Potential Rock Star took a rebel team to apartheid SA | Daily News


Potential Rock Star took a rebel team to apartheid SA


Tony Opatha had a lot going for him as a schoolboy, club and Sri Lanka cricketer. He was a star. Perhaps a rock star too!

But life being what it is, he will be remembered as a the TONY OPATHA who rocked, shook and stunned the local cricket world and put it back by 25 years.

He was accused of taking a set of local cricketers to Apartheid South Africa defying the laws of sport that debarred sports teams from touring SA and he along with others who toured suffering a 25-year ban from the game. More on this later.

A fine cricketer

ANTONY RALPH MARINON OPATHA a former Sri Lankan all rounder who we feature as our ‘SPORTS LEGEND’ was indeed a fine cricketer.

Let's recall TONY OPATHA the cricketer in his early days as a promising schoolboy cricketer and his rise to fame as a Sri Lankan cricketer.

He started his cricket at the school by the canal St.Peter’s College, Bambalapitiya as a wicket keeper playing in the under 12 and continued doing so in the under 14 and 16 teams. Then when he moved to the First X1 team he showed that he could bowl of spinners.

The famous wicket keeper, batsman that St.Peter’s had ever produced and who was at one time named the best wicket keeper in Asia Dr. H.I.K. Fernando was the coach and watching OPATHA as a strongly built lad just turned 15 exhorted on him to take to fast bowling.

Values of fast bowling

‘HIK’ although being a gloveman convinced him on the values of fast bowling and urged him to stick to fast bowling for which he has no regrets.

As a fast bowler playing his first big game against Thurstan he showed that he was made for fast bowling and bowling a telling spell, believe it or not he took 6 for 9 to skittle out the opponents for a lowly 19. And that was the start to stardom.

But OPATHA’S moment of glory came in 1967 when as captain he helped his school win the big match against St. Joseph’s bowling devastating spells with the new ball to take seven wickets in the match and lure the Joes to defeat.

Playing for Saracens - sub head

His exploits as a 17-year old with the ball was noticed by the talent scouts at Saracens Sports Club who invited him to play for them. Rev Fr Mervyn Weerakoddy who was the Rector at SPC who very graciously granted him permission to play for the Rifle Green Club which he did for two seasons before switching to the Sinhalese Sports Club where he helped the club win the Sara trophy.

In that Sara final I still vividly remember he made mincemeat of the strong Burgher Recreation club batting taking 7 for 39 in the final which helped bundle the Havelock Park Club for 59.

After doing his bit for the SSC he crossed over to the Colombo Cricket Club and played one season enjoying his cricket in the exalted company of Dan Piachaud, H.I.K. Fernando, Abu Fuard, Brian Obeysekera, Kanthi Johnpillai and Darrel Wimalaratne.

A magic spell

In the game against a strong Tamil Union team at the CCC he bowled a magic spell of cleverly controlled seam and swing to bundle out the opponents for just 9 runs finishing with the dream figures of 6 for 2. I remember watching that game and enjoyed that mesmerizing spell by OPATHA.

He had a penchant to change clubs and from the CCC he moved to playing for the Air Force known as Adastrians. After nine seasons with the Adastrians where he also captained them and his break to play for the country was not long in coming. He played in the first historic 1975 World Cup and the second in 1979 for Sri Lanka in the tournaments in England under Anura Tennekoon.

Later in his career OPATHA played in Ireland and later made it to Holland as the country’s coach and helped improve its cricket a great deal and be a force to be reckoned with. In addition to coaching OPATHA also played for clubs in Holland and helped them to win trophies.

Black townships

His expertise was also sought by the Dutch Cricket Board as its adviser and coach. He went back to South Africa and also coached young and promising cricketers in the black townships.

OPATHA gave back to his school St. Peter’s College what he got from it by coaching the school for three successful years. Under his coaching and the captaincy of Rohan Buultjens SPC became the Best All-Island cricket team.

With Sri Lanka savoring, basking and enjoying the inclusion into the prestigious portals of Test cricket after years of toiling to convince the lords at Lord’s and finally succeeding, thunder and lightning struck the game.

It was shook it to its foundations when a set of 15 rebel cricketers led by OPATHA surreptitiously took wing to South Africa which country was then reveling in the dreaded and inhuman apartheid tempted by the lucre that was freely offered.

Brains behind the tour

The consensus at that time was that it was OPATHA who was the brains and the architect behind the whole sordid tour. But OPATHA who went on that tour as player/ manager denies that it was not he alone who fashioned it, but there many other important personalities who were behind the making of that tour, that to date remains a black mark on the country’s game.

With the country just having gained Test status and struggling to make their presence felt in the big league, the losing of excellent players such as Anura Ranasinghe, Ajit de Silva, Mahesh Goonetilleke and Bernard Perera was a tragedy because a 25-year ban from the game and its administration was slapped on them for their indiscretion.

But Gamini Dissanayake who was the President of the Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka and who virtually fought alone battle to convince the lords at the ICC to accept the country and grant it full Test status, helped by beavers like Abu Fuard who was the power behind the thrown, R.Rajamahendren an irreplaceable promoter of cricket and Dham Wimalasena faced the setback and took on the challenge undaunted.They saw to it that the game would not suffer, but would get better, stronger and be more than worthy competitors in world cricket. That they achieved it was great.

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