In recent years, there has been less and less to cheer about in Sri Lanka. Few things bring anything but despondency and frustration to the hearts of young and old. We live in a strange age. What should be a time of national triumph and unity has been transformed into an age of fear and repression, political corruption and public apathy and the unprecedented arrogance of power.
Perhaps more than anything else, we live in a country today in which no relationship is equal. Patronage and servility are the two basic ingredients for survival in present day Sri Lanka. To speak out against injustice, to fight for the freedoms and rights of another is too great a risk to take. Expediency has taken precedence over preserving all that was great about Sri Lankan society. The political comedy of errors has pervaded every aspect of social life, with both sides of the political divide providing plenty of entertainment but no true redress.
When everything we know and hold dear is being systematically destroyed, there is ever more reason to rejoice in the things that endure; the things that cut across social divides and political constructs; the things that renew old time bonds and bring people together.
The Royal Thomian that began yesterday, provides a reason for such a celebration. A nation’s enthusiasm for cricket is only overshadowed by the jubilant atmosphere that pervades the streets of the capital as one “Big Match succeeds the other and the mounting frenzy unleashes itself to reach a climax each weekend in different colours.
In all this everyone agrees on one thing: the Royal-Thomian is the trend setter. Almost every school has a ‘Big Match’ because Royal College and St. Thomas’ have one. Today, the school cricket that originated on the playing fields of Colombo with the Royal-Thomian encounter, has reached the farthest villages of the island bringing to the fore cricketing talent that a small island in the Indian Ocean that learned about willow and leather from the Englishman, may never have imagined was possible.
There is an indefinable quality about the three day cricket extravaganza that is so much more than just a cricket match. It is a carnival for the young and the young at heart, from the starry eyed youngster attending his first Big Match to the grey-haired and careworn old timer in the Mustangs Tent, to whose eyes the stars return when memories are rekindled of his own schooldays.
In a society that places such critical emphasis on who you know and how much power you wield, at the Royal-Thomian all of this ceases to matter. A 134 year tradition, unbroken and unstoppable, the Big Match brings people together in a great commonality that recognizes no leader and no follower, no king and no subject, no rich man and poor man. It is a place where all politicians who are generally revered and think no end of themselves are humbled and belittled, when they walk into a tent and strive hard to make an impact with the crowd. While defeat has become unpalatable for those who wield great power, the Royal Thomian has never been about victory or loss. Through centuries scored, wickets lost, good and bad umpiring decisions, Royalists and Thomians take it all in their stride, never resorting to threats or intimidation to have decisions go their way. Scuffles and skirmishes off the field are often part and parcel of the game, but they are battles fought, won and lost on your own merits. There will be no powerful papas arriving on the scene to bail people out; in fact such an eventuality will result in more derision from the crowd and embarrassment for the youths in question, because it is considered a defining quality of Thomians and Royalists that they fight their own battles.
For three days, everyone on the cricket fields and in the spectator stands go briefly back to being schoolboys, indistinguishable from each other as when we all wore one uniform and it was impossible to tell us apart.
The greatest thing about the Royal Thomian then, is this. If you are a Royalist, you are a Royalist. If you’re a Thomian, you’re a Thomian. Nothing else matters. For three days, as two school cricket teams battle it out in the middle, a Royalist or a Thomian is all you are and all you need to be. Ethnic, religious and other differences pale in to oblivion, levelling so many varying sections of society in a way we can only hope to extrapolate nationally, four years after Sri Lanka ceased to be at war with itself.
In the years to come, it is my fervent hope for the timeless Battle of the Blues that it will remain a brief, small space where these qualities of freedom and equality will be preserved. It is up to Royalists and Thomians, young and old to ensure that this great tradition remains a-political in a social culture where political tentacles are breaching every social institution and aspect of life.
If it was the Royalists and the Thomians that blazed the trail for the Big Match culture in the Sri Lankan school system, there is no reason why we should not continue to lead in areas where others might still follow. It is if anything, our duty and obligation as responsible citizens of this country to take these levelling experiences of the Big Match back into our everyday lives, and use them to consistently foster brotherhood and promote liberty and equality in our homeland.
A good performance at the Royal Thomian will carry a youngster through life as much as a poor showing will damn him forever. Many are the examples in public life of this truism. Prime ministers, Bureaucrats and Businessmen alike are better known for their success or failure at the Royal Thomian than for their achievements or the disasters they have inflicted on a hapless public.
The passing of years will later force a move into the Old Boys to the Colts tent, the Stallions, the Stables, the Thoroughbreds and of course the Mustangs, wherein the unchanging spirit of the Big Match, that great encounter that happens outside the boundary line, is embraced with untrammeled joy.
This current weekend in March is the perfect time to remember that life is made for living. It is events like the Royal-Thomian that provide the spice that refreshes flagging spirits and cheers the aching heart. On those three days there is no enmity or displeasure. Foe embraces foe and friends slaps each other as though they were never parted.
It is a timeless and enduring testament to the power and promise of old school ties.