Sri Lanka are still in search of their maiden Test win in India, and with just one more game to go, their chances of a historic win look bleak on the current tour. The closest Sri Lanka got to winning a Test match in India was during their maiden tour to the country, in 1982.
Duleep Mendis was Sri Lanka’s leading batsman in 1980s and his twin hundreds (identical scores of 105 in each innings) set things up for Sri Lanka nicely. Set a target of 175, India were in trouble with Ashantha de Mel claiming five wickets. Sri Lanka came within three wickets to win that Test match as India slumped to 135 for 7. Mendis was named Man of the Match.
In an interview with DMI, who is now the head coach of Oman, reminisced the game played three and half decades ago. Excerpts:
You scored twin hundreds in Madras in Sri Lanka’s maiden Test match on Indian soil. What are your memories?
We had played our inaugural Test match early that year. Then we toured Pakistan for three Tests. I was not having a very good run at that time. I was on the verge of getting dropped. It has happened to me so many times in my career. Then they gave me a chance and it was like make or break for me. Fortunately, it was a good wicket. I started off well having gone into bat with the side in trouble at 11 for 2. When I reached 30 runs, I was keen to score the half-century as it was long overdue. Once I got there, I had lot of confidence and things started clicking. I was going for the hundred and that was going to save my skin. It was my maiden Test hundred as well. Then in the second innings, we were under pressure as India had got a first innings lead of over 200 runs. Roy (Dias) was superb. We put on over 100-run stand. We had also added 150 runs in the first innings. We had quite a few good partnerships throughout our careers. It was so unfortunate that Roy missed the hundred by just three runs in the second innings. It was a pleasure to bat on that wicket. It was do or die for me and I was glad it all ended up nicely.
You almost pulled off that game…
We were winning that game, but India managed to hold on for a draw. That’s the closest we have come to winning a Test match in India. Ashantha de Mel was superb that day. He was running in and bowling very quick. By any standards, he was a top class fast bowler. A year later, we went for the World Cup and I was leading the side. Sir Garry (Sobers) was our coach. He bowled an unplayable spell against Pakistan at Headingley. We were well set to win the game, but dropped Imran [Khan] and he went onto win the game for Pakistan. Ashantha not only had pace, but he could move the ball as well. He is definitely one of the best fast bowlers we have produced, without a doubt, along with Rumesh Ratnayake.
Sunil Gavaskar, the Indian captain, scored 155 in the first innings…
He was a treat to watch. You can learn a lot by looking at him. How he absorbed pressure was superb. He makes it look so easy when put under pressure. All those runs he scored in West Indies against those fast bowlers during their peak was legendary. Was fortunate to see some of his brilliant knocks. He was world’s best batsman at that time.
The old timers say that you were given a superb reception in Chennai.
Whenever we go to Madras, we get a great reception. I don’t know why. People love us over there. Some 40,000 people would have been there each day to see the game. It was unbelievable. People in Madras enjoy their cricket and are very knowledgeable. They are familiar with us as we used to go to play the Gopalan Trophy frequently. I must say one thing, they appreciate good cricket and they cheer you when you do well although they want India to win. That’s something unique about Madras people. The cheering kept me going. Currently I am in Oman and even now Indian people come up to me and recall that game. Our style was a bit similar to West Indies they say and they loved it.
Sri Lanka haven’t played in Madras for more than ten years now after former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram banned them from playing in Tamil Nadu. How do you feel?
It is sad that we don’t play there anymore. Madras was one place we used to eagerly look forward to visit in those days. Playing at Chepauk was a great experience and we were well looked after. We were given superb welcome. [It’s] disappointing that we don’t play there anymore.
There were some protests going on during that match as well by LTTE sympathisers. Sri Lankan Opposition Leader Amirthalingam’s son who was leading the protest at the ground was arrested. Do you recall any of that?
There were some people who came and they were protesting holding placards and stuff. But I can’t recall much. Only vague memories.
Two years later you could have again scored twin hundreds, that too at Lord’s. By then only George Headley had done it, and you missed the milestone by six runs…
I remember that match. That team was handled by Mr. Raja Mahendran, who is a leading businessman. Neil Chanmugam was the manager. We had done lot of hard work before the tour. For any person playing at Lord’s is enough to feel the pressure. The atmosphere there was superb. It was some experience playing at the Mecca of Cricket. To get a hundred at Lord’s was the greatest moment of my career. It happened on my birthday as well. I was so thrilled. Then in the second innings, I never thought I would get a chance to bat. But then wickets started to fall and I had to go out to bat and I went onto score 94 off 97 balls.
Is it true that you were dismissed trying to reach the hundred with a six?
That’s not true. I had hit a couple of sixes off Ian Botham. Then he started bowling off-spin. I was trying to push the ball down the ground for a single, but ended up getting a leading edge and was caught at mid-on. Even to date, I regret getting out to Botham’s off-spin. My children keep reminding me that I should have gone onto get the hundred. You only start to regret after the incident [has happened].