Moments that make memories of the Battle of the Blues

Tuesday, 5 March 2019 01:06 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


By Mevan Pieris

Cricket that had germinated among schoolboys of Britain received prominence in the 19th century when leading public schools such as Eton played Harrow as a big match and a few years later in 1837, the only two universities of that time, Oxford and Cambridge played each other for the first time to be labelled as England’s Battle of the Blues. About the same time in Ceylon, an academy sprang up on top of San Sebastian Hill and a few years later in 1951, Bishop James Chapman, an Etonian cricketer himself, started S. Thomas’ College (STC) on top of Mutwal Hill. 

In 1878, the Academy (later Royal College) met STC on a stretch of green in the vicinity of Christ Church Galle Face, in what is known to be the earliest inter-school cricket fixture of this country and the inaugural local ‘Battle of the Blues’. Until the turn of the century, the leather ruled the willow in low scoring games. Royal’s score of 9 runs in the 1885 encounter and the controversial manner in which the match ended is yet a talking point. During early times the school principals stood as umpires and warden Stone had shaded himself with a colourful umbrella. 

Cricketers were clad in cream flannels, buck skin boots, and a hat, and carried a cap in their hip pocket to be worn only when bowling or after tea time. Players and spectators came across the lake in ferries, steam boats, horse and trap, rickshaw or by foot. The match soon became a key social event with ladies and gentlemen that formed the crowd dressed in rich garb. The principals ceased to be umpires in 1912, and gave way to distinguished past cricketers of the two schools. 

The bat had now begun to speak and in 1914, the finest batting display until then was seen off the willow of S. (Thambiraja) Saravanamuttu, who in an innings of 87 runs, carpet drove and smashed anything short off the back foot with telling effect. When in full cry, he had spotted one of his brothers in a scuffle in the crowd and had dropped his bat and rushed into the crowd to his brother’s assistance and until he returned, umpires and the Royal team took a breather. Such was the dominance of the Saravanamuttus of old times.

The series continued and not even the great world war could intervene. In 1918, S. Thomas’ College shifted to Mt. Lavinia and Royal had already done so to Thurstan Road. The Thomian cricketers of this period had to endure terrible hardships by exchanging the beautiful playing fields at Mutwal for an expanse of sea sand with weeds and crab holes scattered all over. That was the case until 1922 when the hill beyond Hotel Road was cut and the earth used to give a layer of firm top soil. 

The match had now shifted to the old Singhalese Sports Club grounds opposite St. Bridgets Convent. Cadjan huts and canvas tents provided shelter for spectators. The Thomian cricketers were hosted for lunch by warden Stone and had to walk to the Mount Lavinia station to take the train to Bambalapitiya. From there the team clad in blazors went to the grounds in open rickshaws, cheered all the way. The Royalists on the other hand, after meeting their principal cycled to the grounds. 

One of the most exciting games of the series was the 1923 encounter when Royal won in the last over of the match. In 1925 the left handed Neil Joseph of Royal devastated the Thomian attack scoring the fastest century of the series in only 65 minutes. He followed up with another gem of a century in the next year. The long series of 140 matches played so far have evolved greatly. Individual performances of merit and nerve racking moments are too many to mention other than to recall just a few of the very best.

It was the Jubilee match of 1929 and Royal had to get 35 runs to win in just 12 minutes of play left. Sportsmanship and positive play reigned supreme and in those 12 minutes, Hermon, and Selvadurai had bowled as many as 6 overs without adopting time wasting tactics, and Royal won the match. What mattered most was not who won the game but how it was played. In this same match Royal’s FC de Saram made 72 runs in his debut, and two years later scored 140 runs before entering Oxford where he carved a new image for the country by scoring  a superb century against the touring Australians and also making a thousand runs in the English county season. 

Another Royalist whose contributions to cricket are written in letters of gold, is C. Ivers Gunasekera who made his appearance in 1938. He can be considered as the greatest all-rounder that represented the country, with many a century against international teams and outstanding leg spin that baffled the very best. In 1943, the game shifted to the new Tamil Union grounds known as the Colombo Oval, and Thomians won the match with KLM Perera and Sam Elapatha involved in a record breaking last wicket partnership of 114 runs. Not even the Second World War which had broken out in all its fury could interrupt the series. 

In 1949, S. Thomas’ needed only six runs to win with six wickets in hand when the last over was bowled by leg spinner Gamini Goonesena to Thomian skipper Shanthi Kumar, who to the surprise of all was ultra-cautious. In this same match the Royal skipper Channa Gunasekere displaying fine sportsmanship had called back the Thomian skipper after he had been ruled run out. So, did Kumar think he was obliged to settle for a draw? Goonesena later entered Cambridge and made a record breaking double century against Oxford at Lords. 

During the 1950s the matches played at the Colombo Oval, started each day at noon with a short milk interval at around 2 p.m. and a tea break a bit later. A nerve racking match was witnessed in 1951. Royal declared setting STC to get 191 runs and with 30 minutes of play left, only 37 runs were needed with 6 wickets in hand. Wickets then began to tumble and STC fell short of the target by just five runs. 

In 1954, a match saving innings of 48 runs was seen from the bat of a Thomian fresher then only 15 years old to whom the great Gamini Salgado, then coach of Royal, had reason to present a book with the writing “For a great innings played, for a greater innings to be played yet in life. May you play that as well as you did in your first big match”. What words of encouragement. What an impression even a small innings could make on a man that had made a century in his day. This is only one small example of the affection that prevailed between Royalists and Thomians.

The small boy so honoured was no less a person than Michael Tissera who subsequently shone as one of the all-time great batsmen and captains of Sri Lanka. Ronald Reid’s record breaking innings of 158 made in 1956 and Michael Wille’s century in the following year were simply magnificent. The two schools were now producing cricketers of very high calibre and spectator interest in the big match was escalating. In the 1960s the Oval was bursting at its seams with spectators. 

In 1962, the Thomian captain Keith Labrooy made a sporty declaration at tea time, setting Royal 143 runs to get in 120 minutes. When the last over was bowled, Royal needed only 12 more runs with 3 wickets in hand but opted to play it safe. Thomian prayers were answered, and the match was drawn. Royal’s Vijaya Malalasekere’s hurricane century made in the following year, stands next to that of Neil Joseph. The Oval had now seen 10 consecutive draws when the 1964 match was played. When the final innings started STC needed 70 runs to win in 50 minutes, and got it with 10 minutes to spare. 

The feature of the match was undoubtedly the brilliant innings of 96 runs made by Sarath Seneviratne who in the following year too missed a well-deserved century by just three runs and could be labelled as the most unlucky cricketer of the series. Another fine Thomian batsman Anura Tennekoon stamped his class during the same period to later captain Sri Lanka and emerge as one of the finest batsmen this country has produced. 

Duleep Mendis cracked a record breaking 182 runs in the 1972 fixture. “It was champaigne batting at its scintillating best…. He propelled the ball at unbelievable speed…… cuts, graceful drives, towering pulls….. reduced the fielders to mere onlookers….. Friend and foe alike were held spell bound by a mastery display”. Undoubtedly this innings can be rated as one of the very best in the series. 

Duleep too brought great credit to the country hammering the very best bowlers in the world. The contribution of Royalists and Thomians to this country’s cricket until full Test status was granted has been immeasurable. Not only runs had to be made but wickets also had to be taken. Some of the most successful wicket takers in international cricket were CI Gunasekere, Darrel Lieverz, Mevan Pieris, Neil Chanmugam, Fritzroy Crozier and DayaSahabandu.

In 1979, the series had entered its centenary and the match was to be a three day encounter on the SSC grounds at Maitland Place. Thomians needed 167 runs to avert an innings defeat and when tea was taken on the third day, eight wickets were down for 161 runs. Then came the fight back of the century with Mahinda Halangoda and CP Richards weathering the storm. When Halangoda cracked a boundary in the last over to reach seventy, at the other end was Richard the lion hearted on twenty. The Thomian score stood at 252 for 8 wickets when the crowd invaded the grounds. Thomian grit was proved to be no myth.

Over the past 40 years the match has been played over three days at the SSC grounds on placid pitches. The Royal-Thomian is truly a historic event which has not only survived the passage of time but has grown in every respect to be the greatest sporting event of this country. Each year new faces arrive and new costumes as well. The ground invasions at regular intervals when wickets tumble and the colourful parades of dancing schoolboys round the grounds with loud bands providing the needed music are things of the past. It is a more serious game of cricket that prevails today with professional umpires in attendance. No more horse and trap, rickshaws and bicycles to parade on desolate streets of Colombo, and instead mighty processions of gaily decorated cars and trucks with flags a flying and bands a playing, provide the match fever and traffic congestions as well. The bonds of friendship and mutual respect that prevail among Royalists and Thomians in every walk of life is greatly due to this series of matches. The two teams sit for dinner after the match and the skippers make speeches having always a kind word for their opponents and strongly believing that there is no Royal without S. Thomas’ and no S. Thomas’ without Royal. May these two great schools continue to stand as a beacon of light to all around.