Wherever colonial Britain stamped its military footprint, it left several legacies in the territories it occupied. One might say that Ceylon was one of those that escaped relatively unscathed unlike India and some African colonies whose populations did suffer death and deprivation. Like the early trappings of representative government, there were other British legacies that [...]


Tales from the past: When cricket was corruption-free


Wherever colonial Britain stamped its military footprint, it left several legacies in the territories it occupied. One might say that Ceylon was one of those that escaped relatively unscathed unlike India and some African colonies whose populations did suffer death and deprivation.

Like the early trappings of representative government, there were other British legacies that persist until today in a much more exciting form and format such as cricket, unlike the colonial administration that was kept alive for several years after the country gained its freedom by dedicated Ceylonese civil servants who had picked up the traditions of fair play and independent assessment of issues that came to their tables or were seen in villages.

Here I use a broad brush while admittedly there would be scholars and writers on British colonial administration who have delved into the subject with greater depth and on specific issues.

My experience is largely based on very senior civil servants I came to know and watch in action in the course of my work and university colleagues and batch mates who entered the Ceylon Civil Service which was unfortunately abolished, I think in 1963, because of what was perceived as creating a ‘class’ distinction.

I had watched many of them operate in the provinces through the kachcheri system most often when I accompanied the then Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake around the country on a number of occasions as he went on tours of inspection especially promoting food production and irrigation to benefit the small farmers.

While I intend to deal with these on another occasion what is news these days — for good or for bad — is cricket other than gathering political rigmarole. Sri Lanka cricket is now being probed on allegations of ‘match fixing’. Violations of the ICC Code of Conduct have been violated by cricketers from many countries including our own often paying for their sins. What is being probed right now concerns the 2011 World Cup final.

Whatever failings their might be today and corruption that has crept into the sport, it still seems but a speck compared to the widespread corruption that afflicts our political system and that of several other countries that are too many to mention.

However, one may criticise Britain’s colonial system and the aggravations it heaped on the local populace — in my childhood these did not appear to exist. I was too young like so many others of my generation to understand some of the deleterious effects and the impact of colonial rule and the tribulations and life-threatening harassment suffered especially by those whose dissenting voices and opposition to colonial overlordship produced tensions and clashes in society.

One can understand the harsh treatment that the local people suffered now and then. But how can one overlook and forgive the repressive features suffered by the people in post-independent years.

These hardly touched our lives for we understood little about what our elders went through. To me and surely to so many others in their childhood what mattered was that Britain had brought cricket to Ceylon which allowed us to watch the game being played by foreign teams on our soil.

However much others might disagree and critics might accuse us in later years of being slaves to games implanted here by foreigners, all we cared was to find a way to end up behind fences to watch foreign teams pitted against our own or a mixed team.

It even came to a point that I would cheer Royal College and clap enthusiastically when Royal’s M. Kasipillai went out to bat against S. Thomas’ College. This was so because my two elder brothers were Royalists. Then I entered S. Thomas’ College, first to boarding school at Gurutalawa and later to the main school at Mt Lavinia. Now the tide had turned — and my Royalist brothers became my arch enemies once a year when the annual match was played between our two schools.

How aficionados and cricket writers of today would have prayed to the deities to have watched some of the great players of past generations whose names have been writ in ‘pol size letters’ (as some acquaintances would say) in the books on cricket, perform as they watched with awe.

It is not that Ceylon, later Sri Lanka, did not produce players to match those who visited us and played, perhaps, at the only grounds then called ‘The Oval’ suitable for the occasion.

While names such as Mahadevan Sathasivam, F.C. de Saram, Sargo Jayawickrema, Ben Navaratne, Ivers Gunasekera, G.M. Spittle and others come to mind I am sure there were still others who regaled our spectators, it is the foreign players the Ceylonese enthusiasts wanted to see “make hay while the iron was hot” as a rather confused cricket lover once said.

But what joy it was to watch world record holder Don Bradman bat at the Oval though he got out early. Bradman later guessed- – perhaps correctly — that the playing pitch was short by a couple of feet.

I had watched Australian players such as Lindsay Hasset, who led an Australian Services team which included — if my memory serves me correct, and I am not mixing it with another Aussie team — Arthur Morris, Bill Brown, Syd Barnes, Neil Harvey, all rounder Keith Miller and fast bowler Ray Lindwall.

In those good old days — as we still say — when I used to collect pictures of cricketers a photograph I valued was one taken with a box camera of Neil Harvey taking a break to watch some tennis at the courts in Colombo and passed on to me.

It was a common practice in those early days for MCC teams sailing to Australia or Australian teams heading to UK to break journey in Colombo to stretch their legs and play a game of cricket.

It was on such occasions that I saw English greats such as Wally Hammond, Len Hutton, Cyril Washbrook, John Edrich, Dennis Compton and others in their cricketing flannels, a common sight then.

Going back years, I am not certain I am mixing up teams from different years. But at least I had the opportunity of seeing them in the flesh, whenever it was.

There were also those awesome players from the West Indies with the “Three Ws”- Worrel, Weekes and Walcott grabbing the limelight to be followed up later by Rohan Kanhai, Garfield Sobers and the fast bowling contingent that the Windies produced such as Andy Roberts, Sylvester Clark, Joel Garner, Michael Holding and others who used frighten the daylights out of many an opposing batsman. Tying others up in knots were the spin twins Sonny Ramadhin and Alfie Valentine.

There are many stories to tell, especially about India’s master players like Vijay Merchant, Lala Amarnath, Rusi Modi, speedster Suti Banerji and Vijaya Hazare. But time and space do not permit this.

Yet there is one story that cannot pass without mention. Once that great West Indian Learie Constantine who was later knighted by Queen Elizabeth and was High Commissioner in the UK, spent a couple of days at our college in Gurutalawa.

After some hours spent in coaching us during which he threatened to hit our bowler over the surrounding gum and cypress trees he told the students gathered in the dining room about some of his remarkable achievements on the playing field. While fielding in the slips one day, Constantine saw the batsman slice the ball that headed towards the slip cordon. Constantine the Great leapt to his feet and grabbed at the passing ball amidst cheers from the spectators.

He opened his hand and in it was a stunned bird. He never mentioned where the ball went. Apocryphal or not it was a lovely story and we youngsters were enthralled by the Constantine tales.

(Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor, Diplomatic Editor and Political Columnist of the Hong Kong Standard before moving to London where he worked for Gemini News Service. He was later Sri Lanka’s Deputy Chief of Mission.)


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