Breaking News

“This, my son, is the Royal-Thomian match. But it’s not as good as it was in my day” Remininsces of Royal – Thomian Merry-making in the 50s & 60s

By Odath Weerasinghe

Back at the Big Match – In 2004, I took my 14-year-old Australian-born son to the 125th Royal-Thomian Cricket Match in Colombo. It was his first time ever at a Royal-Thomian. Having heard that the match these days is not what it used to be where merry-making or “honking” (as it was called in my day) was concerned, and that some boys from Royal and STC did not even bother to attend the match any more, I was not sure what to expect at this milestone anniversary of the match. For years I had been telling my son about this match and all the merry-making that was part of it. Somehow I don’t think I managed to convey the essence o. that phrase “The Royal-Thomian.” How could I? Who but a Sri Lankan of that era could comprehend the joy it was to be a Thomian or a Royalist on those two magical days of the year; the feelings that phrase conjured up then and does so even now! My son must have wondered what my Old-Thomian mates and I were going on about – a mere school boy cricket match! How could such a simple thing conjure up so much emotion and excitement ? No doubt, to him, the only spectator at a school cricket match would be the local pensioner walking his dog past the ground who happens to watch for a minute or two while the dog lifted its leg to a tree. So, when we finally made our way to the SSC grounds I was pleased to see the masses of people heading towards the venue and the long lines of pavement hawkers selling everything from flags to masks which added a festive air. The traffic jams and flustered policemen was further evidence that it indeed was quite a big event.

Black Shirts & the Baila Beat – We had quite a task finding our seats. The differences from my day were already apparent. Whilst walk­ing outside the grounds from one side of the pavilion to the other looking for our seats, the bajou music from the bands in the various tents did get me back into the Royal-Thomian mood. However, in spite of their mod­em electronic equipment and amplifiers, they did not seem to be able to create that unified beat the various “non electric” bands, including the “This, my son, is the Royal-Thomian match. But it’s not as good as it was in my day” Remininsces of Royal – Thomian Merry-making in the 50s & 60s

Back at the Big Match – In 2004, I took my 14-year-old Australian-born son to the 125th Royal-Thomian Cricket Match in Colombo. It was his first time ever at a Royal-Thomian. Having heard that the match these days is not what it used to be where merry-making or “honking” (as it was called in my day) was concerned, and that some boys from Royal and STC did not even bother to attend the match any more, I was not sure what to expect at this milestone anniversary of the match. For years I had been telling my son about this match and all the merry-making that was part of it. Somehow I don’t think I managed to convey the essence o. that phrase “The Royal-Thomian.” How could I? Who but a Sri Lankan of that era could comprehend the joy it was to be a Thomian or a Royalist on those two magical days of the year; the feelings that phrase conjured up then and does so even now! My son must have wondered what my Old-Thomian mates and I were going on about – a mere school boy cricket match! How could such a simple thing conjure up so much emotion and excitement ? No doubt, to him, the only spectator at a school cricket match would be the local pensioner walking his dog past the ground who happens to watch for a minute or two while the dog lifted its leg to a tree. So, when we finally made our way to the SSC grounds I was pleased to see the masses of people heading towards the venue and the long lines of pavement hawkers selling everything from flags to masks which added a festive air. The traffic jams and flustered policemen was further evidence that it indeed was quite a big event.

Black Shirts & the Baila Beat – We had quite a task finding our seats. The differences from my day were already apparent. Whilst walk­ing outside the grounds from one side of the pavilion to the other looking for our seats, the bajou music from the bands in the various tents did get me back into the Royal-Thomian mood. However, in spite of their mod­em electronic equipment and amplifiers, they did not seem to be able to create that unified beat the various “non electric” bands, including the “papare” or funeral bands, managed to create in my day. In spite of this it was nice to hear the catchy bai/a beat and saucy lyrics once again. The most noticeable difference of course was the veritable army of black-uni­formed security guards who scowled at you at every turn. None I spoke to had a clue as to how I could find where our seats were. They just got rid of us by grunting in any direction they pleased. In my day the only secu­rity were the Prefects of both schools with not one other security or police personnel inside the ground unless there was real trouble. This security may be necessary today but surely they could dress them in less-threaten­ing civilian outfits and teach them some basic people skills. To smile per­haps.

At the SSC – Finally, a Thomian Prefect, resplendent in his full white outfit, blue-black tie and straw hat, made inquiries on our behalf and eventually guided us to our air-conditioned area. The air-conditioning meant that we could not hear the nearby band. We remained there only for the first day. Fortunately I had also bought tickets to the area reserved for the ex-patriates from Australia. This was not enclosed and allowed all the sights and sounds of the match to be enjoyed without hindrance. We attended for a few hours on all three days and I am sure my son was quite tired of hearing me explain how things were so much better in my day. Whilst what I saw was almost what 1 had expected, it was somewhat of a disappointment. There were no half-drunk students in clever outfits danc­ing around the ground to the accompaniment of one or more funeral bands – the bandsmen equally drunk, and there was no fighting. Only some half-hearted attempts at high jinks with any excesses immediately pounced on by the “black uniforms”. Outside I did not notice any ab­surdly decorated vehicles crammed with excited boys cruising the streets or invading popular venues. Nevertheless, to my Australian son it would still have been quite something to see the massive crowd all around the ground, the flags, the bands, the security and feel the excitement. To him it would have been quite an event for a mere school boy cricket match !

You say Draw we say Win – As I did for my son, for the benefit of non-Lankan readers let me first try to briefly set the scene for this amazing event with particular emphasis on how as it was in “my day”. In the fifties and sixties. The “Royal -Thomian” is the annual cricket match between S. Thomas’ College (STC), an Anglican private school located at Mt Lavinia

a seaside outer suburb of Colombo, and Royal College, the premier gov­ernment school located in the most salubrious suburb of Colombo. The match, was originally played over two days (Friday-Saturday) but is now played over three, beginning on a Thursday. Since it has been played without a. break since 1879 through world wars and other calamities, some believe it to be the longest continuously played cricket encounter in the World. Literally volumes have been written about the Royal-Thomian and copious statistics are maintained. For example, lists of fathers and sons who have played for each school and of course the records in bat­ting, bowling and fielding.

Adding to the charm are the different version of the win/loss/draw records each school maintains. This is because of the famous match in 1885 which STC counts as a win because they claim Royal did not turn up on the second day after being all out for 9 on the first which Royal asserts is a draw as they believe the match was abandoned due to heavy rain over­night. To this day, long after the lifetime of anyone alive at that time, historians still research contemporary news and weather reports search of the truth, once and for all. No doubt though, this dispute will go on for as long as the match continues to be played.

The Battle of the Blues – From very early in its history the match took on a social significance somewhat akin to the Cambridge-Oxford Boat Race or the Melbourne Cup but with the addition of Sri Lankan exuber­ance. For the old boys of both schools it was de rigueur to attend. All business and professional matters were arranged around this. And this applied also to the nation’s lawmakers, many of whom, including some­times the Prime Minister, were old boys of one or the other school. It was well known that parliament was curtailed on the match days to enable parliamentarians to attend. It was (and maybe still’ is) traditional for the Prime Minister of the day to attend at some stage during the match. For the women, it was the place to be seen in their finest. To be fortunate enough to obtain a ticket or an invitation to attend the match was indeed a social coup of the highest calibre. Colombo took on a festive air over the match weekend. The media euphemistically dubbed the encounter “The Big Match” and “The Battle of the Blues”, the latter being a reflec­tion of the college flags – Blue Black and Blue of STC and Blue Gold and

Blue of Royal. It gave the cricket and the associated social events much coverage with invariably a higher prominence than even a cricket test match that may have been played at the same time in the country. (This year it was a test against the Australians which conveniently was at Galle a town 120 km from Colombo). Foreign sports writers following these test tours have lamented that a schoolboy match attracted a far larger crowd than the test match. What do they know about the magic of the Royal-Thomian!

Enjoy – As for the boys of both schools, it was an event awaited with great excitement and anticipation. To be a member of the team was al­most to be a demi-god; little boys pestering for autographs and reputed sports journalists called for interviews and photographs. Pretty girls wanted to be your girlfriend irrespective of what you looked like. Others, from juniors to seniors, planned for months as to how they would celebrate the event. What ridiculous clothes would they wear ? In whose vehicle would they cruise the streets – half drunk and without a care, waving flags, oper­ating rattles and screaming out the words to whatever foul limerick every­one else was trying to sing whilst gulping down cheap alcohol in volumes that was certainly not good for anyone let alone teenagers. In my time as a student (1955-65) it was two days of exuberance but exuberance that was good-natured and which respected the rights (at least the basic rights) of others. The general public seemed to enjoy the student high-jinks and the authorities generally turned a blind eye to the excesses. Let me illus­trate with some reminisces from those days.

Back to the past – Until the early sixties, Thomians had to attend school for two periods on Friday. This was a pointless exercise as the excitement was so palpable that concentration on school work was near impossible. The distinctive sound of an ”old crock” – a blend of an an­cient car motor’s throaty chug, the continuous squeezing of its cheeky air horn, the ratting of metal garbage bins being dragged behind, various musical instruments and young voices singing as it passed by along DeSaram or Hotel Road (which pass through the STC campus) added to the excitement in the classrooms. These were young old boys or seniors who had cut school to make an early start. Those who took their Royal-Thomian merry-making seriously were known as “honkers”. Good honkers

were lionised for their willingness to “play the fool” and their ability to cause mayhem for the general pleasure of everyone on their side.

Old Crocks, Trucks and Bands – The match then was played at the Oval and how you travelled to and from the match was something that was planned for months. The very young were either taken by their par-‘-ents or went in buses organised by the College. Upon reaching senior status, it became a rite of passage to become a “honker”, at least for the big match, and this meant having the appropriate means of transport. The vehicle to be really seen in was an old crock until sometimes around the early sixties when open trucks made their appearance, hired with a driver for two days by groups of boys. As with the vintage cars, the trucks were decorated with palm leaves, (sometimes even whole trees) stream­ers, flags and an assortments of noisy contraptions tied to ropes and trail­ing behind. The cost of hiring was partially offset by carrying advertise­ments. Some trucks even had their own hired papare or funeral bands. The boys, dressed in all sorts of fancy attire, also brought along trumpets, drums and other noise-making gadgets. The only victual inside the trucks was alcohol. It was not long before boys and bandsmen-sometimes even the drivers – were all quite intoxicated.

The Procession – Again, it was in the early sixties that the processions started. Word spread and on both days in the morning everyone going to the match in any sort of vehicle assembled along Hotel Road near the Mt Lavinia Hotel. It quickly became a long line of assorted vehicles – normal cars, vintage cars, trucks and motorcycles – all decorated to the hilt and crammed with excited honkers making as much noise as possible. The many bands in the line-up all playing a different tune added to the general cacophony. Finally, the exciting moment when the self-appointed leaders signalled the start and the procession was on its way. Old boys on motor­cycles with flag-bearers riding pillion acted as an escort and raced up and down the line informing when the procession would stop or turn. When turning, the motorbikes were parked across the road blocking traffic until the entire procession had completed the turn. Traffic police stood by help­lessly. They knew better than to interfere with hundreds of semi intoxi­cated schoolboys. The procession would make its way along Galle Road causing some traffic problems but generally amusing pedestrians and mo­torists. Although crackers were thrown on to the road no onlooker was

hurt. The only casualty I can recall was a honker in a truck who was lighting crackers with his cigarette in-between puffs and sipping from a bottle of arrack. After a while, quite drunk, he lost track of the order and threw his cigarette out and tried to puff at the lit cracker. He was sobered with a bang. Fortunately he avoided serious injury as the crackers were not very powerful.

Girls Lovely Girls – On Friday, the procession stopped at all the major girls schools along or adjoining the route. The first year these schools were taken completely by surprise as hundreds of excited boys clamboured over walls and gates and rushed all over the place. Those sufficiently in­toxicated to be brave, entered classrooms and tried to k’ss the frightened teachers and dance with them. The girls were beside themselves with excitement (or so / have been told decades later by some of them). The following year these schools organized police protection. But there was nothing a few policemen could do to hold back the onslaught. So, from . the year after, many of these schools were given a holiday on the match Friday until other schools also copied the idea and the police finally banned all “big match” processions.

Homage at Parliament – The procession next halted at the former par­liament at Galle Face. There was no fence then to prevent hundreds of Thomians, many carrying flags and bottles of arrack, surrounding the statues of two famous Old Thomian prime ministers – D.S. Senanayake & S.W.R.D. Bandaranayake which grace the front lawn. They sang the College song and danced around the statutes which were adorned with college flags. Although these leaders were dynamic in life, their bronze images remained unmoved by our plaintive cajoling for them to climb down from their pedestals and join the party. The law-makers of the day however, were strirred to life and abandoning affairs-of-state came out­side to watch from the parliament steps. Old-Thomian MPs, their chests bursting with pride, gleefully nudged their Old-Royalist colleagues. What a simple world it was then! A similar antic today would result in an army of heavily armed security personnel rushing in, guns drawn to arrest the honkers.

Past the Lion’s Den – From the parliament the procession headed for the oval detouring via Reid Avenue the home of Royal College. It was not long before Royal also started a procession of its own and I recall the Thomian procession vending its way past the stationery Royal vehicles and stopping alongside, two motley collection of vehicles on either side of the road. There was no aggression of any sort. In fact there was a mas­sive joint baila dancing session in the middle of the road with much drink­ing. Finally, bidding good-bye till we met at the Oval the two processions went their different ways. One year, straight from the parliament our pro­cession went into Fort (then the business district of Colombo) causing chaos in those narrow streets. Somehow it made its way to the Times of Ceylon building where it stopped and hundreds ofThomians hurled abuse at this newspaper for having criticised their team. The windows of this building quickly filled with the smiling faces of its employees who seemed to enjoy this vociferous tongue lashing of their masters as a welcome break from their dull routine.

The Oval at Last – When the procession finally arrived at the Oval there was an explosion of colour, sound and excitement as the blue-black army streamed in and with bands playing and flags waving, completed a round or two of the boundary before setting into their respective tents. Present boys into the Thomian boys’ tent and old boys into the STC visitors tent. Then it was a matter of drinking and baila dancing throughout the day with field invasions at the fall of Royal wickets, more circuits of the bound­ary in the intervals and if the cricket was boring a cruise through Colombo’s streets in the vehicles. There were many incidents of interest in those years but space permits only a few of these to be mentioned here.

The Coffin- Although there was fighting at the match, this was mainly the traditional settling of old scores between Thomians. Royalists and Thomians got along very well and rarely fought. There, however, was one famous “battle” in the very early sixties which I heard about. Royal honkers brought a real coffin with “STC RIP” painted on its sides with a “corpse” in the form of a Royalist dressed in blue and black inside. To the accom­paniment of a funeral band playing a slow march they shouldered the coffin with its “corpse” and started a mock funeral procession around the boundary. Royal supporters in the pavilion and other tents smiled as the cortege passed. Thomians, perhaps through shock at being reminded of their mortality or more likely due to their terror of their very-much-feared tent master – a large no-nonsense disciplinarian – watched meekly as this humiliation passed their tent. The Royalists, buoyed by this easy success, started another circuit. Thomians again watched haplessly as the “fu­neral” procession approached. Then as it drew level with them, to their utter amazement the feared tent master yelled, “Thomians, what are you waiting for!” (or words to that effect) and personally led the charge. Stunned Thomians recovered quickly and poured out of the tent and the battle was on in full view of players and the thousands of other spectators. Finally, after fighting valiantly, the Royalists and their band headed back to their tents. But during the melee the poor “corpse” was unceremoni­ously returned to earth where his mortal coil re-ignited and he ran for his life as his coffin was smashed to pieces.

Aerial Combat – On another occasion in the late fifties match specta­tors were stunned to see a figure, Royal flag in hand, climbing the mainte­nance ladder of one of the nearby Radio Ceylon transmission towers which stood several hundred feet high. They had hardly got over the shock of noticing this when there was a collective gasp and a flurry of finger-point­ing as another figure, this time with Thomian flag, also emerged on the tower from above the Oval’s roofline. Thousands watched their slow progress – two little figures framed within the girders against a clear blue sky. The Royalist reached the summit, affixed his flag and started down. The two were now bound to meet and did on one of the platforms high above the ground. The crowd watched apprehensively. Would they fight? Would they be witnesses to a tragedy ? Fortunately, to everyone’s relief, the two after conversing briefly continued on their respective ways. The Thomian also affixed his flag on the summit and side by side, two flags fluttered proudly in the breeze for the rest of the match. Who were these intrepid characters? What did they talk about so high in the sky?

The Charge of the Fire Brigade – Again in the late fifties and late in the evening, Thomian honkers, sozzled with alcohol, started a fire inside their tent which was within the permanent structure of the oval. As the fire grew, so did enthusiasm and more and more fuel in the form of bro­ken wooden chairs and other debris was added until soon it was a raging bonfire. And the band played on. The elderly bandsmen, eyeballs red with fatigue and alcohol, hardly able to stand, kept belting out the favourites as the drunken honkers, like heathens at a pagan ritual, sang and danced the bai/a around the fire. When smoke billowed out the fire brigade was summoned and watched by vociferous hundreds, advanced with their hose. They hadn’t reckoned with Royal-Thomian merry-mak­ing for the honkers in turn advanced on the firemen who wisely surren­dered their hose and retreated as the honkers played the water on every­thing but the fire. Next to arrive was a police riot squad complete with helmets, batons and wicker shields. As they advanced, to the delight of the large and noisy crowd, the honkers turned the hose on the police and kept them at bay. And the band played on until a senior police officer with the threat of tear gas persuaded the honkers to hand the hose back to the firemen who proceeded to douse the fire.

Back to the present – One of the magical moments for me at the 125th match was after play on the final day when we walked across the ground to the exclusive Mustangs Tent. I had pointed it out to my son as where old honkers, who now virtually run corporate Sri Lanka watched the match when they were past active honking. Some people I knew invited us in­side. Although the match was over, everyone was still hanging about and I met many of my STC contemporaries. Some I had been in contact with on a regular basis since College days. But – much to my son’s surprise -many balding middle aged men with slightly bulging waistlines (just like myself) confronted me with quizzical smiles exclaiming “My God its Odath! How are you?” followed by “Can’t you recognize me?” I had no doubt they had first checked who the stranger was. I looked hard for the teen­ager that I would have known 40 years ago and in many cases had to admit I was at a loss. With wicked delight, they enjoyed my embarrass­ment till I was rescued by someone announcing who the person was. This instantly released the skinny teenager I once knew to emerge from within the rotund face and body. Valiantly fending off many offers of expensive Scotch, I had a great time animatedly talking about the old days and what we were doing now. Occasionally I caught a bemused look on my son’s face. It would have indeed been strange for him a teenage to see his father transcend time and behave like one too. The magic of the Royal-Thomian

Esto Perpetua

Check Also

Thomians avenge last year’s defeat; Royal thrashed by an innings

By Ranjan Anandappa CRICKET: S.Thomas’, with a superior all round effort avenged their defeat last year ...