School-boy cricket in Sri Lanka – 140 years of RoyTho

RoyTho – a legendary urban tale from Colombo, Sri Lanka. Two secondary boys’ schools playing an extraordinary game of cricket against each other. What’s at stake? The D. S. Senanayake Memorial Shield. Many refer to it as the Battle of the Blues in honour of the team flags. The gentlemen’s game, fought to death, with a showmanship worthy of Roman gladiators. And as it was in the glory days of Rome so it is in Colombo. There’s drinking and feasting but most of all, there’s tradition and brotherhood. Fraternal ties sealed with, a 140 year old, uninterrupted game. Even as Sri Lanka endured 29 years of civil war the two schools in question continued to play against the island’s backdrop of anarchy.

The teams

The teams that battle? Royal College (1835), part of Royal Academy established earlier, and the first secondary state school for boys in Sri Lanka. It’s the alma mater of the last Prime Minister, past Presidents and thinkers. The second is S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia (1851), a private boys’ primary and secondary school boasting four former Prime Ministers of the nation. Hence the portmanteau word RoyTho.

Where heroes are made

Cricket is the life blood of the Sri Lankan nation. Yet no other cricketing event, in Colombo, garners as much interest as this – The Big Match. Schoolboy cricket is Sri Lanka’s own theatre of dreams where stars are made. Many national players who’ve reached pinnacles of their international careers have done so by rising up the ranks of school cricket. Arjuna Ranatunga, Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara, Ranjan Madugalla and Muttiah Muralitharan are just some of the modern greats who owe their gratitude to it; an honour they would never deny.

The old boy network

The old boy network plays an integral role in the traditions of RoyTho. It’s widely acknowledged that old boys of neither school will be present at any significant event if it’s Big Match weekend. The two schools’ current combined enrolment exceeds 13000 pupils; a simple indication of the enormity of the old boy network; many of whom disappear beyond the gates of Sinhalese Sports Club stadium over the second weekend of March every year. The last Prime Minister publicly expressed dissatisfaction at a state visit by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the most powerful politician on the Asian continent, during RoyTho. Such is what it means to the old boy network. Attendance at the match exceeds that of national games.

Traditions

Leading up to the game parades and marches of bravado gridlock the streets of the city. The school buildings are draped in giant roof to floor flags covering windows, walls and no doubt blocking all sunlight if you’re inside them. No expense is spared as the spirit of the Big Match reaches fever pitch. Each school parades on busy roads but they never meet. It’s a show of strength in numbers and school pride rather than an exercise to intimidate the opponent. A metaphorical dance led by current pupils dictated by tradition.

The Royal College cycle parade, for example, is based on the tradition where pupils would ride to the Captain’s home to wish him well the day before the match. On the first day of the match old boys would visit S. Thomas’ Preparatory School to ring the school bell and lead the school to the cricket grounds. This tradition has been discontinued but the spirit has not died.

Today, the parades have grown beyond comprehension and are joined by cars, jeeps, British Routemaster buses and even helicopters filled with flag-waving old boys, parents and supporters.

Cheer leaders of S. Thomas’ College

Game Day

On game day academic excellence, professional and personal obligations are left outside the gates. Alcohol runs free and live papare bands play non-stop. The deafening crescendo of hopes and dreams threaten to escape the boundaries of the stadium and fill the city.

The cricket kicks off to the echoes of 30,000 spectators, Papare bands, djs, and tv crews. Live coverage on local tv networks and radio stations carry the sound of The Big Match on the airwaves. Inside, the rallying cry of each team is repeated continuously, led by pupils in pristine white uniforms and straw hats, waving flags larger than life. “The scores are a blur by evening and the only way to know what happened is to read the newspapers the following day, depending on the severity of the hangover”, says Kithsiri Almeida an old boy of Royal College.

With the eyes and ears of the entire city on the game it’s easy to forget that the average age of a player is around 16 years. In 1988 Royal College played a team with five 15 year olds. Yet, it’s all taken in their stride as the teams battle for three days.

As evening looms Colombo braces itself for the onslaught of inebriated old boys that inevitably find their way to the bars and clubs. It’s not uncommon to find CEOs, doctors, lawyers and other high profile figures in business passed out at bus stops, taxi stands or outside the stadium. They are soon identified and returned to their families.

Traditional Sri Lankan papare band

Mustangs, Colts and Thoroughbreds

Mustangs, Brumbles, Rangers, Stables, Colts, Stallions, Broncos, OTSC and Thoroughbreds. These words may mean little to those on the outside. Within the stadium however, these are the names of the enclosures known as tents. They form a hierarchical viewing gallery and are as much a part of RoyTho as the game itself. Colts, Stallions and Mustangs were originally created to host old boys of both schools by age group and each tent still follows a set of unbroken traditions. The hospitality of alcohol, food and entertainment are included in the membership and covers all three days of the game. Mustangs celebrated 101 years and Colts 45 years in 2019. Membership of the tents are by nomination only via tent-specific committees. No women are allowed within any tent other than the Stables. “It’s a crucible of male entitlement”, says Hans Billimoria, a past pupil of S. Thomas’.

The result

This March S. Thomas’ College took home the shield after 12 years. The current Warden, Rev. Marc Billimoria, declaring a two day holiday immediately to mark the occasion. The winning score was 296/10 (78.5) & 124/3 (20) by S. Thomas’ against Royal’s 158/10 (48.3) & 259/10 (108.2). Currently the overall wins stand at a tally of 35 to 35 excluding draws. It’s disputed by S. Thomas’ College and defended by Royal College.

Where stars are born

The 140th year’s breakout star was Kalana Perera of S. Thomas’ College. His place in RoyTho history cemented when he took six wickets for 54 runs and went on to score 62 runs. Kalana’s star shining as bright as the Royalist Vijaya Malalasekara who, in 1963, walked on to score a century when Royal College was facing a batting collapse with three wickets down for 39 runs. Pundits consider his century one of the best ever in school cricketing history.

Thus is the nature of school cricket in Sri Lanka. “You walk on to the pitch a boy and walk out a man”, someone once told me. It’s a sentiment staunchly held by many. The sense of RoyTho being an unconventional rite of passage may go some way in explaining how The Big Match was kept alive for 140 years.

The strength of this network of boys and men bound by loyalty, above all else, provides an escape to simpler times for many. What I sensed, on my one-time attendance at RoyTho, was a tangible sense of solidarity and reconnection that seemed important to those who walked out of the school gates over fifty years ago. All around the stadium groups of men, of varying ages, gathered as they might have done in their respective school playgrounds. Ties were being invigorated, old scores settled but quickly forgotten and a great deal of alcohol consumed.

School boys in uniform hurried around being the cogs of responsibility that keep the three-day event moving forward. Their duties range from sitting in the media boxes to identify players on the field, conducting interviews or simply guiding people around. It’s simple, heart-warming stuff.

Whilst there are rumours of private male-only after-hours debauchery I had no access to any of it; my only isolated invitation to a tent based on arriving as part of the entertainment. An invitation which I politely declined. Despite this I found The Big Match endearing in many ways.There are family tents filled with happy children playing in the safety of the stadium’s boundaries. It’s as raucous and vibrant as any carnival around the world I have experienced and far less excessive. But mostly it’s fun, immensely so, if you let your guards down and enter in to its spirit.

Royal Spirit
St. Thomas' College cricket team celebrating their victory.
Thomian Grit

RoyTho takes place on the second week of March each year and attendance is by invitation only. It takes place on SSC Cricket Ground, Colombo 7, Sri Lanka.