Sunday, August 13, 2017

Neil Perera recalls Ghulam Ahmed's generosity, spices and English bats

Ex-Sri Lankan cricket board secretary Neil Perera and Ghulam Ahmed
Ex-Sri Lankan cricket board secretary Neil Perera and Ghulam Ahmed

India now have a highly paid full-time professional manager for the first time in their cricket history. Sri Lanka have Asanka Gurusinha as cricket manager, having enticed him back to the country from a good life in Melbourne.

But, it was not always so. Spend some time with Neil Perera, a former Sri Lankan board secretary, who has also doubled up as manager on a tour of India, and you realise just how far the game has come. Perera, now 88, is a treasure trove of stories, even if he doesn't make his way to the cricket that often these days. When Perera accompanied the Sri Lankan team to India on the 1975-76 tour, there were strict currency restrictions in place. Each player could take only three pounds and two shillings, irrespective of the length of foreign travel. To make ends meet, they had to be innovative: Each person would carry two kilos of cloves, prized in India at the time, and also two English willow bats, not easily available then, so one could be sold to supplement income.

On occasion, when they ran short of money, personal contacts came to their rescue. "Then my friend Ghulam Ahmed was the secretary of the BCCI and two weeks after, I ran short of money," recalls Perera. "I ran to him and asked for a loan of R2000. I promised to pay him back once I returned to Sri Lanka but he got angry and said, 'what nonsense, you ask what you want'." Four thousand rupees were advanced and all was well.

In 1996, Perera was once more in the thick of things. Nelson Mandela has been released from prison and hoped to take the World Cup to South Africa. It was Perera who suggested that Asian countries jointly bid to host the tournament.

Jagmohan Dalmiya was so impressed with Perera's efforts in bringing the nations together in a meeting that lasted almost eight hours, that he wrote his colleague a letter of praise. Perera also had strong ties with Abdul Hafeez Kardar, who played a key role in Sri Lanka getting Test status. "Pakistan took the initiative and proposed our name in the ICC meeting in 1973," recalls Perera.

"That time we had no money to go to the ICC meeting and our president Robert Senanayake went on his own money. "He came back and said, 'Neil you won't believe the way Kardar proposed Sri Lanka. They are good enough to be a full member and if you don't give full membership to Sri Lanka today, it is none other than racial discrimination and he banged the table."
Men like Perera have played a great role in cricket, albeit from the sidelines, with little fame or recognition.

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