With first and second names like Churchill and Hector, there must surely have been at least a nominal indication that C. H. Gunasekera (Snr.) was cut out for lionhearted heroics. And like his namesakes, ‘CH’ (as he was widely and admiringly known) was a battle hardened veteran of many cricketing campaigns both at home and overseas.
Where lesser warriors might have considered discretion the better part of valour, ‘General’ Gunasekera did not hesitate to take the war to the enemy’s camp.
He was to the sporting manor born. A natural athlete, CH not only captained Royal in 1912 but also won school colours in athletics and football. The first Ceylonese to feature in an English county side, the athletic fielder came to be widely regarded as the best practitioner of his fit and flexible art at the time. High praise – and a hard earned accolade – for a player who represented Middlesex from 1919 (county champions that year) to 1922.
The sporting gene however, which first manifested itself at scholarly Royal, went on to make an impression in Cambridge’s academic grove. And later, he would represent Ceylon at tennis against a visiting New Zealand team en route to England to play in the Davis Cup of 1933.
That Gunasekera was born to excel at sports in general and cricket in particular was impressed upon a rather grudging British establishment. It was only the outbreak of World War I that denied the colonial champion a coveted Cambridge Blue.
To mention champions and omit the 1919 Championship season would be to do CH’s service record a disservice. Having made his first-class debut for Middlesex that year, the young Ceylonese cricketer went on to take 36 wickets (at an average of slightly under 28) and score 352 (at an average of nearly 22).
Despite walking out rather late in the day (he batted at No. 9), Gunasekera top scored for Middlesex in the first innings of their match against Surrey at the Kennington Oval. Like the 88 mm howitzer – a muzzle-loading high angle firing gun with a short barrel – he shelled out an explosive 88 not out.
And like any good soldier, C. H. Gunasekera (Snr.) was a man of many parts. Having jolted the opposition with his cannonade, he shouldered arms only to send down deceptively spinning thunderbolts.
His best performance with the cannon ball came in a match against Lancashire at Old Trafford where he dismissed the last five batsmen to finish with figures of 5 for 15. There was also a match against Essex at Leyton in 1919 where he scored 58 and took 5 for 90 to prove his all-round ability. Ceylon’s far shore summoned CH home for service following his studies. He returned like a dutiful son and his natural flair and leadership acumen saw him wear the skipper’s cap with aplomb.
He wore the Ceylon cap 12 times, nine of which fixtures he skippered, leading touring sides to India in 1932 and Malaya in 1938. Ever the all-round sportsman, he rendered yeoman service to lawn tennis, carrying off both singles and doubles championship trophies for Ceylon.
CH was numbered in 10 first-class matches for a host of Ceylon represented sides and also captained one such game – a non-first-class fixture against ‘The Don’s’ men from down under.
And if one were to digress from cricket, the Vihara Maha Devi Orphanage in Biyagama was founded by CH’s wife Constance who reached out to the likes of Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake to help her charitable cause.
Though Dr. C. H. Gunasekera led his country’s first overseas touring team to India in 1932/33, the captain was called back to the island during the tour. An outbreak of malaria in the capital and its hospital wards required the services of Colombo’s Chief Medical Officer of Health – and so his commitment and dedication to serve the medical profession and fellow citizens took priority over playing cricket for the country.