04 May 2018

Rajiva Wijetunge completes 40 years in Mercantile Table Tennis

Sometime in the year 1979, perhaps after Mahinda Halangoda’s epic fightback in the second year denied Royal a victory in the Centenary encounter with St Thomas’ college, a young old boy perhaps because he was upset found a target to vent his frustrations on.  Rajiva Wijetunge.
Rajiva Wijetunge was one half of the most lethal opening bowling attack in schools that year, the other being Asantha De Mel. The young Old Royalist’s analysis seemed sound: ‘Rajiva is not fit enough to bowl for long spells. He bowls only the opening spell. In the 50-over matches Ranjan (that’s Madugalle, who captained Royal that year) bowls him continuously for 10 overs because he just can’t do a second spell.’
I was a young schoolboy back them and quite impressionable; much of what loku aiyas uttered felt like pearls of wisdom. The ‘observation’ was there at the back of my mind and I would remember it each time I saw Rajiva’s name in newspapers which reported on his various sporting exploits. 
I finally got to ask him about it 39 years after the centenary. He brushed it off with a smile and a gracious comment: ‘Ranjan did bowl me right throughout the first session and in the one-day match he got me to bowl by quota of overs at a stretch. Asantha had more pace, in fact he was quicker by several yards. I was taller and people thought I was fitter, but the truth is that I was just good with the new ball.’
Rajiva played for Royal in 1978 and 1979.  Cricketers were heroes back then. We knew they played for the school, we cheered. We were in awe. If they continued to play after leaving school it would make us proud. If they didn’t we really didn’t care too much about their lives. There were always others to hero-worship.  
Rajiva, however, was in the news frequently enough for any avid reader of newspapers not to forget the man.  It was not cricket news, though. This year, he completes 40 straight years in mercantile table tennis.  Forty straight years! That’s a record. Indeed if anyone competed in the ‘A Division’ of any sport for half that length of time, it would be noteworthy.
 We are getting ahead of our story. I wanted to know how he got into TT and the secret of his longevity, which quite dispelled all illusions planted in my mind about his fitness. 
'Actually I played table tennis as well as cricket. I was also an athlete,’ he said, and went on sketch his sporting career.
‘I started playing TT in 1973, i.e. when I came to Royal College from Royal Junior School.  We won the all-island junior title after many years in 1974. We won the senior title the following year, again after a decade, captained by Tiran Peiris. I was the Vice-Captain in 1975, the year I won my TT colors. I captained in 1976 but we lost to Carey in the final. In 1977 I played under Ramesh De Silva. By this time I was focusing on my cricket and didn’t get on to the winners’ podium. In 1978 I played under Hilmy Cader.
‘I was involved in athletics at the same time, from 1973 to 1978. I did field events, the putt shot and discus. Throughout the time I was in school I was the champion in these two events in different age groups. I came second at the Public Schools Meet, under 14 and under 15, at both events, and won the champion in the Under 17 category at the Junior Nationals. All this was only until I was 17. After that it was only cricket.’
It’s not that Rajiva switched to cricket; he had played from the time he was a kid. 
Rajiva (seated, extreme left), Ranjan on the extreme right, same row
‘I first played in the Under 12 team, which was captained by Arjun Fernando.  We won the junior championship. I captained Perera House at RJC and at the time Ranjan played under me. I started off as an opening batsman, but because of my height the coaches wanted me to concentrate on bowling.  I still remember getting a first-ball wicket against Sri Jayawardenapura College, Kotte. In fact I got the first wicket in both the big matches I played in, Uchchi was the victim in 1978 and Ruwan Sirisena in 1979.’
Rajiva had never played Under 17 cricket. He had played in the Second XI from 1975 to 1977 as an opening bowler. He says that in any other school he would have played in the First XI, but pointed out that it was just not possible at Royal because the team had two very effective fast bowlers in Dyan Pathmanathan and Anudatta Dias.’ 
He was nevertheless an allrounder in many ways. He got school colors for cricket, athletics and table tennis and captained his house, Boake, in all three sports.
I couldn’t resist asking him about one of his batting exploits. This was in 1979. Royal had bundled out St Joseph’s College and had just eight runs to score to win the match. Rajiva, the opening bowler, and M.N. Perera, the wicketkeeper and a lower middle-order bat, were sent to open. The two were out in front of the pavilion shortly before the umpires walked in, taking a few deliveries by way of ‘warming up’.  Rajiva’s enthusiasm got the better of him and he drove the ball hard. It looped above the schoolboys gaping at their cricketing heroes. Then there was a commotion. It had hit a little boy on his nose. He was rushed off, crying, his nose all bloodied. Rajiva remembered.
‘The thing is, no one wanted to open. No one wanted to get out to the new kookaburra ball. Yes, that ball hit a hosteller. I actually met him at last year’s Royal Thomian. ‘ayyata maava mathakada…oya thamai mage nahaya keduve!’ (do you remember me…it was my nose that you broke!).
The Centenary Team led by Ranjan Madugalle
Part of this fascination with sports can be explained by the fact that Rajiva came from a family of sportsmen. ’S.S. “Sargo” Jayawickrema was my great grand uncle.  Sargo played in the 50th Royal-Thomian, his nephew Ranjith De Silva played in the 75, I played in the centenary and my nephew Dimitri Siriwardena played in the 125th encounter.  I think that must be some record. A lot of uncles played for Royal Mahes Rodrigo played rugger and cricket in the same year and went on to play for Sri Lanka. Overall there are 10 in the clan who played in the Royal-Thomian, there’s one who was Twelfth Man and two who were reserves.’
It was not just the ‘boys’ though.  His mother Lois De Silva played TT for Ceylon. She also played cricket, possibly on account of the Jayawickrema genes. My father played TT for the university and all my four sisters captained Ladies’ College at TT, with one of them, Sharmini, playing for Sri Lanka. 
Not all schoolboy sportsmen continue playing after leaving school, unless of course they’ve gone on to represent the country in the particular sport.  Rajiva was different. He opted to focus on TT and athletics. 
‘My event was the putt shot.  We competed with a lighter putt after turning 50. It was reduced from 7.28kg to 6kg. Interestingly this is the same weight that is used in Under 14 events. Even more interestingly I broke the Under 14 record measuring a distance of 10.54m with my throw. In 2014 I broke the record with the same weight, measuring 10.78m.’ 
Rajiva confesses that he had an obsession; he wanted to represent Sri Lanka in a sport, something he was unable to do as a schoolboy.
‘I had five classmates who represented the country. Arjun got national colors for tennis, Palitha Siriwardena represented the country in basketball and rugby, everyone knows Ranjan’s achievements, Crishantha Ferdinando was a national athlete and Ashantha played test cricket.
H. Nanayakkara (Master-in-Charge), Rajiva, Ranjan and Ashantha De Mel with coach Gamini Salgado
‘I never gave up hope. I first played for CTC, from 1979 to 1995, for 17 continuous years. I played for Ceylinco for another 17 years (1995-2012) and for MAS Holdings since then (6 years). I’ve been part of winning teams in at least 20 of these 40 years.  The first title was the Novices Singles which I won in 1981.
‘I finally represented my country at the World Masters Table Tennis tournament where I was the first to win an individual medal, a bronze. This was in Edmonton, Canada then I partnered Sarath Wijesuriya of NSB to bring home a silver medal in the doubles. All in all I’ve secured 25 international medals in TT and athletics.’
Rajiva was not all about playing, he has also done much to develop sports. He was twice the President of the Table Tennis Association (2007-2009, 2014/15), was the President of the Mercantile Table Tennis Association (2012-15) and a National Selection (2002-2007 and 2010-1015). 
On the 10th and 11th of May, then, Rajiva will reach a landmark. He will be completing his 40th consecutive year competing in Mercantile Table Tennis tournaments.
That old, I not feel, got it wrong. Rajiva could go on and on and on.  Back then, he did as his captain told him to do; bowl when told, stop when told.  Now he does it because he wants to. Either way, he has willed his body to limits that would make most people shudder. That’s because he has the mind and the heart.