by R. B. Wijesinha (Jnr.)
Had Bertie Wijesinha been alive on May 24, he would have been 100 years old. Sadly, he fell just short of his century. This year is also the 25th anniversary of the passing of his great friend, teammate and fellow commentator, Lucien de Zoysa. Four years older than Bertie, their association began from the Royal-Thomian Cricket Match of 1936; Bertie’s first and Lucien’s last. They have both written books about their cricketing days, “First Love’ by Lucien and “The Love of a Lifetime’ by Bertie, both publications a ‘must read’ for those interested in the evolution of the game in Sri Lanka.
They counted the likes of Sargo Jayawickrama, F. C. (Derrick) De Saram, Mahadevan Sathasivam, C. I. (Ievers) Gunasekera, Ben Navaratne, Mahes Rodrigo, D. S. Jayasundera, Sathi Coomaraswamy and others, as team mates and friends; legends all who contributed what cricket historians of the future will claim was the Golden Age of Sri Lankan Cricket, laying the foundations and setting the standards of the formidable Test Cricket playing Nation it was to become.
Mine is a personal tribute to (Uncle) Lucien in emotions based on the opening paragraph of Bertie’s chapter on his great friend. It reads thus,
One man in his time plays many parts! So was it with Lucien Edward! Cricketer, actor, playwright, producer, cricket commentator, journalist and raconteur extraordinary. Not a great deal, however, has been told of Lucien the man; the human aspect of his nature. It is a sentimental journey which I now undertake, his spirit, as it were, walking beside me!
My earliest memories of Lucien are while dangling from precarious position at the back of a steel gantry while watching either a Royal-Thomian or International cricket match, while Bertie and he did their best to describe the proceedings to all those thousands who were unable to be there and could only listen on the radio. Their command of language and knowledge of the game brought it alive in descriptive excellence so that those not there could imagine what was happening just by listening to them. Add to this their anecdotal reminiscences, particularly those of Lucien, and history and humour were added to the mix.
I must have been about five or six years of age when first allowed access to this hazardous height and owe my continued existence to Lucien’s son Richard, a legend in his own right who, being a little older, was tasked with the duty of keeping an eye on me. Richard stood behind Lucien and me behind Bertie, until I tried something a little too daring, or the Mustangs Tent, at the Royal-Thomian, walked by with their usual exuberance, and Richard’s hand would be on my collar or around my waist as I teetered on the verge of fall. I must here explain that this was in the day that the various ‘tents’ were allowed to parade around the ground when the match was in progress, and share of their boisterous bonhomie with the massed crowds. It is also necessary to mention that the Mustangs Tent seemed to have disproportionate representation of the De Zoysa clan in their midst, Dickie and Bunty being most prominent, who every time they passed the ‘commentary box’ seemed compelled to give the already shaky structure further jiggle while shouting out encouragement of this kind,
“Lucien, Bertie, stop talking so much and come and join us in a drink.”
In the mid-1970s, there was a further addition to the commentary team when Lucien’s eldest son Michael joined the duo. Michael went on to distinguish himself not only in commentary, but also in cricket administration, especially at the Singhalese Sports Club (SSC), that heart of cricket for both Lucien and Bertie. Many years later, Michael and I gave commentary together, at a Test Match between Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Not many realized the significance of that moment, though we did.
Rain and other breaks
Though there is nothing to beat watching a live cricket match, the rain breaks and play suspensions were fascinating times too, in this company. Depending on the time of the break, the venue for the subsequent gathering was either at the Oval, the place where all the ‘big matches’ were then played, the SSC or the Arts Club at the Lionel Wendt. At my age, all I could do was to sit and listen. This is where I first heard all of the stories that subsequently filled the pages of Lucien’s and Bertie’s books, and met the legends who were the subjects of many of them.
I then spent eighteen years in the United Kingdom, however, on my return, I would frequently travel to Hendala, and to Harbour Lights, that beautiful retreat away from Colombo, where Lucien had made his home with his lovely wife Evelyn, and their daughter Lana. If cricket was Lucien’s first love, then Evelyn was his most enduring and endearing, and Lana the brightness that gave light to his life.
I loved listening to and now, being old enough, adding to the conversation. Lucien was easy to talk to. He always listened to the other’s point of view, and if he disagreed with it, did so in a manner that never offended and usually started with the opening of “Now chum…”! Discussions were not confined to cricket but extended to history, the theatre, wildlife conservation, politics and many other topics on which he had read and studied widely, or had first-hand experience of. A particular favourite was the legend of Sigiriya, and the character of King Kashyapa. Of particular irony at the time was that Lucien was instantly recognized, almost everywhere he went, not as a member of the famed cricket teams of yore, but as a character in a popular television drama. He truly was a man for all seasons.
He still owes me a beer
I was assisting Bertie with coaching young cricketers at the SSC Cricket Academy. Quite often, we would meet Lucien who would drop in to the club for lunch whenever in Colombo. One day, he suggested that we meet up for a chat, the enticement being that he would by me a beer, not that I needed any to meet with him. We were heading for Yala that weekend and so I arranged to meet on the Monday after. I have to confess that I was a bit nervous as I had received intimation that he was a little concerned at the way I was conducting my life at the time; “Now listen Chum…”!
On our return, we learned that Lucien had passed away. I remember Bertie placing his hands over his face and then against a wall as he quietly mourned his friend.
They all came to the funeral house, all of his surviving team mates – C. I. (Ievers) Gunasekera, perhaps the best of Lucien’s friends, Mahes Rodrigo, the ‘baby’ of the team, Koo De Saram, Hector Perera, Fairlie Dalpathado, and others. Having paid their initial respects to their team mate and friend, they lingered till most of the other mourners had left, and then sat around the coffin. Then the stories began. I remember Evelyn saying, “Anyone watching will think that I am the wickedest of widows”, as tears of laughter now filled her grieving eyes. Lucien would have loved every minute of it.
And so, I will leave the final word to Bertie, from his chapter on Lucien Edward,
“His final farewell was yet to come and that too he performed as though the part was specially written for him: he raised his glass to his lips with a word of cheer to his wife and daughter.
A farewell, a last farewell. No fuss; no bother. A clean break, as he “stole away” from the mortal scene.
His spirit has, no doubt, reunited with those others who had flitted to and fro’ between wickets and, perhaps, now besport themselves in Elysian Fields!
I would like to think that they do too, no doubt to that same standard of excellence, both of skill and of sportsmanship that they were famous for. Then, in the dressing room, with the opening of the first celestial bottle of beer, one of them, let’s say a mischievous chap called Rodrigo, would say,
“I say Derrick, why did Lucien refuse to field at deep midwicket?”