He emerged from the shadows as it were in an era when Ceylon was very much a minor league player swimming in the colonial backwaters so to speak, which the giants of cricketing combat would occasionally grace en route to the home country or the antipodes for the clash of titans known as the Ashes.
Ben Navaratne etched his name on a small canvas by standing up to the stumps to a gamut of bowlers both fast and slow. Ceylon had few if any stumpers of the calibre of Don Tallon, Wally Grout or Godfrey Evans; or so conventional wisdom had it in a milieu where opportunity was the crucible in which the reputations of such extraordinary wicketkeepers were forged.
It was during the 1948 tour of the ‘Invincibles’ – so-called because they not only won the Ashes but didn’t lose a single game on tour – that the Australian captain recognised Ben Navaratne’s unmistakable calibre. Spotting the mercurial magic spell that Ceylon’s stumper weaved, The Don affirmed that he would be delighted to have him in his team. This Ceylonese lion was invincible too!
There is another school of thought that would argue a case for the compatibility of the likes of Mahes Rodrigo, Telus Fernandopulle, H. I. K. Fernando and Ranjit Fernando as being up there with these giants among stumpers. And there are also those who would venture so far as to say that Ben Navaratne led all the rest.
For better or worse, this was a time when Ceylon was stepping up to the stumps to gain full admission to the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) major league of Test playing nations. So it is a matter of conjecture how brightly these keepers may have shone.
Ben entered the firmament of talented wicketkeepers while at school. And those who watched him in those early days didn’t hesitate to essay that he was ‘a stumper to the manner born’ and add for good measure that his work behind the wickets was inspiring. Hear the delighted surprise of such spectators who chortled: ‘Lo and behold any batsman who dared to leave his crease or lift his legs – because in a flash, Navaratne would whip the bails off to the consternation of the batter!’
Going on to play first-class cricket from 1940 to 1952, Benedict (the name of a saint and the first pope of his kind to step up to the plate against the legions of the damned!) kept wickets for Ceylon in his own inimitable way. Navaratne toured India with the Ceylonese side in 1940/41 and featured in the team that played Pakistan in 1949/50.
In a sport that was the arena of batsmen and bowlers, his gladiatorial approach while keeping wickets compelled the padded combatant standing in front of the stumps to have his attention torn between the enemy hurling a ball in front of him and a warrior waiting grimly behind it.
Such was the magic of this prince among gloved heroes that his 1980 obituary in Wisden named him ‘Sri Lanka’s greatest wicketkeeper.’ This was the greatest accolade a scorer who came to write against Ben’s name could accord, for Navaratne played only 16 matches in a 12 year career.
There is no doubt this first of his kind (like another pope with the same name) wicketkeeper must have stood tall to win such lofty spurs… from the bible of the gentlemen’s game no less.
Some heroes run into battle while others stand and deliver. And a handful of gifted individuals manage to do both. No matter how one gauges Ben Navaratne’s mettle, there’s little if any doubt that he stepped up to the plate – in his case, literally – to stamp his character on the game. And when none other than Wisden cited Navaratne as ‘Sri Lanka’s greatest wicketkeeper’ (in what was his obituary 40 years after his first-class cricket debut), his unique skills were recognised by cricket’s bible.