14 March 2014

Ranjan Madugalle’s ‘lesson’ in 1982*

I think it was L.D.H. Peiris, Principal of Royal College (1972-1980) who introduced a tradition of inviting a distinguished old boy to address the student during assembly.  Or he may have been continuing an old tradition.  We never knew who or what would be foisted on us when we went for assembly, but it was always entertaining and speaking strictly for me, looking back I can say with certainty, I benefited. 

Yesterday (that would be Thursday) I spent a few hours at the 131st Battle of the Blues.  As always happens, one runs into old friends, some who have not been seen in years or even decades. There’s catching up, there’s chit chat, the occasional checking of score, dancing, singing and drinking. 

I knew I would meet Rajitha Dhanapala, friend from Grade 1A and about whom I wrote a few weeks ago (how he was unfairly dropped from the team, along with two others who constituted the top three batsmen in terms of batting averages that season, Chandana Panditharatne and Assagi Ranasinghe).  Rajitha was laughing.

‘Machang, I got so many calls. Pandi called after 22 years!  I even got calls from some Thomian friends who wanted to know if you would write about similar things that happened in their school.’

Now I know that such things happen in all schools, in all sports and indeed in all places and all things where some form of selection takes place.  I wasn’t ready for something that I heard yesterday though: ‘it happened this year too!’  What could I do or say but ‘oh well!’? 

Got me thinking though.  I remembered L.D.H. Peiris. Remembered his deep voice introducing a guest, a distinguished old boy, two of them in fact, way back in the year 1982.  Ranjan Madugalle and Asantha De Mel.  The former captained Royal in the 99th and the Centenary Battles of the Blues, the latter was ‘imported’, people said, from Isipathana College just for the Centenary match (1979).  They are both well known names today, but back then their claim to fame was just the fact that they were members of team that played Sri Lanka’s first test match (against Keith Fletcher’s England team). 

The Principal broke tradition. He had to.  There were two old Royalists in that team.  It was only Ranjan who spoke and I distinctly remember Asantha opting to ‘pass’ the invite to speak.  Ranjan was then a young old boy and therefore quite familiar.  He wasn’t as ‘distinguished’ as other distinguished old boys we had previously listened to, but that didn’t bother us. He was hero and later on did acquire distinction that put him way up there among the ‘distinguished’ who lectured young Royalists on certain mornings.  He spoke at length, but of all the things he said only one thing stuck in my mind.

‘Whenever I am out of form, getting out cheaply or to poor shots, I revert to the fundamentals.  I go back to the nets. I check my stance. I check the back-lift.  Things like that.  Invariably, I start performing better.  That is a life lesson. Whenever we go wrong, it is good to ask yourself if you’ve got the fundamentals wrong.  Basic things like discipline. Like values.  You will always find that that’s where the problem lies.  That is what needs to be corrected.’

I am obviously paraphrasing and would humbly accept any correction if Ranjan thinks I’ve done him injustice here.  

Ranjan would have been about 23 or 24 at the time and these words were indeed profound for someone so young.  It is clear also that he has consistently applied these principles to both his cricket and his career as a match referee. 

I remembered Ranjan because his is a lesson that is valid not just for cricketers and schoolboys, but coaches, teachers-in-charge, selectors and others involved in the game.  I am not sure if there was any wrong doing in team-selection this time around, but I am sure it won’t hurt anyone to step back and check ‘fundamentals’ now and then. 

In the matter of ‘selection’, it is a lesson that politicians and party leaders can benefit from if they choose to reflect deep on decisions made and processes adopted.  At what point does ‘procedure’ gets overruled by that dubious but sometimes inevitable concept called ‘discretion’?  Sometimes one does go with ‘gut-feeling’ but do they pause and ask themselves if ‘gut-feeling’ is an alibi for favouritism?   What kind of fundamentals are referenced during decision and in post-mortem?  And are these principles referred to selectively, i.e. at one’s convenience or worse for purposes of justification? 

I am thinking right now about party leaders, parties and the committees tasked with making candidates’ lists for the upcoming parliamentary elections.  We are not living in Utopia and therefore the insertion of celebrities can be understood and indeed it is more an indictment of how voters think than about the intellectual paucity of leaders. On the other hand, I think there is a thing called a ‘bottom line’, a minimum standard that should not be violated.   Sad to say, in many cases, the ‘bottom line’ is right at the bottom, meaning it cannot get worse. 

What are the fundamentals pertaining to politicians?  Manifesto, isn’t it?  How many of the elected actually return to the document they waved before the voter?  How many check if what they have done or are doing is consistent with the pledges made?  Do they ever go to the larger ‘fundamental’ of representation and of course that of proper conduct, which includes (or ought to include) things such as honestly, transparency and accountability?  Do they then check constitution and observe lacuna with respect to these things and if they do discover incongruence do they then work systematically and with utmost dedication to correct error? 

I think Ranjan Madugalle’s comment on returning to the fundamentals is a timeless one. There’s no magic in it, except in the fact that at a tender age he appeared to have learnt a lesson that few can claim to have learnt by the time they reach 80 and one which many refuse to think about because it would cause a lot of inconvenience. 

It is timeless in that it is embedded in most religious tenets and all societies have definite or loosely defined terms of reference equivalent to the stance, back lift, the virtues of discipline, commitment, fitness and practice. 

I am not sure who lost out and who benefited from someone refusing to be true to the fundamentals.  Life is long and can be quite an equalizer.  Sometime it takes years and decades (ask Rajitha Dhanapala, Chandana Panditharatne or Assagi Ranasinghe).  It is easier and more fruitful overall to do the right thing at the right time, if you really think about it.  That boils down to another ‘fundamental’: values. And it doesn’t matter if they are underwritten by notions of a supreme being waiting to judge or notions of natural justice as in the paticcasamuppada, the principle of dependent origination or some other ‘law’ drawn from other cosmologies. 

These are hardly the things that come to mind or are talked about during a ‘big match’ of course; but then again all human beings, thanks to inherent frailties, tend to go wrong and that’s when the simple observation made by Ranjan Madugalle almost three decades ago could show a pathway. 

*First published in March/April 2011