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where monotony is savored

by Mahinda Wijesinghe (Sunday Island Jan-28-2001)

"There is no cricket match played in Ceylon that creates more excitement or attracts a larger crowd than the annual "struggle for supremacy" between Royal and St. Thomas’, whose rivalry dates back to the year 1880." So wrote S. P. Foenander, the pioneering sports writer of Ceylon, in his highly accepted and readable book ‘Sixty years of Ceylon Cricket’ published in 1924. Over 75 years later, the story is much the same.

Tradition, myth, history, facts and fiction, are intermingled when chronicling or reminiscing about this match that is the second, longest, uninterrupted cricket match in the world. Also it is without doubt, the first and, probably, the only school match that is billed to be played over 3 days. No wonder, the Match Committee has a giant-sized job at hand each year. Here are a set of officials from both colleges who, each year, do an honorary job. That they manage to maintain discipline amidst unbridled enjoyment is a tribute to their organizational ability. After all, there is singing, cheering and the imbibing of you-know-what a plenty. Yet, a match has to be played. It is up to us, the spectators to co-operate by not indulging in any act - such as running on to the field of play - that would dislocate the smooth conduct of the match. The officials of the Match Committee have been working almost round the clock and attending to all the multifarious details of this mind-boggling event. They are not asking for kudos. No, they have worked so hard in order that we enjoy ourselves, but importantly, we must not let our enjoyment impede others in anyway.

Coming to the play itself. The first and the much debated /discussed/analysed match was the one played in 1885. The respective souvenirs published before each annual encounter by the respective schools record different results. While S. Thomas’ claim a win, the Royalists state that it was a drawn encounter. The Thomians claim a victory on the basis that the Royalists, having been dismissed for 9 (yes, nine) runs and having conceded 170/6 to S. Thomas’ at the end of the first day, did not turn up the next day. Whereas, Royal College authorities insists that the team did turn up but the match could not be played due to inclement weather and that was that. If, as the Thomians claim, the Royalists did not turn up for the game, then it is up to the umpires to award the match to the Thomians. As per the Laws of Cricket, a team cannot, unilaterally, claim a win.

None of the contemporary reports of this 1885 incident - that can be gleaned from newspaper reports, for instance - indicate any reference to the umpires awarding the match to the Thomians. The Laws of Cricket on this issue was the same then as now, regarding the result of a match. That is, if a side refuses to play or is absent at the time the match commences or resumes either after a break or the previous day’s play, the umpires have the option of awarding the match to the team that is present and prepared to play. Logical enough.

However, we the Royalists have no axe to grind with S. Thomas’. In fact, it adds flavour to the series when these seemingly unresolved issues linger. There is another theory offered by the die-hard supporters of Royal as to what ‘really’ happened at the 1885 Royal-Thomian match. I hasten to add, that I do not subscribe to this story, but it is good telling. The story is that the Royal College sleuths had ‘discovered’ that both scorers of this now-infamous match happened to be Thomians. And, these sleuths have also discovered, or so they claim, that these two Thomians could only count up to nine, which was also coincidentally the Royal College total! Sounds far-fetched? Well, before all my Thomian friends hang and quarter me on the nearest kajupuhulang tree, I will be the first to agree that it is surely a far-fetched story, because I know that all my present friends at STC CAN count past 9!

Flippancy apart, it is interesting to note what happened the year - in 1884 - previous to this much-discussed game. S. Thomas’ batting first were bundled out for a paltry 82, and then went on to beat Royal - would you believe it? - by an innings! Royal was dismissed for 20 and 60. STC went even better the next year by dismissing the Royalists for a paltry 9 runs. Which reminds me, a few years ago, in a Saravanamuttu Trophy game between Colombo Cricket Club and the Tamil Union, the latter declared their innings closed at 9/9, probably preferring not be dismissed for a total of 9 runs - and ‘equal’ the dubious record held by Royal College. Enjoying the scene from the opposite side was H. N. (Porky) de Silva who was a coach of Royal College!

The important thing however is the game. It is an event looked forward by all Royalists and Thomians, young and old. This time - on March 1, 2 & 3 - it is the 122nd annual encounter, and the event would be as enjoyable as any of the previous encounters. The colorful marquees, loud bands comprising mainly musicians of doubtful ability playing incessantly, exuberant schoolboys, spirituous old boys of both colleges recounting the ‘old college days’, well-wishers looking on quite bewildered at the goings-on, hopeful young girls dressed in all their finery hoping to either meet their boy friends or attract one while protective mothers keep their weather eye open (in vain, of course) for just such an eventuality, members of the staff of both colleges trying (in vain again) to identify the young scoundrels who are misbehaving, and so on. The show goes on as it has for the past century and a quarter. It is the same each year, but so far, none has complained it is monotonous.