Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Colonial Hangover

by Emma Levine

If I were to be asked what I thought was the best example of audience
participation in sports, 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 1 have had) and school cricket in Sri

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 it. 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, 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! This is because the whole occasion is one great drunken
tradition. This should have come as no surprise, as the very nature of cricket
is conducive to tradition, whichever country it is played in. However, for me
its ambience had been more in the nature of a genteel summer's afternoon
relaxation, nibbling on cucumber sandwiches and sipping warm beer, with a polite
round of applause to mark a rather splendid boundary, and an embarrassed silence
to accompany the batsmen back to the pavilion after they were out first ball. Or
maybe I was being too English.

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 kind of 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 schools
event remotely comparable in England, was interrupted during World War I. There
is something absurdly incongruous about the main reason for these celebrations.
After all, the reason for the Royal Thomian match is to celebrate the rivalry
between the two most respected and prestigious schools in the country, and yet
the behaviour displayed by most of the crowd is anything but respectable. But
there is much more to the event than the cricket.

The match is really a vehicle for an annual reunion and celebration where
all ages of people, from 20 to 95, can act like schoolboys again. People return
year after year to see the match, and I spoke to many ex-pupils who now living
overseas, make it a great excuse to come back to visit. As with most cricket
scenes in the subcontinent, this one was a \ male-dominated affair, which, as
many spectators would defend, is the charm to it. Female spectators were so few
that it was difficult to spot them. Many of the young women I spoke to said that
it would be easy to be discouraged by the 'eve-teasing'. They were referring
to the male spectators' desire to taunt them unmercifully whenever the women
came into their vicinity. However, attempts to overcome such ungentlemanly
behaviour were emphasised in the match programme produced by St. Thomas by
stating rather nobly, 'Ladies, we Thomians appreciate your presence as you add
colour to the game and it should be known that the Thomians deserve your
cheering since it was our effort that disproved the Royalists' statement
"Cricket should be an all male affair". My sentiments exactly.

Even the most prestigious gathering of the Sri Lankan elite (MPs, company
directors, lawyers and what were considered to be 'respectable professionals')
revealed their true souls to be nothing more than that of a rumbustious
schoolboy's. There was a constant background of music coming from small brass
bands playing funky tunes that got everyone on their feet. Most of the chairs
were discarded as people danced in the aisles, swigging out of bottles and
spilling food down their shirts as the sweat poured down their faces. The
people I felt the most sympathy for were the food and drink sellers, who, in
spite of the congestion of the stands, had to spend the entire day winding their
way through the throng, precariously balancing crates of soft-drinks bottles
on their heads, or trays of sandwiches and snacks. It was not a job I would
have undertaken.

And the match? There was indeed a cricket match going 'on for three days
which actually received some attention and appreciation for the players'
sporting abilities. In fact the players on the pitch were probably the only
sober people in the ground, and took the game seriously. Many international
players started their cricket careers from this match, and the schoolboys knew
that it could be their chance of glory in front of the biggest sporting crowd in
the country. However, looking at the results over the last few decades, most of
the games have ended in a draw. This may be because of the higher level of the
game, or else because each side is being more defensive, playing to avoid losing
rather than to win. It was surprising to see people fiercely defending the
honour of their old schools, even after leaving some ten, twenty or fifty years
earlier. The fans were actually segregated, although this was not much to
prevent trouble as to give a little more unity to the supporting groups. The
strong sentiments behind the theory of the 'old school tie', that most English
of concepts, were expressed with relish, and allegiances still remained loyal
and true. The stadium-which was filled with an amazing 15,000 people on the
final day-was awash with flags of blue and gold for Royal College, and blue and
black for St Thomas' (giving the other known name for the encounter, 'Battle of
the Blues').

I wandered around the boundary and sampled the music being played by the
bands. The best way of enjoying that was undoubtedly to join the assembled ranks
on chairs, on benches and on walls-and dance. Discarding the camera bag in a
safe place, I joined the revellers and we partied continuously, which of course
delighted everyone since I was entering into the swing of things. I had to
reluctantly avoid the plentiful and insistent offers of vodka, arrack, and in
fact most varieties of alcohol that came from all directions. It was tempting to
accept, but there was no way I would be able to focus the camera adequately
after a few drinks, especially in such overbearing heat. Still, as the adage
goes, you don't need alcohol to have a good time-and I was certainly enjoying
every second.

A cricketing fiesta such as this is my idea of nirvana, and it seems to me that
the Sri Lankans have combined play with pleasure to perfection. For that they
have my deepest respect. I just wish that they could teach the 'old dog' a trick
or two and bring a little more partying into the staid English scene.

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. (Although not much had changed as far as his behaviour was
concerned.) It seemed that fathers passed on more by way of tradition than
simply sending sons to their old schools-and the bad behaviour was a compulsory

The national press reported the match with relish and every newspaper
devoted its back pages to it, usually demoting an international match to the
inside pages. The Press Box was filled with most of Colombo's sporting
journalists, and they followed every ball closer than anyone in the stadium. One
of the journalists told me that no ex-pupil from either college is allowed to
report on the match for his paper, in case emotions run too high and the match
account becomes too biased.

-taken from the book Into the passionate Soul of sub-continental cricket.