Michael de Zoysa - A Tribute

Anura Gunasekera (2019)
Michael de Zoysa

We are all of an age when the news of the sudden demise of contemporaries and friends should not come as a surprise.

When I received a call from Kitto Dias late on September 30 night and he began the conversation by saying that he had bad news, immediately, instinctively, I knew that he was going to speak of the passing of a mutual friend; and so it was.

Michael and I go back the early nineteen sixties, when we attended school together. My earliest memories of him are of travelling together in the same bus, after school. I have a recollection that for a brief period he lived somewhere beyond Maharagama. We used to regularly exchange "Tarzan" and "Hardy Boys" books, which both of us- and many others of my age in school at that time- used to read avidly.

We played Rugby together in the same team, in 1965, in the college 1st XV, Michael the lanky number eight and occasional second rower, and self the permanent tight head prop. Michael is always remembered by his rugby mates for the terrible gaffe he committed in the encounter against St. Peter’s the same year, in the final match of the season. An unwarranted intrusion by him resulted in the re-awarding of a missed penalty to St.Peter’s and Rodney Patternot made no mistake with his second attempt. The final whistle then blew and the Peterites walked off the park jubilantly, winners by a wafer thin margin and with that victory, unofficial school champions that year, a title that would probably have been ours had Michael been more circumspect.

Another interesting recollection is an incident on the night of a Royal Thomian match, perhaps in ’64, when a group of us had gone to the Liberty cinema for a late night movie. The theatre was full of "big-match" revellers from both schools, loud, excited and overly lubricated. As is common on such occasions one thing led to another and a scuffle between two groups, which started in the theatre lobby, spilled out on to the street and became a general brawl.

The police were summoned and a group of us, led by Kitto Dias, were explaining ourselves to the head of the police team, a powerfully built sub-inspector and a famous national athlete. Michael, as was always his wont, kept on interrupting Kitto’s narrative and the irate police officer suddenly delivered a punch to Kitto- he was the closest- which left him crumpled in a heap on the pavement. I still have an absolutely vivid memory of Michael in a blue-and-black shirt, immediately tearing down the pavement towards Alwis Place. He was the first to announce to Kitto’s parents that the son had been assaulted by the police.

These incidents, trivial in themselves but significant as being part of an early shared experience, are more easily remembered than things that took place later.

Michael has been described as "brash", both as a schoolboy and as an adult. I think he was just confident, and able to display in situations with potential for serious conflict, a sureness, an aggression, often totally disproportionate to his ability to support physically. As a schoolboy, what he lacked in physical substance, he made up with a verbal bellicosity, a torrent of arguments, delivered with absolute conviction. It was the same confidence, the exuberance and the passion that he carried with him into adult life, but channeled more purposefully, that dynamism invested in all his undertakings, which resulted in his many singular professional successes and achievements.

In adult life Michael was defined by the great name he made for himself, as a tea-taster and buyer and as a cricketing personality. He was passionate about cricket and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the game and its history. For many years he was a much sought after cricket commentator, quite often in tandem with his father, Lucien, a fine cricketer himself. This may well have been the first- and only- father and son combination of commentators in Test cricket. I recall that Michael first practised the craft of commentating as a schoolboy, standing on the boundary line at the college grounds and providing unsolicited commentaries during inter-school matches.

Even impromptu soft-ball matches played during the lunch interval were grist for his verbal mill. Michael’s outspoken nature was quite often reflected in his cricket commentaries as well, extending to his coverage of international matches. A mutual friend, another famous cricketing personality and commentator, once remarked to me that being on the air alongside Michael and fending off his barbed questions and messaging his provocative statements, needed serious diplomatic skill!!

As a cricket administrator Michael has provided both the Singhalese Sports Club and Sri Lanka cricket a tremendous service. A moving tribute to Michael currently being circulated in social media, attributed to former Sri Lankan cricket captain Arjuna Ranatunge, comprehensively describes the great- and often silent- service, Michael delivered to cricket and cricketers in general.

Michael de Zoysa, the Tea Industry man, was a highly influential figure in the trade for several decades. His presence always had a huge impact on the Colombo auction floor, much appreciated by the producer community, as he was a buyer who never failed to pay fair price for quality. He provided the trade itself with an outstanding service, as Chairman of the Ceylon Tea Traders’ Association for several years in succession, more often than any other individual, and, also, as a regular member of the many committees and other Tea trade regulatory and advisory bodies.

At the recently held CTTA celebrations, Michael, along with several other Tea trade personalities, was recognized by the Association for service to the industry, with a special award. He made an eloquent and moving speech in acceptance, during the course of which he acknowledged the debt that he owed in his skill and knowledge acquisition in tea, to several well known veteran planters- all now retired- identifying them individually, referring to the late Ralston Tissera, his brother Vernon, Bathiya Jayaratne, Yasa Ratnayake and a few others. This unsolicited tribute was a rare, and touching, gesture of humility, from a man who had for years occupied the pinnacle of the tea trading community, demonstrating that there were two sides to the de Zoysa persona. He was definitely not all ego. Delivered by a man of Michael’s stature in the trade, it was also a fitting accolade to those planters, men who have made an unquantifiable, but not widely recognized, contribution to the plantation industry.

No description of the man would be complete without mention of de Zoysa, the Thomian. He was a man who, unapologetically, celebrated his " Thomianness". It was not that he thought less of other schools but, simply, that he considered STC, Mt.Lavinia, to be the only "great school". It was a concept that Michael would defend with passion.

Our last meeting was about a month ago, when a couple of dozen of Thomian contemporaries gathered at the SSC to felicitate another old school friend, Peter Schoorman, on holiday from Australia. It was, as usual, a delightful and nostalgic evening as all such events tend to be, when old memories are unearthed and relived. The night’s proceedings were played out against the broadcast, on a large TV screen, of the final session of the third Ashes Test, with Ben Stokes laying waste to the Aussie attack and configuring an absolutely improbable victory for a beleaguered England team, whilst, simultaneously, carving out a special place in cricket history for himself. Michael, true to form, offered a series of comments and some biting criticism, on what he considered were the mistakes that the Aussie captain was making with his on-field strategy. Actually, as the nerve tingling finale of the match proved, Michael was absolutely right. His analytical skills of the game were exceptional.

Michael will be remembered by his friends and professional colleagues as an uncompromisingly forthright, honest man, who defended and fought for his positions with great courage. He was unflinchingly resolute in both defence and attack and totally transparent as to his purpose. Michael’s agenda was always available in the public domain. He was also a great friend and a fine human being.


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