By Nirmal Hettiaratchy
For as long as I can remember, playing cricket for Royal was my greatest ambition! I suppose it helped that my father, an old royalist, despite the fact that he worked outstation for most of his life, made the trek to the Wanathamulla Oval every year and my long suffering mother and us kids, there were 4 of us in the family, tagged along quite excitedly armed with food and drink to feed an army! Probably of some significance was that my mother’s father, Charles Corea, played in the early Royal teams of the Eighteen Eighties and was a member of the infamous 1885 nine run match. His version of what transpired has been chronicled elsewhere, but suffice it to say that it is contrary to what the Thomians claim as a victory for their team. Ranjit Gunasekera, captain of the Royal team in 1968, recently complied a well researched and excellent analysis of the 9 run match and came to the same conclusion, i.e.:- that the match was drawn due to abandonment on account of atrocious weather conditions! Thus we agree to disagree and history records it as such. As a little boy growing up in Colombo and attending Royal Primary as it was then called, life was far simpler than it is today. The cost of living was absurdly low, the roads seemed bigger and wider as the population and the numbers of vehicles were far smaller than it is today. We did not have Television, Computers, Internet, DVD’s, Walkman’s FM radio stations, and Mobile phones to compete with either our studies or our love of the outdoors. Most of us went to school on bicycles and the cycle shed at Royal, would have at least a thousand bicycles on a given school day. As a consequence, the Cycle Parade on the eve of the match was a marvellous riot of colour and pageantry. The cyclists gathered at the school early evening and meandered along a route that would take them to the Royal skipper’s house, where the team traditionally met for dinner. The college song and many other songs, the lyrics of which are unprintable, were sung with raucous vigor and mostly out of tune and the team were wished by all and sundry for their impending battle of the next two days. Alas this cycle shed is no more; a massive three storey school block has come up in its place. Children don’t use Cycles anymore and not surprisingly too, given how unsafe the roads are these days, so the Cycle parade, though still in existence is not as grand an event as it was in our days.
My interest in international cricket, was like most of my friends, not •just at Royal, but at St. Thomas’, had to be seen to be believed. Transistor
Radios were smuggled into class so that we were up to date with the scores of the test match in Sydney or Trent Bridge and we were more familiar with what went on in England and Australia than in our own back yard. One was exclusively an England or Aussie supporter until the West Indies became a force to be reckoned with; and we all collected paper cuttings from the likes of Ray Robinson and lan Wooldrige to adorn scrap books of the test maches played during that time. Gradually however, our own cricket became more important and from an early age my one ambition was to see. St. Thomas’ being beaten by Royal at the Ova! in the big match! I guess I thought I was unique but that was obviously not the case. I Played for the Royal team from 1968 to 1970 and in that time, made so many friends among the Thomian players that last up to this day. We had common ideals and interests that made such friendships so binding and it was apparent then and even now now how above all else, the Royal/Thomian is an institution that we all have been proud to be associated with and still are. The annual cricket dinner for past players from both teams, held the day before the game, is a grand affair well patronized by many and is testimony to the interests and friendships that have begun and continued over the years.
The match, in those days, was played over two days and had as much excitement or perhaps more, than one experiences in the three day game these days. The main advantage after the advent of the three day format has been that there is a greater possibility of a positive result and this is evidenced by there being a victory by either side in the past three years. Unlike now, it was almost compulsory that the entire school attended the match and the two boy’s tents on the far side of the ground at the Oval, now known as the P Sara Stadium, were packed to capacity. Our uncomfortable wooden classroom chairs were transported to the ground on Thursday and returned to school on Sunday in time to resume work on Monday. The whole week leading up to the game was a riot of fun and games and school work took a back seat. There was speculation as to who would make the last place or two in the side and we couldn’t wait to have a look at the souvenir which came out on the day before the match. The cartoon caricatures and the accompanying captions of our current heroes appearing in the souvenir were the main attraction. There was also the hope and anticipation that a Royal victory would bring us a well earned holiday the next Monday. The build up to the match was tremendous. Every car, be it a royalist or thomians’, had one or two blue and gold or blue and black flags stuck out in the wind, while in some instances one of each school on either side. This was probably when the sister supported the school which her boyfriend attended much to the chargrim of the boy who was in the other camp !
As I said, the match was played over two days in our time, but in those two days, we always bowled more overs, lost more wickets, had daring declarations and a close finish, although most games ended in draws. Sides did not come into the match scared to lose before they even started because one knew you could always delay a declaration or bat better the second time around to avoid defeat. Today the three day game, which can also be physically exhausting and debilitating, not just for the players but also the spectators, makes for the weaker team on paper to slow things from the beginning in order to avoid defeat and the inevitable shame that goes with it at the end of three days and in their mistaken perception, for the rest of their lives. I was fortunate to be in a winning Royal team in 1969 but the losing Thomian team was not disgraced. They did not hang down their heads whenever they attended the Royal Thomian later years. They played gallantly and were unlucky to lose. At least they are famous for being the only thiamin team to have let Royal win after a gap of 19 years! A footnote to this match is a somewhat hilarious anecdote about the Thomian captain, Prabodha Kariyawasam. He was and still is, a great character but his endearing claims to fame will alas be the fact that he captained St. Thomas’ in two successive years and having lost the game in 1969, remained barely unbeaten in 1970 only because of a timely shower on the second afternoon. The story goes that in 1969, his first year as captain, he made a visit to Kataragama to invoke the blessings of the Gods so as to ensure he couldn’t lose. The Priest after duly making the desired blessings gave Kari a lime which he was asked to carry with him at all times and touch whenever he felt things were going wrong. Given that he believed so strongly in such divine intervention, he couldn’t wait to see how it worked and in the very first over of Royal’s innings at the beginning of the match, he touched the blessed lime. Lo and behold, Sahan Thalayasingam, Royal’s Vice Captain and opening bat, was bowled neck and crop and we were 0 for one wicket. This was however his only success in that innings and for the rest of the match! The lime kept getting touched and then squeezed but to no avail. Eventually, there was nothing left to squeeze and it had to be thrown away. Left to his own devices, Kari wasn’t any more successful than the assistance he had sought from the Kataragama God and the match was duly lost with about an hour to go on the second day. This story of the lime took a couple of years to surface and it was Kari himself who broke the news in a marvelously humorous article appearing in the Thomian souvenir. …knew you were out and as a fielder you never distracted the batsmen when Art”:’es the bowler started his run up to the crease. “Derrick”, as our coach FC de Saram, was known, was a crusty and cantankerous character in whose presence, many of us were reduced to shivering wrecks. Still, his knowledge of the game was phenomenal (one might recall that he made a hundred for Oxford University against the rampant and victorious 1934 Australians led by Woodfull) and he used to quite frequently, take some of us senior players in his tiny little “Mini Moke” to the Golf Club in Model Farm Road to plot out strategy and was proud to admit that he was responsible for his son, Dijen’s downfall in the second innings with a masterly piece of advice on how to prize him out. Dijen, for unknown reasons studies at St. Thomas’ although his father played and captained Royal in the 1930’s with great distinction. He was known for his dogged stodgy batting and just refused to play any shots when the chips were down. Derrick suggested giving him a sudden high full toss and have a man placed midway between the boundary and short mid-wicket. After many a maiden over was bowled at him with no aggression shown on his part, the trap was sprung and true enough, Dijen miss hit an attempted pull high into the air and Upali Samarage (with a record not dissimilar to that of our other opening fast bowler in their wicket taking capacity!) had his moment of glory with an unbelievable catch diving forward and the end was in sight!
Sportsmanship was of the highest standard. Though we won, we were humble and gracious in victory while the Thomian team took defeat in the right spirit. The two teams, as always, met for Dinner after the match and went on to partake in celebrations that went on all night. The friendships we made then have lasted to this day and have enriched our lives. My love for cricket and the Royal Thomian has now reached half a century. It has taught me so much of what is good and right in both Sport and in Life.
The legacy of this encounter is not necessarily its cricketing heroes and their individual contributions or the number of wins or losses but the spirit in which the game is played. One hopes that these two great institutions will continue to nurture & uphold this legacy for the generations to come. Let me conclude with the words of Rudyard Kipling in his famous Poem “IF” [“If you can meet with both Triumph and disaster and treat these two Impostors just the same; you’ll be a Man my Son“]