Tony Opatha, the former Sri Lankan seam bowler who died on Friday at the age of 73, played a significant part in the development of Dutch cricket in the 1980s, and also had a brief spell as a professional in Ireland.
He was a member of Sri Lanka’s winning side in the inaugural ICC Trophy in 1979, and also in the 1975 and 1979 World Cups, at a time when his country was still an Associate Member of the ICC. He claimed three wickets in Sri Lanka’s epoch-making victory over India in the 1979 World Cup.
It was during that 1979 tour that he was recruited to play the rest of the season for Eglinton in the Irish North-West Union, and the following year he returned to Europe to play for VOC Rotterdam in the Dutch Hoofdklasse.
Player-coaches had been permitted in the Dutch competition since 1978, and Opatha had a significant impact, taking 34 wickets in his first season at an average of 13.32.
He stayed with VOC for five seasons, helping them to three successive championships between 1982 and 1984.
He then moved to Excelsior ’20 Schiedam, for whom he played in 1985 and 1986. In August 1997, at the age of 50, he returned to play two more Hoofdklasse matches for VOC.
A dedicated coach, Opatha was one of several Sri Lankan players who had an important influence on the development of cricket in the Netherlands: Flavian Aponso arrived in 1981 and played for HBS, VRA and ACC over a 17-year career, as well as turning out for his adopted country in the 1996 World Cup, while Opatha’s erstwhile captain for Sri Lanka, Bandula Warnapura, took over at VOC for three years after Opatha moved on.
KNCB High Performance Manager Roland Lefebvre, who was a youngster at VOC when Opatha coached there and who went on to captain the Netherlands and to have a successful county career with Somerset and Glamorgan, has fond memories of him.
‘His arrival at VOC was during the time I changed from leg spin to pace,’ Lefebvre said on Friday, ‘and his classic action, accuracy and skill in moving the ball all became important elements of my game.
‘Discipline was a very big thing for him: if you didn’t listen he would grab you by the ears and twist hard.’
Lefebvre remembers under-18 training sessions on Saturday mornings at 7:30.
‘That was late for Tony, because in his playing days he used to go running at 5 a.m.,’ he says. ‘He used to say that your legs are your motor.’
But Opatha’s international career ended in controversy, when in 1982-83 he was instrumental in organising a rebel Sri Lankan tour of South Africa, part of a campaign to bring the South Africans back into Test cricket.
Following that tour he and the other 13 members of the party were given life bans from international cricket by the Sri Lankan Board, and he, like Aponso, settled in the Netherlands during and after his playing career in club cricket.
There was a measure of reconciliation towards the end of his life, however, and in 2018 he and 48 other players from the period before Sri Lanka became a Full Member of the ICC were recognised by the national body for their contribution to the game.
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