Almost any cricketer who competes in the annual Royal-Thomian Big Match will describe it as a surreal experience. For many who have grown up in the institutions, to play the Big Match is the finest achievement of their schooling years, so highly is it regarded by their peers. Everything about the game is monumental: the crowds, the noise, the history, the hype. But what happens when Royal-Thomian cricketers graduate to the next level? Senior cricket matches in Sri Lanka, though often tougher in terms of competition, are usually played out in empty grounds, attract a fraction of the media fanfare and do not have as much riding on the result.
Three cricketers presently making the transition into senior cricket are Chamika Karunaratne (Royal College captain in the 2014 Big Match), Akthab Cader (S. Thomas’ College fast bowler who also played in the 2014 Big Match) and Devind Pathmanathan (who captained Royal College to victory in 2013). They play for different clubs and all have tasted a little success at the domestic level, but what they miss in Sri Lanka’s first-class tournaments is the pomp that pervaded their schoolboy exploits.
Thankfully, there is one tournament that captures a little of the sense of occasion they are used to from their younger years. Red Bull Campus Cricket - a global T20 tournament, with a World Final due to be played in Colombo in September - is in its seventh year, and all three young cricketers play for their university side, Colombo’s Business Management School (BMS).
Two years ago BMS were world Champions, having defeated top university teams from South Africa and Bangladesh on their way to the title. Having won the Sri Lankan Campus Cricket tournament earlier this year, BMS are in the World Final tournament again and will play five other teams from around the world.
“Red Bull Campus Cricket is something we look forward to and there’s an atmosphere of an international tournament,” says Cader, who was the leading fast bowler for the Sinhalese Sports Club in the first-class tournament this year.
“There is a lot we can learn from teams that come from all over the world. And even in the local tournament that we have to win in order to qualify for the World Final, the competition is tougher year-on-year. This year we just scraped through to be honest. It’s high quality cricket.”
Tournaments such as Campus Cricket also help keep promising Royal-Thomian cricketers in the system, says Karunaratne, who played for NCC in the most recent domestic season. As a domestic system can sometimes feel like a step down - in terms of wider interest at least - many Royal-Thomian players are tempted to prioritise other career prospects, sometimes ditching cricket altogether.
“When you study at Royal the dream is to play at the Big Match, and once you finish school, a lot of players concentrate only on their studies or go overseas,” says Karunaratne. So a tournament like Campus Cricket, where the competition is tough and you get those high quality facilities and experience closer to what you get in international cricket, is really valuable.”
Pathmanathan, a left-arm spinner who played the most recent season for Kalutara Town Club, but is likely to move back to a Colombo club for the forthcoming season, says Campus Cricket helped tide young cricketers over during their off-season.
“Generally you have the club season at the start of the year and the mercantile cricket season later in the year, so it’s great to have a tournament like Campus Cricket to keep in touch during that period. You also don’t get to play a lot of high-quality T20 cricket at the age group level in Sri Lanka, so this helps us hone those short-format skills as well.”
So successful has Campus Cricket been that Sri Lanka’s official cricket establishment has also begun to take notice and now sees it as an asset to the development of cricket in the country.
“When I first started playing the Campus Cricket tournament a few years back, cricket administrators were a bit reluctant to let us play in the tournament,” Karunaratne says.
“But now they have seen the kind of quality the tournament produces. A lot of players from the other teams have gone on to play for their country. Now they are very happy for us to take time and play the tournament.”
The Campus Cricket World Final will feature teams from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and the UAE and will be played at the NCC and SSC between 23 and 29 September.