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Doing a Nixon

The exclusion of South Africa from world cricket in 1971 following the D'Oliveira incident in 1969 led to two things: a general feeling that the right thing had been done and the onset of rebel tours. Those who went on these tours defended themselves by saying they had done it for the sake of securing their own future as cricket could not be expected to provide them a livelihood after their playing days. All players who went to South Africa were banned from representing their countries for varying periods, with the West Indies understandably doling out lifetime bans.

The only Asian team to make a rebel tour was Sri Lanka; Bandula Warnapura, the island's first Test captain, led the side which undertook the tour in 1982-83. He had his own reasons for doing so, something which will be touched on in more detail in the course of this article. The issue still rankles with him else he would not have given an interview to the Indian Express recently, trying to justify the unjustifiable. It is amazing that after all these years the man still cannot see that what he did was morally wrong; if he went, he should have expected to pay a price for yielding to the lure of the rand. Normally, the passage of time enables people to see things in the correct perspective; in Warnapura's case, sadly, the opposite seems to be true.

His grouse is that after 15 years he is still "hounded" for a "crime" for which he claims he has already been punished enough. And he has attempted to blame the Lankan board for his having undertaken the tour; apart from the financial aspect, he says he undertook the tour because the board would not give him a commitment regarding his tenure in the side. He felt they were "gunning for him." As if to exonerate himself, he points to Duleep Mendis and Roy Dias, both of whom, along with Tony Opatha, he claims, were the people who were behind the tour. Mendis and Dias were on an official tour with the team in Zimbabwe and could not join because the manager had their passports with him. Else, claims Warnapura, they would have also flown over; he says he has copies of their contracts with him.

The fact remains that Mendis and Dias did not join the rebel tour. Warnapura claims this was because they were spoken to by a minister, Gamini Dissanayake, and made captain and vice-captain for two years when the board policy was to make such decisions on a series by series basis. In other words, he is trying to pass the buck. Why should the board have anything to do with a decision like this? Did he expect to be told that he would be in the Sri Lankan squad as long as he lived? That would have been akin to a bribe and that is not something that should be condoned either. Warnapura was lucky that the 25-year ban slapped on him and the rebel team was lifted after just nine years following governmental intervention. He should be mighty thankful for that.

Some of Warnapura's arguments are ridiculous. At one point in the interview, he is quoted as saying: "The ban was slapped on us without any inquiry. How can anyone be charged in a civilised country without a trial?" He appears unable to understand that there was a ban in effect on sporting contacts with South Africa; he violated that and, therefore, had to pay a price. He is bitter that others involved in the planning of the tour went unpunished and are now holding posts that keep them in the public eye; by this he clearly means Mendis and Dias as the former is the manager of the national team and the latter a national selector.

With the Lankan team now very much the centre of international attention, it is only to be expected that many ex-cricketers will attempt to join the gravy train. The timing of the interview does not, therefore, come as surprise. He is not alone in trying to employ such tactics; a certain Richard Milhous Nixon tried to paint himself as a saint in his declining years and almost succeeded. The same process was attempted by Robert McNamara and the redoubtable Oliver North. They all tried to use the passage of time to paint their misdeeds as acts for which they were not fully accountable.

There is a subtle threat at the end of Warnapura's interview -- that the whole story will be told in a book. In other words, a lot of dirt will be spread and some of it, he expects, will stick. Old enmities are being resurrected with just one objective. The man who is generally seen as the villain of the piece, Opatha, is now settled in the UK and is a professional coach. The next on the rung was Warnapura so he has had to face the music in Sri Lanka. It would be good if he does not forget that he wrote the score himself; now he cannot complain.