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Satha!! There will be no one like him

May 23, 2012

Richard Dwight, in the Daily News, 12 May 2012

It was on one of those days many years ago, as I stood at the then famous, Fort Chatham Street – that I couldn’t help but keep my eyes focussed on a man, who did seem extraordinary to be special. He was tall, clad in a three quarter long sleeved silken shirt (with half of his shirt collar up) a pair of white trousers and his feet shod, in a pair of moccasins.

Conscious that many were noticing him, he with superior delight and a spring in his step walked into ‘Dianas’. After being there a while, he walked out sprightly in the very same casual but attractive way to enter ‘Chands’ and he left that as well to enter his car. He had his left hand on the wheel, his right elbow on the right window, with cigarette between his fingers, to drive off with a twinkle in his eye – That man was none other, than the one and only ‘Mahadevan Sathasivam,’ who was affectionately known as debonair ‘Satha’

 Satha with Colvin R after being cleared of his murder charge

His uniqueness lay as a right handed stylish batsman, with an attractive flamboyancy. Satha who was the wayward genius, was a batsman par excellence, who through his artistic wizardry with the willow lent enchantment to the game, in a way that on one else, but only he could. In his inimitable way of cricket, he was beyond compare to be peerless in that class of batsmanship.

What was so distinctive about Satha was, that he brought to his batting a lackadaisical approach and an air of nonchalance, that was so deceptive to leave fielders, bowlers and wicket keepers confused. For on the contrary he was always alert, fleet of foot with supple wrists and hands and feet moving in obedience to the ticking of his mind while at the crease.

His very delicate late cut to the slips with much finesse, was likened to the elegance of a swordsman, slicing through a stalk leaving the flower undisturbed, to remain on the stalk, without falling. He was an unconventional type, both on and off the field, a versed to his style being cramped by rules and regulations. Extraordinary as he was, lack of practice or the latest of nights, did not bother him at all.

There were times, when he was getting ready to bat, he would request the ground boy to strap his ordered to measure slim air of pads on his legs – the ground boy apart, the slim pair of pads were to his liking to move quickly on his feet.

Out there in the middle, he was completely different to score runs in his familiar accustomed way. His devil may care arrogance, disdain and contempt with which he treated bowlers and, a measure of cheeky cynicism thrown in, was a draw bringing spectators from all other cricket venues to just see him bat.

He was appropriately attired, be it for a cricket match or at public occasions, to earn the sobriquet ‘cynosure’. Some do say, that the swiftness of his feet, was partly due to his frequenting the dance floor and, that he kept his eyes alert by playing billiards.

Satha was born on October 18, 1916 and passed away at the age of 61 on July 9, 1077. He grew up in the vicinity of all Saints Church Borella and attended the nearby Wesley College, as a student. Representing Wesley at cricket from 1934 – 1936 he was impressive as a prodigious batsman and turned out to be a prolific scorer. But the match that is etched in the memory is the 1936 Wesley vs S’ Thomas’ cricket encounter.

The invincible Thomian star studded side led by Donald Fair weather made 260 or so and, then made shambles of the Wesley batting, reducing it to 70 for 5 in no time. But Satha was still there, and for reasons best known to some, Satha had something to settle with S’ Thomas’ – accepting the challenge from this point, he burst forth in an innings of sparkling brilliance without compare for 142 runs, to take the score well over 300 and save the day for the school. Indeed Wesley’s gain was Thomian’s loss.

Decades later the Principal of Wesley College was, Rev James Cartman, who played for the CCC and was President of the Ceylon Schools Cricket Association.

Satha was almost synonymous with Wesley. Cartman requested Satha to come on an evening and see the team at practice.

Satha saw Wesley’s senior batsman Ansar, was being tentative and hesitant against the fast bouncers of the opening bowler Radley. This found Satha telling Ansar to step aside and give him the bat, and that he will show him how. Satha sans pads, gloves and other protectives rocked up and down on the crease and hooked Radley’s bouncer onto the road, the next on the off, he square drove onto the gravel foot path.

Is words to Ansar were that for a fast bowler you have got to keep your feet moving, and not allow them to get stuck to the crease. Needless to say, Ansar was one amongst many others, to whom Satha was a hero.

Satha’s cricket career spanned a period of 19 years commencing from 1934 – it did suffer interruptions to an extent by the2nd world war and a long drawn out domestic problem.

Significant was Satha’s characteristic commandeering entry to the wicket, with the cap at a jaunty angle and the bat firmly in his hand. If he did get out cheaply, he undaunted would make his exit, with that ‘coco-hoop’ look, as if to say well you got me this time but you’ll pay for it next time.

The first time I saw Satha play, was when we met the Australian Services team in 1945, led by Lindsay Hassette, with that handsome brute, as ladies wont to say, in Keith Miller the others being Cecil Pepper Roper, Pettiford’, Whittington and Carmody.

Miller made a belligerent 132 and the hand he had in dismissing Satha in both innings is worth recounting. Noticing Sathasivam batting his own characteristic stylish flourish and the evident flair to hook, Miller alerted Pettiford on the line and deliberately bounced a little out of the leg stump, Satha instinctively went for the shot.

The ball soared high in the fine leg region and lodged in the safe hands of Pettiford, who hadn’t to move.

The next was when Satha in grand elegance, cut a ball from Cecil Pepper towards Miller in the 2nd slip, the ball sped in a flash with lightening speed, almost along the ground, quick indeed for the eye to follow and the crowd roared in applause for a certain four and looked towards the boundary – Miller too, to keep it up, from his bent position turned towards the line, as if to beckon the ball back.

Then it happened, there was a hushed silence, everybody kept still and Miller from the point of his ankle tossed the ball for all to see and up went the umpire’s finger. It’s not only cricket but other mutual interest made Satha, Miller, Worrell, Walcott, Sobers, Weekers and yet others from other countries, firm friends.

Then came Bradman’s all conquering side in 1948. It was a whistle stop half-a-day match, with Sathasivam captaining all Ceylon and, having the rare distinction of leading Malaysia as well later on. Skippering two countries does speak much for this entertaining batsman. In that whistle stop match, Australia hurriedly scored 184 for 8, whilst Ceylon replied with 46 for 2.

Satha made quite a number of fifties, too many to touch upon here, but we will just dwell on two. The evening prior to the Commonwealth match, Satha was making merry late into the night at a leading hotel with some friends.

On being aware of this, one with authority in the CCA despite the heavy rains, went up to Satha and with anger said, “Satha you’re dropped for tomorrow’s match” Satha’s reply in that merry mood was “you’d better drop me only at 6.00 pm tomorrow”. The next day turned out to be gloomy with overcast grey skies and intermittent thin drizzle.

Satha was up against bowlers like George Pope, Fred Freer and Geo Tribe, on a pitch that was soggy spoken of as a mud larker’s wicket. Satha’s strategy on a treacherous pitch was to be meticulous in cutting off the flourishes and frills and play out of character to be subdued and punish the bad deliveries with sheer elegance. The outcome was that at 6.00 pm he was unbeaten on 96 and the match I presume ended in draw. There were any fifties scored like this by Satha, who was reluctant to run his singles, but rather walked them, and on the field he proved to be lethargic. Against the West Indies, he cut Trim to gully over the outstretched arm of Walcott, which made Jeff Stollmeyer ask Walcott to move further away – Satha the maestro of the delicate late cut, seeing the gap he had fashioned between Walcott and Weekes, he came down on the ball n a flash to send the ball through the gap to the boundary. There is also the incident of Worell deliberately dropping Satha, in order to see him bat.

Satha in his cricket career scored 40 centuries and 4 double centuries. It is not the intention to analyze all the 40 centuries made by him in cavalier, though committed to the side’s cause. But we will just dwell on two – India had a very strong side under the great batsman Vijay Merchant, and vicious spin bowler, Vino Mankad. Ceylon batting on the Oval wicket in 1945 was dismissed for 107 with India enjoying a lead of 72. Ceylon sent into bat again had barely wiped out the deficit with 5 wickets down for 75, when Satha curbing his natural instincts in the interest of his team, scored a pleasing 111 in a total score of 225 for 7 to earn a highly meritorious draw.

In a premier league match, Colts batting first on Saturday made 210 – Satha having to meet his friend in Bandarawela, walked up in mufti to, Tita Nathaniel, and said that he would not be batting that evening as he was heading for Bandarawela. Early next morning, he at 5.30 am rushed to the Tamil Union, had a net, a shower, breakfast of bacon and eggs and attired for the matched dashed for the Colts ground.

There was panic in the Colts camp, when the night watchman was walking back — that led to a sigh of relief to see Satha in his usual way walking towards the wicket to make 09 and win the match.

The BRC, soon after the ‘Battle of the Blues,’ had co-opted one of the captains of the two sides who was a pace bowler to open bowling. He bounced the first ball which Satha let through to the wicket keeper. Satha then slowly walked to the youngster and said “Sonny I am an old man, but don’t do it again”. The youngster not to be outdone did it again and had the dismay of seeing the ball soar onto the Havelock’s Rubby grounds and Satha went merrily on.

It was quite evident that Satha enjoyed his batting with a gimmick or two. He drew a few matches for Tamil Union by bagging the batting from the last man by changing for the last ball. He would cut into gully twice, only to be fielded, the third time he would make the motions of cutting, but at the very last moment he would withdraw his bat to fox the renowned Ben, wicket keeper for 4 byes.

If close in fielders are set for Satha, which is rare, he would walk up to the level of the close in fielders and bat from there. This did have the desired effect for the close in fielders to be moved away.

Satha when into his stride would yell ‘boy!’ and the ground boy would come running out with his cap. Batting ever so attractively Satha would walk down the pitch and shout “i want that car off”, a nervous umpire will go down to the line and get the car moved away – that was Satha.

Apart from the numerous fifties, he also scored 40 centuries and an additional four double centuries, at the progressive age of 43 years. However, the innings that lingers and still spoken of even today in India and Sri Lanka with much enthusiasm – is when Sathasivam with much finesse and elegance scored 215 to break Joe Hardstaff’s record at the Chepauk Stadium Madras, where all Ceylon in 1947 played South India. In appreciation spontaneous cheers rent the air from all over the grounds and, those in the Pavilion to a man gave him a standing ovation. It is difficult to follow or describe Satha’s stroke play, it has to be seen to be relished – a pity that there was no TV coverage then.

When Ghulam Ahamed a former Indian Captain and a great spin bowler was asked by an Indian Journalist as to whom he regarded as the best batsman, he had bowled to – Ahmed’s reply was “you might have not heard him, M Sathasivam of Ceylon”. The journalist continues asking, “after bowling to all the greats of the time, as to how he picked u a relative unknown and gave him pride of place”. Ghulanm Ahmed said “he did not allow me to land the ball most of the time during his double century against South India”.

Sobers on a holiday here as a guest of Satha, were on a pub crawl and ended up at the colts where a match was being played. A small crowd had gathered around them. Satha was goading Sobers by saying he would even today thrash him over the trees around the Park and Sobers good naturedly kept it up by saying “yes maan, I know maan, yes maan”. After a while Satha went to ease himself, Sobers sought the opportunity to tell those gathered “my boss (that is Worrell) says Satha is the greatest batsman he had seen”, Praise indeed.

He is truly a great son of Wesley College, and the Old Wesleyite Sports Club, has done well to perpetuate the memory of Satha by holding the annual Thomian vs Wesley cricket encounter for the Mahadevan Sathasivam challenge Trophy.

I have been following cricket for many years, but I have yet to see a batsman like Satha coming up. The mould in which he was cast, is no more and the like of him we will not see again.

(The writer is indebted to the late Channa Gunasekera from some facts culled from his book “The Willow Quartet” which he left behind).

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