In those days without television, mobile phones and video games, cricket provided the entertainment and pumped up the adrenaline. We played softball cricket before school started, during the intervals, after school and at weekends. When there were no proper wickets- tree trunks, suitcases or black lines scribbled on a wall became perfect substitutes. Any space became our "oval". Occasionally, we got reckless with a sudden rush of blood, hit a six and broke the neighbour’s window. When we were not playing cricket, we talked and dreamed about it. Such was the strength of feeling for the game.
I joined Wesley College in 1950. At school, everyone played cricket. Watching the school matches at Campbell Park was a ritual never to be missed. Although 60 years have passed, I have vivid memories of some of those matches and the stresses and strains that accompanied them.
Campbell Park is named after Sir GWR Campbell who was responsible for starting a "modern" Police Force in Ceylon in 1844. He retired in 1891 to become the Governor of Penang. This was later the grounds of the Tamil Union Sports Club until 1943 when it was acquired for Wesley College.
Campbell Park is divided into 4 quadrants by 2 gravel cycle paths. Wesley lay claim to the northern quadrant. The southern quadrant became the grounds of the popular Bloomfield Cricket Club. Campbell Park was our amphitheatre. The Wesleyites, old boys and well-wishers line up on the Campbell Place side and the visitors were on the opposite side. We then had the old pavilion with the metal railings. The entire pavilion had the unmistakable smell of linseed oil. That was Wilbert the groundsman’s domain and us little boys were promptly and ruthlessly escorted out of the building.
We had a matting wicket then and a small score board maintained by enthusiastic students. The tall Andara hedge that separated Campbell Place from the park had a well heeled passage to creep through. On a visit to the Park in 2000, I saw the changes to the scenery since my time. I will always remember it as it was when I was at school.
To watch the games, we assembled in large numbers under the massive “Mara” trees that surrounded the grounds. Singing and chanting waving the school flag was part of the fun. The school song broke out spontaneously. We gathered in our hundreds and it had a carnival atmosphere. Often we sang:
Hurrah for the merry,
Hurrah for the land,
Hurrah for the Wesley Boys,
Who do not care a damn,
Everywhere the merry goes,
The land is sure to go.
Down with the battle cry of freedom
Little did I know the real meaning of this poem of Freedom by James Joyce when I sang it then. When the going was good, drums beat the more rhythmic tunes like the bailas. Often, as the afternoon wore on, the concentration was intense and the stress levels increased . To take a break, we sometimes walked back to school on Karlshrue Gardens for some refreshments. I can still remember the tall, dark, slim figure of Mr. Eric Gunasekera (a former Headmaster) then in the evening of his life and partially blind, waiting at his gate for news of the matches. We always stopped to greet and relay the events at Campbell Park. Alerics and Piccadilly Ice cream vans, with their engines humming, did roaring business on match days, as well as the achcharu ladies and gram sellers (a paper cone of roasted peanuts cost 5 cents).
To be a first eleven cricketer at Wesley was a great honour. They were placed on a pedestal and were much respected by all. Despite their teenage years, they received this adulation with poise and dignity. Much can be said about the discipline and training at Wesley which helped to produce such men of modesty and valour.
Cricket in those days was played by gentleman. Umpire’s word was law. School cricket was played in the best spirit of the game. We congratulated the opponents' achievements in the field. We walked away when we felt it was out, although the umpires did not see . The spectators dissent and applause was confined to areas beyond the boundary. No streakers, foul language or efforts to intimidate the batsman at the crease. When we lost, although crest fallen and frustrated, clapped the opponents back to the pavilion. Those injured in the heat of the battle were comforted by the captain of the opposite side. My generation grew up with peace. This gentlemanly behaviour on the pitch merely reflected the peaceful and chivalrous times of our youth.
St. Thomas’ was established in 1862 and had the most impressive buildings with large tall grey Greco-Roman columns. They had beautifully laid out gardens. I couldn’t say the same of their breezy turf wicket by the sea which was a cemetery for visiting teams. They have always had good strong teams. The school has produced many outstanding cricketers. The names that come easily to mind are Bertie Wijesinha, Michael Tissera, P. I. Peiris, Neil Chanmugam, Dan Piachaud, Buddy Reid and Lareef Idroos who shone in the 50’s. Their names are carved in my memory. Lareef and Buddy were at Medical School with me and helped University win the coveted Sara Trophy in 1962.
Royal College came into being in January 1835 as a private school christened "The Colombo Academy" and was situated at Hill Street, Wolfendhal. They moved to the present site next door to the University in 1923. It was a shorter journey to the Reid Avenue turf which was the Royal College grounds. On many occasions, I had preferred to watch from beyond Reid Avenue fence which gave a panoramic view of the red brick school, the pavilion and the action in the middle. They were always formidable opponents and had fine cricketers. Brendon Gooneratne, Ubhaya De Silva, EL and EB Pereira, Sarath Samarasinghe, Michael Dias, Darrell Lieversz and Nirmalingam are some of the names I recall with ease. Our very own Harsha Samarajiwa was a fine quickie who later played for the University to win the Sara Trophy. Royalists always fought their games hard and fair.
St. Peter’s grounds at Bambalapitiya was again a turf pitch. They had an elegant pavilion built on a hill overlooking the turf. The "Bambalawatte boys" gathered in their hundreds with their Brylcreemed Elvis Presley hair, speaking their own brand of pidgin English. The Wellawatte canal wasn’t far away and the smell of stagnant water was ever present. We could see in the distance, the tall chimney of the Wellawatte Spinning and Weaving Mills bellowing thick black smoke. Clive Inman, a product of St. Peter’s College, Bambalapitiya, is rated as one of the best left handed batsmen produced by the country. Clive came into prominence when he scored an unbeaten 204 against St. Joseph’s - which is still a record for schools big matches. Anton Perera was their lively fast bowler and HIK Fernando a fine wicket keeper for the school and country.
St. Joseph’s College was started in 1896. Their matting at Darley Road has been the site of many battles between our two schools. I recall the swimming pool end and the pavilion end. The school had impressive large buildings built around the grounds. The high dome of their chapel is breathtakingly beautiful. Travis and Carlyle Perera played for the school and later for the University. Whenever we won at Darley Road, we had to evade the hostile Maradana crowd for whom it was more than a game of cricket.
Ananda have always been formidable opponents. This match was resumed in 1956 and was played at the Nalanda grounds just next door to us. This made the contest rather fierce both for the cricketers and spectators. It was the personal pride at stake and we didn’t want to lose to our neighbours. Our hostelers just crossed the small park and jumped the fence running down the steep hill to the Nalanda grounds. Yatagama Amaradasa, Mohanlal Fernando, Kumar De Silva and the Polonowita brothers are the names I can recall.
The match against Kingswood was played at Randles Hill, Trinity at Asgiriya and Richmond at the Galle Esplanade.
Wesley College too had some fine cricketers during my years at school. Ansar Fuard was an astute captain and was ably assisted by his brother Abu’s fine off spin bowling to complete a very successful year. Abu later went on to play for Ceylon and also became an influential member of the Selection Committee. Radley and Bryan Claessen were fine cricketers who captained school. 1955-56 were the Lou Adhihetty years. He was a great all rounder who brought honour to himself and the school. Lou’s name appeared in the national papers regularly for his fine performances with the bat and ball.
The cricket coverage in the daily papers were full of cliches. "Rain stops play", "Benedictines skitled for 65 runs", "Tame Draw at Darley Road". "Royal routed for 89 runs". Any Tournament was called a Tourney!! Even now it is wonderful to see the cricket analyses of Elmo Rodrigopulle who was such a fine player for St. Benedicts in the 50’s. It was wonderful to have Cyril Ernest in our batch who played for St Benedict’s and the University.
School Cricket in Sri Lanka is played in the dry season January to April being so dependent on good weather. I recall the many times watching the game in the blistering heat of the mid day sun with perspiration dripping from every pore. There have been times when the whole game has got washed off by a sudden burst of bad weather. This was indeed a great disappointment for us all. I remember the times when I have prayed for rain when our team was losing!! There is nothing more heart breaking than to see a winning team robbed of victory by a quirk of nature. To have the better team isn’t enough to win matches but good fortune must shine on them too.
The big matches, Royal-Thomian, Josephian-Peterite, Ananda-Nalanda and several others were great spectacles on and off the field. Cars, lorries and vans were commandeered for merry making and some of the excesses went beyond the acceptable. The cricket was of the highest standard and many of the games being played at the Colombo Oval. As a schoolboy, I never missed the opportunity to watch the cricket and was never disappointed.
The enchantment of the cricket matches of my childhood still haunts me. At school, cricket was not only a game but a way of life. My lasting memory of cricket at Campbell Park is the sight of the setting sun behind All Saints Church and its lengthening shadows. As the bails were lifted, we all departed discussing the ups and downs of the day’s play. Losing a match in those days was like the end of the world, but we always bounced back. It was certainly a good training to face the peaks and troughs of our own lives. The songs we sang and the friends I made are etched deeply in my memory.
After leaving school in April 1962 - I went for some matches in the following year. The magic and the aura of this extraordinary spectacle seem to have vanished, not being an integral part of the school anymore. Thereafter, life got too complicated building my career. I never saw any matches at Wesley again. Ah! Those were the days.
I dedicate these notes to the many schoolboy cricketers from all the schools who entertained us in the 1950’s. They have done us proud. Our heartfelt thanks to the Groundsmen, Cricket Coaches and the Masters in Charge of cricket who made it all happen in the background, while we sang and beat the drums.