24 October 2020

Gratien Amarasinghe and the definition of the word ‘All-rounder’

All-rounder. It’s a word that cricketers and cricket fans know. There are batsmen. There are bowlers. Batsmen and bowlers are also fielders. And then we have allrounders. Back in the day there were allrounders, but now there are batting all rounders and bowling all rounders; the former are specialists with the bat who can turn their arm and the latter are specialists with the ball who can be counted on to put runs on the board.

And so, the statisticians rank cricketers (in all formats) — we get the top batsmen, the top bowlers and the top all-rounders. They stretch it to include captains, teams and umpires too.

This is about all-rounders. Sorry, it is about AN all-rounder and one for whom cricket was just one of many things. The word, really, is about multiple skills, ideally excellent skills overall. One could be great at sports and at studies. One could be really good in many sports. And it doesn’t have to be about sports either.

Our man, however, was a sportsman. Gratien Amarasinghe.  

He was the eldest in a family of two girls and two boys. Born in Rajagiriya to a landed proprietor and a housewife, Gratien attended Carey College, Colombo.

These days it is rare for any schoolboy or school girl to be involved in more than one sport. The training regimens are simply forbidding. You do one thing and you just don’t have time for another. Even if you did, you might be good at one but average at best in another discipline. Therefore if anyone got school colors, say, for two sports, he or she would be thought of as especially gifted.

Now consider Gratien. He represented his school at athletics, badminton, swimming, hockey cricket, basketball, tennis, soccer and boxing. He secured the Senior School Certificate in Science, was a school prefect and won the medal for the Best All-round Student at Carey in 1955. He was the first schoolboy to represent the country at soccer. He was the Treasurer of the Senior Literary and Dramatic Association and had even taken part in theater productions!

He loved sports, obviously. That love didn’t wane after leaving school. He would represent Sri Lanka at soccer and came close to boxing for his country at the Olympiad. He would end up coaching gymnastics, swimming, basketball, badminton, soccer and boxing to students in many schools and also held various posts in several sports associations at the national level. Gratien still sports a blazer with the following legend: 'Sri Lanka Boxing 1952, Sri Lanka Schools Cricket 1954, Sri Lanka Football XI 1955, Sri Lanka Basketball 1959, Manager Sri Lanka FFSL 1979.'

Now 85 years old, living in Boralesgamuwa with his son Sumith, Gratien recounted an incident which exemplifies his love for sport. He had at one point represented Nava Lanka Sports Club, Kollupitiya, which was funded by K.J. Haramanis Appuhamy. The old man’s two sons were the captain and vice captain of the team. Gratien was the goalie. It was their sister, Seelawathi who Gratien married.

In fact when Gratien, as a 19 year old was picked for training squad ahead of the Asian Quadrangular Tournament in 1955, the Ceylon Observer ran a story about him where it is mentioned that Haramanis Appuhamy ‘one of Ceylon’s keenest soccer fans’ had discovered the boy while he was representing Carey in an inter-school match! That article (written by ‘A “Junior News” sports reporter’) has the telling headline, ‘His punch is as good as your kick!’ The reporter touched on his versatility but also describes him as ‘a simple, unassuming lad who has no time for hobbies.’ His books, the reporter wrote, ‘and the five branches of sports he is interested in take up all his time.’

He did have time to fall in love and get married too. Just about enough, as it turned out to be!

‘There was an international match the day after the wedding and sports correspondents in newspapers expressed doubt about me taking part. I went straight to the Sugathadasa Stadium immediately after the wedding!

He recalled how he missed an opportunity to represent the country at the Olympics as a boxer. He had lost to Dharmasiri Weerakoon at the nationals, which was essentially a pre-Olympic selection event. It had been a sad moment.

The happy times clearly outweighed the disappointments. He recounted how women’s basketball was launched in Sri Lanka.

A coach from India named Misra, who Gratien had met during a tour to that country at a time when he was the Secretary of the Sri Lanka Basketball Association, had written to him asking whether to bring down a women’s basketball team.

‘I wrote back, asking him to bring them, even though we didn’t have a team. The Indian team was received by Maj Gen Cyril Ranatunga. Dr P R Anthonis, my mother’s cousin, hosted them for dinner.’

How about the team or rather the absence of a team?

‘I got the netball team and taught them the fundamentals. The match was played at the Central YMCA and our team won!’

‘Simple and unassuming,’ is what he is, even now. He recalls the good times with a smile. He mentions but nudges aside the not-so-good moments. He doesn’t want to talk about them and I shouldn’t either.

He kept coming back to one thing. The secret of his versatility or rather the fitness that allowed him to do all that he did. Basketball.  

‘You have to be very fit. It’s second only to ice-hockey when it comes to speed.’

He doesn’t have any cholesterol or sugar issues. He is fit for his age. He is clear in mind when talking about what he loved most. Sports.

To put things in perspective again. Imagine a present day first class cricketer also playing soccer. Imagine a schoolboy cricketer who also represents his school in swimming, basketball, athletics and soccer, or just a couple of sports. Imagine such an individual either representing the country or being in contention for a national call. Now multiply that by three or four. That’s Gratien Amarasinghe or rather a rough estimate of how versatile a sportsman he was.

A legend, certainly.