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Bertie Wijesinha - cricketing giant still stands tall

Sporting personalities with Ken de Joodt - DN Sat Oct 14 2006

SPORTING PERSONALITIES: At 86 years of age, still stocky and strongly built, he could surely run for the man of the millennium and be voted in as one of Sri Lanka's best cricketing giants - who continues teaching and coaching the young, even at this age! Considering the glorious certainties of Bertie Wijesinha, as against the glorious uncertainties of cricket, he has taken the correct stance practising the basics of life right from the start with grit and determination! It would be appropriate to use an 'A', 'B', 'C' for his success and dedication by applying it to his glorious stand in life - beginning with active - alive and energetic at all times, bountiful - blessed in his blistering batting, bouncy in his bowling, copious - complete and plentiful in his vast reservoir of knowledge, with the true character and traits of a distinguished gentleman! On and off the field, his absolute consistency and lifestyle has established Bertie Wijesinha as a true cricketing legend!

Bertie Wijesinha (on right) with his wife Dorothy

Out of learning from the university into teaching at his Alma Mater (STC - 1946 to '51) and then to become a well-known Daily News Sports Editor and Observer Features Editor between 1951 to 1969 proves his excellence and prowess in writing which impacted the journalistic field of Sri Lanka.

As a witty cricket commentator along with Lucien de Zoysa, he entertained cricket fans over the Radio Ceylon for nearly 30 years! Now as an author, his latest book "Cricket the Love of a Lifetime" - is a popular book many cricketers, cricket lovers and fans have read and found it to be an interesting and exciting coffee-table edition, which will be a priceless possession in the future.

It expresses the love for cricket from his heart, which also covers the history of Sri Lanka cricket from its small beginnings to the huge following it has today! It has a superb foreword by Sri Lanka's former winning cricket captain and current Sri Lanka cricket team manager, the magnificent Michael Tissera.

Many top cricket personalities are featured in it, from Sri Lanka and other foreign countries together with fine photographs, funny caricatures, anecdotes and classic informative write-ups, mixed with humour, which positively draws greater reading interest! As a gift of gratitude Siddath Wettimuny printed this book for their former 'Guru' who coached Sunil and Mithra too and taught them to play a 'straight - bat' in the true spirit of the game.

Siddath's elegant and delightful 190 runs in the 1984 Lord's Test match versus England will be long remembered! Bertie Wijesinha was born on the 24th of May 1920 into a family of cricket fanatics!! His father, Alexander Wijesinha played for Trinity in 1900 and proved his mettle by carrying his bat through and scoring 28 runs out of a paltry Trinity total of 56 against STC! Bertie followed suit and played splendid cricket from the tender age of 15 years.

His first Big Match for S. Thomas' College, Mt. Lavinia was in 1936 scoring his first fifty in a record match-saving partnership with Norman Siebel who scored 174 runs. In the years that followed Bertie piled up the runs scoring 1006 runs in one season, capturing 19 wickets with brilliant bowling and in the 1939 Big Match he took a wicket with the first ball of the match - Royal's opening batsman was out LBW!

Batting on and bowling his way through, he captained the school in 1938 and '39. In 1939 he led S. Thomas' to victory in all their school matches, winning the great "Battle of the Blues" against Royal College, Colombo and ended up being appointed the Combined Schools captain.

In 1936, Bertie Wijesinha took his first hat-trick in their school encounter with St. Benedict's and then in the Daily News Trophy at the age of 55, while playing for Kandy - he did it again! Almost 50 years later, Bertie performed a hat-trick at the age of 65 in his last County Club game in Nottinghamshire, England - to make it a distinguished unmatchable record!

While in College, Bertie's keen eye in cricket, wondered out of the Chemistry class and behold, it was on a beautiful lass! Taking a great catch as quick and agile as he was on the cricket field, he trapped a 'Beauty Queen' Dorothy Weerakoon and mutually agreed to take the 'Run of Life' and married her in 1949! Dorothy was the eldest daughter of Bobby D.E. Weerakoon who was a former News Editor at Radio Ceylon and Sports Editor at Lake House.

In a productive partnership they scored-well with four children, two daughters, Maya (who sadly passed away in 1999 at the age of 57) and Nedra (55) married to Ananda Wijeratne who have both recently returned from the UK.

Then came two sons, Rohan (45) who received a Doctorate in Sociology from the Nottingham University, UK and is presently the Personnel Manager at Janashakthi in Colombo - and Dameskh (41) yet in the UK, employed in accountancy. Throughout his lifetime, Dorothy and the children have extended their love, care, concern and support, with great admiration for Bertie as their cricketing hero!

Apart from a lengthy string of achievements on the cricket field, Bertie won his Colours at College for 8 sports and went on to represent the country in athletics. He held the hop, step and jump national record for over 25 years. He played cricket for the country between 1948 and 1956 and proved himself to be an incredible bowler by opening with medium pace

Swingers - then re-introduced later in the game, to bowl both off-spin and leg-spin. Batting was Bertie's forte, as he was equipped to confidently face up to fast-swing bowling or bat lower down in the order and take on the spinners with equal aplomb! It was Leslie Ames, the England captain, who offered Bertie a contract to play County Cricket in England, purely because of his outstanding performances in fielding alone.

Being patriotic, he followed the fine example of his mentor F.C. De Saram, who also turned down foreign offers and decided that he would play only for his own country, Sri Lanka!

In the 125th anniversary joint celebrations of the Royal-Thomian cricket match (which is the longest unbroken series in the history of cricket, uninterrupted during the two World Wars and has now gained recognition in the Guinness Book of records) - Bertie Wijesinha, the oldest living Thomian cricket captain (1938-'39) and Gamini Salgado, the Royal captain (1942) were regally seated in a horse-drawn golden carriage, along the streets of Colombo, in the joint walk carried out on 21st February 2004.

To borrow Bertie's quote - "All in all, cricket has been and still is a connoisseur's dream of athletic prowess - a classic of sport, a symphony of action and sound - and beautiful to the discerning eye and mind!"

With a true love for the game, he emphasized that cricket must be played for the sake of the game and not for mere fortunes which can change either way! Be guided by the laws of the game - instead of 'splitting basis' over technical issues! He also observed that the standards of school cricket had dropped in recent years and feels very strongly that the cricket administration must take quick, suitable remedial action.

He quoted the fine example of the SLRFU Rugby Divisional structure which can be followed by grouping the strong teams into one division, which will enable those strong teams to play against each other and match their strengths. This would increase the levels of performance and help in raising the standards of play.

Likewise, other groups would have teams that are weak playing against equally-matched weak teams... (Matching weak teams against strong teams does not help!). For example, Group Ten strong teams into the 'A' Division, weak teams into the 'B' Division, weakest teams into the 'C' etc.

Based on the results and points table of the groups at the end of the season, teams that have performed well in the lower divisions can be promoted to the higher divisions and the weaker teams from the higher divisions can be relegated to the lower divisions.

This is where the "Weaker" teams will strive to get to the top and to be promoted with justification to the higher groups - they have to improve to do that! Of course, the 'Traditional Big Matches' of the respective schools should go on unaffected and not accounted for in the 'Point Table'. That's Bertie's desire, to keep improving methods to see cricket standards getting better all the time!

When he thinks back on the sparkling performances of past players in schools and clubs, such as F.C. De Saram, C.I. Gunesekera, Sargo Jayawickrema, M . Sathasivam, Mahes Rodrigo, Gamini Goonasena, C.H. Gunesekera, Lucien de Zoysa, Makin Salih and a host of others, it brings back wonderful moments of joy, coupled with excellence in cricket.

He recalled his numerous centuries, half-centuries. Hat-tricks and record partnerships he has scored from 1936 to 1968 for school, club and country. One instance he recalls with glee, is his 7th wicket partnership with C.I. Gunesekera in their game, for SSC against the Tamil Union, when SSC were just 50 for 6. C.I. and Bertie joined up to clobber the bowling and score over 200 runs in a partnership that took the total to 300 runs!

From the classrooms of teaching Latin, English and Greek, Bertie spread out his sporting wings to fly high in coaching schools like S. Thomas', Trinity, St. Benedict's etc; Clubs in Kandy and Colombo, the Country in 1975 when Sri Lanka participated in the first World Cup cricket championship in England captained by Anura Tennekoon.

He was also Chairman of the Selection Committee for a short period. With the setting up of Bertie's dream, an indoor cricket school was considered and absolute necessity for teaching and coaching those desirous of playing cricket skilfully and attractively.

He continues coaching the very young (10-12 years age group) to this very day!

Bertie's proud products from his coaching may go into pages but some names that stand out in his mind are: Sunil, Mithra and Sidath Wettimuny (Ananda), Michael Tissera, Anura Tennekoon (S. Thomas'), Kumar Sangakkara (from the age of 10-17 years at Trinity), Lionel, Sunil and Ranjith Fernando (Cricket Commentator), Dr. Elmo Rodirgopulle (Captained St. Benedict's in 1960 and with his right arm leg-spin claimed a hat-trick against St. Peter's).

In 1964, St. Benedict's beat St. Joseph's after 50 years coached by the versatile Bertie Wijesinha. As a great curator of the Trinity, Asgiriya Cricket Stadium and Test Ground in Kandy, Bertie drew commendation from visiting foreign teams as well as our Sri Lankan cricketers for well-prepared turf-wickets suitable for good and fair cricket to be played on.

Many more accolades and attributes have been paid to Bertie, as a brilliant cricketer, a competent coach, an excellent journalist, an entertaining commentator, a cracking curator and a solid, dedicated and disciplined teacher.

Today, Bertie finds time amidst his busy schedules to encompass interest in literary works, wildlife and nature, environment and gardening - but his greatest recreation is in classical music and the classic word of God in the Holy Bible.

As it was told "one man in his time plays many parts" - the same applies to Bertie who has played his parts so well that he is deserving of what the word of God says "like a good and faithful servant" he has served with modesty and in humility.

May God bless bertie, Dorothy his lovely wife, their precious children and grandchildren with good health, prosperity and long life!