Reflections on Royal Cricket and the Royal/Thomian
This article is inspired by the article by my former captain Ranjith Gunasekera titled “Demi-Gods and Little Boys”, that appeared in the 1995 Royal souvenir, and Sarath Samarasinghe’s 1998 article. Ranjith hit the nail on the head by remarking that the quasi-mystical status of the Royal-Thomian had dissipated by the time of our own playing days. Sarath was obviously one of those demi-Gods and his description of his contemporaries brought back poignant memories and triggered a bout of nostalgia.
Rampant Heroes & Alter Egos
The Royal-Thomians of 1955 and 1956 are a blur, and all I recall are the outlines of batsmen, distinguished only by their caps, returning to the pavilion at the Oval tennis court end. The names Jothilingam, Nirmalingam and Perimpanayagam were imprinted in my mind by my father, and I saw them as the equivalent of the three Ws of the West Indies, gallantly taking the fight to the enemy. Later I discovered that Jothilingam scored a century in the 1956 big-match while Perimpanayagam scored three consecutive centuries in the same season.
The first innings I remember was Michael Wille’s 121 in 1957, which I observed from under the sight screen at the tennis court end, keeping company with a Thomian friend who, lacking a ticket, had to be sneaked in by my father. I distinctly remember Wille’s habit of strolling to leg between deliveries, not unlike Ted Dexter. Although I was never able to establish the truth of it, I am still moved by my father’s remark that, before scoring his century, Wille slept on his late father’s bed.
However, for the most part, only the names and their glorious associations matter. Sarath Samarasinghe seemed to play forever, and after a while, his whimsical persona, reflected in his crouched stance, and the cartoonist’s caricature of his cheeky guardianship of the space behind the stumps, came to embody the quintessential characteristics of my Royal heroes – chirpy, humorous, competitive, courageous and affable.
Lorenz Pereira was another player I came to identify with, thanks to the media (souvenirs) which portrayed him as larger than life. I admired him from the dead horizontal tree trunk that used to lie at the entrance to Royal primary, as he walked past after practice with a Gun & Moore bat in his hand. This was about the closest I came to my idols.
I always made excuses for Royal, as I later did for Australia. If my heroes didn’t come up to scratch it was always because of poor luck, not because St. Thomas’ (or England) played better. After all, Royal’s cricketers had far more exotic names, the hallmark of champs. We outgunned St. Thomas’ in multi-syllabic surnames. More importantly, they came in pairs, namely, Samarasinghe and Senanayake. And no name had the etymological intrigue of Kodituwakku. Perairawar held fascination on account of its exotic aura and the difficulties in pronunciation, while N.J.S. de Mel lingered because it seemed so stately and dignified in comparison.
From 1958 to 1960, the composition of the team hardly changed and, in addition to the names mentioned above, the names Sahabandu, Samerajeewa and Vidanage conjured up images of spells weaved from the mists of Aryan antiquity. That one of them had the very English personal name of Dooland, only added to the intrigue. And the name “Minah” Wijesinghe had acquired near mythical status after his four wickets in 4 balls at Campbell Place, the only event I vividly recall apart from Wille’s century.
With few notable exceptions, the names had more relevance than faces. For instance, whenever I impersonated Royal cricketers in softball games or while throwing the ball against a wall, I did not have a visual template to guide me. I had a better idea of what test cricketers looked like (thanks to the Times of Ceylon sports pages) and played like (thanks to the plethora of literature, match descriptions and coaching manuals). ). However, this only served to enhance the mystique of Royal cricketers, the mere mention of whose names conjured up rich images untarnished by any empirical yardstick.
The Royal-Thomian of the fifties was quite predictable. St. Thomas’ would bat first, post a large score and Royal would spend a good part of the second day averting the follow on, which she inevitably did. Although one didn’t fear a Royal loss, losing the toss was frustrating because it meant that victory was out of the question. (My peers and I feared the Thomians less than older Royal students who were constantly on the prowl for opportunities to “flick” rosettes, flags, rattles and other spoils from unsuspecting juniors.) However, despite my anxieties and disappointments, no festival in the world could compete with the sensuousness of the Royal-Thomian, as exemplified by the sparkling caps our heroes wore, their exotic names, the flags we waved, the pulsating Portuguese derived rhythms we pranced to, and my Aunt Tim’s corned beef sandwiches. A victory for Royal would have been a bonus.
Truly, the lead up to the Royal-Thomian was at times more interesting than the game itself. The endless speculation as to who would fill the last spot, the cycle parades, the crawl to Wanathamulla, the awesome sight of figures scaling the radio towers (a feat performed by me in 1970) and the gradual emergence of the players from the shadow of the pavilion to have a hit, created a wonderful ambience. It was all part of the riveting ritual and rich pageant.
During the fifties my fierce loyalty to Royal was sustained by the constant teasing I received from Mahes Rodrigo. Whenever I accompanied my father to the CR&FC clubhouse, Mahes never failed to needle me by making derogatory remarks about Royal. “What man, Royal parippu, no?” was his favourite taunt, to which my inevitable response was one of predictable outrage. I wished Royal could beat St. Thomas’ just to teach him a lesson. I hadn’t the faintest idea at the time that he was a Royal stalwart. (He was to coach Royal in that memorable 1962 season.)
In 1960, my first year in Royal College, we won the toss for the first time in memory and controlled the game thanks to a good double by Lalith Senanayake. This was in stark contrast to our perilous position of 1959, 5 ducks, and a near funeral, if E.L. Pereira hadn’t come to the rescue. Watching Ferdinands bowl to the diminutive Kodituwakku in 1959 made me feel distinctively vulnerable. I asked myself why we got the best Burgher bats, but not the Burgher fast men, who, like Ferdinands, played for St. Thomas’?
In 1961, after a poor start we ended the game with a flourish. By throwing caution to the winds, S.S. Kumar and S.D. Jayaratne effected a profound psychological shift. Although falling short of 64 runs of our target, their whirlwind unbeaten third wicket partnership of 70 runs made us feel that we had resources in reserve that none of us were aware of, and completely erased the ignominy of our first innings total of 67. On the way out, Professor E.O.E. Pereira rued our missed opportunity and speculated on what might have been.
Despite the uneventful nature of the Royal-Thomian, the period 1956-1961 was full of romance and fond childhood memories. Elvis came into my world and I constantly withdrew into an imagined world of American culture. On the cricket field, Richie Benaud’s Australians defeated England by 4-0 nil in 1958-9 and in new recruit O’Neill I had a cricketing idol who increased my emotional involvement with Anglo-Australian cricket. In January 1961, almost the whole school was glued to the radio following the progress of the West Indians in Australia, who had captured our imagination and hearts. Although, I failed to make the Boake House under XIV team, it didn’t matter. Boake won anyway, the West Indians and Australians touched down long enough to saturate my mind with rich and evocative images of cricket’s unique aesthetic, and Benaud’s Australians had a great series highlighted by that amazing win at Manchester, when all seemed lost.
Cricket was truly king at Royal. An indication of the grip the game had on our psyche is that preliminary trials to pick any one of four under XIV teams, attracted well over 100 hopefuls. As for me, it was cricket, lovely cricket. And the 1962 Royal season continued the magic.
Of all the Royal cricket seasons I have been involved in as a player or spectator, nothing comes close to 1962. For one, my cousin Darrell was captain, which lifted my status amongst my peers. My uncle would convey information to my father who then passed it on to me. I could pretend that I had privy to the captain’s thoughts. Above all, Darrell was in devastating form, and along with his partner, R.C. de Silva, struck fear into all our opponents. How did we feel? Like Germans at the beginning of WWII. How did the Thomians feel? Like England in 1939, alone and expecting a German invasion any moment. Victory in the Royal Thomian was not a forlorn hope; it was a real possibility. We had our best chance in years.
The circle had come round full circle. In three years, we, not St. Thomas’ had the fast bowlers. Darrell was as muscular as Ferdinands was, and far more menacing. We were going to give the Thomians a hiding. The vulnerability I felt in 1959 was behind me.
The lethality of our attack first became evident in the second innings of the Ananda game when our opponents, set a simple target, collapsed in a heap. The following week, St. Benedicts were 6-11 at one stage in their first innings. Yet, we all wondered when the bubble would burst? Surely, this couldn’t last? I personally felt that our good run would come to a crashing halt against St. Peters, particular since their captain had reached triple figures in the preceding week. Royal’s modest first innings total was little cause for optimism. No one, least of all Royal, were ready for the batting holocaust that followed. St. Peters collapsed to be 8-12, a score rare even in junior cricket.
Richard Heyn, the Peterite captain, almost played on before a few balls later his bails took flight not unlike the flutter of doves outside the book depository when Oswald fired three shots at JFK. His dig in the second innings was no less brief and humiliating. St. Peters were routed and an aura of invincibility surrounded the cricket team, which rubbed off on the entire school.
From a personal point of view, Darrell, the good Burgher had prevailed over Richard Heyn, the enemy Burgher. Richard had arrived whistling, supremely confident. He left with his tail between his legs. Imagine my disappointment, when the headlines following the Wesley game, read, “Darrell the hero, and the Darrell who failed”. On the Campbell Park mat, Darrell Maye of Wesley had come good and Royal had met her Stalingrad. My moral order was disturbed. I wanted to believe that good Burghers, like my cousin, had God on their side. I felt much worse when Keith La’Brooy, an enemy Burgher, rather than Darrell, was ascendant in the 1962 Royal-Thomian. (La’Brooy captured 9 wickets to Darrell’s 8 and had Royal in a spin in her first innings.)
One had to be a 12 year old attending Royal to understand why I am so elegiac and nostalgic about the 1962 season. Of course, it helped that my cousin was captain and in such deadly form. Just as much as my father took credit for his nephew’s achievements (being constantly corrected by friends on this issue) I too took vicarious credit for the achievements of my namesake. (If Royal had truimphed at the Oval there is no doubt that I would have walked with my head held up high.) I also accompanied Darrell on visits to doctors and cricketing experts. Although he barely tolerated me, I was close to the centre of power and thrived on it. More importantly, Royal have rarely produced such a deadly pace duo working in tandem.
Going into the Royal-Thomian Darrell and RC had taken 56 and 42 wickets respectively. Many of these were bowled or LBW, which was very exciting to spectators who either exclaimed, bowled or appealed in unison at such events. Wickets fell at such regular intervals that the success rate of the incantation “Come on Darrell or RC, bowl him out!” was very high.
Whereas RC had a classic fast bowler’s action, using a high trajectory to make the ball lift, Darrell made the ball zip off the wicket. Whereas RC was hostile, Darrell was clinically efficient, varnishing the top of the stumps sufficient to send the bails flying. If RC was mortar fire, Darrell was a cruise missile honing on the target with unerring accuracy. There was always an air of anticipation whenever either of them took the ball.
The camaraderie of the team was palpable, although the team consisted of a fascinating bunch of individuals, whose styles contrasted markedly. The diminutive Jayaratne, who excelled in the back foot cover drive and leg-side stumpings off the pacemen, carried on from where S.C. Samarasinghe left off. And who couldn’t help but be intrigued by RC’s elaborate ritual when taking guard and Gowrishankaran’s St. Vitus dance, popping up and down outside the popping crease, as he awaited each delivery?
I was in awe of my heroes, and followed them all over. When the souvenirs came out I cycled to the homes of some (Jayaratne at Campbell Terrace and Thiyagarajah at Horton Place). Although I could have got their autographs through Darrell, I was keen to obtain personal audiences with them, exploiting my relationship to the captain. My romance with Royal cricket had reached its pinnacle. It was a wonderful time to be a cricket lover and a Royalist.
The End of Certainty
From about 1956 to 1962, the Royal-Thomian held its greatest fascination and romance for me. My loss of faith commenced when Royal, despite its awesome bowling firepower, still conceded 197 on the first day of 1962 Royal-Thomian. (I was not alone in entertaining visions of the Thomians collapsing for under 50. Royal’s campaign, that was widely expected to “Dunkirk” the Thomians, had turned into her Khe Sanh.) Clearly, the Thomians were not the pushovers I assumed them to be. (Analysing why a side so certain of victory was held to a draw, the importance of the toss was driven home to me. We had to bat first if we had any hope of winning the two-day game.)
In the months following, amidst post mortems, I was overcome by disillusionment and fatalism. If Royal couldn’t win with Darrell, we would be hard put to do so any other time.
From 1962 onwards, in the wake of a Thomian resurgence, and my entry into teenhood from adolescence, my idols began to lose their shine. 1963 was a watershed for me. I left a government bungalow at C84 Gregory’s Avenue and softball cricket played barefoot on soft sand, and a house with enough garden and wall space in which to play cricket alone, forever. The Beatles dethroned Elvis (my hero since 1956) and I gained my first exposure to the bitterness of defeat when Boake lost her preliminary under XIV house cricket game under my captaincy.
The first XI cricket seasons immediately following 1962 were an anti-climax for me. Never again would Royal go into the Royal-Thomian with the capacity to rout our opponents with time to spare. Never again would the Thomians arrive for the big match intent purely on survival. Alas, Royal cricket seasons would never hold the same magic and grandeur for me. Only two years after we had an attack that gave our opponents sleepless nights, we were mourning a big match defeat at the Royal Fair held at the former racecourse. (The euphoria of the following year was derived not from victory but from narrowly escaping defeat.) In addition, I was too close to the action, under the critical gaze of others, experiencing the ups and downs (mostly downs) associated with striving for representative honours, for Royal cricket to retain its earlier mystique.
To my mind, 1962 represented Royal’s best chance for a big match victory. In the same year, Colts missed winning the Sara trophy by a mere fraction of a point; coming so close because of Darrell’s bowling genius. It seemed to me that the two Sri Lankan cricket teams I identified with most had allowed once in lifetime opportunities to slip through. Australia was also losing her dominance over England, which she didn’t regain until 1974. Yes, 1962-3 was a watershed in my life as a cricket follower. It was a simple case of innocence lost. The old certainties were fading and my Gods (musical as well as cricketing) were becoming increasingly human.Eardley Lieversz
Article first appeared in the Royal College Cricket Souvenir of 1999 and subsequently in the Autumn 1999 (vol 6, no. 3) issue of Floreat.