By Elmo Rodrigopulle
Time was when St Benedict’s College, Kotahena, had only the quadrangle to indulge in sport. Most of the inter-school sport was played at the quadrangle and, although small in size, it produced sportsmen of high calibre. In the centre was a matting wicket for cricket while the quadrangle also served the footballers.
An integral part of this history was buttressed by some dedicated heroes who, for the purposes of this article, are called “Coaches”, without taking away anything from their truly heroic feats of making sportsmen of boys and making men out of them – a proud aspect of St Benedict’s.
Cricket and football were the games played over the years, with basketball, hockey and gymnastics emerging as the college progressed. This resulted in brilliant students who later turned out to be excellent doctors, engineers, architects, lawyers, priests, journalists and sportsmen who did their school and the country proud.
The quadrangle still stands proudly. Now tarred and with trees sprouting up it is a sight to behold, with classrooms on the left and the imposing building that houses the boarding, the Director’s office and the laboratory in the background.
The old tuck shop has been demolished and a huge and imposing building is in place, named after Bro. James – a Burmese Christian brother who was a strict disciplinarian and a wonderful teacher who inculcated Christian teaching on all pupils who were fortunate to come under the wings of that dove. He also was in charge of the altar boys of St Lucia’s Cathedral, Kotahena.
Then, in the early 1940s, with sport beginning to grow it required a larger ground for activity. It was then that a marshy land down Bloemendhal Road was acquired and filled up, with, it is said, Bro. Ladislauz – a Czech who was the Prefect of Games – and a band of willing helpers sweating it out to turn the marsh into one of the best school grounds in the country. Today, it caters to all forms of sport and is leased out to other schools to conduct their sporting activities when not used by the college sportsmen.
This article records the achievements of coaches who made the college champions in the 1960s, in which decade cricket, football, hockey, basketball and gymnastics held sway, winning trophies and hugging newspaper headlines and serving notice as the teams to watch and emulate churned out by coaches that every school or club would yearn to have – Albert Fernando (football), Brian Assey (hockey), Ram Suntheralingam (basketball), George Atkinson (gymnastics) and Bertie Wijesinha (cricket).
Having been a sportsman in college during the reign of these coaches and having been coached by two former greats – Edward Kelaart and Thomian, SSC and Ceylon cricketing all-rounder Bertie Wijesinha, under whose tenure I captained the college in 1960 – I would like to begin the description of these famous coaches with the soccer coach of all coaches, the indefatigable Albert “Carlos” Fernando.
Fernando is best described as a man of many parts. A football prodigy as a schoolboy, he quickly rose to fame and had the rare and proud distinction of captaining the college team for three years running – 1947, ’48 and ’49. Hailing from Kochchikade, where the miraculous church of St. Anthony is situated, Fernando, like most top-notch footballers, started his illustrious career kicking and dribbling a mango seed.
A little anecdote about Fernando when he was captain of the college team: It is said that then Prefect of Games, Bro. Ladislaus, had wanted all players to be present at a particular time before the game. Fernando was two minutes late and, believe it or not, he being the captain and best player did not matter as he was benched as punishment. That was the punctuality and discipline that was inculcated in sportsmen, and Fernando learnt a bitter lesson and when he became coach continued that punctuality and discipline. This story was told to me by one of his teammates Eulogious Fernando whose brother Felician Fernando who was my Editor at the Daily Mirror.
On leaving school and joining the staff of SBC, where he took to coaching the footballers under the watchful eyes of Bro. Ladislaus, Albert Fernando and I cultivated a great pupil-master combination after I left school and became Sports Editor of the The Times of Ceylon and Daily Mirror in the early 1970s and many were the interesting anecdotes he related to me in his football career, his coaching and being the first Sri Lanka coach to obtain a trainer’s licence from Brazil, all while enjoying a beer at the Old Bens Sports Club.
During his tenure as coach of his old school, he turned out some stunning ball players who were marvels to watch while adopting the Brazilian style of coaching, based on dribbling, and what eye-catching exponents of this skill he produced. These players would enthral the large house of spectators who would throng to every venue in which the Bens footballers were on show at that time. Many were the master dribblers he churned out and names that come to mind are that of the Nicholas brothers, Sampoornam and Nithi, Neville Casie Chetty, Denzil Walles, Rex Sebastian, Errol Antony, Melvin Dabare, Suriyakumar Seneviratne, Tissa Kodituwakku, Sunil Seneviratne, and Zeno and Waldo Fernando, to name a few.
When Fernando was coach, his team was regularly beating the opposition by ten or a dozen goals. He was much sought-after and coached many clubs, and also had the distinction of coaching clubs in India.
Fernando’s love for his old school knew no bounds. In 1961 when the dreaded schools takeover was in the offing, Fernando gathered and led some present and old boys who sprawled in front of the college gates day and night and deprived the takeover of the school. The college is what it is today thanks to Fernando and this great deed must not be forgotten. How many remember it? I was one of them in that team along with Clive Fernando, Shirley Perera, Kenneth Dabrera, Cosmas Perera, Edward Sumanasekera, Patrick Perera, Milroy Pieris, Sanath Jayawardena, Clement de Silva and several others whose names my memory fails me. This story is true because I was there.
From Albert Fernando, I move on to Brian Assey, the coach who introduced hockey to the Kotahena school in the early 1950s and took it to dazzling heights, producing many a magician with the curved wand and making champion teams with monotonous regularity. Assey himself was a stalwart with the stick in hand and had the knack of showing his chargers how to become outstanding and feared players, whether playing for the school, clubs and the country.
It was during his tenure that not only the college but the Old Bens too sported the crowns of hockey kings in the local scene. He was a master tactician, cool and calculated and taught his pupils how to perform wonders with the stick. He turned out some amazing players who waltzed into the national team with ease. The first hockey captain of the school was Dennis de Rozayro, who later played for the Burgher Recreation Club and the country. In those early days most of the Bens hockey players joined the Tamil Union Cricket and Athletic Club.
With many champion players coming out of the Assey stables, it dawned on Bro. Mathias who was the hockey guru and Premnath Moraes, a die-hard Benedictine sports supporter, film director and famous journalist, to form the Old Bens Hockey Club and with the birth of this club many Bens left the Tamil Union and after the early teething problems playing in the club scene where defeats were the rule rather than the exception, the finally turned out to be world beaters attracting huge crowds wherever it played. The names that made the Bens famous at hockey were mentioned in the previous issue and need no reiteration.
Now to Ram Suntheralingam who brought his expertise from his school in Jaffna. In addition to his prowess in the game, it is said that he was a wonderful wicket-keeper/batsman. Joining the teaching staff at SBC and closely watching the basketball talent available, it did not take him long to be made coach. During Suntheralingam’s playing days there was not much activity in the game in the country. But he made it to the national team and while still being active took to coaching the college basketballers and the heights he made them achieve in inter-school, club and national level is history.
Being inter-school and club champions came naturally to the Bens. That was the era when unlike today many school, club and national tournaments were played. The police courts at Bambalapitiya and the army courts, where the Galadari Hotel now stands, were a hive of activity under lights. Many foreign teams played here and the national team also played in the Asian Games Cager tournament. It was at the Asian Games in Bangkok in 1966 that the Bens had the honour of producing the “Best Shooter” at the Games in Percy Perera who is sadly no more. Sad to say, Percy has not been given the recognition that he so richly deserves. Perera’s achievement was a feather in the cap of coach Suntheralingam, who also gave to the country the first Bens’ national captain in Cosmas Mahagama Perera.
Gymnastics coach George Atkinson was the teacher on whom disciplining and teaching punctuality to the students was thrust upon by the respective directors of the college. There was no student who did not fear Atkinson. He was famous for his khaki shorts, cigar, whistle and the dreaded cane in hand. Once the College bell rang signalling the school starting time, Atkinson would see that the gates were closed at the entrance to the quadrangle, and late-comers would wobble at the knees, aware they would have to walk a couple of rounds of the quadrangle or stretch their hands for a beating with the cane. I also was one of those who suffered at the hands of the master. Atkinson was also the drill master.
It was Gymnastics, however, where he showed his prowess, turning out some daring gymnasts who shone and were in great demand during Independence Day celebrations. And they did thrill all watching. Names of the gymnasts who excelled that come to mind are Bertram Perera, Amal Gomez, Trevor Buultjens, James Perera, Ananda and Ranjan Soyza, Herbert Thumbawila, Ferdinand, Malcom Perera and Christie Puvimanasingham and many others. Robin Fernando was the most outstanding with his daring dives through the rings of fire. Those were the days when college gymnasts were envied and in great demand for the Independence Day celebrations.
Bertie Wijesinha, the former Thomian, SSC and Ceylon all-rounder, gave cricket at SBC the best-ever years it has enjoyed since taking over the coaching job from 1959. Before Wjesinha, it was BRC and Ceylon all-rounder Edward Kelaart who put the Bens cricket on a match-winning pitch by coaching the 1957 team to emerge unofficial inter-school cricket champions – the best year in the annals of the game at SBC.
But, it was with Wjesinha who took the reins as coach in 1959 that the game began to hit the big time and produce cricketers and teams who excelled and were feared by opposing school cricketers. The Bens-Joes game was the most looked forward event in those days, with the Bens being near and yet so far of beating the Darley Road school many a time, but unable to go over the line. It was in 1917 that the Bens beat the Joes under Norman Koelmeyer and it was after over four decades that the Bens finally beat the Joes under the captaincy of Sunil Fernando, brother of the famous Ranjit, at Kotahena in 1964. This was under the expert coaching of Wijesinha and what a proud day it was for Bens’ cricket.
I had the privilege of captaining the school in 1960 under the coaching of Wijesinha and for the first time in the Benedictine-Peterite encounter we beat them at Bambalapitiya. That squad that I led needs mention for posterity – Elmo Rodrigopulle (C), Allan Gunesekera (VC), Cyril Ernest, Sanath Jayawardena, Winston Dissanayake, Ranjit Perumal, Quintus Perera, Gordon Dissanayake, Cecil Saverimuttu, Nihal Fernandopulle, Nihal Zoysa, Nihal Amerasinghe, Ranjit Fernando, Percy Perera, Fredrick Silva and Chandra Ramanathan. Felix Fernando (Master-in-charge), Bede Puvimanasinghe (POG) and Bertie Wijesinha (coach), Nihal Soyza and Nihal Amerasinghe strangled the Peterite batting with their amazing seam and swing bowling.
The excellent coaching by Wijesinha will always be remembered. He was one, if not the rarest, rarest of coaches who never changed the style of a player. He would allow his charges to play the way they knew, but talk about tactics and situations. Where are coaches of Wijesinha’s stature now?
When going down memory lane and reminiscing about Benedictine cricket, I would be failing in my duty and doing an unforgiveable disservice if I don’t mention director who gave to the school the turf wickets and the imposing pavilion now rightly named after him – Bro. Alban Patrick – and the curator of all curators that the Bens were fortunate to have – Rogus Perera. Perera had a vast knowledge of the game and what ailed Benedictine cricket. Believe me, he was a superb leg-spin bowler. He would tuck up his sarong and send down his leggies at practice and was unplayable. In fact, as a leg-spinner I learnt a lot watching him bowl.
By the way, enjoy life now. It has an expiry date on it.