Photo: 'Sinhalese lads, 1903' Ceylon Observer Press / Himal Southasian July 2007
Photo: 'Sinhalese lads, 1903' Ceylon Observer Press / Himal Southasian July 2007

The Ceylonese origins of Lankan cricket

The state has decreed volleyball Sri Lanka’s ‘national game’, but the citizens, of course, know it to be otherwise.

Modernity took firm root in Ceylon under the imperial aegis of Britain. British rule ushered a considerable transformation in the political economy of the island, a revolution in the communication system, the administrative unification of the country and the emergence of new (capitalist) class forces. English became the administrative language, leading to the development of an indigenous socio-political elite – referred to locally as the "middle class" – whose mode of domination included a facility in both the English language and lifestyle.

During that process, the ethnic diversity of the island was compounded. Apart from the Tamils, Sinhalese and Tamil-speaking Moors of yesteryear, one witnessed the influx of people identified as Indian Tamils, who worked on the plantations in the interior or as menial labourers in the main urban centres. The island's location also encouraged small groups of Malays (who had served in the Dutch and British regiments), as well as Bohras, Sindhis, Parsees and Colombo Chetties to join the mixed European descendents described as 'Burghers' in the polyglot towns of the southwestern quarter of the island, most notably in Colombo. By the 1880s, Colombo was the island's hegemonic centre, looming over the rest of the country with its political and economic clout, as well as its symbolic primacy. It was this primacy in Colombo's status that was to prove central in the evolution of another overwhelming hegemony in Ceylon: that of cricket over all other sports in the country.

It was through Colombo, too, that the intellectual currents known as 'liberalism' and 'nationalism' first entered public consciousness. A small coterie of young Burgher men, educated in English at the Colombo Academy, comprised the forerunners of Ceylonese nationalism when, in 1850, they launched the periodical Young Ceylon. This new way of thinking was sustained by the emerging multi-ethnic, indigenous middle class over the course of the following century. The first momentous challenge to white superiority occurred, prophetically, on the cricket field, when the best Ceylonese XI took on the best local Europeans in June of 1887, in a match they lost. This began an annual Europeans-versus-Ceylonese series that lasted until 1933 – a series in which, by the 1910s, the Ceylonese were usually the victors.

Cricket was also a medium for the encroachment of other Westernised ways of life, particularly that institution known as the club. Thus, cricket's anti-colonial dimensions were qualified by strands of Anglophilia and a distancing of its bearers from the hoi-polloi. Indeed, running parallel with Ceylonese nationalism, one saw indigenous resistances of a more marked anti-Western character. There were two threads intertwining here: the hostile Hindu and Buddhist reactions to Christian proselytising on the one hand, and hostility towards the English language and Westernised lifestyles (and the associated assumptions of superiority) on the other. Among some Sinhalese, this resistance was quite virulent, and one can point to a cohesive Sinhalese nationalism from the 1860s onwards.

Thus, at the time of Independence, one found Ceylonese and Sinhalese nationalisms, along with Tamil and Moor communitarianism, jostling with one another, often in complex overlap. On the cricket field, however, the elite ranks of all the ethnic groups (with the partial exception of the Indian Tamils) were united in supporting Ceylon against all 'outsiders'. Colombo-bred, middle-class Tamils were among the leading players and administrators. When Ceylon played India or took on the Madras Cricket Association for the Gopalan Trophy from 1953 onwards, Tamils were among the keenest of Sri Lanka's fans. This is in direct contrast to today, when a significant proportion of indigenous Tamils tend either to be ambivalent or to support India – or even 'anyone but Sri Lanka', on the principle of backing the enemy of one's enemy. Today, with cricket having become Sri Lanka's premier sport, reaching across all classes and embracing most parts of the country, this qualification is of some importance. But in order to grasp the significance of such developments, we must retrace our footsteps to the early 19th century, and the advent of those great inventors of games, the British.

Passing time in British Ceylon

The British rulers in Ceylon indulged in a broad spectrum of recreational activities, with the enthusiasm and leisured circumstances of rulership. The full panoply of British games, of both the board and field varieties (including the 'manly' pastime of hunting), were vigorously pursued in Ceylon. By the late 19th century, the field games included football, volleyball, hockey, athletics and cricket. Over time, most of these (except polo) were taken up by the Ceylonese middle classes, while some board games such as draughts were dispersed across all strata. Indeed, card games such as bridge, rummy, donkey, snap and canasta have been the most popular games in Sri Lanka for over a century and a half, while carrom has also maintained a strong following.

As with the British, field games were institutionalised through clubs, which inevitably led to a similar opportunity for segregation. Inevitably, the 'colour bar' stood firm at the gates of the European clubs, but a similar proclivity to set up cricket clubs along ethnic lines also became ingrained among the Ceylonese. The first of these, the Malay Cricket Club, opened its doors in 1872, followed by several multi-ethnic institutions. There was also an important disconnect between the urban and rural areas. Both cricket and rugby were largely restricted to the urban centres until the 1960s, and were for the most part elitist in character; rugby, for instance, was only played in Colombo, Kandy and the plantation centres. In contrast, football was more widespread, and attracted both elite academies and a wider range of educational institutions and regions.

Despite the elitism shared by Ceylonese rugby with cricket, there was nevertheless an important difference between the two. Many more schools, including the leading ones in the Jaffna Peninsula, played cricket. Moreover, some working-class people in the larger towns were drawn to the big matches between rival schools, encouraged by the opportunity to engage in betting, as well as the carnival atmosphere of these large matches. As such, team-specific loyalties built up over time, something that did not take place with either rugby or football. One must not forget that education in Sri Lanka was not expensive at this time, and that classes at most urban schools included many poor children, whose parents were also drawn into their children's areas of interest.

Cricket, moreover, was not an expensive pastime of the purely 'leather ball and white longs' kind. The game could be played with all manner of balls, including the local kaduru ball, and therefore attracted young players from all strata, though they remained exclusively male. Since players could use cheap tennis balls, cricket was a familiar sport in the palm groves, bare patches, beaches and side streets of the urban and semi-urban areas for over a century. It could also be played by children within the restricted space of a garage or veranda. Lasith Malinga, who shot to fame recently as a sling bowler, developed his relatively unique technique as a tennis-ball beach-cricket lad.

Cricket also had a golden aura to it. Famous English and Australian sides would occasionally play whistle-stop one-day matches in Colombo when their ships called in, en route to their respective countries. Beginning with the West Indies in 1949, sides touring India sometimes also played a series in Sri Lanka. The attention devoted to such matches in the prestigious English-media newspapers was high octane for the sport's popularity in the country.

In the meantime, cricket was beginning to catch on in schools where it had not previously been a prominent feature, notably in the former Buddhist denominational schools Ananda and Nalanda (both in Colombo), Dharmaraja (in Kandy) and Mahinda (in Galle). During the 1960s, Neville Jayaweera, the farseeing former head of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, initiated Sinhala-language cricket commentaries for the annual big match between Ananda and Nalanda, which involved the invention of a whole new vocabulary. This was a momentous step, as it both contributed to the popularity of the game and deepened refined knowledge.

17 March 1996

Through the years, the prestige associated with cricket in Ceylon (and, now, Sri Lanka) encouraged high levels of proficiency, particularly in the art of batting. Over time, the lineages of excellent cricketers in some elite schools, notably S Thomas' College, crystallised and enabled Ceylon to field teams that beat Pakistan and India several times during the 1960s. In addition, several Ceylonese players made their mark in Oxbridge and English county cricket during the 1950s and 1960s.

These achievements eventually gained Ceylon 'associate' status within International Cricket Club (ICC) circles in 1965. But circumspection by Western countries kept the highest levels of international cricket closed, even after Sri Lanka won the ICC trophy for second-tier cricketing countries in 1975. These doors were eventually opened in 1981, which meant tours of Sri Lanka with all the associated international gloss. This also happened to be the time that television was introduced in Sri Lanka. Cricket fervour grew apace, despite the context of escalating conflict and a civil war in the south from 1987 to 1990.

When Sri Lanka eventually succeeded in winning the World Cup in one-day cricket in 1996 against Australia, Sri Lankans around the world were glued to their TV sets. That day, 17 March in Lahore, capped a century and a half of evolution of Sri Lankan cricket: all at once consolidating the 'groundwork' provided by tennis-ball cricket, the prestige of school cricket, a long pedigree of good cricketers and television's glamourisation of the game. Sri Lankans proved themselves capable of holding their own at the highest international levels.

While the government decreed volleyball to be the 'national game' of Sri Lanka in 1991, this declaration is not widely known, nor readily accepted by those who do know. Today, with the overwhelming media attention towards cricket, as well as the widespread engagement with the sport, cricket is undoubtedly the country's ruling prince of sport – as well as the popular king.


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