As Australia’s Ashes campaign was about to begin in summery England in August last year, most people would not have been aware of another impending cricketing clash between these two old enemies. It was a tour of England – the first of its kind – by an over-70s Australian cricket team. While that in itself [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Over 70, not out!

Sri Lankan born Ian Wille, who served as Australia’s High Commissioner to the West Indies, tells Sanjaya Senanayake how he’s started a new innings with veterans’ cricket

As Australia’s Ashes campaign was about to begin in summery England in August last year, most people would not have been aware of another impending cricketing clash between these two old enemies. It was a tour of England – the first of its kind – by an over-70s Australian cricket team. While that in itself is a story of great interest, it is one of the members of this team, Ian Wille, who drew me to Canberra to talk about cricket, diplomacy and unforgotten ties to Sri Lanka.

Ian was born in Sri Lanka in 1943 to Burgher parents. His father, Herbert (nicknamed ‘Jack’ Wille), was a lawyer who worked with the Registrar of Companies and then the Gal Oya Development Board. Jack was a talented sportsman, who played club cricket for the NCC and Colts. He once represented Sri Lanka against the Maharajah of Vizianagaram’s touring side, which included the legendary English openers, Hobbs and Sutcliffe. Wille Snr.was also a notable billiards champion player. When the internationally renowned snooker champion from Australia, Horace Lindrum, toured Sri Lanka, it was Jack Wille who was chosen to play an exhibition match against him. Ian’s mother, Joyce Schokman was School Captain of Ladies’ College in 1934.

Still playing: Ian Wille pictured during the Aussie Over 70's Cricket Tour of England

Ian’s family had a strong association with Royal College, with both his father and grandfather having attended; however, before going to Royal, Ian first followed his cousin, Michael, to S. Thomas’s Preparatory School in Kollupitiya where he was School Captain in 1954 and played in the school XI. Michael scored a century as Royal College’s captain in the 1956 Royal-Thomian match where his opposite number was Michael Tissera.

Ian’s family moved to Australia in late 1957. They migrated at a time when many Burghers were leaving Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, Ian left Sri Lanka with very fond memories of a happy childhood.

Ian, his sister and parents settled in Melbourne. They chose Australia over England because they felt that the former had more opportunities than the latter. Ian, to this day, believes that it was the correct decision. One of the first things his parents did following arrival was to enrol Ian in a summer course at Lindsay Hasset’s (former Australian cricket captain) coaching school, something which Ian believes helped immeasurably in developing his self-confidence as a cricketer.

In Melbourne, Jack began working as a solicitor while Ian attended Camberwell Grammar School where he excelled both in sports and academia. In his final year of school, he captained the First XI cricket team and was appointed vice-captain of the school. He was also selected in 1962 in a Victorian schoolboys’ team to play against a visiting Sri Lankan schoolboys’ team. Before attending Melbourne University where he played for the University Cricket Club, he played two seasons as a schoolboy with the Collingwood Club and was selected for two first grade matches, Keith Stackpole, the future Australian batasman, was one of his team mates. The Collingwood coaches at the time were Stackpole’s father as well as former Australian player, Jack Ryder.

Jack Wille was keen for his son, newly graduated in Arts and Law, to join him as a solicitor in Melbourne. However, Ian already had eyes on International Relations and was a successful applicant for the diplomatic intake of 1968. He served for over thirty years in a variety of postings in the Australian Foreign Service before retiring in 1998. His final overseas posting was as Australian High Commissioner to the West Indies based in Kingston, Jamaica.

In becoming High Commissioner, Ian became the first Sri Lankan to hold that post in the Australian Foreign Service – quite an achievement for a first-generation migrant from Ceylon. And despite a hectic schedule as a diplomat, Ian found time to keep playing cricket on various locations. This helped him to establish and broaden a network of contacts and cement long-term relationships. Often, he was the only foreigner playing in the local club scene. There were many cricketing highlights during Ian’s diplomatic career. Some of these included being named one of Bangladesh’s six cricketers of the year in 1976, and turning out regularly for the prestigious Roshanara Club in Delhi.

In 1993, Ian retired from playing Canberra grade cricket. For almost the next two decades, his cricket was limited to the occasional social game. Then in 2010, an opportunity arose when an over-60s cricket tournament was being hosted in Canberra. The host city wished to field two teams. Ian was invited to play and the rest, as they say, is history. Following this tournament, Ian continued to play in subsequent national over-60s annual championships which feature teams from all Australian states and New Zealand. The matches are usually 40 overs per side with a maximum of six overs for bowlers and batsmen retiring if they reached thirty-five.

Then in 2013, Ian was selected for the over-70s Australian team to tour England. The tour coincided with the Australian Ashes campaign in England and consisted of three fifty-over internationals against England and seven county matches. Despite the age of the participants, there was little doubt about the earnestness and skill displayed – some of the English players were still playing regular club cricket. The competitive spirit was fierce. Over fifty years of active involvement with the game made most of these players canny exponents and fine tacticians. Ian himself keeps to a strict training regimen of weights, stretches, brisk regular walks and net sessions. Furthermore, this tour was endorsed by Cricket Australia and had tour uniforms provided which matched those of the Australian team, including the baggy cap, blazer and jumper.

In our discussion, Ian revealed that interest and participation in veterans’ cricket was growing by leaps and bounds in England, New Zealand and Australia. He hoped that Sri Lankan and sub-continental cricketers would consider returning to the cricket field and that in the not too distant future there could be an over-60s and over-70s World Cup. The benefits of a return to cricket at veterans’ level are obvious – improved physical fitness and the camaraderie that cricket creates amongst players and opponents. Whether older Sri Lankans will pad up and return to the cricket pitch is unknown but what is certain that Ian’s story is one to inspire us all.

Postscript: This interview took place just before the 2013 tour. Ian went on to have an enjoyable and successful time in England playing in seven out of nine matches (one was washed out). He ended up opening the batting, scoring 139 runs at an average of 34.75 with three not-outs. An excellent batting and fielding performance against Hertfordshire earned him a Man of the Match award.

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