Lankan Cricket World Cup-winning squad members were also present — Kottekankanamge Neil Deepal Perera is no ordinary gentleman. In his youth, he was an outstanding athlete who excelled at the long jump, the high jump and the shot put besides playing first XI cricket, albeit briefly while at St John’s College in his hometown of Panadura, around 27 miles south of the capital Colombo. He also captained the Panadura Sports Club cricket team for six years — he presided over the club for five years as well — and was on the Ceylon Electricity Cricket Board for 10 years.
Later, he switched to Royal College, arguably the most famous educational institution on the island, where my older brother Arif was a contemporary of Ranjan Madugalle, the future Sri Lanka captain and current chief match referee of the International Cricket Council (my father was on a foreign ministry posting at the Pakistan embassy in Colombo during the 1970s).
The nonagenarian former Sri Lankan cricket board official Neil Perera is an unsung hero. His services for the promotion of the game both in his country and at the international level, especially when he was engaged with Pakistan, are invaluable
I never got the chance to meet Perera in person during those days of our school life because I was too young to understand the complexities that a cricket administrator had to face. Me and my three brothers, including Arif, were studying in the Isipathana Maha Vidyalaya (later renamed as Isipathana College). My younger brother, Tariq, was a good batsman and represented the institution in the inter-school under-15 competition, during which he came up against the likes of St Peter’s College’s bowling spearhead Rumesh Ratnayake, who was also here as the Sri Lankan team’s interim coach, and Arjuna Ranatunga, the batting prodigy of Ananda College.
While Ratnayake and Ranatunga became household names in Sri Lanka, with the latter leading the tiny island to World Cup glory in 1996 as its no-nonsense captain, Isipathana earned the distinction of grooming future cricket internationals such as Ashantha De Mel, Asanka Gurusinha, Hashan Tillakaratne, Nuwan Zoysa, Uvais Karnain (first bowler to take a five-for on his ODI debut), Sanjeewa Weerasinghe (Sri Lanka’s youngest-ever Test debutant), Asoka de Silva (the leg-spinner who later became an international umpire and also served on the ICC panel) and Aravinda de Silva, arguably one of the finest batsmen produced by his nation.
During the Isipathana schooldays, where Tariq and I spent eight years from 1973 onwards, we had De Mel, Gurusinha, Tillakaratne and Karnain as our contemporaries.
But a selfless administrator like Perera is rarely given the credit for sowing the seeds from which Sri Lanka cricket blossomed to unearth world-beaters in the years that flew by. Among them were Muttiah Muralitharan (Test cricket’s highest wicket-taker with a colossal 800 victims), batting legends Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, Sanath Jayasuriya, Rangana Herath, Chaminda Vaas, Lasith Malinga and Roshan Mahanama to name a few. A thorough gentleman throughout his life, Perera served the then Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka (BCCSL) as its honorary secretary from 1973 to 1976 and then again from 1991 till 1994, while also serving as the board vice-president for a year and also remained on BCCSL’s Executive Committee for 20 years. He also managed the Sri Lankan national team both during the pre-Test era and post-1981.
Such is his humbleness that Perera has never forgotten his links with Pakistan before Sri Lanka was granted Test status belatedly in July 1981. Despite having one of the most-organised cricketing systems in the region, with a high standard of school cricket that produced a majority of players who were imparted the best coaching one can think of despite lacking in proper ground facilities it was only Pakistan’s unrelenting efforts that secured Sri Lanka its Test status.
In 1974, I remember Kardar had slammed the table in the boardroom at Lord’s, when both England and Australia had continuously used their veto power to deny Sri Lanka ICC’s full membership. Other countries said Sri Lanka did not have proper ground facilities then. But Kardar thought differently because he was a true friend of our country ...”
Perera paid rich tributes to Abdul Hafeez Kardar, Pakistan’s first Test captain who, in his capacity as president of the then Board of Control for Cricket in Pakistan (BCCP), was at the forefront of Sri Lanka’s long battle to get Test status.
In an interview with the Sunday Morning Sports, Perera made this observation about Kardar, who headed the BCCP from 1972 to 1977: “In 1974, I remember Kardar had slammed the table in the boardroom at Lord’s, when both England and Australia had continuously used their veto power to deny Sri Lanka ICC’s full membership. Other countries said Sri Lanka did not have proper ground facilities then. But Kardar thought differently because he was a true friend of our country, while arguing that such facilities will automatically come up once you grant them Test status.”
Kardar, the paper wrote, was probably the only outsider standing for Sri Lanka in pushing the cause for world recognition, while famously stating in the 1970s during those ICC meetings at Lord’s that delaying Test cricket for Sri Lanka was nothing but racial discrimination.
It is an irony that Perera’s greatest hour as a cricket administrator almost soured Sri Lanka-Pakistan relations when the retired Lt Gen Zahid Ali Akbar, as the Pakistan cricket chief, opposed a joint bid to host the 1996 World Cup with Sri Lanka and India. Gen Akbar disdainfully said that Pakistan would single-handedly stage the tournament and asked Sri Lanka to support their bid, after Perera had convinced his country’s president to back the joint bid from the three subcontinental neighbours.
But Perera worked tirelessly behind the scenes to pull off a collaboration within South Asia even while England emerged as a possible contending venue for the tournament. As events unfolded, Perera’s administrative skills and shrewd thinking paid off handsomely when the BCCP agreed to support the joint bid after being assured of staging the final in Lahore where, fittingly, Sri Lanka defeated Australia to lift the trophy.
The Indian cricket board president Jagmohan Dalmiya, who was appointed as convenor of the Pakistan, India and Lanka Committee (PILCOM) offered his profound gratitude in a letter to Perera after Sri Lanka won the World Cup in Lahore: “At the meeting we observed how you intervened on time and placed your opinion forcefully, even in the face of strong opposition from the other side. The success of the joint bid owes a lot to your hard work and efficiency. Without your crucial role at the ICC meeting in London on February 2, 1993, the cake [World Cup] would perhaps have not come to the subcontinent.”
The writer is a member of staff
Published in Dawn, EOS, October 13th, 2019