By Sa’adi Thawfeeq | Originally Published on the Sunday Observer (15th January 2017)
Geoff Wijesinghe, former editor of the Daily News and Sunday Observer and one-time head of ‘Lankapuvath’ the country’s only national news agency turns 82 today and despite the growing years he remains as jovial as ever.
One might wonder why an editor of a newspaper should feature in the sports pages of the Sunday Observer. For those who are curious to know Wijesinghe was a fine cricketer before he branched into the field of journalism. His cricket career at S. Thomas’ College, Mt Lavinia was as colourful as his profession as a journalist. He could spin you many a yarn that can keep an audience enthralled and rolling with laughter. Although at times he lost his cool and vented his fury at a fellow journalist he was the first to apologise later for whatever misdeeds or misunderstandings that may have taken place. He held no grudges against anybody and whatever he said came straight from the heart whether it was a word of praise or criticism.
Wijesinghe to say the least lived a life full and despite being confined to his home at Millenium City in Aturugiriya in his sunset years he is still full of life.
Best remembered for the 5th wicket stand
Wijesinghe is best remembered as a cricketer for the fifth wicket record partnership he put up with the late Ian Pieris in the 1953 Battle of the Blues cricket encounter against traditional rivals Royal College. Rolling back the years Wijesinghe recollected, “I went into bat at no. 5 with three down for 13 runs. P.I., my captain, joined me with the score on four for 15.
As he joined me, P.I. said, “Let’s teach these bloody Royalists a lesson.” When I got out, the score was 201, after a record partnership of 186 runs. P.I. went onto score a brilliant 124. That innings found him a place in the All Ceylon side against Australia. We went on to win the match by an innings.”
Wijesinghe’s contribution in the record stand was 64, although PI got all the kudos it was Wijesinghe’s steady influence at the other end that enabled PI to go for his strokes. Wijesinghe’s first ‘Big Match’ was in 1952 under the captaincy of Conrad Barrow. Batting at six down and being last of the recognized batsmen Wijesinghe showed his mettle when he went onto make a top score of 40 not out in the Thomian first innings of 158. Royal was shot out for 94 and 87 and S Thomas’ went onto win by eight wickets.
In his final year 1954, Wijesinghe once again displayed his steely qualities as a batsman and helped the Thomians stave off defeat against Royal. Royal ran up an impressive 290 and with defeat staring in the face Wijesinghe recalled, “Michael Tissera, playing in his first Royal-Thomian as a 15-year-old, joined me in a match-saving partnership.
“Unfortunately, he got out for 48. Michael went onto become one of the best batsmen and one of the best captains Sri Lanka has ever produced. He was also a gentleman par excellence”. Wijesinghe made 42 not out and it was the only occasion where he failed to finish with a win.
Many stood out among the rest
Going down memory lane Wijesinghe recalled, “Among those who played with me in the Royal-Thomian were Tyrell Gauder, who later settled down in England and Tony Witham, who opened batting in 1953. Tony became a leading planter and is today president of the Victoria Golf Club. P.I. Pieris is one of those who have passed on.
“With him, I had the record partnership in the 1953 encounter. “Outstanding among the bowlers was Dan Piachaud, who later played for Oxford, taking seven Royal wickets in the second innings for 50 runs on a wet wicket after overnight rain. Also, there was D.D.N. Selvadorai, a leading tennis player too, who later migrated to Canada. Ranjith Weerasinghe, wicket-keeper/batsman captained the side in 1954. He was a partner of the leading accountancy firm Turquand Young, before he migrated to Australia, where he died.
“His ashes were brought to Colombo and laid to rest at the family grave at Kanatte. I was asked by his brother Dan, a former Army officer, to inform Nirmalingam, the former Royal skipper and good friend, who himself passed away a couple of weeks ago. When I gave him the news that Ranjith had died, Nirmalingam said, “What to do Machan. All of us are now on the departure lounge.”
“Then there was Maithri Samarasinghe, who, when we were doing badly in the 1953 game, shouted the slogan, ‘Main thing is not to worry.’ Ubhaya de Silva, who captained Royal in that year later took to planting and fell very sick while employed in Africa. He returned home and passed away some time later. Fritzroy Crozier, left arm in-swing opening bowler, who ran through our top order, later played for the NCC and All Ceylon. Zacroff Cader, brilliant all rounder, played with me in the Royal-Thomian, qualified as a dentist in London and moved on to Jamaica. “Most of the leading schools at the time had strong teams with very good players. Some names come to mind are A.C.M. Lafir, who opened batting with Stevens for St. Anthony’s, was a terror to any opposing side. Then, there was the famous opening pair of Wanigaratne and Wimalaratne for St. Joseph’s. Moving to Wesley, there was Ansar and Abu Fuard and Lou Adihetty. Ansar became a lawyer and Abu Fuard a leading insurance agent and a high official in cricket administration during the time of the late Gamini Dissanayake. “There were also brothers Brian and Radley Clasen and M. Samsudeen, left arm opening bowler. Brian was one of the best leg spinners we have ever had.
“Dhanasiri Weerasinghe, the Ananda College captain, later played for Ceylon. He was head of the Police Narcotics Bureau and senior Interpol officer, before migrating to Australia. There was also the left-arm fast bowler Roy Perera of St. Joseph’s, who was a jovial character, but he bowled with much venom.
“Clive Inman, who played for St. Peter’s went onto represent Leicestershire county. He held the record for the highest number of sixes in the county game. Lucky Witarane, an ebullient batsman of Trinity was a colourful character.
“He later became a controversial Army officer. Also, Ralph and Milroy Brohier of St Joseph’s. I do not remember which, but one of them hit a powerful six through the main door of the Thomian pavilion. David Pieris who opened bowling in 1954 is today chairman of David Pieris Motor Company.
“Stanley de Alwis was a hostile fast bowler who specialized in the bouncer. One of his bouncers was hit by me across the Galle Road during a century I made against Prince of Wales in 1954. We were very good friends. Stanley and Lasantha Rodrigo of Prince of Wales were outstanding cricketers.” Incidentally Wijesinghe’s three sons also shone in sports at S. Thomas’.The eldest SP (Suranimala) played in the 100th Royal-Thomian cricket encounter, the second Johann won his colours at boxing and rugby where he scored the two tries that won S Thomas’ the traditional rugby match against Royal and, the third Suresh won the Stephen Memorial prize for Best Bowler which coincidentally was presented to him by his father who happened to be the chief guest at the occasion. Wijesinghe himself had won the prize on his first year for his batting in 1952.
Playing for SSC
After his school career Wijesinghe continued his cricket with SSC playing in the division I Sara trophy tournament where he had many a stories to relate. “Denzil Keerthiratne, the stylish batsman, after leaving college, played for the SSC. I too, played for the SSC in the P. Sara tournament, in a star-studded team led by F.C. de Saram, and which included R.B. Wijesinha, L.E de Zoysa, C.I. Gunasekara, C.H. Gunasekara, Ben Navaratne, H.T. Gunasekara and Yasa Ratnayake,” said Wijesinghe. “In one match against Tamil Union on the Oval, I dropped a sitter from M. Sathasivam at midwicket, and for a whole week my captain did not speak to me. At the next match, against Colombo University, F.C. told me, “Wijesinghe, you can drop anyone. But, if you drop Satha, your captain won’t speak to you for a week.”
“In the same tournament, Bob Bartels who was on holiday from Lancashire league, was going great guns when he hooked a ball to fine leg, and I imagined I had caught him as there were big cheers. I suddenly realized I had caught him outside the boundary line. The massive cheers turned into more vibrant jeers,” he said. Wijesinghe admitted the reason why he did not pursue a career as a cricketer and instead turned to journalism was due to the fact that he could not attend practices.
As a stringer in 1961
He had begun his stint with the pen as a stringer for the Daily Mirror in 1961 and had to cover matches.“I covered Sri Lanka’s first ‘test’ win against Pakistan in 1964. Michael Tissera captained the team. The opening bowler was Darrell Lieversz. He was a good inswing bowler but could not manage the outswing. Michael taught him how to bowl the outswinger on the spot and he managed to take six wickets and record a historic win,” noted Wijesinghe with enthusiasm.
Decline in journalism today
Wijesinghe lamented the decline in the standard of journalism today. “With the breakthrough of electronic and social media the print media is finding it a challenge to emerge to the forefront and has become a bit stagnant in comparison. There is no news gathering. One of the worst things that had occurred is distributing press releases to journalists. “I have experiences in witnessing how the reporters almost fall over each other trying to get their hands on the press releases.
They add their name to the press release and do not even bother to go through the information. In our time a byline was hard earned. If you see your name once a year on print that is a great achievement,” he stressed adding that unless the reporter gets a really break through story they were not allowed to use their name with the news items.
“Another issue with modern day writing is that the poor nature of sentence construction.
There is a lack of investigative journalism too. Investigating a story is like eating a Biryani. There is a deep sense of achievement. Today that feature is lacking though the ground work is set for such stories.”
Reflecting on over a half a century of journalism Wijesinghe said, “It is like enjoying a dosa in a small restaurant one minute and going for another meal at a five star hotel during the next opportunity. You can even curb your hunger once you have a good story in your hands.
“That is why there is a saying that everyone cannot be a journalist. You need a nose for news.”
His advice to budding journalists is to love the profession. “Journalism is not for clock-watchers. Live your story and your job and be fearless when pursuing your information.”