Channa Gunasekera’s legacy continues

By Shaveen Jeewandara

First a gentleman, then a gentleman cricketer – the late Channa Gunasekara defined the brand of cricket played in yesteryear. Wielding the willow for his motherland and fearlessly brushing aside the many bouncers aimed at him and Sri Lankan cricket, Channa Gunasekara along with a group of gentleman cricketers paved the foundation for the future of our cricket. Channa Gunasekera passed away in 2008, but his legacy continues with the publication of his autobiography – ‘Through the Covers’.

The story of the evolution of a young schoolboy to a Test cricketer and his life, ‘Through the Covers’ traces the challenges and achievements of the all-time Lankan greats. The book begins with Channa’s early days at the Royal College Bandarawela branch – Glendale.

This is where the boys carried the matting and rollers for three miles to makeshift grounds. Heading back to where Channa Gunasekara was spotted as potential First XI material, the book then progresses to his era as the captain of the Royal team in 1949, and subsequently to his selection to the Singhalese Sports Club. A plethora of anecdotes and incidents colour the book, one such the memorable recall of a Thomian batsman who was declared run-out, whom Channa insisted was obstructed.

Channa Gunasekara, known for his perfect technique and almost impenetrable defence, writes as well as his batted. The book reveals the strong influences on his cricketing life. His father, Dr. C.H. Gunasekara was responsible for drilling the fundamentals and discipline into his system was his biggest inspiration, yet there are other personalities such as Collette, the art master who suggested that he used the long handle. Later, he was influenced by the hooking of Sargo Jayawickrama and by the back foot mastery of West Indian great, George Headley. The book explores many facets of his cricketing career and reveals many interesting snippets.

A section of the crowd at the book launch- Pix by Saman Kariyawasam.

At the book launch held on January 6 at the SSC Upstair Pavilion, a two- minute silence was observed in his memory. An insight into his illustrious career was provided by his long time friend, Stanley Unambuwe. “We endured everything from unforgiving headmasters, to the bitter cold to the stench of rarely washed bodies,” laughed Mr. Unambuwe.

“Channa was a man for cricket, Channa was a man to cherish, he spoke the truth and he was straight forward, men of his calibre are very few,” he said.

“Channa Gunasekara was a mentor to me, he always ensured that the young players were groomed properly and did his part for cricket in our motherland,” said Sri Lanka’s World Cup winning captain Arjuna Ranatunga. “Channa Gunasekara played a huge role in bringing up a band of cricketers who showed respect to the game and to the people.”

The entire burden of completing and publishing ‘Through the Covers’ fell on Mr. Gunasekara’s wife, Shanti. “Channa had done many a great things for the beautiful game, and he had indeed spent a long time writing the articles for his book, I thought I’d owe it to him to get it published,” she said. “He started working on the book in the late 70s and he had written a great deal of it, but he was taken back by the illness. There was a time when he completely stopped writing, but he almost immediately bounced back to complete it. However before it could be published he bade us goodbye.” Mrs. Gunasekara and their son, Chanaka Gunasekara living in Australia had been the workhorses behind the publication. Mrs. Gunasekara mentions that theirs is a closely knit family and it was on a visit to Australia that she realised that Channa’s works should not go to waste and the book should indeed be published.

“Beverly Palihawadana is a very dear friend of mine, and she toiled hard to the book printed. She would spend nights on end at my place finalizing the formalities and making sure that it would be a success.” Another cricketing great of yesteryear Ian Peiris came into the picture to help out and veteran cricket writer Mahinda Wijesinghe helped out with the factual basis of the book and spent long hours perfecting it, while Sunitha Jayawickrama also played a major role in the success of the publication.
“Channa and his band of cricketers are shareholders of a great era of our cricket, an era of professionalism and spirit,” says Mrs. Gunasekara. “We didn’t gain anything more than the simple bliss of respect,” she adds, mentioning the time they spent in the Middlesex Hospital in England, while Mr. Gunasekara was undergoing treatment. “The doctors and staff treated us like royalty because of Channa’s connection to the Middlesex county and the fact that his father, the great Churchill Gunasekara was the first player from Ceylon to represent a county.”

In a particularly interesting section titled ‘Then and Now’, Channa Gunasekara ridicules the childishness, exhibitionism and cheap theatrics of current Test cricketers when appealing and celebrating the fall of a wicket. The book speaks of many of his best performances, capturing an unforgettable moment when he opened an All-Ceylon innings with an imperious cover drive against the bowling of Lindwall, the Australian pacie. In a moving tribute before the preface, former Sri Lanka cricketer Roshan Mahanama writes eloquently of Gunasekara’s excellence as a coach. The book reveals his in depth knowledge of the game and his writing reflects the personality of a thinking cricketer who felt strongly on many issues, and never hesitated to call a spade a spade.
‘Through the Covers’ will take you on a journey to the past, an era of cricketing excellence and how it all began.

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