By Michael Wille
I have some reservations about how relevant my article will be. However, I trust that it will serve essentially as an insight to the exhilarating schoolboy cricketing era of the 1950s.
I debuted for Royal in ’54 and captained in ’57.
A couple of weeks after the Royal-Thomian I migrated to Australia, and was the first Sri Lankan to play District (Grade) cricket in Melbourne.
In the ‘50s, Sri Lanka was far from attaining test status. Sri Lanka possessed great players such Mahadevan Sathasivam, F C de Saram, C I Gunasekera, Vernon Prins, and Mike Tissera, et al.
The only exposure to international cricket that Sri Lanka had was a one-day friendly played when the English or Australian teams passed through Colombo on their way to Australia or England every two years.
In Australia at that time the game was purely amateur.
Today, Sri Lanka has achieved test status and cricket is professional in both countries and the standard of cricket is considerably higher, particularly fielding.
Maybe my article should be regarded as no more than providing some insights into specific schoolboy cricketing encounters in the ‘50s, magnificent experiences that have now become wonderful memories of glorious days in the sun amongst some incredibly talented and sporting cricketers.
From the time I can remember, Sri Lanka was cricket mad. It was the only game in town, with the Royal-Thomian (RT), Josephian-Peterite and Ananda-Nalanda big matches being the centrepiece of the island’s sporting calendar. I attended my first RT at the iconic Colombo Oval in 1947 at the age of nine, I will never forget the experience. The flags waved by the supporters of the rival schools, the gaily coloured dresses of the girls, the raucous singing from the Mustang tent and the beating of rabanas (the papare band) gave the match a carnival atmosphere. Records show the Royalists won the game and a happy nine-year-old went home dreaming that one day he would be playing in the match.
I joined Royal in 1951, the RT of that year was one of the most exciting in the history of the game and was described as “the impossible finish of ‘51”. Royal, the underdogs snatched victory in the dying moments of the game. The Thomians had Roger Inman, Jayalingam and P I Pieris but the cool head of Vairavanathan (the Royal captain) saved the day for Royal. I left the ground with an even stronger desire to play in this great match.
I came a step closer of achieving my dreams when, as a 15-year-old, I was selected to join the First XI squad in the third term of ‘53.
Nirmalingam was captain and we had a very strong squad with ten coloursmen, including Ubaya de Silva, “Frecko” Kreltzsheim, Ranjit de Silva and Fitzroy Crozier. The freshers were Brendon Gunaratne, Selvi Perinpanayagam and I. Dr Barney Gunasekera was the coach, and Harold Samaraweera the cricket master.
I interrupt my narrative to pay homage to two men who have had a massive influence on my cricket and my life, namely Barney and Harold.
In Sri Lanka, we tended to idolise and hold in awe men who had outstanding sporting success. In 1930, Barney playing in the big match, broke the record by scoring 130 runs and taking nine wickets.
This match went down in history as Barney’s Match.
Barney was not really a cricket coach in a technical sense. He was more a philosopher with an interest in the mental aspects of the game. I cannot recall him talking to me about batting technique. One afternoon he said to me: “Michael, just play your normal game and don’t look at the scoreboard. I guarantee that if you do that and bat for three hours you will score a century.”
I did just that in the RT of 1957, when captain, and scored a century.
Barney was a self-effacing man with a whimsical sense of humour and he treated everyone with respect. Barney had coached for many years and was highly respected by all of us. We would have walked over hot coals for him.
Harold was my under-14 coach, my form master in Form 3 and now the cricket master of the First XI so I knew him very well. Harold was an enthusiastic and happy guy who wore his heart on his sleeve. At Royal, we were a bit elitist and because Harold had not played for one of the big schools we tended to underestimate his advice. He was very knowledgeable on cricket and was a great help to me when I was captain.
Harold and Barney have passed on and I often think of them with love and gratitude.
After the first practise session, Barney addressed the squad. He said he believed that to play for Royal was an honour, he believed it was essential that we played as a team, and he believed it was important that we played within the rules and the spirit of the game.
He said that if anyone did not believe in these three pillars than he did not want that boy in the squad. Very inspirational stuff!
To a Royalist (or Thomian) the RT is the Holy Grail but there were some other matches that also had a long tradition of fierce competition.
One of these was the Wesley encounter.
In 1954, Wesley had a strong side – the Fuard brothers, the Adhihetty brothers, Samsudeen, Chapman and Neil Gallagher to name a few.
Nirma won the toss, we batted and made about 200. M. Wille ct Chapman b Fuard 1. Abu was too good for me.
Miraculously we dismissed Wesley for 39. Unfortunately, I cannot recall who took the wickets. Nirma enforced the follow on and the Wesleyites did better in their second dig, avoiding an innings defeat, but leaving us with about 40 to win.
It should have been a piece of cake but Lou Adhihetty and Samsudeen had other ideas and made us earn every run.
I understand that in later life Lou became heavily involved in the Christian church. But he showed no Christian brotherly love that afternoon. Samsudeen and Lou subjected us to a barrage of bouncers, one of which hit Rabindran in the face. Rabindran dropped like a sack of potatoes and there was blood all over the place. I was padded up and trembling in my boots. I prayed to all the gods Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and a few others that I invented that I would not have to go in. My prayers were answered as our early batsmen weathered the storm and we won a hard-fought game by a comfortable margin.
Later on I was awarded my “colours” along with Brendon and Selvi
There is nothing more satisfying than to realise a dream one has worked very hard to achieve.
The ‘54 RT, unfortunately, like the four I played in, and ended in a draw.
Off the first ball of the match their star batsman, Tyrell Gauder, was given not out to a catch behind the wicket. You could hear the snick at the Borella junction. It was a shocking decision. Nirma looked at the umpire and walked back to his mark. Tyrell shrugged his shoulder as if to say, “What can I do.”
We got on with the game. No histrionics.
The other highlights were a brilliant 69 by Nirma before he ran himself out and a rearguard action from the Thomians to save the match, including a fighting 48 from Michael Tissera giving an indication of things to come.
After the match, the principal of Royal and the warden of S. Thomas’ hosted a dinner for the two teams. We could not wait for this to be over so that, according to custom and practice, we could paint the town red. First stop the Liberty cinema, owned by the Cader family. Zacroff was playing for S. Thomas’, and everything, bar included, was on the house. The teams then adjourned to the CR & FC as guests of some reprobate old boys of both schools. Last stop, Galle Face Green for a sing-song and a few bottles of beers. Home at about 5am.
Ranjit de Silva captained in ‘55. In ‘54 I had batted at No. 6, and I was hoping to talk Ranjit into letting me bat at No. 4.
After the first practice and after Barney had made his speech he turned to what he termed “housekeeping matters”. He called for a volunteer to open batting with Selvi.
Nobody spoke. I took a great interest in my boots and avoided eye contact with everybody. Suddenly a voice pipes up, “Michael used to open in the under-14s”. I could have killed him. Quick as a flash, Barney said, “Thanks Michael, that’s settled then.” So began my career as an opening batsman.
The ‘55 season started poorly as we were comprehensively beaten by St Anthony’s at Katugastota, ACM Lafir, who was playing for Ceylon at the time, made a century.
Another superstar we encountered was Clive Inman. Clive was captain of St Peter’s and after leaving school followed Stanley Jayasinghe to England to play as a professional in the Lancashire League.
We played Wesley at Reid Avenue. Lou was captain of Wesley and obviously had not forgiven us for beating them the previous year. We batted first and faced some terrific bowling plus some chatter from Lou and Samsudeen. It was hard to score runs. I called Selvi for a stupid single. “Yes, no, sorry”. Selvi was run out by half the length of the pitch and he departed staring daggers at me.
I made up my mind to stay in the middle as long as possible (a) to make up for running Selvi out and, (b) to avoid Harold who I knew would be breathing fire. Alas, the best-laid plans. A couple of overs later Lou bowled me a full toss. I thought all my Christmases had come at once. I lifted my head, hit across the line and the ball thudded into the stumps. When I got to the dressing room, Harold closed the door and gave me an unmerciful tongue lashing. He was livid and said inter alia “What is the matter with you? Not only do you run Selvi out you get out to a cock shot. You are a bloody menace.”
I didn’t say a word because he was right. I sought out Selvi, who was rightfully furious with me, and apologised. He accepted my apology and we shook hands and moved on.
We lost the match and next week I entered college from a side entrance to avoid the Kadlai man and Cobra man, legendary street hawkers who had, for years, peddled their wares at the gate of the school and who were our strongest supporters and our most stringent critics.
Later in the season, I scored a century against Trinity. Centuries were pretty rare and Harold was over the moon. He grabbed me by the shoulders and, beaming like a cat who had eaten all the cream, said: “Well done Michael, terrific performance, I knew you could do it and, by the way, you are not really a bloody menace.” We had a bit of a laugh.
The RT was a battle between two equally balanced sides which on a scale of 1 to 10, would probably have been rated at 7.
When stumps were drawn, we were three wickets away from victory. There were no outstanding performances, with Brendon doing best for us top-scoring with 48 and taking four wickets in the Thomian first innings
The ‘56 side, captained by Fitzroy Crozier was the strongest I played in and arguably was the strongest side in the competition that year.
We had four fourth year players, three third year players, one second year player and 4 very talented “Freshers” in Lorenz Pereira, the Samarasinghe brothers R K and S C and Pat Poulier. We were going to give the Thomians hell, maybe we were over-confident.
Barney announced that this year would be his last year as coach. We breezed through the early matches hardly ever being put to the test.
Life was great, the only cloud in the sky was the political situation. SWRD Bandaranaike had resigned from the UNP and had formed his own party and was going to challenge the government at the next election on a policy of “Sinhala only”.
I was 17 years old and politics meant nothing to me. Although, my dad was very concerned and said that the “Sinhala only” policy would be a disaster for Sri Lanka, and if Bandaranaike won the election he advised me to follow my two brothers to Australia.
I had opened the batting with Selvi for two seasons. For one and a half of those seasons, I scored faster than Selvi. That changed on the day we played St Joseph’s at Darley Rd. We won the toss and Selvi and I walked out together, nothing appeared different except that, when we got to the middle Selvi cut and hooked the Josephian bowlers like there was no tomorrow. He left me for dead and made 99.
The rumour in the market place was that Selvi had a secret girlfriend to whom he used to write and on the morning of the game he had a received a “Dear Selvi” letter and decided to take his anger out on the Josephian bowlers.
We played Nalanda the following week. We batted second and with Selvi still in a swashbuckling mood we put on over 50 for the first wicket, with Selvi scoring most of the runs.
I went home, had a shower, and went to give my dad a report on the day’s play. While I was talking to him he told me he was not feeling well and, to cut the long story short, he died within the next 48 hours. His death was a devastating blow as I loved him very much. The immediate result was that the family decided to migrate to Australia as soon as possible as Bandaranaike had won the election.
About three days after my dad’s funeral, Dudley de Silva, the principal of Royal asked for an appointment to meet my mum. He said that he was aware of our plans to migrate and asked if we would postpone them as he wanted me to captain in ‘57.
I declined the offer because I was grieving for my father and wanted to make a fresh start in Australia as soon as possible. Also, I never had any aspirations to captain Royal. When my older brother Peter heard of my refusal he applied immense emotional pressure, saying that my dad would have been proud to see me as a captain. It was emotional blackmail and I gave in after a week.
In the interim, Selvi had completed a century against Nalanda. I did not play in the next game which was against St Peter’s but was not missed as Fitzroy, who opened with Selvi, shared a partnership of over 200, both getting centuries.
We then travelled to Kandy to play Trinity which had a number of good players, including Nimal Maralande and Sendi Ettipola. It was the same old story. Selvi and I put on over a 100. I made 42 and Selvi made another century.
I also recall that Kadlai and Cobra travelled with the team in our pre-booked third class compartment. They had sacrificed a minimum of two days’ income to support the team. What loyalty!
After the last practice session before the RT we sat on the grass, Barney and Harold included, and discussed tactics. Jothi, who Barney was very fond of, had hardly scored a run all season. Barney said: “I think this will be Jothi’s match.” We were all certain that Barney had said this just to boost confidence.
As it turned out it was not Jothi’s match but he certainly saved us from defeat. I rated us at 10 and the Thomians at 8.
The Thomians were captained by Dan Piachaud who later played for Ceylon and the MCC. We were hot favourites. We batted first and the much-vaunted top order failed and we slumped to 103/6. Jothi, batting with the four freshers, saved the day and we went on to make 289. The Thomians replied with 288/9, Ronny Reid breaking the record with 158. It was truly a great knock but of course the match fizzled out to a tame draw.
That year, for the first time, one of the daily papers announced it would run a competition to determine the “Schoolboy Cricketer of the Year”. The winner was to be determined by votes cast by the readers. Selvi should have won the competition, but unfortunately, he did not because voting was left to the readers. The result embarrassed the organisers to the extent that winners were thereafter selected by a panel.
In ’57 the boot was on the other foot.
We had lost a number of good and experienced players. We had myself who was playing in my fourth year and four other players, Lorenz Pereira, the Samarasinghe brothers and Pat Poulier who were playing in their second year.
The Thomians had a very strong batting line-up and the fastest bowler in the competition, Denis Ferdinands. At the start of the season, I rated us at 6 and the Thomians at 9
In the late ‘40s a weak South African side had drawn a Test series against the then mighty Australians by great fielding and a spinner named Hugh Tayfield. To win you need to get an edge on your opponent. I decided that we should take a leaf out of the South African book and be the best fielding side in the competition.
I have always believed that if you want to succeed you have to practice meaningfully and hard. As Percy Cerutty, the legendary Australian athletics coach said: “To train without pain is to train without gain.”
We started practising in the August school holidays which was about a month earlier than usual and we certainly practised hard.
I believe that you should practise as you would play in a match. You are always under pressure when you play in a match. To create a pressure situation at practice it was a rule that any player who dropped a catch at fielding practice would have to run two laps of the ground
These draconian methods caused my friend Mahinda Wijesinghe to give me the unflattering sobriquet of “Hitler”. He also said that the only reason that I opened the bowling was because I was captain.
I note that he made these “libelous” comments only after he was awarded his colours!
If we were to succeed the “colours” players, Lorenz Pereira, the Samarasinghe brothers and I, would have to step up to the plate.
It was also necessary for talented freshers such as Michael Dias, Ben Eliathamby and T Perayerawar to punch above their weight. In short, the requirements were easy to understand. “Maximum performance at all times.
I also believe that confidence is a major part of achieving success.
For an inexperienced side like ours avoiding defeat is as important as winning the occasional game. I believe the rearguard actions we fought against St Anthony’s, Ananda and St Benedict’s were major factors in our success.
You dodge a bullet and then you win one and then you say to yourself, “I can do this.”
However, it was not all hard work and no play. After practice the boys who lived in Bambalapitiya, Wellawatte and Dehiwela would cycle home and about once a week stop at Saraswathi Lodge for thosais.
For 50 cents, you could purchase eight thosais, a cup of tea and a Three Roses cigarette. This was my usual fare.
I was holding forth one day saying that it was not possible to eat ten thosias. Pat Poulier took up the challenge. The bet was that if he ate ten thosais I would pay for his meal, if he failed he would have to pay for mine.
I’m not going to write about all the games we played but focus on the key games against Ananda and St Benedict’s.
We played a strong Ananda side containing Sonny Yatawara, Anuruddha Polonowita and Daya Amerasinghe early in the season.
There was no doubt that we were the underdogs and we were struggling for most of the match. In the fourth innings, Ananda had to get 73 runs in 35 minutes to win, a comparatively easy task. They were cruising at 47/3 when I brought on Mahinda and with his first four deliveries, he took a double hat-trick. Ananda plunged to 47/7 and they were in panic mode.
I then had a brain fade. I took Mahinda off and brought on Modi Ismail, a slow leg-spin bowler. What an idiot. Taking Mahinda off was bad enough, why didn’t I bring on Sahabandu?
I still have nightmares over that decision. Ananda escaped with a draw and thanks to Mahinda we dodged a bullet.
Mahinda told me many years later that, when going off the field, Harold grabbed him and, finding a ten rupee note, (a lot of money in those days) stuck it in Mahinda’s hand and said, “Here, buy a bottle of arrack but don’t drink it all on your own.”
Harold never said a word to me about my poor decision in taking Mahinda off.
The match against St Benedict’s was played on matting at Kotahena. Benedictines had a strong side that included Neville Casie Chetty, Lionel Fernando and Cecil Waidyaratne. They batted first and gave us a leather hunt. I think they made well over 300 in record time. With a score like that, we had no option but to play for a draw. We defended stoutly and not one player from No. 1 to 11 gave his wicket away. We must have survived for at least seven hours much to the chagrin of the Benedictine players and their noisy supporters who wanted to see Royal thrashed.
We also developed a very good spin attack with Lorenz and Mahinda. One right-arm off-spin and the other left-arm leg-spin, and both were very accurate.
Every player at some time or other had played a vital role in saving or winning a match.
Going into the big match we were undefeated and had won three matches. I now rated us at about 7.5 and the Thomians at 9 and we went to the Oval quietly confident.
Michela Tissera, my opposite number, won the toss. I said: “Lucky bastard.” He laughed, picked up the coin and said: “We’ll bat.” We shook hands and wished each other good luck.
The Thomians made 259, with Ronny Reid making 65 and Michael 48. As usual, Lorenz and Mahinda carried our bowling – Lorenz taking five wickets and Mahinda four. I don’t remember us dropping a catch.
The beauty of cricket is the ability to formulate a plan and execute it.
When Michael was in the 40s, I noted that Lorenz had done a lot of bowling. I wanted him to have a rest. When I discussed this with him he was initially happy to come off. However, when I told him that I intended to bring Pera on he said: “No. Michael is in his 40s and has not scored a 50 yet. He will be anxious to get his half century. Let me bowl and if he gets to 50 I will take a rest.”
Michael was a very good player of the cover drive but sometimes did not get his foot to the pitch of the ball. We set Pera at cover and Lorenz bowled wide of his off-stump. Mahinda maintained the pressure from the other end. Eventually, Michael lost patience and chased a wide delivery from Lorenz. As we had hoped, he did not quite get his foot to the pitch of the ball and hit a catch to Pera.
It was great cricket by Lorenz.
I saw Denis Ferdinands, who was very fast, as the main threat. If he got a couple of early wickets and got his tail up, he could go right through us. I tried to keep him away from the “freshers”. In ’56 I tried to hook him and he nearly broke my forearm so I had decided that I would duck under the many bouncers that he bowled. Anyway, we held him off and when Lorenz and I put on 117 for the fifth wicket the chance of a Thomian victory disappeared.
From the point of view of concentration, my century was the best innings I played. I watched every ball and did not look at the scoreboard until I reached my century. Ronnie got another 65 in their second dig. He was the outstanding batsman in the competition that year and rightfully won the Schoolboy Cricketer of the Year award.
The match also produced another future star in M.L Idroos, a very good young leg-spinner. We had the usual bonding on the Galle Face Green and then in a couple of weeks I said a sad farewell to my friends and got on an airplane bound for Australia.
In Melbourne that first year, I was studying for my Matriculation exams and attended a small “cram school” located in the City.
Lindsay Hassett, the man who succeeded Bradman as Australian captain, owned a sports store in the city and one lunch time I decided to go to his shop in case the great man was in residence. Hassett was not there but I saw Neil Harvey, at that time arguably the best batsman in the world, selling a pair of cricket boots to a customer. I said to myself, “If this guy has to sell shoes to make a living there has to be an easier way to make a quid.” I decided to study harder.
Cricket in Australia at that time was an amateur sport, the prize being a place in the Test team and the winning of a “Baggy Green”, which was the dream of Aussie youngsters.
The first cultural shock I received was to experience the intensity in which the game was played. In Sri Lanka we played for fun, In Australia we played for sheep stations.
There was no sledging in the late ‘50s and not much chatter, just immense pressure, you earned every run.
In Sri Lanka, reputations overawed us. I remember being picked for the Combined Schools team and playing against a guy called Dick Arenhold who was a fast bowler and a Cambridge Blue. I worried about the encounter for days before the match.
The Aussies were no respecters of reputations
I loved the way the Aussies played the game. When I made a good score, it gave me great satisfaction. The Aussies were great competitors and played to win. We fought like hell on the field but after the match we sat in the dressing room drinking beer and were the best of friends.
When I left Sri Lanka, Barney wished me good luck and expressed the view that he wanted to see me play for Victoria. Well, I didn’t play for Victoria and will never know if I was good enough. I do know this though. Whether it was seeing Neil Harvey selling shoes or whether playing for Victoria was not one of my dreams, I lacked the passion to put in the hard yards necessary to play at the next level.
When I look back on my cricketing career, the sweetest memories are those of my days playing for Royal.
Sri Lankan schoolboy cricket was very strong and played in the best of spirits. A show of any dissent or hooliganism could mean severe disciplinary imposition, possibly in cases with sacking.
The Royal Thomian was the icing on the cake. Anybody who played in that match could consider themselves privileged and blessed, as would other cricketers who played in the Josephian-Peterite or Ananda-Nalanda Ananda, or Trinity-Antonian.
The history and tradition of the big match created a spirit of its own. You were conscious you were walking in the footsteps of the great players who had gone before you and participating in a historic event. You must do nothing to tarnish the reputation of the college, you were representing or the Game itself.
It is very true.
“The game is greater than the players of the game. The ship is greater than the crew.”