The reign of schoolboy 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 endearingly as the Battle of the Blues in honour of the teams’ flags. The gentleman’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. Yes, because even as Sri Lanka endured 29 years of civil war the schools continued to play against the island’s backdrop of anarchy.

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 and preparation as RoyTho – The Big Match. Schoolboy cricket is Sri Lanka’s own theatre of dreams where stars are born. Many of the national players who’ve reached the 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 teams

The two teams that make up RoyTho? 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 current 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. Both schools were established at a time, in Sri Lankan history, when the country was under British rule. Both colleges have continued to flourish beyond it producing intellectuals and academics Sri Lanka can be proud of.

The old boy network

It’s widely acknowledged that old boys of neither school will be present at any other significant event if it’s RoyTho weekend. Old boys, of which there are many (the two schools’ current combined enrolment exceeds 13000 pupils), employed in the highest tiers of business over several industries, all disappear beyond the gates of Sinhalese Sports Club stadium over the second weekend of March. The current 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.

Traditions

Leading up to the game parades and marches of bravado gridlock the streets. 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 Colombo’s 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, happens the day before the game where the tradition was that they would ride to the Captain’s home to wish him well. Old boys would visit S. Thomas’ Preparatory School on the first day of the match to ring the school bell and lead the school to the match venue. This tradition has been discontinued but the spirit has not died. Today, the parades 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 stadium 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 RoyTho on the airwaves of Colombo. 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 at the end of play. 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 during RoyTho. They are soon identified and returned to their families by the residents of Colombo 7 or local tuk tuk drivers.

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 is 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. His 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”, another old boy once told me. It’s a sentiment staunchly held by many old boys. This sense of RoyTho being an unconventional rite of passage, as much as a commitment to tradition, may go some way in explaining how the spirit of the game has stayed alive for 140 years. It’s the support of the old boy network and their willingness to uphold school traditions that elevates the game. The loyalty and sentimentality of those who last walked out of the school gates over half a century ago no doubt exhorts the freshmen to give the performance of their lives. It’s an evoking of devotion that God Himself could only but dream of. In the spirit of the beautiful game may it continue for another 140 years.

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.

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