Memory takes me back to that moment where the ball was pushed towards me at mid-wicket and the Royal last pair took off for a risky single. The feeling of dashing to the wicket, breaking the stumps and securing a Thomian win (by innings) which avenged the shield back in 2007 after the heart-breaking loss in 2006 will be a memory long engraved in me, my team and most of the Thomian community. However, as sweet as that victory tasted, it unfortunately lingered way too long before a fresh memory of ‘a sea of Thomians rushing to the middle’ to quote our beloved coach; the late Ranil Abeynaike, superseded that event.
I fondly recall how my teammates who had a few years left to play made a pledge that they will not let the shield go back under their watch. It was an absolute privilege to watch, encourage and support them year on year in achieving that goal. Jehaan Thahir (2008), Raveenthiraraja Nirrushan (2009) & Dinesh Walpita (2010) created their own legacies going up against formidable Royal teams which included the likes of Kusal Perera, Bhanuka Rajapakse, Haroon Mowjood, Ramith Rambukwella etc. Thomian Grit prevailed year after year and they upheld that promise.
In 2008, we were under severe pressure facing a hundred run deficit in the first innings exchange. Despite having early honours and having Royal 140-7, they managed to score over 300 on the back of a gritty hundred by fast bowler Charith Fernando. After managing only 198 in the first innings, Royal made a quick fire 141/6 in their second essay and declared leaving Jehaan’s boys a target close to 250 to achieve, which seemed unlikely given how we batted in the first innings. However, Jehaan led from the front and when rain and bad light stopped play, we were 59 for no loss.
The most notable effort undoubtedly would be in 2009 when Thomian Grit was displayed like never before. This was a Royal team that had run through every schools’ team and was confident of a big match win. Given the talent they possessed at their disposal, nobody doubted this possibility. Chasing a quick-fire Royal score of 300 plus on the back of a brilliant Kusal Perera hundred, we were tottering on 20-2 after being sent in for a follow on after making a paltry 99 in the first innings with two days left to play. All hope seemed to be lost.
However, our boys believed the impossible could be done while the Royalists in the organizing committee were making plans to have the awards ceremony at the end of day two. I was privy to this information as my colleague Sajith Kularatne and I were invited by the Warden to join the Joint Organizing Committee for the first time as two youngsters from the Thomian camp. Records tumbled as Saleem & Nirrushan scored brilliant hundreds while young Sachin Peiris got a gritty half century that led the Thomian reply for five sessions to amass a score of 411. The game ended with the best three Royalists in the hut for 42, chasing a target of nearly 200 which left major honours of the game with the young Thomian side.
The following year in 2010 under Dinesh Walpita’s captaincy it was much closer. We batted well to surpass a score of 300 in the first innings and take first innings honours. A notable mention would be the brilliant innings of Pasan Wijewardana who was dismissed on 99. Unfortunately, he had a moment of brain freeze under pressure and attempted a reverse sweep to reach his hundred and was dismissed. Royal displayed much prowess with the bat in both innings led predominantly by Ramith Rambukwella’s contributions which included a brilliant hundred and we were once again set a target of just over 250 in the 4th innings. When the game ended, we were 194 for 7. This game fulfilled the promise that was made in 2007. Dinesh who was the youngest member that year, had managed to effectively lead his side and ensure that the shield remained with College, under our watch.
The next eight years from 2011 to 2018 had many mixed emotions for me as a past captain, member of the advisory committee, member of the organizing committee and especially as a Thomian cricket lover who connected with most of the captains/players on a regular basis. There were quite a few hard-fought battles where honours were shared. Also, moments of agony and anguish where rain/bad light prevented probable victories. A few memories that are quite strongly inscribed in my memory are when Chamod Pathirana’s all-round efforts, especially where he batted brilliantly and was unfortunate to be dismissed on 99, Sanesh Demel who scored a gutsy hundred after being pushed to number three, quality innings by Sachin Peiris, Nuwan Kavinda, Asiri Wickramanayake, Javed Bongso, Ravindu Kodithuwakku, Rashmika Opatha, Sachitha Jayathilake, Romesh Nallaperuma etc. who brought much pride to College.
We were also comprehensively beaten in 2013 which left a sting of sadness and disappointment, not for losing, which is a part of the game, but in the manner that we succumbed. Moreover, in 2016 we experienced the reversal of 1999 where a couple of hours of bad batting in the second innings cost us the game after being ahead from the onset. All of this just heightened the hunger and desire to see the shield back in College and experience a win.
To give context to this I would like to draw upon my memories as a child. The earliest big match memories I have are from 1997-1999 where the likes of Nilanka Peiris, Upeka Fernando, Meshadh Peiris, Roshan Maputana etc made significant impacts in winning causes. The earliest of this would place me in grade five and seeing Meshadh bat made me want to emulate that feat one day. I was blessed to be able to do so, however I feel it was imperative that the Thomian community, especially the current boys see and experience a win to plant the seeds that could create the Thomian legends in a few years from now. I may be wrong, but it could be possible that we didn’t have a single school boy in 2019 that recalled a Thomian win, for whoever who was in College in 2007, would have only been in grade two or three at that time, with little or no recollection of this game.
Having analyzed the season and the build up to the 140th Battle of the Blues I believed that we had a genuine chance this year if the weather gods stayed away. While the Royal team was by no means a push over and boasted of experience and talent, especially in their batting department through the likes of Pasindu Sooriyabandara, Kamil Mishara, Kavindu Madarasinghe etc. it was my belief that the likes of Kalana Perera, Dellon Peiris, Shannon Fernando would pose a serious threat to them. I was fortunate to play with most of the boys who represented College this year while captaining the Division 03 team to a championship in 2017/18. Hence, I was fully aware of their talent on the field.
A well-known secret in the cricketing community is that having top quality batting is critical to putting runs on the board and applying scoreboard pressure, however in order to win a game, especially on a SSC surface that is traditionally suited for batting, what is actually important is the ability to take 20 wickets relatively quickly. Hence, I believed that we could match the Royal batting through the likes of Sithara Hapuinna, Shalin Demel, Kishan Munasinghe and the other freshers who showed much promise, but I felt that the Royal bowling was not on par with the Thomian bowling in 2019, predominantly due to the X-factor of Kalana Perera.
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Strangely this was one game that the toss would possibly have not played a role as the decision was straightforward for both camps. Given that the SSC wicket is suited for batting in general, it is also well known that whatever can be extracted can be done so in the first session of play. Hence, College would have most likely bowled first in order to play to our strengths and give Kalana the best chance of making an impact early to seize the advantage.
From the Royalists point of view, knowing that the Thomian batting was decent and possibly not having the quality of pace that they have had in the past with the likes of Chamika Karunaratne, it was a sound guess that they would play to their strengths and bat first with the hopes of negating Kalana’s first spell and putting a decent first innings total on the board, bringing spin into the equation for the 4th innings. Therefore, the first session of play was estimated to be critical for the outcome of the game. Would Royal put a good first innings total on the board? Could College make early inroads and then put a good total up when it is best for batting? Barring incidents of brilliant individual performance, this would set the tone for the game.
As predicted, Royal won the toss and elected to bat. Kalana did not disappoint. Before things had settled, we saw the Royal opener walking back, bowled for a duck in the first over. However, there was some good batting on display amidst some fire and aggression from Kalana. Few edges mixed with some good strokes saw Royal reach 40-1 and there could have been alarm bells going off in the Thomian camp as they knew that the window of opportunity was closing fast with the best Royal batsmen still not exposed.
However, Kalana tolerated none of that. A fiery second spell saw the breakthrough and then wickets continued to tumble including the prized scalp of Pasindu Sooriyabandara caught in the slips cheaply. Royal were reduced to 87-7 and everyone started to believe that a repetition of 2005 could be on the cards. The expectation was that Royal would be bowled out under 100 and the Thomians would make 340 and bowl them out again to win by an innings, early on the third day. However, it was not going to be as easy or one sided like that. Royal started to fight back.
A threatening partnership saw the Royal total reach 150 before Kalana managed to break through again to end that partnership and the Royal hopes of a good first innings total. The last two wickets fell cheaply resulting in Royal being bowled out for 158 which was way under par. Kalana had taken 6 wickets including their best batsmen and Shannon had ably supported him taking 4 wickets including the captain, Madarasinghe. College started promisingly with the captain batting as he knows best, taking the attack to the bowlers. Sithara and Shalin played some very good strokes that put the dressing room at ease, however the fall of one saw the other depart soon and we were suddenly 35-2.
Fresher, and possible find of the season given that he had barely played before the Big Match, Ryan Fernando batted with much maturity alongside Yohan Perera and elevated the total to pass the three-figure mark. Ryan brought up his half century and we were cruising at 130-2 when he unfortunately mistimed a ball and was dismissed. As the saying goes, one wicket usually brings another, and this saw Royal eliminate the advantage by striking regularly to end day one with College ominously posed at 158-6. Scores were equal. The only advantage we possessed were 04 wickets in the bag. Royal were hungry to not concede a sizeable lead knowing that batting on day two would be easier and that chasing a target on day three with their spinners wouldn’t be easy. College was desperate to get 250 on the board so we could put pressure on them through Kalana and our spinners in the second innings.
Day two started with Royal taking first honours. Both overnight batsmen were back in the hut and it seemed like College would only have a handful of runs to play with as a lead. Once again Kalana came to the party. This time with the bat. He reminded me of a counter punch innings I have seen Ravindra Jadeja play for India on multiple occasions, especially how he celebrated after scoring his fifty. He took some calculated risks and batted fearlessly, ably supported by fresher Umayanga Suwaris who made an elegant half century as well. They equaled the record for the 9th wicket and helped College post a formidable total of 296. A lead of 138 was a solid cushion to put Royal under pressure and attack them with aggressive bowling and field placing.
Once again Royal showed a lot of fight and the openers negated the fiery spell of Kalana. The wicket wasn’t assisting as much as the first day and he was possibly tired after his efforts on the first day as well as the entertaining innings with the bat, not having much rest before going out again to bowl. Having taken 03 wickets in 2005 in the Royal first innings and batting for a long period to score a hundred, I could relate to how he felt having to go out and bowl again in the second innings.
The Royal total passed 50 for no loss and once again there were mild concerns in the Thomian dressing room as we knew it was imperative to get a few top order wickets before any lead started mounting. Once again it was that man Kalana who produced the breakthrough. He had Kamil Mishara, who looked very promising, caught behind. Shalin Demel then produced a brilliant in dipper to clean bowl the other set batsman. Royal were 68-2. Shalin would turn out to be an unsung hero in the field. He would take 07 catches if I am not mistaken and some of them were of the highest caliber. One particular catch was probably the best I have seen a schoolboy take in the slips. This would have a major impact on the final result.
Again, it seemed like Royal were recovering as the total passed the hundred mark. However, Shannon provided the breakthrough taking his first wicket in the second innings. The dreaded nelson also struck for Royal as Kalana added one more scalp to his tally removing the set Ahan Wickramasinghe caught behind. It should be noted that their best batsman, Pasindu Sooriyabandara was only able to bat at the fall of the 5th wicket due to sustaining an arm injury and being off the field for majority of the Thomian innings. This wasn’t ideal for Royal as they would have liked him to anchor the innings and have the others bat around him. However, they had to improvise and adjusted the batting order accordingly. The second day came to a close with Royal putting up another small partnership to take the total up to 148-4 with Bagya Dissanayake and Kavindu Pathirathne at the crease. The lead was 10 runs and the game was delicately poised with College having the advantage.
The planning in the Thomian camp was straight forward. Do not let Royal build any significant partnership, keep the lead to a manageable total of around 100 runs which wouldn’t cause much pressure in chasing. For Royal it would have been the opposite. They would have believed with Pasindu yet to bat that they could get the lead up to the 150-175 mark if the other batsman could apply themselves around him and negate Kalana to an extent. Day three seemed poised for a cracking game of cricket and fortunately there was no threat of rain in the air.
Day three started with Royal adding 20 runs slowly, however it was again that man, Kalana who provided the breakthrough having Kavindu caught behind. The trademark celebration with a Salute towards the dressing room came out as well which had the Thomian fans overjoyed. Soon after Dellon Peiris provided another breakthrough having Bagya plumb in front and then he had another wicket dismissing Titira Weerasinghe for a duck. Being the experienced hand in the side and last year’s captain, it was crucial that he stood up when it mattered and there could have been no better time for him to get amongst the wickets. Royal were 171-7, essentially 33-7 discounting the Thomian lead. The only hope for Royal was Pasindu who had come to the middle at the fall of the 5th wicket and he seemed determined to make an impact in the game.
Pasindu had a daunting task, bat time, a lot of time and score some runs, keeping the tail around him. He seemed composed at the middle, not troubled by Kalana’s pace or the spinners’ guile. He seemed in it for a big one, the only question was could the tail enders support him? He unfortunately lost Kaushan Kulasooriya at the score of 196 and the Royal lead had grown to a mere 58. The Thomians were anticipating the last two wickets to fall soon, however Pasindu had other plans, he farmed the strike very effectively and maneuvered the bowling, especially the spinners with some cheeky strokes. He had found an able partner in Lahiru Madushanka who showed that he can defend solidly when it mattered. Pasindu brought up a well-deserved half century and the Royal score now had been boosted to a solid 258-8. The lead was 120 and the Thomians were visibly getting worried.
Such moments call for thinking outside the box, Yohan Perera, a part timer was introduced to the attack and possibly Pasindu relaxed mentally for a moment and had a swish at a real loose ball outside the off stump. He unfortunately (or fortunately for the Thomians) got the tow-end of the bat onto the ball and it was snatched up at gully. The much-needed breakthrough had come and the Thomians knew that was possibly the final nail in the coffin. The atmosphere was electric, especially in the stands and the entire Thomian community celebrated that wicket like a win. Clearly the last man felt the pressure and lasted only one ball, he missed a straight one and had these stumps uprooted. Just like that the Royal innings came to a close and the Thomians were rushing off to get ready to chase 121 for that elusive win, the likes of which they had not seen since 2007.
The advice in the Thomian dressing room from Mr. Dinesh Kumarasinghe was clear and concise. We had enough overs to get the target without having to panic or play rash strokes. All we needed to do was ensure that we do not lose early wickets so that the middle order doesn’t feel the pressure. I recall personally having a chat to Sithara and Shalin and telling them that all we need is a captain’s innings and one solid anchor. Ideally if not both, one of them should be there at the end till we get the total. My personal target which I communicated to them was ‘try to win the game with all ten wickets intact’.
I think Sithara tried not only to do that but thought he could score a hundred in the process the way he went out there hitting the bowlers to all parts. It was rash to say the least and he was dismissed for 34 with the total on 56. However, he had set the tone for the innings and settled the dressing room’s initial nerves of how some of these small targets can be challenging under pressure. I am sure Mr. Kumarasinghe didn’t want it to be as close as the win in 1999 when we chased a small score and lost 6 wickets in the process to bring up an unlikely win. It seemed for a moment that it could be so, Ryan fresh in confidence after his first innings attempted an expansive drive, lost balance and was stumped. Suddenly we had lost two wickets quickly.
Shalin looked confident at the other end pouncing on any opportunity he got, however very soon we lost the third wicket of Yohan Perera who misjudged an in swinger and was bowled leaving the ball. The score was 79-3. Having seen many games such as this where a couple of quick wickets could lead to an unimaginable collapse, I too was getting somewhat nervous despite knowing that we had enough experience to reach the target.
However, Shalin tolerated none of that. He played some enterprising strokes on both sides of the wicket and brought up his fifty with a six over square leg. Ravindu who joined him in the middle rotated the strike and gave him the strike and he punished the Royal bowling. There didn’t seem to be any nerves on his shoulders as he brought up the Thomian win by pulling the left arm spinner over mid-wicket into the Thomian boys’ tent. That marked the end of an amazing game of cricket and a win that the College team richly deserved. Credit must go to the entire team who never gave up at key moments, capitalized on opportunities and played with much maturity on the back of a few brilliant individual performances.
Kalana deservingly took away the Man of the Match and Best Bowler’s award, Umayanga was awarded Best Batsman while Shalin received the Best Fielder’s award. Special mention must go to Mr. Kumarasinghe and the entire coaching staff. I was privileged to experience the commitment and sheer passion displayed right throughout the season by everyone to provide the boys with the necessary tools on and off the field to make this campaign a success. The Warden was so involved in this victory and a part of the team, that at one point I recall seeing him resting on the players massage bed as he was suffering from a severe migraine and pressure attack and receiving some treatment from the support staff. Such is the passion of Father Marc Billimoria and he deserves an immense amount of credit for all the support provided to the cricketers. Also, the Thomian advisory committee, support staff and everyone within the Thomian cricketing fraternity that played a role in this victory, hats off to all of you!
Sithara, Kalana, Dellon and the team; you have made history and made us all extremely proud! You have possibly motivated and inspired countless kids who would go on to emulate your feats or do better in the years to come. If I may take this opportunity to end this article with a piece of advice; your journey doesn’t end there, I hope the team can make a pledge like we made in 2007 and do the best to retain the Shield in the years to come under the watch of each captain who was a apart of this memorable win. For the boys who played their final year; be a part of the journey, it is your turn now to support, mentor and guide the youngsters coming up the ranks. Take that responsibility on and give of your best to College in whatever capacity.
Watch the 141st Battle of the Blues LIVE on ThePapare.com Dialog TV and MyTv on the 12th, 13th and 14th of March from 9 am onwards.
Contributor – Ashan Peiris