Antonian glory: When 64-year Asgiriya hoodoo was hit for six

By Fazal Majeed

“when the one scorer comes to write against your name, he will not write whether you won or lost, but how you played the game”

The 1981 cricket team wrote its name in golden letters in the history of Antonian cricket when they beat Trinity College to break the long-standing 64-year-old Asgiriya hoodoo.

Leading up to the big match, all the newspapers were crying the same as in the past years “Can the Antonians break the Asgiriya Hoodoo”. We were certainly the favorites but we just had two victories to our credit against the lesser-known Vidyartha College and St Sylvester’s respectively. Nevertheless, we had a successful season and grabbed the major honors against Royal, St Joseph’s, Kingswood, Rajans and came close to winning in all these games but unfortunately failed to do so. So, we hadn’t really mastered the art of winning as we still didn’t know how to win games regularly. Our rivals had lost a few games during the season. Therefore, we were tagged as the favourites.

On the morning of the game, after one look at the wicket, it appeared the Trinity groundsman had clearly prepared a wicket for a five-day game rather than a two-day one. It was a placid belter of a pitch. However, we won the toss and decided not to bat, but asked our rivals to take first lease of the wicket. The thinking behind that decision was twofold, one batting first in big matches doesn’t win you many games as history has shown us in the past. The other, our batting was a bit shaken from the battering we received at the hands of the Peterite fast bowler Rumesh Ratnayake the previous week.

The first ball of the match bowled by our pace bowler Merryl David was fiercely cut to the point boundary for four runs by Praneeth Yainne, the Trinity opener. That’s how the proceedings started. However, our decision was justified to some extent when we had Trinity struggling 100/5 at lunch. Soon after lunch our decision to bowl first was further reinforced with Trinity in big trouble at 139/8. However, Trinity’s last two wickets led by ex-Antonian junior cricketer Anton Anandaraj youngest brother of the Raj brother (Dharmaraj, Dhanaraj, Balaraj and co. who all played for college in the 1960s) added around 70 runs and took their score to a respectable one passing the 200-run mark. One of the newspapers the next day had captioned it quite correctly “Caged Lions Break Free”.

Personally, as a bowler I felt there was hardly anything in the wicket. It was the most unresponsive wicket I had bowled in my entire First X1 career. So, full marks to Pradeep Fernando for picking up a fifer and he was the only bowler who managed to extract some spin out of a docile pitch. The other reason for Trinity losing those early wickets was due to some reckless batting on the part of their batsmen.

We started our reply a few minutes before the tea break. Marlon Von Hagt and Prasanna Goonatilleke gave us a solid start as they posted 50 runs on the board. Prasanna went on to compile a valuable 50. Anura Dunuwille and Angelo Leanage figured in an entertaining second wicket partnership before Angelo was out for a quick 37. I walked in at the fall of Angelo’s wicket in the last over of the day’s play. Many would have questioned my captaincy as to why I did not send a night watchman at that stage of the game. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find a “torch light” for our “Murakaraya” so I had to front up.

Austin Bartholomuesz was bowling the last over and he was feeding me with half volleys outside the off stump. I just couldn’t pierce the offside field, eventually ended hitting one straight into the hands of Lalith Pilapitiya in the covers and was out for a blob to the delight of the Trinity team. These two blokes, Austin and Lalith, really enjoyed that moment as they were close mates of mine. They rubbed it in further by coming close to me and grinning widely into my face. I didn’t see the funny side of it as I was upset and furious with myself. I turned my back on them and headed towards the pavilion.

What I like to point out here is, out in the middle, the Trinity- Antonian was always played very hard and clean; both sides were very competitive. Then again there was a lot of comradeship between the two sides on and off the field.

At the end of the first day, there was not much between the two sides – Trinity 203, Antonians 160/4. We had a slight edge going into the second day but it was very much “Even Stevens” overall. The Trinity camp must have been happy with their effort more than we were at the end of day one. That evening I was a bit down because I hadn’t contributed much to the team’s cause, but was quick to realise we needed to look at the big picture and focus on the team’s performance rather than my personal effort.

There were many discussions and suggestions as to how we should approach day two. One suggestion was to declare overnight, another one was to bat until lunch and get a good lead as possible. We finally settled for the decision – let’s bat the first hour and see how things turn out.

Fr Stephen Abraham was the principal during that era, an excellent administrator in all respects. You had to earn his applause. He would not give it to you easily. On the second day before leaving to the grounds, he walked up to the vehicle and had a word of praise on my first day’s captaincy and asked me to keep up the good work.

Pradeep’s dad while warming up on the second day was all praise and appreciation how I shuffled the bowlers in the 1st innings, little words of encouragement which I needed at the time.

On the second day, Anura Dunuwille continued his good form, unbeaten on 45 overnight, and batted attractively and took his score to 78 which was an excellent knock in the context of the game. Anura upon his dismissal made it very clear to all at the pavilion that the bowling was tight and run-getting was difficult. LV Ekanayake was given the license to pull out the big shots and was our main hope to get a big lead quickly with some monster hits. LV couldn’t make much headway, going for the big hit was caught on the long-on boundary and we decided to close our innings at that juncture. We enjoyed a slender lead of 12 runs when the declaration was made.

Trinity had about an hour’s batting before the lunch interval. We decided to open the attack with Angelo Leanage’s pace, which proved to be a good move as Angelo gave us the all-important breakthrough when he had Trinity’s opener Praneeth Yainne caught in the very first over of the innings. We managed one more wicket, that of Zilwa before lunch. Maurice De La Zilwa scored a rapid 34 and had taken Trinity to a comfortable 57/2 at the lunch break.

The match looked headed for a draw at lunch. That must have been the belief of everyone at the grounds as well as the people who were following the game on radio. Lunch was fun as both teams enjoyed a good laugh. Most of the jokes, fun, humour and laughter came from the Trinity camp more than us. We the Antonian side got that feeling and we could see that, the Trinity team as the underdogs felt they had reached safety at that stage. That’s how the game was flowing at that point and no one could be faulted for thinking that way.

Mr. Muthalib, our coach, asked me to talk to the team before we walked out into the field after lunch. I can’t remember saying much in the huddle nor did any of the other teammates. I still quietly believed that we could win this game; good I was not thinking aloud; most people wouldn’t have agreed with my belief. Like me I would not be surprised if some of my teammates too quietly believed that we could spring a surprise from here.

Pradeep Fernando’s double strike in the very first over after lunch, turned the game on its head. Pradeep sent back Trinity’s deputy skipper Suresh Perera and Dambawinne Junior back to the pavilion to the delight of the Antonian supporters. Now the team started to believe. It was quite evident from the body language of the players as the adrenaline started to pump in us. The lusty cheering, support, encouragement that we received from the thousands of Antonians at the ground was huge at this stage, as all Antonians believed that we could make a match of it.

Trinity’s captain Tikiri Ellepola and Roshan Rajadurai battled hard and started to repair the damage with some solid batting taking the score past 100. It seemed again the game was heading for a draw but we kept the pressure on by having attacking fields. Shammi Karunaratne was introduced late into the attack at this stage. Shammi surprised all as he got some sharp turn and a bit of bounce and had Rajadurai clean bowled with a delivery which spun sharply from outside off hitting middle stump.

Ellepola was their main hope and he was “no tattu batsman” nor a “dasher” but someone who believed in keeping the scoreboard ticking. We quickly read that Tikiri had the habit of rushing down the wicket every single ball while Shammi was bowling. A quick mid pitch conference took place between Shammi, Kanchana Fernando the wicket keeper (who was substituting for our regular wicketkeeper Dunuwille) and I. The message to Shammi was quite clear keep bowling the off-stump line but throw in the “sucker ball” wide outside off. The plan worked instantly, Ellepola brilliantly stumped Kanchana Fernando bowled Karunaratne. Ho, ho, you little beauty boys. We had eight fielders on the off and just a single fielder on the on-side when Shammi was operating to Ellepola. In those days, the slog sweep, nor the paddle sweep, was rarely used as it happens today. Shammi bagging those two wickets at that stage too was another key moment in the match.

Suddenly the scoreboard read 106/6 and we had Trinity by the throat. This time around, we made sure to put our foot down and hold them there. The Pradeep Fernando/Karunaratne bowling combination proved to be a deadly one at this stage. Our fielding was brilliant in both the innings, Marlon stood out with his slip catching. Pradeep was like a rash all over Trinity, claiming his second fifer in the game – a match bag of 11 wickets. Pradeep Fernando was normally a Bishen Singh Bedi-type of bowler but he was very intelligent to adjust and vary his pace and bowl more like Derek Underwood on this wicket which paid rich dividends.

I tilted my hat a little bit while writing this article for the fine sportsmanship displayed by the Trinity captain Tikiri Ellepola. Anura Dunuwille our regular wicket-keeper had taken ill. I requested from Tikiri during the lunch break if Kanchana who was a reserve can substitute as a wicketkeeper. Tikiri said “Yes”, he could have said “No”, and no one could have faulted him as he was playing by the rules. Some captains may have said a substitute is fine, but he can’t keep wickets. Thinking about it, I reiterate it was an excellent gesture and a good piece of sportsmanship by the Trinity captain.

The moment we bundled out Trinity in the second innings, the Antonian supporters had already started the celebrations as if we had won the game. We were set to make 112 with ample time left in the match. The whole team knew that cricket can be a funny game and very well understood a match is not won until the winning run is scored.

Marlon and Prasanna once again gave us a solid start, posting their second 50-run stand and we were well on the way to victory. At the fall of the first wicket, I promoted myself to bat at number 3. The scoring was slow but steady and I decided to drop anchor. Anura and Angelo, two of the batting stars in the first innings were out in quick succession. Their intent was correct, they didn’t want to make heavy weather of the small total but were keen on attacking, but both perished, deceived by the “donkey drops” of Senaka Dissanayake. Trinity supporters at this stage with our score reading 86/4 had come alive cheering their side loudly expecting the unexpected to happen.

Pradeep Fernando, my deputy, the “man of the moment”, the undisputed man of the match eventually, walked out to join me in the middle. Even after a good 35 years, I can still picture the determined look on Pradeep’s face as he joined me. My message to Pradeep, no need to do anything rash, runs will come as far as we stay at the wicket and we need to make sure there are no more hiccups. Runs started to come a bit more quickly. As we crossed the 100-mark, pressure started to ease off quite a bit. We quickly reached the target from there onwards.

Fate had it, that I hit the winning run by pulling Senaka Dissanayake to the mid-wicket fence. Turning back for the second run halfway through I realised to my surprise the Trinity players (funny fellows) had grabbed all the stumps and the bails. The stumps grab by the Trinity players having lost the game at the time looked a bit strange to me. Maybe they were smart to realise they were a part of history too, though ending on the losing side. Perhaps our Trinity mates can take some consolation in telling their children/grandchildren how they deprived the Antonian skipper any piece of memorabilia. I was rolling in laughter writing this bit. I am sure my Trinity mates will take this in good spirit, a little bit of humour at their expense.

Was I worried about not getting any memorabilia? No, No, not at all, my only focus was on reaching the winning target and as we did, it took out a huge heaviness off my chest. The Trinitians didn’t have it easy at the other end as Pradeep managed two stumps and a bail. The Trinity Lions on the day had to settle for some dead timber (memorabilia) as their food because the Antonian Eagles were soaring high, circling all over the hill capital as the victory celebrations started.

The other heroes who played in the team apart from the ones I have mentioned so far were Priyantha Jayasundera and Lakshman Panditharatne. The reserve bench had players with good potential such as Dhashantha G, Diyabalanage, Channa M, Feroz Khan, Punchihewa and co.

Though Pradeep Fernando was undoubtedly the “Mega Star” of the match, all will agree it was a 100 percent team effort, as contributions came from everyone including our support staff. We were one strong unit throughout the season. Celebrations ran late into the evening and night. The next two weeks until the school closed it was a chain of dinners hosted by many a well-wisher and old Antonians who were all keen to meet the history-making team.

As a team, if we are to dedicate this win, it will be to M. Muthalib our coach. His passion for the job was just awesome. He gave more than 100 percent day in and day out to get the best out of us as cricketers. With this win against Trinity, Mr. Muthalib can quite deservedly boast of another proud achievement during his coaching days.

The 1981 side was just an above-average side with few big names in it at the time. We were the “little Davids”, who beat Trinity at Asgiriya, in the midst of a whole lot of “Antonian Cricketing Goliaths” such as the legends Jack Anderson, ACM Lafirs, Josephs, Doranegamas, Premaratnes etc. who all failed to conquer Trinity in their own den. The 1981 team certainly will have a special place in the history of Antonian cricket.

The 1981 game was the last Trinity-Antonian encounter played at the small Asgiriya grounds. No one had any clue it was going to be demolished when the 1981 big match was played. If we had not beaten Trinity at the small grounds it would have gone down in history that we never beat them there. Knowing the Trinitians, they will always make it a point to mention it.

Hundred years of cricket between the two schools and it’s a shame we Antonians can boast just a solitary win at Asgiriya. Damn it boys.

We have not tasted any wins at the new Asgiriya stadium in the last 39 years either. Even the likes of Murali the world record holder, Piyal Wijetunge, Ruwan Kalpage all who played together in the same team for college and later ended up representing the country couldn’t beat Trinity at Asgiriya. It seems the big match in the future is going to be played at the neutral venue, Pallekelle Stadium. So, given all the above the magnitude of the 1981 win is humungous. So, Hail the 1981 Team. Needless to say, it was a tremendous achievement in the history of Antonian cricket.

Even today from time to time, many an old Antonian who was present at that match as schoolboys talk about that victory with so much eagerness, excitement and enthusiasm. They surprise you how much that victory means to them even after a good 35 years. Going down memory lane, those little moments, even today bring a bit of joy to us in a fast-paced world.

Last but not the least, “when the one scorer comes to write against your name, he will not write whether you won or lost, but how you played the game”. So, both teams can take a lot of pride that we played the game upholding the highest traditions and sportsmanship on that day.

One newspaper even went on to say “Crowd behaviour at the game was exemplary”, and other schools should follow the standards set by these two institutions. As players, we set the tone and led by example on the field. Full credit should go to the players of both teams.

God willing, looking forward to meeting up with all my mates and have a few laughs at the forthcoming 100th encounter between these two great schools.

NB: There were ball by ball commentaries and the game was televised too – a first in the history of the Trinity/Antonian big match.

Note: This article was first published on the 09th edition of Quadrangle, in 2017.

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