By Devendra Pandey
Colombo March 10 (Indian Express): On Friday, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe walked into the Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC) ground not as the head of his country but as an ordinary fan.
The country might still be in a State of Emergency owing to the ethnic conflict in Kandy. But Wickremesinghe couldn’t help himself and understandably so. It was the day of The Battle of the Blues, after all. And as one of Royal College’s most illustrious alumni, how could he not be there in person at the SSC to cheer for his school team as they took on their arch and historic rivals St Thomas, the Thomians?
A state head at a school match in a time of Emergency, you say? You had to be in Colombo to know the significance. This isn’t any ordinary school match after all. There’s history, there’s tradition and there is a lot of pride at stake.
It’s called the “big match” for a reason. And Friday saw the 139th edition of the big clash between the Royals and the Thomians. Yes, it’s a tradition that started two years before the Ashes and has remained the cynosure of the sports calendar year after year ever since.
Not surprisingly, the result of the India-Bangladesh match from the previous night occupied a brief column in the newspapers. The rest of the sports pages were all about the only cricket event that actually matters for local Sri Lankans. It was all about the Big Match, the Battle of the Blues.
Ironically, while an international match pitting a team as popular as the Indians attracted a handful on Thursday night, close to 18,000 including the Prime Minister turned up at Sri Lanka’s oldest cricket venue for one of the oldest school competitions in the world. And this was only Day One by the way.
The carnival will go on over the weekend with the finals scheduled for Sunday. Around 30,000 are expected to turn up.
“The country has witnessed a civil war but has remained firm. The game has only grown stronger. And this one game is special for everyone. It’s like a major reunion. Whichever part of the world they are presently, those who have studied in these two schools will come here to watch the cricket over the next three days,” says Zulki Hamid, a former Royal.
Hamid is right. The Prime Minister was not the only high-profile politician in attendance at SSC. Out of the 250 Members of Parliament in Sri Lanka, around 50 of them have studied in one of these two vintage schools. It’s the same with many members of the cricket team. Kusal Perera who took apart the Indian bowling attack on Tuesday was a Royal while Sri Lanka’s first Test captain Duleep Mendis is a former Thomian.
For the locals, the Big Match is like any other international game. The organizers have ensured that the live telecast of the match this year will take the big event to even bigger audiences, even to those who haven’t been able to make it to SSC.
Long-standing local cricket rivalries exist in every major center in every country. In Mumbai, Dadar Union and Shivaji Park Gymkhana have had their own history and of course there are those spread across England. But none of them is likely to attract the kind of large audiences that are seen over the big weekend in Colombo.
The match generally attracts only former pupils but when Narendra Modi travelled to Sri Lanka, there was talk of the Indian Prime Minister actually landing up. Eventually he didn’t.
“We were told he will come but maybe due to security issues he didn’t come,” Hamid points out.
Music never stops
Back at the SSC, the buzz is exactly what we’re used to whenever Sri Lanka play at home. The music never stops. The crowd is also segregated specifically. The present batch of students generally occupy one side of the venue while the west side is filled with former students.
Thomian Saddlebreds’ is a section dedicated to the Thomian alumni whereas the Royals have their own enclosure. Some of the stands are kept for corporates. Mustang is a stand which has been occupied for over 100 years by the veterans.
“Our preparation starts from August every year. And we take it as seriously as organizing any international game. Security is paramount but we want people to be here and relive their old days. There will be drink and dance. Once you meet your schoolmates, you forget whether you’re a corporate boss, politician or bureaucrat,” Hamid says.
The significance and magnitude of the event can get to some of the players, all of them still just teenagers, and it’s their first tryst with an ambience of this nature. Except over this weekend, their matches aren’t attended by anyone but parents and teachers.
Thilina Kandamby played 30 ODIs and appeared in five T20Is. He is presently the coach of the Royals. “Just focus on the ball,” he keeps telling his pupils during the tea break. It’s after all a big moment for every player involved in the Big Match. People won’t forget a batting or bowling feat.
Players are given a guard of honor with their classmates holding their respective school flags. At 15 years of age, it’s difficult to not get carried away.
“I have played international cricket, I know about dealing with pressure. These kids are not used to it. Because of the amplifiers and the loud music, it becomes more difficult to concentrate. I just told them to focus on the ball, try and be aware of what is happening. Just concentrate,” he says.
The two captains, Pasindu Sorriyabandara (Royals) and Delon (St Thomas), have their faces plastered on hoardings outside the venue. Chanduka A, who represented the Royals in the early 80s and tasted victory as Captain, believes that how a youngster performs under this immense pressure and spotlight is a big window into his temperament.
“I have seen only those who survive the third day of this cricket carnival make it at higher level. Days One and Two are fine but batting on the third day pitch will ensure what the player is made of,” he says.
And maybe we will see the emergence of the next Perera or the next Mendis in two days’ time.