January 31, 2023



The Spin | Suwanji Madanayake, the spinner who wants to play into his 50s | Sport

5 min read

The scorecard wormhole starts innocently enough. You are daydreaming of a match, pull it up and spot a player you didn’t realise was in the team. Curiosity takes over. When did he debut? What did he average? And his great aunt played Test cricket before the war? I wonder what her average was … and, so it goes.

That’s how it went for me last month, on the 90th anniversary of the first Test triple ton – Andy Sandham’s 325 in 1930. Who played in that game? Much to my delight Wilfred Rhodes, in his 58th and final appearance aged 52.

Next, naturally, I clicked on Rhodes’s debut, an astonishing 31 years earlier. And what do you know, that Ashes match at Trent Bridge in 1899 was both WG Grace’s final Test outing and Victor Trumper’s first. Mind blown. Yes, in that moment, I was frustrated that Rhodes did not continue a few months further into 1930 to play against Don Bradman when he hit his first triple – missing the chance to link the defining careers of The Don and The Doctor – but you can’t have it all.

I found myself similarly delighted last year when listing players from the 1990s still padding up. Of particular interest was finding out that Marcus Trescothick made his bow in 1993 under the captaincy of Chris Tavaré, who started his own lengthy career in 1974. When tweeting this upon Trescothick’s retirement, Test Match Special’s master statistician, Andrew Samson, told me he could go one better: Suwanji Madanayake, who started in 1991, was still at it.

Indeed, he was again this year. In February, Samson noted that the Sri Lankan was the first cricketer since Eddie Hemmings to win first-class caps in four different decades – the latter doing so from 1966 to 1995. He added that Madanayake became one of 16 players to play first-class cricket before the age of 17 and also after 44. Grace was also one of those; Fred Titmus the most recent.

Except that Madanayake did not begin before his 17th birthday. This is the first point the charming left-arm spinner – the same bowling discipline as Rhodes – clarified with The Spin when we contacted him. Many years ago, a website recorded his birth year as 1974 and it stuck. He was actually born in 1972 and turns 48 in August. When walking out at Kandy on that November morning, bowling to Aravinda de Silva, the Soviet Union was still six weeks from collapsing.

There were dreams of higher honours, quite reasonable ones if not for Muttiah Muralitharan. When his long period at the top finally ended in 2008, Rangana Herath, another left-arm tweaker, got the nod as the younger of the pair during that transition. “All of my clubmates ask why I didn’t play in the national side,” Madanayake laments. “Rangana had his chance and fulfilled his target and I was unlucky.”

But to view Madanayake’s career as unfulfilled misses the mark. Instead, this is a man who cherishes the game and savours being able to talk about Kumar Sangakkara’s days as the young fella in his dressing room. Or turning out in the same team as the man with the most initials to ever play the game: ARRAPWRRKB Amunugama. This gratitude extends to his thanks to the bank that has let him put cricket first over the 24 years of his employment.

All told, he has played first-class or List A cricket for some 14 teams in Sri Lanka across those 29 years. Adding clubs in England and Australia, where he has been an enthusiastic import, that number swells to “about” 30. “It is demand,” he says in the best traditions of the touring pro. “When you are performing well, the clubs ask you to come. They are good offers. That is why I move.”

Madanayake’s most productive spell as an overseas player came in England, from 2007 to 2011. Across those five seasons, primarily in the Liverpool league, he claimed a ridiculous 335 league wickets while collecting more than 2,700 runs for good measure, including a haul of 794 in 2010. For Ormskirk, Maghull, Wigan, Ipswich and Barlaston, he utterly dominated. Why not stay put at one place? “I was getting old, so I had to take the offers.”

It still rankles Madanayake that four seasons – between 2013 and 2016 – do not count towards his first-class numbers because Sri Lanka Cricket reclassified the division he was playing in. Instead of 133 matches and 371 wickets (at just 21.9 apiece!) he calculates that this should be more like 200 and 500 with a best of eight for 45. But this didn’t dissuade him: he has turned out for four top-flight teams since, also finding time for a couple of Australian seasons as recently as 2018.

He bamboozled them there, just as he did the English clubbies a decade earlier, with his “magic ball”. Yes, after decades in the nets, he has a mystery delivery – like every wily twirler. “It comes into the batsman to hit their pads or bowl them. It looks like a leg spinner but it’s not. It’s a surprise.”

Madanayake’s celebrations remain as enthusiastic as a pup, for there is nothing he enjoys more than duping a batsman not even half his age. “They look fit but don’t use their brains. Without a brain, you can’t play the game.”

In the short term, he has a job to do: keep Kalutara Town in the top flight with four rounds still to play post-Covid. If they drop? Simple, he’ll find another home.

Samson says the last player to play into their 50s was another Sri Lankan, Somachandra de Silva, finishing at 52 in 1995. The most recent regular Englishman was Ray Illingworth when returning to captain Yorkshire in 1982 and 1983. Madanayake believes he can “easily” join this club in 2024 after breaking the 30-year barrier next November. “The kids ask why this old dog is still playing, but the clubs need my experience.”

As for English cricket, Madanayake is not finished either. In fact, he wants me to tell prospective clubs that he is ready to serve, both as a bowler and a coach – earning his level two ECB badge in the past. “I have vast experience there,” he says. “There is a lack of spin in England because they don’t know how to spin and grip the ball in those conditions. I did it – my stats show that. So, I can teach the kids.”

On the available evidence, those clubs should form an orderly queue.

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