It was a long time in the making and when the Sri Lankan players stepped onto the P Sara Oval grass on 17 February 1982, a sense of satisfaction had encapsulated the entire Sri Lankan cricketing fraternity. Seven years after their international debut, in the 1975 World Cup in England, and seven months after the ICC announced that Sri Lanka will be given full member status, they had finally set foot on the field in whites at the P Sara Oval. The start wasn't ideal though. In their first challenge, a tough one against seasoned campaigners England, they had a bumpy ride.
After electing to bat, the Lions were bowled out for 218 in the first innings. However, they recovered well to bundle England out for just 223. Though it was an even contest in the first innings, Sri Lanka fizzled out a good start in the second innings, succumbing to John Embury's spin who scalped six wickets. Another first-innings-style heroics was the need of the hour for the Lankans, but they couldn't sustain momentum. The English batsmen strolled to the target of 171 with seven wickets to spare. It was a disappointing start for the debutants, but many lessons were learnt which would help shape the future of Sri Lankan cricket.
In 1982, Sri Lanka were the eighth nation to enter Test cricket. In a few days' time, Afghanistan will become the 12th when they take on India at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru.
So what does it feel like to play a country's first-ever Test? Firstpost brings you some fascinating experiences from players who were part of their country's debut Test.
Here is former Sri Lanka batsman Duleep Mendis (then vice-captain) sharing his experiences of Sri Lanka's first ever Test, the emotions he went through, the challenges and some advice for Afghanistan as they head towards history.
What was the experience of playing in Sri Lanka's first-ever Test?
We were fighting to get into the ICC full membership. We were trying hard for so many years. But after a while, in 1981, we got it. At that time, (with the kind of) cricket that was being played in Sri Lanka, the cricketers were good enough to play in Test matches. But of course, we were not really ready for five-day Tests because, the first-class cricket in Sri Lanka was three-day and four-day. A five-day Test was a bit of a new thing for the players. If you saw the results of Sri Lanka in Test arena in the early stages , we were doing well in the first three days because the boys were used to the first three-four days. We could not last five days. Even in the first Test, we were doing well in the first three days but then it gradually started going down and we lost it. So it was a matter of getting used to a five-day Test which is entirely a different game from three and four-day games. It took a little time for Sri Lanka to get used to a five-day game but then, of course, the local scene changed, the first-class tournament was extended and the boys got used to it and then it was different. But in the initial stages, the cricketers were finding it difficult to last the five days. We did quite well in that game in the first innings but could not sustain the same momentum. Whereas, England were quite used to it and they capitalised from the third day onward. We were not really prepared to go for five days.
What was the feeling a day before the start of the Test?
It was very exciting and nervous because this was the first time we were going to play with England in the first official Test. There is a big difference between the unofficial Test matches and playing in the five-day Tests. The boys were excited as well as nervous. Sometimes you did not know how to get about. But as time went on, the experience started coming in, the expertise started coming in and then we got used to it. But the day before the match, it was very exciting. At that time, there was no video analysis, there was only one coach and the manager and the coach was doing everything possible. We had the team meeting, but nothing serious or detailed was discussed. But then gradually things started changing. Video analysis came in, different coaches — batting, bowling and fielding coaches came in. These are good things that came into cricket but at that time we didn't have all these.
Did you manage to sleep the night before the Test?
Well, I managed to sleep but still all the time it was coming into your head that 'you are going in a five-day official Test, you are representing your country. It was quite big.' So that was very exciting and also I must say I was very nervous.
What was the feeling when you got the Test cap on the morning of the match?
The Test cap was given to all. It was exciting but those days there was no handing over of Test caps at the venue. However, you know you are going to play and the introductions are there in the morning. That was quite exciting and nervous as well.
Going into the game, what was the mindset and the planning?
The planning was of course how to get the victory but for that, there were so many things you need to do before that. You are not thinking about the result at the start but you are just thinking of playing your first innings. And you do not know whether you are going to bat first or second. However, going into the game in the morning was quite exciting. The plan was just to take things as they come and see what happens. The whole Sri Lankan camp was very nervous.
Was there a barrage of ticket requests considering this was a special occasion?
Yes, there was a big demand because everyone wanted to see the first Test. To be frank, really, they were prepared to buy the tickets and come. It wasn't a big issue getting the complimentary tickets. Your family came first and then the close friends but there were quite a lot of people who bought the tickets and came.
There was a quota given. First thing was your family members and along with them, the friends came in. There wasn't a big issue for getting tickets. It was the first game alright but still, there was enough for the boys.
Did the stature of the opposition intimidate you?
Not really, because we had played England before, not in a five-day Test but in official four-day matches. So it was not really intimidating but the fact remains that you are going to play the official five-day Test match and that is the only thing hanging around your head. Otherwise, it was nothing new because we had been playing the four-day unofficial matches with England and most of the other countries as well.
Were England very aggressive with the play or did they try to intimidate you?
No, it was nothing like that. Their approach was like going into a normal Test match. There was nothing extra or intimidating, it was just another Test match. England were the seasoned campaigners as against the novices. That gave them a little bit of margin. They were not intimidating but they were trying to capitalise right from the first ball.
Since when had the preparations begun for the debut Test? What were the preparations like?
The preparations were done one or two months in advance. It was a matter of taking your time at the crease while going into bat. But not to change your game entirely because you are used to a particular style of batting. The bowlers had to go on for hours and hours in case the opposition get big partnerships. These were some of the things we went through and people were talking about it before and we were getting so many advice from different parts and different areas were discussed. It was something new, you couldn't go into detail. As I said earlier, there was no analysing as such. These days everything is analysed and given on a sheet of paper. But that time, it was different and we approached the Test hour by hour and session by session.
Was there an overload of advice?
No, I would not say overload. Even now people advise but the cricketers know what to take and what not to. People come and advice you and you should know what to take in and what not to.
What was the biggest challenge for Sri Lanka going into the Test?
The biggest challenge was, how you are going to last for five days? How to perform? Which areas to concentrate? How to capitalise on their bowling? And how to trap their batsmen? These were the challenges but more than anything the first thing that comes to your head is how are you going to last for five days?
Personally, what were the emotions you were going through, throughout the Test?
Playing in the first official Test was quite big after struggling for so many years. At that time it was very hard to get the full membership. (While) ICC's thinking changed later and they wanted to popularise, globalise and get in more and more countries to play Test cricket, it was just the opposite then. It was very hard to get into the main league and so coming into the Test, it was very emotional because you know you have achieved something big. And you know it's a long road ahead and maybe this crop wouldn't be the one that was going to benefit out of it. But it was the foundation being laid at that time and so many cricketers would have benefited down the line. We can see how Sri Lanka came up after that. That's what was going through the mind — it's a big achievement, you are playing in the official Test match, after long struggle you have got into it and how you are going to capitalise especially against a side like England. We all knew that it wasn't easy but there were different stages and times where Sri Lanka were capitalising but we couldn't sustain because we didn't have the experience at that time.
The batting didn't click in the first innings as you were bowled out for 218 but then you bowled England out for 223, did the feeling creep in that you could win the Test?
Yes. You could get that feeling especially when you are all out for 218 and you've got the other side for 220-odd. You get that feeling that if you bat well in the second innings, you might have the chance of getting the other side out. But as I said earlier, we were not used to it, we didn't have that experience to capitalise. So we crumbled after the first three-four days.
You didn't have the best of Tests with regards to batting, so what went wrong and what was the general mood after the Test?
Even after getting them out for a cheap score, we could not capitalise. After that, we knew that there will be so many Test matches coming and gradually we were getting used to it. We knew that we were short of coaching and in so many areas. We knew that it (success) was going to come and it was only a matter of time.
What was the best moment in the match?
When England got out cheaply in the first innings for 223.
After the Test, what was the feeling in the camp?
We knew what was lacking. We knew what needed to be done. The cricket board had to change the system in local cricket. There were so many things lacking. The board was thinking what to do and even the players realised that they need to play the longer format.
What was the biggest thing you learnt from the Test?
How to last for five days. It was not an easy task at that time for all the cricketers. Because you are used to three and four days and the extra day or day and a half make a huge difference.
What approach should Afghanistan take in their debut test?
Afghanistan players have played a lot of cricket unlike us at that time and they know what is in store for them. I think it is important that they learn from the experienced players because it is not an easy thing to last for five days. It is a learning curve for them as well, because they are used to the shorter version of the game. They are good in the T20s and ODIs but coming into the orthodox five-day Test is quite different.
What do you think should be their mindset? Should they try and last for five days or go for a win?
I don't think that should be their mindset (lasting for five days). If you think you are going to last for five days, it is not going to work. You have got to concentrate, you have to play according to what is going to come. You cannot change the game drastically because you have to take it session by session. If you are going to think of lasting five days, it is not going to work. You need to concentrate on your game, how you are going to build the innings and the bowlers need to plan out the strategy on how to get the batsmen out. Unlike those days, all the bowlers would be having a sheet on every batsman, so they know exactly what to do. We didn't have anything those days. Results will come but you need to do the other things because every batsmen and bowler is having an idea of what the opponent is going to do. So it is much easier now than those days.
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