How Neil Perera changed the fortunes of Sri Lankan cricket
Panadura Sports Club may have been in the news for all the wrong reasons in recent times, but people should not forget the contributions this fine institution has made for Sri Lankan cricket over the years.
Panadura SC’s greatest gift to Sri Lankan cricket is not Chamara Silva or Dilruwan Perera, but Mr. Neil Perera, who captained the club more than a half-century ago. He rubbed shoulders with the likes of C.I. Gunasekara on the field while mingling with the likes of Jagmohan Dalmiya off the field. He is an absolute legend of Sri Lankan cricket.
It was as a cricket administrator more than a player or captain that Mr. Perera made a name for himself. He served Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka for well over 25 years. The majority of that period was as Secretary of the Board. He also served as a Vice-President and had several stints as Manager of the national cricket team in both the pre Test era and post 1981. His finest moment managing the team came in 1995 in Napier when the national cricket team won their maiden Test match overseas.
The Wills World Cup that the sub-continent hosted in 1996 was not only successfully staged but it also changed the economics of the sport. Yet, the 1996 World Cup in the sub-continent would not have been possible if not for Neil Perera.
Jagmohan Dalmiya, the first Asian to be the President of the ICC, wrote to Neil Perera after the 1996 World Cup saying, “Without your crucial role at the ICC meeting in London on February 2, 1993, the ‘cake’ (World Cup) would perhaps have not come to this sub-continent.”
When he was elected as Secretary of Board of Control for Cricket in 1991 with Tyronne Fernando as the President, Mr. Perera put the idea of hosting the 1996 World Cup along with other sub-continent neighbours to the head of the board.
Fernando knew that hosting of an event of the magnitude of the World Cup would cost the board an arm and a leg. Anyhow, the duo decided to go ahead with the plan and went to meet President Premadasa to get his blessings.
To Neil Perera’s delight, President Premadasa not only gave his blessings but assured the board that the government would financially support their effort as well.
Perera immediately wrote letters to his Indian and Pakistani counterparts explaining his mind. While there was a positive response from India for the joint bid, the response by Pakistan crushed his hopes. The Pakistan Cricket Board informed the Sri Lankan Board that they were going to stage the 1996 World Cup on their own. PCB urged Sri Lanka to support their bid.
There was another twist to the tale. Nelson Mandela, who had been released from prison a few years back had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 and was a very popular man. Dr. Ali Bacher, the head of United Cricket Board of South Africa was a strong-willed man like Neil Perera and he had urged Mandela, whose popularity was soaring, to help South Africa’s bid to host the 1996 World Cup.
Mandela, in turn, had contacted the governments of each cricketing nation asking for the support. President Premadasa had to withdraw the assurance he had given Neil Perera and pledged his support to Mandela.
At Lord’s in February 1993, cricket’s bigwigs were going to decide the host nation for the 1996 World Cup. Along with South Africa and Pakistan, England too had joined the fray.
A vote was taken and South Africa failed to obtain a two-thirds majority, which was a prerequisite those days to host an ICC event. England had received four votes, South Africa had four and Pakistan ended up with just one vote.
South Africa were convinced that they were not going to muster much support. So they withdrew their bid. Pakistan, meanwhile, one of Sri Lanka’s strongest allies were furious that Neil Perera had voted for South Africa instead of Pakistan.
The PCB was represented by Lieutenant General Zahid Akbar Khan, the President of the Board and Perera convinced him that Pakistan were not going to make any progress putting a sole bid. PCB agreed for the joint bid on one condition – the final had to be played at Lahore. BCCI agreed provided that the two semi-finals were staged in India. The chief negotiator between the two nuclear neighbours was Neil Perera.
With South Africa now withdrawing their bid, Perera canvassed for their support for the subcontinent’s joint bid and received the consent. However, defeating England was no mean task. When the vote was taken, the sub-continent had received five votes and England four votes. The meeting again ended in a deadlock as no nation had obtained the required two-thirds majority.
Perera at this stage was convinced that he had pulled off a great heist. When India and Pakistan join hands, he was convinced that no force in world cricket could stop that unity.
Eventually, a compromise was reached. England decided to pull out from the bid provided that the next World Cup in 1999 was hosted in their shores. This was done on a request made by Sir Colin Cowdrey, the President of ICC. South Africa then chipped in asking for the hosting rights of the 2003 World Cup and this too was agreed on.
Neil Perera returned home having achieved his ambition.
Jagmohan Dalmiya was appointed as the Convener of PILCOM (Pakistan, India and Lanka Committee) the organizing arm of the 1996 World Cup.
Dalmiya wrote a letter thanking Neil Perera profusely for making sure that the 1996 World Cup took place in the sub-continent.
“I would like to thank you for all the hard work that you did in the last few months to make the joint bid of Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka successful,” Dalmiya wrote.
“At the meeting, we observed how you intervened on time and placed you opinion forcefully, even in the face of strong opposition from the other side. And the success of the joint bid owes a lot to your hard work and efficiency,” Dalmiya went onto add.
Mr. Neil Perera is 88 now and lives at Kirulapona. He served at a time when the Board of Control for Cricket was penniless. All the paperwork of the board was done by Perera’s Secretary at CEB. He paid her out of his own pocket. Currently, when people are fighting tooth and nail to get elected to Sri Lanka Cricket, we can learn a lot from people like Neil Perera, a humble servant of Sri Lankan cricket.