A ‘Big Match’ ban: Monkey business?

Friday, 24 February 2017 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

01FEVER – There is a sense in which tradition (not always defensible on rational grounds) is a rite of passage for politicians as much as for schoolboys in which to “Be (Thou) Forever” means players from all walks of life partake in a sip of fun (which, if taken in the right spirit, can be harmless). However, when the liberty to drink from the well of youth entails spitting in the face of dignity, decorum, and Dhamma (allegedly), the powers that be may “Learn And Depart” to take a less philosophical view and side with the law of the land, directing police and other authorities to crack down on errant motorists or miscreants who are a threat to public well-being, health, and safety (while not incurring the displeasure of responsible traditionalists)


It’s that time of the year again, or almost. When God’s in His heaven, and all Bodhisattvas have attained Nirvana or are almost there. When all boys’ schools in Colombo (and almost all girls’ schools, too – perhaps) have one Big Idea on their minds – maybe. It’s known as the Big Match, and almost always comes with a plethora of symptoms commonly referred to as ‘fever’.

(For a detailed analysis from a cultural anthropology perspective – but with the writer’s tongue firmly lodged in his cheek – see http://www.ft.lk/article/398455/Match-fever-and-making-sense-of-all-this--March-madness- for an attempt by yours truly to circumscribe the circus. So I’m not reinventing that wheel in this column.)

This year, however, a Cloud Has appeared On the Horizon (CaH2a+7OH). It takes the form of some saffron-robed moralists railing against the evil of alcohol (CnH2n+1OH). The point these ethical commentators makes seems to irrefutably link the corruption of society with an ethanol-induced mayhem that the Big Match brings. As if no one else but truckers on the rampage cause traffic chaos and make inroads into public well-being, health, and safety. Methinks the venerable monks have forgotten too readily and too soon the mayhem often caused by their saffron-robed fellows at protest marches, strikes, rallies, demonstrations, and the like. 

So it is not surprising that there has been no little consternation that the sasanic opprobrium this week was expressed at what was ostensibly a state-endorsed press conference (being held as it was under the aegis of the Government Information Department). It appears that not only is this elite brotherhood of clergy incensed by the moral decrepitude that schoolboy cricket entails, its offended members also have the blessings of the chief executive’s good offices with which to voice their concerns and more solidly plank their campaign. Mathata Thitha (‘Full Stop to Fully Soused’) – from a previous president’s platform – is alive and well…


I wasn’t at the press conference. But to watch the video of it doing the rounds on social media made me realise I had missed a treat 02by way of a moral treatise to make the ethical animals amongst us smile. Silly me, to miss a bunch of moralist bodhisattvas playing at being silly, er, persons. (Too many B-words being bandied about here…)

I was hooked from the get-go; because the venerable monk’s sense of humour is a killer (he re-baptised the OB in “old boys” to now mean “old beasts” – based on their behaviour under the influence). Soon, the deeper meaning and greater significance of his wisdom became apparent to viewers and congregants – a précis of which follows below:

  • Big matches are the bane of Buddhist schools
  • It’s all part of a conspiracy to undermine the discipline of Maha Vidyalayas (but of course!)
  • The relevant authorities are reluctant to act, so the cancer of alcoholism is proliferating right throughout the body politic
  • Based on empirical evidence, it is provable that Big Matches cannot be conducted in a decent and decorous manner which will not harm our (ancient and honourable) civilisation
  • Therefore it is incumbent on the powers that be to ban Big Matches forthwith – in the name of decorum, dignity, and Dhamma
  • In addition (in case the gravity of the argument above does not carry the day) it should be done in the name of law and order
  • School principals must take the incumbency of this upon themselves, in similar vein to mould Maha Vidyalayas cited, which have set the tone by being a Big Match-banning model and example
  • If the police and other civil authorities won’t cooperate with the heads of schools in this respect, Big Matches must be banned by the law of the land
  • It is the primary responsibility of the state guardians of Sri Lanka
  • “We say with responsibility that Big Matches are a public menace. We don’t witness this type of hooliganism on the high streets of any country in the world. It is a public mandate given to break the laws…”

Present concerns

Well, that’s put a spoke in the parade’s wheels! Strike one against custom, tradition, and the systematic ritual warfare between boys’ schools which has been a hallowed rite of passage. (As well as, admittedly, a harrying time for hassled members of the public subjected to attendant high-jinks.) It remains to be seen what action the powers that be will direct the authorities to take to curb the potential (oh, all right then – actual/physical) threats and challenges to ‘civil’ society which could – and do – ensue. Or it may well be that the divide in Government ranks – political, personal, philosophical – will pre-empt any sterner measures than the police mete out to cycle parades and trucking than has been par for the course over the years. 

The President, for one, may well be ignorant of and apathetic to, the institution and nuances of Big Matches in the Big City. The Prime Minister, on the other hand, has long been well-acquainted with the hallowed traditions of the Old Beasts’ – er, Old Boys’ Tents – and, if memory serves me right, has more than once entered into the, um, spirit of the event. It is the bedrock of this ‘royalism’ and that ‘loyalism’ that has propped up populist leaders for decades.

But, ironic as it may sound, there is much to agree with – if not empathise with – in the piqued prelate’s pontificating. Of course, with the obvious exception of his outrageous conspiracy theory that it’s all part of a plot to destabilise the Dhamma. There are many things in heaven and earth – or samsara and nirvana – than are dreamt of in your philosophy, O horrified monks! But just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean everyone’s out to get you. [Unless, of course, they are. Until the proof of such an outrageous allegation shows up in real life, the court of public opinion is free to speculate that some venerable seers may be more (let’s say) visionary than pragmatists would allow for one’s mental health. Useless to argue with the prophets who know it all and will be moved by neither lever nor logic.]

Be that as it may, certain trends and truisms related to the ethos and gravamen of the venerable monks’ press conference are sufficient to make more than mere school principals sit up and take notice. 

Principals and principles

For one, that the moralistic outpouring of offended guardians of the moral law always makes good copy… but often leaves a bad taste in the mouth, and a queasy feeling in the stomach. There is a sense that something meaningful is being said. With that said, the significance of what is being said is lost in the slick of vitriol, vituperation, vapidity, with which it is said. A fonte puro pura defluit aqua… or let speakers and readers alike remember pure water flows from a pure spring.

For another, that the seemingly innocuous coupling of executive ire against social evils such as alcohol and any grouping of equally irate monks is a recipe for such Pharisaic opportunism as to make the boundary between ‘church’ and ‘state’ seem nowhere weaker than in the public square – where it must be the weakest in a secular democracy. Far too often than is healthy for a supposedly secular democracy has the dominant culture of a so-called ancient civilisation imposed itself with majoritarian chauvinism. 

Far be it from us to advocate pandemonium à la cycle parades unregulated by the police, but to call for a ban on Big Matches per se because the availability of alcohol poses threats to maintaining the peace is pushing common sense too far in the direction of absurdity. For once, the subject minister seems to agree with the conventional wisdom, rather than coming down on the side of politicos bending over backwards to please the all-powerful prelates. 

Then again, there is the principle of ‘risus abundant in ore stultorum’ – that laughter is abundant in the mouths of fools. In our rush to poke fun at the prelates’ pretentiousness, let the powers that be not overlook the fair points being made about the perniciousness of the right spirit for an occasion in the wrong hands. Laissez-faire, laissez-passer, can easily turn sour on the lips when the freedom to twirl one’s brolly – or beer can – in the air poses a threat to someone else’s proboscis.

There is also the hypocrisy of rants and raves which home in on the other. When judgment must begin in one’s own household. And consider the greater evils for which they and their ilk are also responsible. It won’t be the first time clergy of any stripe have railed against the ills of illicit liquor indulged irresponsibly; it won’t be the last. By the way, at least have the courtesy and civility to consider a common and concerted platform against paedophilia, with which more than one philosophy struggles, and which has become a truly pernicious evil in our country. 

While the bottom line of the bodhisattvas’ bemoaning may be nauseating to many liberals and civil libertarians among my readers, it behoves us to pause a moment and ponder on the larger point the venerable monks might be making. As much as work is the curse of the drinking classes – as Wilde essayed over a century ago (not nearly as long ago as the genesis of some Big Matches) – drinking is also the bane of schoolboys unaccustomed to the heady spirit in which Big Match fever is imbibed. Been there, done that, still have the T-shirt. But let us maintain a sense of proportion about the boundaries between civil liberties and civilian responsibility before raining on anyone’s parade. Or, as the products of some erudite maha vidyalaya might say: “Sabbe sattha bhavanthu sukhi tattha.” 

May all beings be happy. Even if it kills them a little in spirit. As long as no other animals are harmed in the process.