It was in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, an era I recall, that as a schoolboy, eagerly looking forward to Fridays. Not so much because a weekend was in sight but simply to watch another First XI cricket encounter.
The first stop on a Friday morning would be a quick glance at the blackboard on the left of the main gate to check the opponents of the First XI cricket team and the venue – home or away. If it is at home then the countdown begins until 1.30pm, and if it is against St Joseph’s, a half day is on the cards. The long bell goes off around 12.10, signalling the half day and a good number of enthusiastic schoolboys take a fast stroll, through the narrow lane on St Benedict’s Mawatha that leads to the grounds.
On January 27, 1978, St Benedict’s led by Kumar Sabaratnam took on the Josephians who were led by Shamilal de S. Wijeratne in a game that will be long remembered by those who were fortunate to be there. The Benedictines, who came in as underdogs to the game, took first lease of the wicket and hit up a formidable 254 all out with a top score of 37 by Thilakan Sabaratnam, the younger brother of the skipper. The Josephians were up against the fiery pace of left-armers Gehan Perera and Romesh Madawela. The pair broke through the Josephian top order to have them reeling at 22 for 5 before a stubborn 37 from Cleophus Lord saved the Darley Road college from being humiliated further as they finally folded for 78 runs.
Following on, the Josephians were in for a rude shock and the few spectators watching the game on that sunny Saturday afternoon witnessed an awesome feat that will rarely be seen again. Opening bowlers Gehan Perera and Romesh Madawela once again tore through the Josephian top five batsmen, but this time even before a run had been scored. Yes, it was sensational stuff as the Josephian scoreboard read 0 for 5.
The Josephians needed divine intervention to save them from total embarrassment, which they eventually managed when the “good Lord” intervened. Middle-order bat Cleophus Lord stood his ground with a fighting 22 and a patient 17 from M de Silva helped the Joes recover somewhat with a defiant 46 run stand. But Benedictine off-spinner Navaratnaraja broke the partnership to end the stubborn resistance and went on to pick three more wickets. The Darley Rd school slipped to 53 for 9 in the sixth mandatory over.
As the evening shadows were lengthening and the sun setting the excitement and anticipation of the spectators in expectation of a famous Benedictine victory kept rowing. But the Josephian last pair of Viraj Perera and Dilip de S Wijeyeratne eld on stubbornly to keep the spectators at the edge of their seats. Finally, he inevitable happened around the 15th over when tailender Viraj Perera tried a pull off a short-pitched delivery from Malcolm Rodrigo. With most of the fielders round the bat, skipper Sabaratnam, who was at short mid-on ran towards mid-wicket, got under the ball, got both hands to it, but surprisingly could not hold on to it, much to the surprise of everyone – batsmen, fielders and the spectators. Recalling those moments Kumar said: “I saw the crowd running on to the field and cheering no sooner the ball was hit up and for a moment I took my eyes off the ball and that is why I missed the catch.” The last pair continued to hold on for the remaining five mandatory overs plus an extra two overs, taking the Josephians to safety.
Continuing, Kumar said: “It was a terrible feeling of disappointment as if we had lost the match. I felt very bad as I had let down the team, the college, my friends and the huge crowd that overflowed on the ground to witness the match.”
The Benedictine skipper admitted that he and his team went through a tough time thereafter for the rest of the season.
“Although it affected my confidence and the morale of the rest of the team, our coach, former Army Commander, the late Major General Cecil Waidyaratne, who was a colonel then, understood us and spoke to us late after practices every day, mentoring and boosting our morale like soldiers regrouping for the next battle. He told us we must pounce on the next match like a bunch of lions that missed their prey and true to his words we beat the strong Antonians from Kandy by an innings, with three hours to spare at Kotahena, which gave a tremendous boost to our confidence.
“Mr Waidyaratne proved that an average team can be turned to a winning team by instilling discipline, self-confidence, a winning mindset, and by good planning. The late Mr Edward Jayawardena was the master-in-charge and encouraged us