The successful conduct of the 1996 World Cup by Asian neighbours India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka was to prove to be a seminal event in the history of world cricket. Especially after Australia and West Indies refused to travel to Sri Lanka citing security concerns, the subcontinental countries closed ranks behind the Lankans, sending out a strong combined team before the start of the event to drive home the point that there was no threat to anyone in Sri Lanka.
But the tournament itself would not have been possible in Asia had it not been for Neil Perera, a largely forgotten man who served the Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka (as Sri Lanka Cricket was then known) for nearly two decades – as a member of the executive committee from 1958 to 1973, and then as secretary for the next three years, when Robert Senanayake was the president.
At a tall but frail 88, Perera is a little uncertain of his steps, using a walking stick for support. Occasionally, he says, his memory fails him. But that’s hard to believe, not when he talks with clarity and candour, lapsing into wistful reminiscence from time to time.
His favourite story, narrated with tremendous pride, is in getting India and Pakistan on the same page to make sure the World Cup came to the subcontinent for the second time in nine years, in 1996. The first three editions of the tournament were staged in England in 1975, 1979 and 1983, and after the World Cup of 1987 in India and Pakistan, the 1992 event went to Australia. It was that period when South Africa were readmitted to international cricket, and they wanted to celebrate their return by hosting the quadrennial extravaganza. England meanwhile, were desperate to reclaim their status as the primary cricketing entity by staging it themselves.
Perera reveals that Pakistan wanted to host the tournament on their own, while BCCSL had been instructed by the Sri Lankan government of that time to throw their lot behind South Africa in deference to Nelson Mandela’s wishes.
Perera had harboured designs of an ‘Asian’ World Cup since July 1991, when he returned as the secretary of the BCCSL. With the blessings of both the board’s president and that of Ranasinghe Premadasa, the then Sri Lankan President, Perera put the proposal across to the Indian and Pakistani boards the following year. The BCCI responded favourably, says Perera, while the Pakistani board shot it down, saying they wanted to go solo.
By the time of the ICC meeting of February 2, 1993 to decide the next host of the World Cup, the Sri Lankan government told the BCCSL that if a joint bid with India and Pakistan did not materialise, then Sri Lanka’s support would be with South Africa and not England. A successful bid required the backing of two-thirds of the full members.
“In the voting, South Africa got four votes, England got four and Pakistan only one,” Perera recalls. “Sir Colin Cowdrey, who presided over the meeting, suggested an adjournment to sort the issues out. I spoke to the Pakistan board president, General Zahid Akbar Khan, trying to convince him again that it was in Asia’s best interests if the three of us presented a co-hosting bid. He was furious that Sri Lanka had not supported him in the first poll, but cooled down in half an hour and came around to the idea. When the members voted again, South Africa pulled out (of the bid). Our joint bid got five votes and England managed four but it wasn’t enough as we needed two-thirds majority. Lord Cowdrey nominated Sir Clyde Walcott to work out a solution to resolve the crisis. A compromise formula was finally struck with England opting to back out on the condition that they get the World Cup in 1999. Similarly, South Africa demanded hosting rights for the 2003 World Cup and thus the matter was resolved.”
It is no surprise that Perera handled the situation with finesse and aplomb. In 1951, he passed out as a fellow of the Institution of Engineers in London. Wonder what the English made of all that. At 88, he lives alone with his wife – who still gives tuitions – though their oldest son is literally a shout away and the younger one is an electrical engineer based in Australia.
Proud of his backroom diplomatic intervention, Perera has zealously preserved a letter of appreciation and gratitude from Jagmohan Dalmiya, the then BCCI secretary. “I would like to thank you for all the hard work that you did in the last few months to make the joint bid of Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka successful. In fact, without your crucial role in the ICC meeting in London on February 2, 1993, the ‘cake’ would have not come to the subcontinent. In the meeting, we observed how you intervened on time and placed your opinion forcefully, even in the face of strong opposition from the other side. And the success of the joint bid owes a lot to your hard work and efficiency.”
Perera stepped down in mid-1994, prompting another heartfelt letter from Dalmiya. But in a tribute to his efforts of 1993, he was invited for both the Kolkata semifinal (against India) and the final against Australia in Lahore, his ‘cake’ made sweeter when Arjuna Ranatunga’s men overcame the odds and the Aussies in a dramatic title clash on a historic March night.
Perera travelled as the manager of the Sri Lankan senior team on six tours. “I congratulated Sanath Jayasuriya when he became the chairman of selectors. I sent him an email and he replied: ‘Sir, you are the most lucky manager we have had’. When he was captain and I was the manager, we won nine out of 13 matches!”