By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
Reading of the 88th annual cricket encounter between Ananda and Nalanda also known as the ‘Battle of the Maroons’ in the media which ended in a draw last week, it took my mind to the days when such schools were the underdogs in school, club and national cricket. It was also an era when Anandians and Nalandians on occasion were referred to as ‘Godayas’ and ‘Madayas’ when visiting some other schools in Colombo and Kandy for cricket matches due to the inability of some to communicate coherently in the Queen’s language. It also spurred me to write this piece to highlight the watershed years which changed school, club and national cricket in Sri Lanka forever.
This is a story not known to many of the younger generation cricket fans of today.
According to Wikipedia, the Colombo Cricket Club (CCC) was formed sometime around late 1832 and played against British Army regiments. In October 1882, Ivo Bligh‘s team played an odds game in Colombo en route to Australia. In 1888–89, an English team led by George Vernon toured Ceylon and India, including an 11-a-side game against All-Ceylon at Kandy. It took Ceylon another 93 years to be admitted to full membership of the ICC and to be awarded Test Match status on July 21, 1981. School cricket commenced in Ceylon when St.Thomas’ College, Mt.Lavinia became the first school to play cricket in 1864 followed by The Colombo Academy (as Royal College was then known) in 1876. The first encounter between these two schools took place in 1879 which became an annual event, also known as the ‘Battle of the Blues’. It was followed by annual encounters between Jaffna Central College and St.John’s College, Jaffna in 1904 also known as ‘Battle of the North’ (in school cricket!), Richmond and Mahinda in Galle also known as ‘Lovers Quarrel’ in 1905, Trinity and St. Anthony’s in Kandy also known as ‘The Hill Country Battle of the Blues’ in 1914, Ananda and Nalanda also known as ‘Battle of the Maroons’ in 1924 and St.Josephs and St.Peters also known as ‘Battle of the Saints’ in 1933.
Despite such a long history in school cricket, it was rare for cricketers produced by Ananda, Nalanda and outstation schools to be selected to play for the Ceylon XI as the national team was then known, for friendly matches against visiting teams from overseas. The few who made it to the national team from these two schools were Anuruddha Polonnowita, Sonny Yatawara, Bonnie Wijesinghe and Sarath Wijesinghe from Ananda and Carl Obeysekera, Dhanasiri Weerasinghe, Stanley Jayasinge and Ashley de Silva from Nalanda (I may have inadvertently missed out a few). Stanley Jayasinge left for UK after leaving school to play country cricket for Leicestershire. He returned much later to join the national team.
As a school boy, I watched the Ceylon XI play the visiting West Indians captained by the legendary Garfield Sobers in 1967. The team comprised of stars such as Seymore Nurse, Basil Butcher, Clive Lloyd, Wesley Hall and Lance Gibbs. The 110 runs partnership between Neil Chanmugam and PI Pieris for the last wicket, thrashing Wesley Hall and Lance Gibbs all over the Oval was similar to the many outstanding knocks by openers Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluvitharena in the late 1990s. The names of Ceylon XI players in 1967 with their respective former schools and clubs they represented are given in list 1.
Other than one old boy each from Ananda and Mahinda in Galle, all other players were old boys of the more affluent and prestigious Colombo schools and represented top rated cricket clubs. It was an era when cricketers from Ananda, Nalanda and from the provinces found virtually impossible to join prestigious top rung clubs, barring exceptions such as Dr Sarath Wimalaratne who had played with distinction for the University XI, after leaving Ananda.
Nevertheless, the winds of change were in the air. In 1967, the unthinkable happened and Ananda beat St.Thomas’ at Campbell Place and Nalanda beat Royal at Reid Avenue. Ananda captain Suni Wettimuny was adjudged ‘Best School Boy Cricketer of Year’ in 1967. Nalanda captain Anura de Silva scored five centuries during the school cricket season and was adjudged ‘Best School Boy Cricketer of Year’ in 1968. Nalanda was also adjudged best Schools team of the Island in the same year. Sunil and Anura were followed by some high caliber cricketers such as Sunil’s younger brothers Sidath and Mithra Wettimuny and Ajith de Silva from Ananda and Bandula Warnapura, Anura Ranasinghe, Jayantha Seneviratne and the Kaluperuma brothers Lalith and Sanath from Nalanda.
Thus began an era when top rung clubs in the country had little option but to accept cricketers leaving schools such as Ananda and Nalanda. One such initial player was Anandian Sunil Wettimuny. His brothers Sidath and Mithra followed shortly thereafter and eventually the three brothers occupied No 1, 2 and 3 slots in the SSC batting order for some years. Their performance in club cricket earned them their due place in the national XI.
A gradual shift was obvious when this writer met the national team visiting Pakistan in 1974, in Karachi. The team that played the ‘unofficial test’ in Karachi, their respective former schools and clubs they represented are given in list 2.
The Sri Lankan team that defeated Australia becoming world champions in the limited over World Cup final in 1996 in Lahore, Pakistan with their respective former schools and clubs they represented are given in list 3.
The paradigm shift was complete and cricket in Sri Lanka was no longer the exclusive domain of a few leading Colombo schools. As school boys from the provinces, especially the North and East stake their claim for a place in the national team, cricket in this country will become more inclusive.
There were many reasons for the under representation of cricketers from schools such as Ananda, Nalanda and from the provinces in the Ceylon XI until the early 1970s, as highlighted in the composition of the Ceylon XI fielded against the West Indians in 1967. However, the main reason was the attitudes and mind set of the then cricket administrators and selectors (that was before politicians became administrators in sports bodies). In their narrative, the game of cricket had to be the monopoly of a few prestigious schools in the island and by extension, of the top rung cricket clubs. It guaranteed slots in the Ceylon XI to products of their alma mater and clubs. Faced with such prejudices combined with insufficient resources, cricketers from schools such Jaffna Central / St.John’s Jaffna, Richmond / Mahinda, and Ananda / Nalanda who despite having commenced school cricket and their annual encounters in 1904, 1905 and 1924 respectively, failed to make it to the Ceylon XI. They were ignored and not allowed to bloom.
The status quo has undergone a sea change since the mid-1970s. Ananda and Nalanda contributed immensely in bringing about this change.
That said, there is a group of unsung heroes who silently gave their best from behind the scene. They identified talented school boys with potential. They groomed, molded, coached and mentored these boys into world class cricketers. They were the Masters in Charge and cricket coaches of Ananda and Nalanda, the two pioneering schools to break the monopoly of cricket administrators who were old boys of a few elitist schools. Cricket in Sri Lanka is indebted to PW Perera and Anurudha Polonnaruwa of Ananda and Nelson Mendis, Premasara Epasinghe and Gerry Gooneratne of Nalanda for the many cricketers they developed over several decades. The late Lional Mendis coached cricketers from both schools. Old Nalandian Karunaratne Abeysekera contributed by being the first cricket commentator in the Sinhala language followed by another Nalandian, Premasara Epasinghe. Also to be mentioned is the Bloomfield Cricket & Athletic Club who unflinchingly opened its doors to cricketers from schools such as Ananda and Nalanda who were to eventually become some of Sri Lanka’s finest, in the game of cricket.