Interviewed by : Umair Wolid
Photographs by : Dushyantha Rathnayake
As one of the few faces from Sri Lanka commentating in international cricket matches, Roshan Abeysinghe has become a popular figure among local cricket fans, as attested by his following on Twitter. Abeysinghe spoke to Wisden Sri Lanka about his life as a commentator and the journey it has taken him on and his fervent defense of the talented Lahiru Thirimanne.
How did you get into cricket commentary?
It goes back quite a long way to 1995. I always thought I was not good enough to play cricket for my country, because there comes a time that you realize how good or how bad you are (at playing cricket). So the next best option was to be in the media. And in the media I felt you get so much closer to the game if you become a commentator.
My initial thoughts were to become a radio commentator because when we were young we used to listen to Test Match Special, ABC Radio and we didn’t have television, which came in only in 1987 if I am not mistaken. So before that it was all radio so we got used to names like John Arlott, Brian Johnston, Christopher Martin-Jenkins, Alan McGilvray, Jim Maxwell – there were very big names. I used to get fascinated by how they used to describe the action. That’s what drew me to it, and I thought maybe that was an area that was worth exploring. That was how it all started.
How has your journey as a commentator been?
Well I have had my ups and downs and I've had my valley and mountainous experiences. I have been a victim of, I should say, cricket administration; I was identified as supporting a particular group and when the other group came in, the first thing did was they take you off commentary because Sri Lanka Cricket still has the right to nominate commentators to the international panel.
It was a very difficult road to maneuver. I have also experienced the usual jealousies, the usual backstabbing and the usual thing that goes on in life. But it’s been an enjoyable journey and I give glory to God.
Tell us some of the highlights of you commentary career
There have been quite a few moments. I started in 1996. I was doing updates for a local radio channel and Sri Lanka won the World Cup final -- I was there at that final. That is the only World Cup Sri Lanka has won, because the WorldT20 is not called a World Cup, it’s really called a WorldT20. A world cup per say was only won in 1996 and I had the great privilege, in my first foreign assignment, when I had just started, to be part of a history making event. So that will always remain – it will be etched in my memory forever.
But besides that I had this great opportunity of commentating in some massive stadium, like Lords. You walk onto that pitch -- I had the privilege of interviewing Sir Ian Botham on that Lord’s pitch. Those are inexplicable moments, commentating at MCG, SCG and I commentated at the old Headingley commentary box.
It was a very small box and when I sat there I thought this was a place that was used by some massive names in the media. So you know, things like that. And also the fact that I had the opportunity of sitting together on the same level as people who have captained their respective countries, and become legends and to argue, agree and disagree, and for them to accept what I say.
Who are some of the commentators you like to commentate with?
I have had the experience where certain commentators don't give you too much of space, where they always like to be the dominating force, where they like to have the final word, and then you become a spectator and play second fiddle. So such commentators, you don't enjoy working with them. I remember the late Tony Grieg, who I admired a lot, gave me one (piece of) advice, in his own words – when you sit there and start commentating, think of it like you're sitting at a bar, on a bar stool, with your friend, with your mate, and discussing (the game) over a drink. So that's exactly what you need to replicate when doing commentary.
I found lots of people, like Sunil Gaveskar, Tony Grieg, Rameez Raja, the list is so long, quite a few of them are good interesting commentators to work with. I've also had a few boring ones, but they are very few.
Are you a big fan of Lahiru Thirimanne?
Lahiru Thirimanne is a young cricketer, who is still a youngster, who joined my club when he was just 15 years. He was introduced to our club by his uncle Viraj Thirimanne who has done a lot for the two boys -- Lahiru and Thulanithu -- because they have no father. So when he came to Ragama CC he just simply confirmed what we saw in him. There is a greater feeling of affiliation to him because we go back a long way and he plays for our club, but I believe, and I have said it openly, that our cricket, our batting, has more than a technical problem.
My argument is – let's take Thirimanne out of the picture and you remove Angelo Mathews from the picture; tell me one batsman who is scoring? One batsman who can be singled out as good? Two players who I thought could have achieved greatness, were Thirimanne and Dinesh Chandimal. I also thought a lot about Ashan Priyanjan, but unfortunately he fell by the wayside.
But I still feel he can come back. And when you look at the way they started – Chandimal got a century at Lords – everybody was in awe. You take Lahiru, he was the man of the series in the Asia Cup; he had a decent World T20 when Sri Lanka won; he got runs in the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. I did see him get off the plane in Sydney, when Sri Lanka were on the backfoot and get a 90, coming in at number three against the likes of Mitchell Johnson and Peter Siddle.
If these guys were average or below average, they can't be able to perform at that level and show their mettle. So you could see, that they have done it. In the career of any batsman you'll see temporary drops but they pick and they maintain their average. My question is why our batsman, in particular these two, just keep going downhill? So I support not just Thirimanne, because he comes from my club, but also the young cricketers because there is no doubt in their quality. I was always believed in their quality. And I was quite happy to see what one of the legends of Sri Lanka cricket, Aravinda de Silva, had said about Thirimanne; it has put a lot of arguments and debates, in my opinion, to rest, when someone like Aravinda speaks.
What are your thoughts on Sri Lanka’s upcoming tour of England?
It's a very challenging tour, a very tough tour. And I want to be positive about it, (and say it is one) where heroes can be born. It's a tour where Sri Lanka are going to be fighting with their backs to the wall. The first Test is in Headingley where the ball moves – ideal for the English bowlers.
And the second Test is in Durham which is as bad as Headingley for batting from a sub-continental point of view. So it is very clear that Enlgand have a plan. They are trying to demoralise Sri Lanka, and take them to Lords and then knock them off, then take them to the One Dayers with the Sri Lankans demoralised unit and looking down the barrel with their shoulders dropped. That’s what they are trying to do. This side is an inexperienced side that hasn’t played too much cricket in England – it’s going to be a challenge. Whilst I say that, the fast bowlers are quite good. It's the batting (that’s the concern. So rather than say the batting is suspect which is true, I would rather say that this is a tour where heroes can be born. You know one or two can put their hands up and be counted, and save a game or two for Sri Lanka. And that is how to look at it. Having said that, it's going to be a very tough tour. If we lose it, there is no surprise there, but if we can draw it, or come out of it with a 1-0 defeat, I think that’s as good as a victory.
Tell us about your career outside of cricket
I'm a marketing professional. I’ve been a marketer all my life and that's in terms of my professional career. At the moment I'm a Managing Director of a company that is marketing two of Sri Lanka's leading cosmetic brands. That's what I do.
I'm married to Chrishanthi . I have three kids -- my eldest son is 25, he's a medical student, my daughter is a law graduate, and my youngest boy is into business administration and has just enrolled himself in a business degree course.
How do you manage your career and your life as a commentator?
Well I have been blessed, to have a very good set of people in my company, a very efficient group of people, so I can keep away for six months, knowing that the company will run well and operate well. It's happened, because there was this one time that I worked out my figures and cricket had taken me away from work, almost 100-130 days, touring and locals games. With all that things have survived, my family have survived, my wife has survived. She has been a real strength to me and she has ensured that the home is very well looked after, that the growing children are looked after.
It's not easy, it's been tough, because I am not around. I miss so many birthdays, anniversaries and weddings. But that’s the other side of it – while you enjoy what you are doing, the other side is you're quite away from your family, and so far I have managed to do that.