Killi Rajamahendran, Kerry Packer of Sri Lankan cricket-by Rex Clementine
Kerry Packer was a godsend to Australian cricket. So was Killi Rajamahendran. At a time when cricket in Sri Lanka had no money, he financed the sport, single-handedly. He passed away yesterday at the age of 78.
Killi, as he was fondly known, employed many cricketers; Duleep Mendis, Roy Dias, Arjuna Ranatunga, Ashantha de Mel, Sidath Wettimuny…. the list goes on.
Players need not turn up for work at Maharaja’s, but if they did not attend training, Killi had a bone to pick. Ask Ashantha de Mel. Killi made the sport semi-professional.
Duleep Mendis was identified by Killi when he was at school. He joined Maharaja’s at 20 and remained there for 30 years. He was heart broken by learning Killi’s death. So were the other cricketers.
Sidath Wettimuny’s older brothers had given up cricket in a bid to pursue their professional careers. Sidath wanted to go in the same path. But before doing so, he consulted Killi. And he received sound advice.
“You see Sidath,” Killi had said, “Professionals, I can hire anytime. But a good cricketer like you, that would be hard to find.”
Sidath listened. Then, Lord’s 1984 happened.
The Sri Lankan team had gone to England well in advance to acclimatise to conditions. Generously, Killi gave his London apartment for Sri Lankan players to stay as the board did not have any money to look after their accommodation before the tour got underway.
As the Test match approached, in a bid to encourage the players, Killi told them that if anyone scored a hundred, he was going to give them a gift of 1000 Pounds.
Sidath, Amal Silva and Duleep Mendis scored hundreds. Arjuna Ranatunga missed out. He was dismissed for 84. Arjuna is a tough man, but the fact that he had missed out on having his name in the Lord’s honours board got the better of him and in the dressing room, he was in tears. There was a tap on Arjuna’s shoulder. It was Killi. He too had tears in his eye. All centurions were given 1000 Pounds as promised. But Arjuna received 2000 Pounds. Killi was fond of Arjuna.
People wonder how a developing cricket nation like Sri Lanka could afford Sir Garfield Sobers as their coach in 1980s. All credit obviously goes to Gamini Dissanayake. But every good leader needs a capable second in command. Killi was Gamini’s right hand man and Vice-President of Board of Control for Cricket. It is he who made it possible that Sri Lanka could hire the services of Sir Garry spending generously.
It is a well known fact that Sri Lanka were given Test status in 1981 when Gamini was President. Not many people know that before the Lord’s meeting, the Sri Lankan board had hosted Australian Cricket Board officials taking them around the country showing them our cricket infrastructure. All financed by Killi. Australia had regularly vetoed Sri Lanka’s application for Test status. But after Killi’s hospitality and having taken a good look on the status quo, they could not turn it down again. Like Kerry Packer, Killi knew how cricket politics worked.
Once Australia was on Sri Lanka’s side, England followed suit. Test status achieved; thanks to smart moves by two men; Gamini Dissanayake and Killi Rajamahendran.
After quitting cricket, Killi built up a his media empire. Like all media bosses who love cricket, he had one golden rule; never criticize cricketers.
In 2001, when England came to Sri Lanka to play a first ever three match series, there was lot of excitement. Sri Lanka won the first Test by an innings in Galle. But then from thereon, things didn’t go their way and lost the games in Kandy and at SSC. England clinched the series 2-1. Sirasa were drawing out heavy weapons. Their target, captain Sanath Jayasuriya. Then, Killi called. “That poor boy is already going through hell. Don’t add up to his misery.” Message was loud and clear. Sanath looked up to him like a father figure. So did others from Arjuna to Nuwan Zoysa.