Bandula Warnapura, the first Test cricket captain of Sri Lanka was also instrumental in leading the infamous Sri Lanka rebel team on the tour of the then apartheid South Africa in 1982-83. In a candid interview at his residence in Kotte, Sri Lanka over a cup of Ceylon Tea, Warnapura stressed his disappointment for many [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Bandula Warnapura a pillar in Sri Lanka’s cricket, laments


Bandula Warnapura, the first Test cricket captain of Sri Lanka was also instrumental in leading the infamous Sri Lanka rebel team on the tour of the then apartheid South Africa in 1982-83.

In a candid interview at his residence in Kotte, Sri Lanka over a cup of Ceylon Tea, Warnapura stressed his disappointment for many reasons that have lead the way to many debacles in the most popular sport of the country.

Bandula Warnapura (centre) with former skipper Kumar Sangakkara (R) and present captain Angelo Mathews at an event - File pic

He was quick to point out that the once famous brand of Ceylon Tea is now replaced by Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC). One of the top reasons he pointed out was politics creeping into SLC, which he said haunted the sport even in his playing days.

This, according to Warnapura’s revelation, was one major reason for him to lead the rebel team to South Africa, which eventually had him banned from cricket for many years.

The other, as Warnapura pointed out, was the money offered for the South African tour, which was a fortune compared to the peanuts he was getting back home then.

Bottom of his heart Warnapura regrets having gone on the tour because of the consequences his family had to face. He still is hounded for the crime for which Warnapura served out punishment more than anyone else.

What pains him most is the fact that the men who engineered the tour held key positions at SLC, while he is still a target of some elements.

“The tour was the brainchild of Tony Opatha, Duleep Mendis and Roy Dias,” Warnapura revealed.

When the Rebels were in South Africa, the official Sri Lankan team was touring Zimbabwe. Mendis, Dias and D.S. de Silva had wanted to join them directly from Zimbabwe but could not do so as their passports were withheld by the then team manager K.M.T. Perera, — obviously under instructions from the Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka (BCCSL).

The squad eventually included Warnapura as captain, Flavian Aponso, Hemantha Devapriya, Lantra Fernando, Mahes Goonetilleke, Nirmal Hettiaratchy, Lalith Kaluperuma, Susantha Karunaratne, Bernard Perera, Anura Ranasinghe, Ajit de Silva, Bandula de Silva, Jerry Woutersz and Tony Opatha as player cum manager.

“All three signed the documents to be part of the team in South Africa and I still have the copies of their contracts with me. They got cold feet in the end but wanted to come through the back door later,” Warnapura disclosed another untold chapter of the story.

Sri Lanka was a fledgling Test nation in 1982, the year Warnapura led a team to South Africa, playing their inaugural match against England at Colombo in February of that year.

Warnapura’s side was beaten by seven wickets against an experienced England team and would fail to win four further Tests as the year progressed.

Then in October it was announced that Warnapura was leading a 14-man rebel squad to South Africa which had the name Arosa Sri Lanka, after the initials of their player cum manager Anthony Ralph Opatha and the host nation.

The players were intensely denounced across India, Pakistan and the Caribbean as well as in Sri Lanka.

Life became very difficult for the Rebel cricketers who were detested at home for a decision many called treasonous. All players received a lifetime ban from the BCCSL but the ban was later reduced to 25 years.

Then in 1991 the entire team was pardoned by the then President of the country. But none played international cricket for the island again, although Flavian Aponso represented the Netherlands in the 1996 World Cup at the age of 43.

“The 25-year ban was at all levels — domestic and local. It came as a knockout to us,” recalled Warnapura who stated that Opatha the chief organiser of the rebel tour, in fact, wanted to give evidence against the players in the inquiry.

“Maybe somebody would have assured him too of something. Anyway, he has realised that what he did was wrong,” Warnapura added while saying that the ban for him personally, was a blessing.

“I learnt a lot in those nine years. He says he can now prepare turf wickets, do coaching and do cricket commentaries. Of course, if they had known that he would do all this, they would have banned him from all these activities too.”

Most of the rebels bought houses from the money they earned in South Africa, but almost everybody got into unemployment problems. It was an added blow for most of them.

Warnapura, now working with the International Cricket Council as its Regional Development Manager for Asia, is a well respected figure in the region but was subjected backstabbing at many occasions, occasionally by people who are around him.

A man who speaks with a straight tongue, Warnapura is firm in what he says and that for a reason has made him a target of many back at home.

But globally he is considered as an asset to cricket and its development. He developed the Pallekele Cricket Stadium with the funding obtained from the Asian Cricket Council and with his present appointment at ICC, he is doing a yeoman service to the region.

Warnapura is very honest with his opinion on many aspects of the game – on and off the field. He is of the view that once the selection committee of SLC has picked a team, there is no need for the Sports Minister to approve it.

“This taints cricket with politicisation,” he stated while being critical on the fact that senior players can make or break a team.
“The authority of senior players should be curbed for the betterment of team spirit and also let the coach get on with the job.

All coaches of the Sri Lankan team left the job with unhappy memories except for Tom Moody, who was of course a fantastic in managing people.

A sports psychologist is also a must, understanding the players who come from different backgrounds and different coaching setups and to channel their minds to reach their goals is an area which is lacking in our set up,” he pointed out.

Warnapura, who possessed leadership qualities as a youngster, first attended St. Peter’s College up to 1961 before moving to Nalanda College as a Grade 3 student.

At Nalanda under the guidance of Nelson Mendis, Warnapura began his cricketing career as an Under-12 player.

Since then he showed lot of promise and was allowed to play for both the Under-14 an Under-16 sides of Nalanda at the same time.

He was also given a supplementary promotion to play for the First XI at the tender age of 14. At 19, Warnapura was in the Sri Lanka squad.

“My star was good because at that time four national players retired from the game including Anura Tennakoon and I was honoured to captain the inaugural Test match against England at the Colombo Oval in 1982,” Warnapura recalled the beginning of his international career.

His international career as a player would come to an end later that year but by today Warnapura has skyrocketed to the helm as a successful coach and administrator.

Warnapura stressed that a cancer is growing in the SLC and will spell its doom sooner than later unless the constitution which has not change for ages should change an also the sports law.

Or else the leaches will keep on sucking the SLC till its blood runs dry he points out.

According to Warnapura there are many untold, unheard of stories and secrets in cricket waiting to be told in time to come.

These vary from the point of his career as a cricket at top level, to the rebel tour to South Africa, the ban imposed without a proper inquiry and his comeback to cricket as a coach, commentator and an administrator.

He is with the view that the factual reality of all these happenings must surface one day.

“The real truth has not yet come out yet. Only a part of it is known to many. Before I die, it will all be documented in a book and people will be able to know what really took place at certain points,” he concluded.

S. Tilak De Silva

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