Memories from the Past – 1916 – 1919


This is a story as told to me by my father, the Royal captain of 1919. He played for College from 1916 – 1919.

Authors : Rohan Sahabandu & Jehan Sahabandu

Let me take you to the Royal – Thomian cricket match played 100 years ago at the SSC grounds on the 21 of March – where, believe it or not, Royal trounced the Thomians in ONE DAY!

Young Royal lawyer Haritha Adhikari, a colleague of mine, invited me to contribute an article to the Battle of the Blues Souvenir about the famous 1919 match – where we thrashed the Thomians in one day.

The Royal team was captained by one Raja A. Sahabandu – my dear father. I obliged, as I thought it was a fine gesture from my friend to invite me to talk about a fabulous team of yesteryear (in legal parlance – this is all hearsay!), a team that created a unique record – never to be beaten. Records may come and go – but this record can never ever be broken.

This is a tale coming from a father to his Royalist son – reminisced over meals or in the verandah of our house, usually when the Royal – Thomian cricket match comes around.

My father played for Royal from 1916- 1919 and was the captain in 1919. From 1916 – 1918 – one LC Khoo a Burmese, whose age was a highly guarded secret captained college – with success. During that time, these encounters were usually low scoring ones, where the match starts at 12 noon and ends at 5.30pm with only a 15-minute break for tea. During this period, Royal had only about 80 students and in the playing XI – my father was the only “dark skinned one”.  All others were Burghers except for one Ratnam, a Tamil. During this period 1916 – 1919, there were no pavilions (except the SSC cadjan pavilion) – only tents – canvass or cadjan pitched all around- flying the colours of both Colleges. There would be no Ice cream bars – not even a Bar – only soft drinks – like lemonade or cream soda or ginger beer – not even a coke. Tents were generally full with parents, well wishers and yes, even girlfriends! Even at that time nattily dressed girls/ladies in lovely Hats and boys in baggy trousers and shirts. My father said that this was like the Ascot races – where everyone was all dolled up. When asked about singing & dancing at the match? He said, they did not have “Hai Hooi Babiachchi” or “Suranganeeta malu genella” – but the signature song was

“Hurrah for Marry

Hurrah for the lamb

Hurrah for the Royal Boys

Who don’t care a damn”

And the much loved

We’ll hang all the Thomians in the college Banyan tree

and also the ever popular

“she will be coming around the mountain when she comes, when she comes…..”

He also said that there was no recorded music of any kind during the match but at the end of the day, the CCI or the Police band played all English songs – no Sinhala songs at all – and all boys spoke in English – Sinhala conversations were not heard of. There were no old crocks, band wagons, dust bins been dragged around or motor cars – only carriages drawn by Horses! Mode of transport for the boys was the Bicycle – Bicycles were used for parading the grounds and the streets of Colombo and pass the three girls’ schools – Bishop’s, Ladies’ and St. Bridget’s where the boys would stop and do a dare devil dance for the benefit of the girls. By the way, we did not have College song at that time.

According to him the whole team had flannels, blazers, mufflers, buck skin boots, Terrel hats – immaculately dressed.

Going down memory lane to 1916 in his 1st match at the NCC grounds, which was during the world war – where there was no revelry by night after the match since Colombo was blacked out on account of German raids. We batted first and got a very low score – with my father – who opened, out for 1! Royal had fought back and dismissed the Thomians for a lesser total. He remembered Royal’s Wijetilake, who was extremely fast, taking 5 wickets. In the second innings my father batted for over 2 hours –top scored – and set the Thomians about 120 to win. Once again, Wijethilake ran riot and took 5 wickets with Royal winning by a very small margin.

The 1917 match was played at the Campbell park. The Thomians were captained by the one and only S. Saravanamuttu, one of the famous ‘Sara’ brothers. In this match Thomian Jansz had scored the first century in the series. However, my father had his wicket.

When Royal batted, they were in bad shape, but Royal opener De Kretser scored a slow 80 odd runs and my father had stayed with him for over 2 hours. However, we were all out for 100 runs and followed on. Once again, my father held tort for a long time and we managed to escape with a draw, with my father remaining not out.

He also remembered a peculiar incident – S. Sara the Thomian captain was a colossus those days – he was like W.G. Grace–  no one dared to cross swords with him. While he was batting, he had suddenly walked off the field holding his bat like a club, and had gone into one of the tents, and after about 5 minutes had come back and resumed batting. Not a word to the umpires nor a word from them. The umpires were too scared to inquire from him the reason for leaving the field. Later it came to light that Sara had spotted his brother Manickama, former Thomian captain being assaulted by some persons in the tent. He had gone straight up to the “fight scene” stood beside his brother and had given a thrashing to the persons who were trying to assault his brother – and walked back! Imagine if it happens today! There would be pandemonium and war! Sara is Sara. Talking of great Sara in the 1917 match –Kretser and my father were batting so defensively to save the match. Sara had bowled underarm to my father and also to De Kretser, but the two Royalists did not bulge. But Sara had carried on regardless amidst hoots, jeers, catcalls and I was told that someone had thrown a tennis ball to the grounds and asked Sara to bowl with that!

The 1918 match had to be abandoned due to a fire! Yes – Royal was in bad shape, in the second innings we had to get over 200 to win and had lost half the side –when the SSC cadjan pavilion caught fire – the match was stopped. Who started the fire? Was it done purposely? These questions have not been answered. Don’t even think of it – a Royalist would never resort to these kinds of things!

In 1919, the year my father captained was an eventful year for him – he with one F.C.N. Vangezel– both scoring centuries put on over 230 runs for the sixth wicket against Ananda. This record still stands. He was the “boycott type” batsman with a steady defense.

He also talked about the 1919 Royal – Trinity match. There were tied matches even during that period. 3 balls to go – 1 run to win – my father was bowling the last over – he was a fast bowler. Third ball – he found the non-striker outside his crease – without completing the delivery – he had stopped and warned him. The next was a dot ball – the 5th ball – he was again outside the crease – trying to steal a run – once again he had stopped and warned him. Came the last ball – still one run to win for the Trinitians. The non-striker stepped out again – for he thought that the No. 11 who was batting could never score that elusive one run. Third time, my father had flicked the bails off and appealed – the appeal was allowed and the batsman declared run out. Thus, the match ended in a tie. First time in the history between Royal and Trinity.

My father recalls that he was compared to every animal born under the sun, hooted at – jeered at –and ridiculed by the Trinitians.

I used to tell him that, in any event – give him 2 warnings – a gentlemen would not stoop to stealing an illegal run – that’s what the batsman was trying to do – he was within his right to ‘run him out’.

We have all heard of Jack Robertson of St. Anthony’s College – he was a present day ‘Kohli’ – my father said he was truly a genius and if he was born in another country he would have played Test cricket and become a celebrity. Jack Robertson, my father said pummeled the Royalists in 1918 scoring almost a double century in a quick time which followed his 100 in 1917 – brilliant cricketer he was – and he was the first Anthonian to score a century against us – 1917, he said that he was fortunate to see the master scoring 295 runs against the old toe in 1918. This record stood for a long time. Long long years ago, I have eaves dropped when my father had chit – chatted with old Royalists about his cricketing days. They engaged such talk in the same way we enjoy such talks with our friends now. Life is a cycle! Cycle of events. The memories keep you alive and kicking.

Now for the 1919 encounter.

As was the practice, the Royal team dressed in their Blazers, Mufflers, caps and cycled to the assembly hall in the morning of the match. It was a wonderful sight- says my father – with 12 flannelled cricketers riding together from an agreed place to the College assembly hall.

The team was given the 1st row, with the staff members seated alongside. At 10 sharp, Hartley – the principal walks in – in a cap and gown. Immaculately dressed in cream flannels. The team, students, the staff – stand to attention –Hartley sits in the principal’s chair – the rest follows. He gives a pep talk – talking about the values – about the gentleman’s game and how one should conduct oneself – win or lose as Royalists. All listen in awe – according to my father – all have even forgotten to breath – for him and the students Hartley  was God like – a strict disciplinant and a no-nonsense principal – who in his spare time smoked a pipe.

After his pep talk he changes his mood, becoming more friendly– and invites the team to have refreshments at his official bungalow. All the students, they march in one single file and enter the banquet hall and enjoy (or try to) the refreshments.

The entertainment over – he once again wishes the boys – he reminds me of our own E.C. Gunasekara (kataya) – during our era. To my father – Hartley was the “God” – that was how ECG – was to us. After the light refreshments, the cricketers would once again get on to their bikes and cycle to the grounds – all dressed up – Blazers and all, some carrying their bats across the handle bar – some carry all their cricketing gear – and cycle to the grounds.

My father says, that the reception they got when they reached the grounds was fantastic. The parents, school boys, friends, girlfriends! – about 1500 – all waited till their heroes arrived – clapping and whistling – waving as the team headed towards the dressing room. During those days there were no pavilions – no coaches. when the Royalists walked on to field – team had their caps in the hip pockets – never wore them till the match started – generally the caps were worn in the last series – otherwise they used Terrell hats.

A knowledgeable past cricketer had told my father – not to bat, if he won the toss – as the wicket – would misbehave in the morning – and when he walked out to toss with P.B. Bulankulame – the Thomian captain – this was playing in his mind. Bulankulame won the toss and my father said his heart skipped a beat – but lady luck was with him that day – for the Thomain captain – said he will bat – with much relief, my father had rushed back and happily signaled to his team – that we are bowling. When the Thomians batted – they did not have a clue against our fast bowlers. Bartholomeus-  who took 5 wickets and one De Krezer – 3 wickets. they batted out 40 odd runs in about 25 overs. No one in the Thomian team reached double figures. this was also a record – at that time. When Royal batted they had found the two Thomian opening bowlers -unplayable – but due to some late contributions Royal made 150 runs.

Thomians in their second innings were at one point of time 9 wickets down. Those days the match commenced at 12 noon and ended at 5.30 pm. When the 9th wicket fell, the time was about 5.25 – then before the next batsman walked in – the batsman – the tail ender had called for a drink – the idea was to see that, the match would continue to the next day – Saturday – hoping for rain! Then Thomian captain Bulankulame walked on to the field with the 12th man who was bringing the drinks to the Thomian No. 10 –spoke first with the umpire and then had spoken to my father the fielding captain and had told him, ARAS – he was called “Aras” ( for he was A.R.A. Sahabandu) take another ½ today – and see whether you can get our No. 10 out!

This was gladly accepted – and in the very next over in the additional ½ hour – Kritzer had the last man L.B.W. My father tells me that when they appealed the whole ground appealed in unison – and when he was given out all hell had broken loose.

He remembered the team being carried on the shoulders of some past cricketers – singing and dancing. My father till his last days – remembered the magnanimous gesture – of the Thomian captain. That was the way the Battle of the Blues was fought. The Royal team had then gone to the Thomian dressing room and hugged and had shaken hands with the Thomians – in typical English style – with the captain been singled out – as the true hero – one who played the game in the true spirit  of the ‘Battle of the Blues’.

There was singing and dancing, and Colombo streets saw the Royalists as well as the Thomians – can you imagine this nowadays? – taking to the streets, and singings those songs, that were popular in those days.

Hartley had declared Monday a holiday – Tuesday – there was a special assembly with the 11 cricketers on the stage with the Principal – a singular honour those days. My father remembers, that even some past cricketers were invited to share the honours – this was followed by yet another reception – by the principal – who had given the team a sumptuous lunch – The whole college was a like a beehive, everyone singing the praises about the magnificent XI – They were the heroes and the cynosure of all eyes.

R.A. Sahabandu along with the Trinity Hall Cambridge Cricket Team

Soon after, my father obtained a scholarship to Trinity Hall Cambridge and played for Cambridge – and he treasured the Cambridge Blazer, which was kept alongside his Royal Blazer for all of us to see and admire. He also said that when he went for practice – he was asked to practice with a Tennis ball first – why, he did not know!!

My father returned as a barrister – but never practiced his profession – but played for SSC and coached Ananda for some time.

I shall remember with a heavy heart going for the Royal Thomian – first with my father – then with my mother and the siblings – then alone, as I grew older – with friends – girlfriends – then wife and family – and now taking the full circle – alone – for the Battle of the Blues. I think this is the routine for all Royalists. Young and Old!!

The feeling we get when we go for the ‘BIG MATCH’ – the big match fever in the month of March – only a Royalist can understand and souvenir.  

My friends tell me that, I am a clip off the old block – don’t let your imagination run riot – what this meant was, he played cricket – never practiced his profession – I did not play cricket – but am practicing as a Lawyer! Strange it seems! – anyway my brother played for his school – and his club. When the Royal captain walks on to the field for the toss this year let him remember that 100 years ago to the day – with a little bit of lady luck – and with the true spirit of the Royal – Thomian, we trounced the Thomians – in one day – and let me say finally – it can be done – Yes! It can be done.