Sri Lanka has never been bereft of good wicket-keepers. The current supply of wicket-keeping batsmen is such that the team could field a batting line-up full of wicket-keepers. Perhaps, the current pedigree of world-class wicket-keepers in Sri Lanka should owe their genesis to one adroit stumper in the pre-test era of Sri Lanka- Benedict Navaratne.
In the face of producing some of the world class players during the post-war era, thanks to Ceylon’s lack of Test status, many of the stalwarts lived and died in complete oblivion. However, fate wasn’t completely rude to the talented men as they were accorded the opportunity to play against some of the legendary cricketers at that time through the whistle-stop tours, which saw both England and Australia play against the Ceylon team on several occasions.
One of those eminent Ceylonese players was Ben Navaratne, who is regarded as having been the best in the business at that time. Born in 1916, Ben played 16 matches in a career spanning almost eleven years.
Educated at Zahira College, Ben played cricket for the Government Services in the quadrangular tournament, for Ceylon Cricket Association in the Gopalan Trophy, for the Sinhalese Sports Club, and for the All Ceylon team against the touring teams.
An agile wicket-keeper with an immaculate pair of hands behind the stumps, Navaratne was one of the pioneers in standing up to the stumps against fast bowlers. When Bradman’s Australia stopped for an unofficial test match in 1948, Navaratne stood up to the stumps against Sathi Coomaraswamy, the fastest bowler in Ceylon then. His keeping in that match won great adulations as the Don is reported to have said that he would like to have the Ceylonese stumper in his team.
There is also an interesting anecdote about Ben’s predilection for standing up to the stumps. Once, while playing for the Commonwealth XI in 1953, Keith Miller – a genuinely quick Australian fast bowler, on seeing Ben standing close to the stumps, asked him to move back, to which Ben replied: “I know where to stand”. The first three balls Miller bowled flew over Ben’s head and he realized at that pace, he had to stand behind.
A.C de Silva in his article for Sunday Observer claims that there has been no fitter man in Ceylon than Ben Navaratne. He was an epitome of self-discipline with his rigorous routines and self-restraint lifestyle. Hours of squatting and crouching behind the stumps would often be followed by a couple of sprightly rounds around the ground, and thus, he set himself very high standards. He was a teetotaler and a non-smoker. His agility and athleticism behind the stumps were unparalleled. Not only did he form a blockade behind the stumps, he also patrolled the region behind the stumps, often prancing to and from the boundary ropes to save runs.
He was famous for his lightning quick stumpings taking the ball on the leg side and dislodging the bail in a flash. Being true to his Sri Lankan identity, Ben was also raucous behind the stumps. Once bewildered by his appeal, the umpire forgot to rule the batsman out. “Too good, too fast”, the umpire is claimed to have muttered.
Even the great Garfield Sobers nodded in the affirmative when a Sri Lankan cricket writer claimed that Ben was the best behind the stumps in the world. “I remember once batting when Ben was keeping wickets”, Sobers had said.
For the kind of intrepid man he was, Ben wore several scars in his hands. To quote Paulo Coelho “Scars speak more loudly than the that caused them”, which is true in his case.
He ran a dairy farm and was always of the opinion that his fingers were excellent for milking cows. He was also a typist who worked in the courts of law.
Ben Navaratne, had he played for any other sides, could have easily found himself a place in the World XI. But such was the tragic life of many of Ceylon’s great cricketers that many are off the history books. The great stumper from the emerald isle rested in peace in 1979 before Sri Lanka was given test status. But he was one of the many who laid the foundation for the current citadel, that is Sri Lanka cricket and was also a key member of Sri Lanka’s proud lineage of wicket-keepers.