A fortnight ago, Asela Gunaratne slammed a pacy 84 against Australia, steering Sri Lanka to a remarkable victory in the T20 series. His innings made headlines here, but the series win was not the only cricket news.
Around the same time, senior Buddhist monks called for a ban on the country’s “big matches”, pointing to the violence and alcoholism that they see as its spin-offs. Given the influence that the Buddhist clergy has over Sri Lanka’s political and social spheres, their demand sparked anxiety among fans.
“Big matches” are annual encounters between leading schools on the island. Now a sporting and social fixture — some schools have been playing each other for over a century — these matches are more of an annual carnival.
The country’s best-known cricket clash, the ‘Royal-Thomian’ encounter, is scheduled later this week. Played between Colombo’s leading government school Royal College and the prestigious private Anglican institution St. Thomas’ College, this match inspires excitement like no other, particularly among Colombo’s elite men. It is Sri Lanka’s own Eton vs. Harrow.
The old boys of the two schools include some of the most influential leaders on the island — ranging from its first executive President J.R. Jayawardene to current Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, both Royalists. Prime Ministers D.S. Senanayake, Dudley Senanayake and S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike were all Thomians. Usually played over three days, this year’s big match will be held from March 9 to 11 at the Sinhalese Sports Club in the heart of Colombo, where it has been conducted since the 1970s. It would be the 138th ‘Battle of the Blues’, as it is called after the school colours.
The first big match between the premier schools was played in 1879, and has since continued through the two World Wars, and without interruption even during the country’s brutal conflict, making it one of the longest surviving cricketing series in the world. In fact, at times of intense fighting, top Army officers took quick breaks to make a trip to Colombo from the north, writes journalist Nirupama Subramanian in her book Voices From A War Zone, recalling her encounter with a General in Colombo.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is a regular at the big match, so much so that he was faced with a big dilemma in March 2015 when his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi visited the island. “Modi or the Royal-Thomian? That’s a tough choice,” he said in an interview. Finally, he hosted Mr. Modi on one of the days, and still managed to catch part of the match when the Indian Prime Minister went up north.
Old boys living abroad make exclusive trips to the island in March every year to watch the match. This year too, the tickets are nearly sold out three weeks before the game. Similar cricketing contests are held in other parts too, including in Jaffna, where St. John’s College plays Jaffna Central College, a practice being followed since 1904, except for a few breaks in the 1980s and 1990s during the war.
Cricket craze is only part of the reason for the frenzy around the big match in Colombo, where school loyalty trumps even bitter political rivalry. In the week leading up to the match and days following it, the who’s-who of Colombo, from Army Generals to key politicians to top businessmen, hang out at dinners and other social events, tapping the wide networks that the old boys have maintained over the years.
Few people think Sri Lanka’s big matches, backed by the country’s elite, will ever be banned, whatever some members of the influential Buddhist sangha might say.