WHAT 100 YEARS. Of TRADITION COULD DO !!
by HUGH KARUNANAYAKE
The Royal Thomian cricket match played annually for the past 144 years is the second
longest school cricket series in the world. It has, over the years developed into a hoary institution, its cricketing traditions imitated by other schools, all now having their own “Big Matches” but not getting anywhere near the original and pioneer game. Consequently, the Royal Thomian continues to be a subject of imitation by all and sundry. The match has over the years, developed into a venerable institution and its influence has certainly touched the hearts of cricket fans around the globe.
The introduction of spectator participation into the game of cricket should be acknowledged to the Post World War 2 emergence of the West Indies as a globally competitive cricketing nation. The many West Indian fans in England should be recognised as the originators of what could be described as ” spectator choreography” where spectators became animated fans of the game being played in the middle. Some commentators have described the phenomenon as ‘ calypso cricket”, after the famous calypso “Cricket lovely cricket” resounding with the chorus ” with those little pals of mine, Ramadhin and Valentine”, the song made famous by maestro calypso singer Jamaica Johnny.
The Royal Thomian match even in its early pre World War 1 years , showed some animation from schoolboy spectators, who breached the ‘bonds of civility’ of the time, by marching across the cricket grounds, school flags in hand !The bubble burst when in the mid 1940s supporters of the two schools engaged in a bit of dance and song giving voice to well known ditties of the day.
The event has since reached the point where spectators do not attend the match only to watch the cricket, but also to enjoy three days of fun filled riotous behaviour.
International cricket too has cottoned on, the trend having commenced with the Sri Lankan victory at the World Cup in 1996. Supporters of other cricketing nation have since hopped on to the bandwagon, with the usually introverted spectators from the sub continent breaking into song or dance at the fall of a wicket, or a hit over the boundary.
Zimbabwe even introduced an official brass band to their international games, while New Zealand stepped in with a more sophisticated jazzy beat. Emma Levine is an internationally well known British cricket journalist and photographer. She authored two books ” Wills cricket mania. A kind of pilgrimage” and ” Into the passionate soul of sub continental cricket”; both books were published over two decades ago.
Emma Levine had heard about the Royal Thomian cricket match and was determined to taste the feel of spectator participation. Her experience is best described in her own words, which follow and are extracted from her book
” Into the passionate soul of Sub-Continental cricket “.
“…if I were to be asked what I thought was the best example of audience participation in sorts, it would be a close run finish between a Calcutta Test Match (an occasion I had the pleasure of witnessing in 1993, and provided the nearest feeling to a religious experience I have had) and school cricket in Sri Lanka. Two years ago I had the good fortune to learn of the unique and mad world of the Royal Thomian( the most notorious and best known match in the country), and during England’s tour of Sri Lanka, I broke off from their test match to go and see it. It was beyond my wildest expectations, and I made sure that the next time I went, I would be better prepared for the game. It was one of the highlights when I returned for a grand tour of Sri Lanka’s end of year big matches.”
“It was a tour that took me to many of the school matches, which were usually between rival colleges placing a highly competitive and celebrated two or three day match. My first taste of these matches was at the Royal Thomian match which is the most famous cricket match in the country. For this reason it is also the match responsible for the greatest number of hangovers that a cricket match could ever be responsible for!
In Sri Lanka, tradition demanded that the annual matches be enjoyed in the form of riotous celebration. School cricket, I learned extremely quickly, was a different sporting experience in this country, one which bore no relation at all to the game in the land of its origin. The main way of integrating oneself into the melee was to unashamedly consume as much alcohol as possible, and preferably a mix of arrack (a potent spirit made from palm toddy and positively addictive) with ginger ale, vodka, beer, and whisky. Start in the late morning as the first ball is being delivered and progress throughout the day, increasing meanwhile the vocal support, dancing, and frequency of pitch invasions.”
” It is difficult to explain the phenomenon of a match like the Royal Thomian. This annual three day match is played by two of the premier institutions in Colombo, Royal and St Thomas Colleges. It has the significance of being the second longest continuous school’s cricket match in the world, and is beaten only by an annual Adelaide College match which bowled its first delivery in 1878. That is between Prince Alfred’s where the Chappell brothers were educated, and St Peter’s. The Eton- harrow encounter, which is the only school’s event remotely comparable in England, was interrupted during World War 1.
Back to Emma Levine: “Even the most prestigious gathering of Sri Lanka’s elite (MPs,Company Directors,lawyers, and what were considered to be ‘respectable’ professionsls) revealed their true souls to be nothing more than that of rumbustious schoolboys. There was a constant background of music coming from small brass bands playing funky tunes that got everyone on their feet.”
And “I joined the prestigious and exclusive Mustangs Tent, which is a members only club consisting of the higher echelons of Sri Lankan Society. It is a traditional male only enclave and special permission had to be obtained from the Tent Secretary. That decision received some highly disapproving looks, and remarks such as “if we let her come in, they’ll all want to.”
The members were as bucolic as the rest of the crowd. I danced with a distinguished company Director to a Latin American tune, and my sobriety was definitely more conducive to keeping my feet than his swaying efforts to remain vertical. He confided that he had given his 16 year old son, a pupil of Royal College, strict instructions to ‘ get drunk, tease the girls, and behave badly’. Why do you encourage your son to do that? I asked with surprise as he attempted to swing me round. He gave a long and hearty chuckle. ‘Because I did when I was his age’ he replied.
Well, that sums it up. The RoyTho Air Bus charter flight exclusively for Royalists and Thomians is due to take off on March 2, 2024 from Melbourne, and will bring scores of old boys eager to join the fun. See you there!