Sir Garfield Sobers – Sri Lanka’s First Foreign Coach

Gary Sobers coaching Sri Lanka in the eighties

“When I came to coach [Sri Lanka] in 1982, I was told about a young kid. Then I went to the ground and saw him bat, and I was truly amazed about this boy’s talent. He is Arjuna Ranatunga” – Sir Garfield Sobers, photographed on his second stint as the coach in 1983, with Arjuna Ranatunga is seen in the background. (© Unknown)

The negotiation skills and political acumen of the late Gamini Dissanayake, back then a cabinet minister, helped achieve Sri Lanka’s much deserved and long-awaited quest for elevation to Full Member status of the ICC on 21 July 1981.

Dissanayake wearing two hats, also as the president of the country’s cricket board, then made some crucial moves to add value to Sri Lanka’s newfound Test status. He engaged the greatest all-rounder on record, Sir Garfield Sobers, to coach the Sri Lanka team.

“When I was in Australia, Gamini Dissanayake came over and said that he was going to England to apply for Test status. I was really excited,” Sir Gary later reminisced.

The services of Sir Gary came at considerable cost, sponsored by the Maharaja Organisation. The sports-loving R Rajamahendran who headed the company later became a Vice-President of the Sri Lanka cricket board.

For those unaware with the extraordinaire standing of Gary Sobers, he was an elegant left-handed batsman with the ability to bowl left-arm fast-medium pace; a spinner who tweaked the ball several ways, and known for his mercurial fielding. This rare combination of skills, backed by ample and plenty of proven performance statistics, had placed Sir Gary on a stand-alone cricketing pedestal.

As coach, Sir Gary had stressed on the importance of a hitherto unique strategy of a positive mindset, along with controlled aggression as twin motivators to a team comprising of talented but part-time cricketers, yet struggling to find their feet in the international arena.

Once, he under emphasised his challenging role by saying, “My job as coach of Sri Lanka was simple. It was to brainwash people that they can face fast bowlers without much trouble. Well, I knew they had the technique, perhaps they lacked self-belief.”

In retrospect, we acknowledge that he was spot-on!

Sidath Wettimuny, a member of the team Sir Gary coached, credited him with instilling self-belief and confidence among the players while parting with his vast and varied knowledge.

Many still recall Sir Gary’s special pick, an eighteen-year-old by the name of Arjuna Ranatunga for the inaugural Test in 1982. The rest, as we now know, is history.

Years later he recalled, “When I came to coach in 1982, I was told about a young kid. Then I went to the ground and saw him bat, and I was truly amazed about this boy’s talent. He is Arjuna Ranatunga.”

In his watch, Sri Lanka toured New Zealand for two Tests in March and then inaugurated their Test credentials v Australia in Kandy in April 1983. Sadly, bereft of many of their experienced players banned for the rebel tour of South Africa, Sri Lanka succumbed to overwhelming opposition in all these matches.

However, the new-look team regrouped quickly and gave a good account of themselves in the 1983 World Cup in England. They beat New Zealand but had to contend with defeat in close encounters in most other games due to lack of experience.

Sri Lanka’s 1983 World Cup results:

1) Pakistan v Sri Lanka at Swansea – Pakistan won by 50 runs (Pakistan 338/5; Sri Lanka 288/9)
2) England v Sri Lanka at Taunton – England won by 47 runs (England 333/9; Sri Lanka 286)
3) New Zealand v Sri Lanka at Bristol –New Zealand won by 5 wickets (Sri Lanka 206; New Zealand 209/5)
4) Pakistan v Sri Lanka at Leeds –Pakistan won by 11 runs (Pakistan 235/7; Sri Lanka 224)
5) New Zealand v Sri Lanka at Derby – Sri Lanka won by 3 wickets (New Zealand 181; Sri Lanka 184/7)
6) England v Sri Lanka at Leeds – England won by 9 wickets (Sri Lanka 136; England 137/1)

Ranatunga also had said, “During the 1983 World Cup, I remember we were struggling at Headingly during practices. No one could put bat to ball. Ashantha (de Mel) was swinging the ball, and none of us could hit him and the other fast bowlers. Sir Gary was talking to us from behind the nets, and finally, he said, ‘What’s the problem with you guys?’ Then he looked at me and said, ‘Arjuna, get me your right glove, the box and the front pad.’ He took the middle stump off and faced our fast bowlers with that. I tell you, he didn’t miss a single ball. This must have been when he was almost 50 years old. At that point, I thought to myself that this man is truly great. He then asked us, ‘What’s the problem maan, just go out and hit that damn ball.'”

Ranatunga, who proudly admits, “What I am today is mainly because of Sir Gary,” shared how Sir Gary’s experience in English conditions helped Sri Lanka in the 1983 World Cup.

“I remember, we had gone to play a county game, and the track was soggy. We wanted to bowl first, but he looked at the wicket and said, ‘no, you better bat on this.’ We played a 50 over game, and we struggled to get 190 or something. I got hit about ten times. We were wondering why he was telling us to bat on a wet wicket. Then when we bowled, there were holes on the wicket, and the opposition couldn’t score many runs,” he had said.

Wettimuny agreed, “His reading of cricket pitches was quite incredible, thus a lesson in itself.”

Returning to their hotel in Leeds after a function during the 1983 World Cup, the team awaited their room keys. The receptionists seemed “busy” with other matters and one of them answered a call, followed by the shout, “Call for Mr Sobers.”

Sir Gary, seated in the lobby observing the lackadaisical attitudes, chose to ignore it; although team manager Murugaser had said, “Sir Gary, I think there’s a call for you.” Sensing no reaction to her announcement and seeing everyone looking in the direction of Sir Gary, she asked him, “Are you Mr Sobers? There’s a call for you”.

Sir Gary made his way to the counter and said, “Woman, listen. I am not Mr Sobers. I am Sir Gary Sobers. I didn’t ask for it. Your Queen gave it to me. So you better call me Sir Gary Sobers”. In absolute silence, there followed a quick hand-over of keys. Subsequently, the hotel staff treated the Sri Lankan team with due respect and dignity.

Wettimuny remembers, “With Sir Gary around, we felt like we were behind a king.”

Returning to Sri Lanka in 2015 to unveil the Sobers-Tissera trophy for the West Indies’ Test series, Sir Gary recalled that he left in 1983, having predicted Sri Lanka would be a force to be reckoned with in world cricket within ten years. As such, he wasn’t surprised that Sri Lanka won the World Cup in 1996.

Men of genius may or may not make good coaches, but they can mentor and inspire, which Sir Gary certainly did to great effect, being the first foreigner to coach Sri Lanka’s national team.

 

This article first appeared on the 4th issue of the Vox Cricket magazine on 13 July 2020.

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