It was a big celebration, a golden milestone in the blue ribbon schools cricket match in Sri Lanka. The Royal-Thomian, known as the Battle of the Blues, was celebrating its centenary encounter.
Since its inception, this big match has been played with so much pride and passion, and with a tradition of its own – much to the celebration and enjoyment of both schools, players, old boys and their families and friends. The camaraderie, the spirit and the gamesmanship are seen at their best among the players and spectators alike during those two days. In celebration of the hundredth year, the organisers turned the 1979 match into a big carnival, and play was extended to three days – the very first time a Sri Lanka school cricket match was to be played over three days, and it has continued thus since then. Many events were lined up before and after the game. Then President of Sri Lanka, the late J.R. Jayawardena, who was an Old Royalist and played in this series, hosted both teams for a dinner at his official residence.
Royalist were enjoying a fine season in ’79 and they were tipped as the favourites going into the Battle of the Blues. They were unbeaten, secured five outright wins before the big match and were captained by Ranjan Madugalle, later to be Sri Lanka captain and now ICC Chief of Match Referees. He was serving his second tenure at the helm, a very rare feat at Royal College and by then Ranjan was already captain of the Sri Lanka under-19 schools cricket team too. In the long history of Royal College, very few had the privilege of captaining the Reid Avenue side for two consecutive years, or more. The Previous instance was when N. Kandiah captained Royal College in 1928 and 1929.
Ranjan Madugalle was at his peak, with 1000 runs under his belt including a couple of centuries. The side included openers Haroon Musafer and C.P. Fernando, both with well over 500 runs, Pradeep Kariyawasam, Rohan Jurangpathy and another fine batsman, Sudath Pasqual, who later turned out for Sri Lanka. The Bowling attack was spearheaded by right-arm fast bowler Asantha de Mel who went on to represent Sri Lanka, and his partners were Rajiva Wijetunga and Sudat Pasqual. When it came to spin bowling, Royal College had the perfect combination and variation needed with Kesara de Costa, right-arm leg spin and Ajith de Alwis with his left-arm spin. M.N. Perera was the wicket-keeper.
Compared to the Royalists, the Thomians did not have many big names or big performances to back them. Of course, they had the two De Alwis brothers, Guy and Ken, with Guy going on to represent Sri Lanka. There were many seniors and Johann Pieris got the nod to lead the side as the captain. Suranimala Wijesinghe and Rohan Anthonisz were the openers and the line-up had Mahinda Halangoda, Lakmal de Zoysa and Umesh Iddipily to stabilise the inning in gthe middle order. The bowling attack comprised Iddipily, Suren Appadurai and C.P. Richards, left arm spinner L. Seneviratne and Mahinda Halangoda, supported by Suranimala Wijesinghe’s off-spin.
By then the Battle of the Blues had seen many matches ending in dull draws, perhaps a valid reason for organizers to push for a three day game. Royal had last won in 1969 under Eardly Lieversz (Jnr) and the Thomians won it in 1964 under Premalal Goonesekera
Madugalle and Rohan Jurangpathy scored centuries in their final match before the big match. That was against Trinity College on the NCC Grounds. The Thomians faced the Peterites at Bambalapitiya and had much-needed batting practice, with Rohan Anthonisz and Lakmal de Zoysa scoring centuries. By then the Battle of the Blues had seen many matches ending in dull draws, perhaps a valid reason for organizers to push for a three day game. Royal had last won in 1969 under Eardly Lieversz (Jnr) and the Thomians won it in 1964 under Premalal Goonesekera.
The Centenary Big Match kicked off in grand style on the SSC grounds on 8th March, 1979. What took place over the next three days, especially on the third
day of the encounter made this historic encounter more memorable and gave impetus to “Thomian Grit”. The story was well documented yet it is worth a revisit. Centre to the story are two Thomians, Mahinda Halangoda and C.P (Chandra) Richards, who became heroes overnight. Quadrangle met Mahinda Halangoda, and here’s what he had to say.
“We had about 13 coloursmen in that squad, and few players joined us as well. We knew the centenary encounter was going to be big and knew Royal would have a very strong side. So our coach F.C. De Saram started practices no sooner we ended the 99th encounter in 1978. There were a lot of preparations and on top of it a lot of hype created around the encounter. With the game to be played over three days, it was going to be challenging. However, I must say the organisers had done a fantastic job. It was a fabulous environment; a colourful event. There was a parade before the game started and senior Thomians and Royalists were walking around. By the time we walked to the middle we were really excited and it took our mind off the game.
“I recall Suren Appadurai, who was our main fast bowler, being replaced by C.P Richards at the tail-end of the season as Suren was down with an injury. So C.P made it to the big match. Royal had Madugalle, Asantha, Sudath and the advantage going into the game with some good wins through the season. However, we were confident of putting up a good fight as we prepared well and had our batsmen in form. So our plan was to win the toss and bat, to make use of the SSC pitch to put a good score on the board on the first day. Our batsmen were in form and SSC pitch tended to assist spinners later on. Also we thought scoreboard pressure on Royal will favour us. Johann won the toss but we couldn’t make use of the opportunity as we planned. Asantha and Rajiva bowled really well and made use of the early pitch condition during the first hour of play.”
After winning the toss and batting first, the Thomian batsmen failed miserably against the Royal bowling attack and folded for 154. They lost the opening pair Suranimala Wijesinghe and Rohan Anthonisz early and thereafter, the de Alwis brothers Ken (47) and Guy (23) and skipper Johann Pieris (20) managed to put up some fight. It was never enough against a solid Royal batting line-up. For Royal Asantha de Mel (2 for 29), Rajiva Wijetunge (2 for 24), Sudath Pasqual (4 for 53) and Kesara de Costa (2 for 11) were among the wickets. “Royal bowled really well, they bowled a tight line and we made too many mistakes. Ken batted well. I remember hitting a four in the first delivery I faced. It gave me lot of confidence. In fact, I did that in the second innings too. However, I remember F.C De Saram used to tell us ‘Go and settle down first, play within the ‘V’ and do not go after the bowling’,” Halangoda said.
Royal made their intentions clear when it came to their inning. Mahinda recalls: “They started with a bang. They were really confident as we made a low score.
Their opening pair, Haroon Musafer (53) and C. P. Fernando (35), went after our bowlers. They were really aggressive. I remember C.P Richards being targeted by Royalists and he only bowled three overs. We tried everything. We were rattled too.” They put on 90 runs and by the end of the first day’s play, the Royalists had made 117 for two wickets.
Come Day 2, the Thomians came in with a plan to minimise the damage. Mahinda
said: “F.C. said ‘forget about yesterday. It’s gone. That was not your day. Now start
fresh’. So we thought if we can curtail the Royalist from going for runs and pick up wickets in between we will have a chance of getting back to the game. The wicket eased and the Royalists batted well but we also missed couple of chances. I dropped a catch offered by Sudath Pasqual off L. Seneviratne and he went on to score 66 runs. Ken missed a stumping off Ranjan Madugalle and Ranjan made a fifty.”
The Royalist piled on the runs, sending Thomians on a leather hunt. Particularly their skipper Madugalle (58) and Pasqual (66) batted really well and the pair put on a 117 runs for the third wicket. It was a record for Royal College; the previous record was 100 runs held by Michael Dias (62) and Lalith Senanayake (56) in 1958.
Royal batted beyond the tea break on the second day and declared their first inning. By then Royal College had put up 321 for 8, with Pradeep Kariyawasam scoring 47 runs. For S. Thomas’, Halangoda picked up 4 for 60 and Suranimala Wijesinghe had 3 for 88.
Some felt it was a bad judgment by Royal skipper for batting well into the third session. Maybe Madugalle would have thought there was a day to go and they could bowl out the Thomians cheaply on the third day. However, Mahinda felt differently: “I think they batted just a bit too long. When they declared late (in the third session) we knew we have to face few overs as light was deteriorating and we could call for ‘bad light’. We just did that soon after one of our batsmen was hit on the head (from a bouncer).” S. Thomas’ played safe making nine runs without losing a wicket when stumps were drawn on the second day.
On the third day, the boys from Mt Lavinia were up against the wall. They had to bat the entire day to save the game and before that they had a deficit of 167 runs to erase. In cricket terms, a daunting task with Asantha de Mel and Rajiva Wijesinghe bowling with menacing pace. So the drama began to unfold on a deteriorating pitch at Sinhalese Sports Club.
Mahinda recalls: “We were forced to change the batting line-up. Rohan Anthonisz dropped down the order as he was not well and Lakmal opened with Suranimala in the second innings. We knew we could somehow bat the entire day as we had batsmen who were capable enough. So we put our heads down and started to bat. In fact, we really did well till lunch, losing only three wickets. Lakmal de Zoysa (45 runs) batted really well. I remember Guy de Alwis (31 runs) playing well and hitting a six which gave all of us some confidence and motivation. On the other hand Royal bowlers were on the attack from the word go. Asantha, Rajiva, Sudath and Costa all troubled the batsmen. Then things started to change dramatically in the second session. We lost quick wickets soon after lunch.”
In the post-lunch session, the Thomians lost Guy (31) and Ken de Alwis (nought), and Ajit Amarasekera (3). Then, Rohan Anthonisz and Umesh Iddipily stubbornly put on a partnership of 68 runs occupying valuable time and consuming 18 overs. That too was broken well before tea leaving the Thomians at 7 for 136, still 30 runs in arrears, and little more than a session to bat with tail- enders to save the game.
The Royalists were all cock-a-hoop when Mahinda Halangoda walked in to bat at 2.25pm with the fall of Rohan Anthonisz wicket (out for 5). For Royal, victory
imminent. This was when the real drama began and Thomian grit stood strong.
Mahinda reminisces: “I remember Costa and Haroon were bowling well at that time. Fielders were circling around the batsmen. We were bit nervous sitting in the pavilion and at the same time F.C. made sure to take our minds off what was happening in the middle. He was talking to us, cracking a joke or distracting us by throwing our gloves off the balcony to the roof so we had to move around. All he wanted to do was to keep us calm without letting us get carried away. I think that worked.
“I remember when I’m was walking out to bat my father John Halangoda (Jnr) told me ‘just play your natural game”. So I felt I should play strokes without just blocking the ball. I joined Iddipily and the first ball I faced, I hit a boundary. Soon we started to settle down and score runs. Iddipily too felt confident and found it easy to bat. He was a good all-rounder and a decent bat. The pressure on shifted to Royal and they started to change bowlers and move fielders around. At the time we were settling down, Iddipily got out when he jumped out to drive Costa and missed it where he was stumped by M.N. Perera (for 29 runs). So at Tea we were 161 for 8.” The Thomians were still trailing by seven runs, with only two wickets in hand and a session to go.
It was not the most enjoyable cup of tea both had during the tea break. Mahinda recalls: “There were so many old Thomians walking into the dressing room and giving us advice. You can imagine the situation. I felt we could pull it off if I could put up a partnership with CP. There were no terrors in the pitch. So we walked out after tea determined to bat along. We can see the anguish on the faces of the Thomian supporters and the smiles on the Royalists. Royal flags were fluttering. I remember well, when we walked out to bat post- tea, the entire Royal team were wearing their college Caps. I felt they may get over confident which would help us in a way.”
The Royalists were confident of the victory with the ninth pair at the crease and two wickets to get.
Mahinda had other ideas “I thought I will cover and save CP from facing many balls by getting off the strike on the last ball of each over. But in two consecutive overs when I tried that, the ball went to the boundary and CP had to face a full over, twice. To my delight, and everybody’s, he batted really well and survived those spells. That gave me lot of confidence. I think Royalists were targeting CP. Since I was scoring runs, especially putting away the bad balls I was not pressurised much. Our target was first to pass 167. Once we did that, it was about how much time we could occupy and how many runs we could score.
“We managed to survive the first half an hour post-tea. We had about 30 runs lead.
At that time we knew if we could bat for another half an hour we could get into
mandatory overs and then we would be in a somewhat decent position to save the game. By then we could see the Thomian flags coming out and Thomian supporters cheering every stroke we played. To see Thomians cheering and to hear those shouting and singing gave us lot of confidence and motivation to fight, to bat and to save the game. CP and I decided to take over by over, we were never fazed by the situation or never felt how long we had been batting or how far we had come. It was just what was in front of us and how much we needed to save the match.
“I was really confident about CP after seeing him bat. In fact, the forward defence he used to play against the attack was so perfect that the ball just dropped dead on the pitch. Next to come in, the last man was Lakshman Seneviratne who used to say to me whenever we meet that there were so many giving so much advice
when he was sitting out awaiting his turn that he was so confused and not sure what stroke he would have played had he walked to the middle.”
“As we batted, I could see the Royalists getting frustrated both on and off the field. Ranjan Madugalle was making changes, bringing in Asantha and bowling bouncers but we somehow batted on. We entered the mandatory overs and then continued to bat without giving any chances. Runs were flowing too as we went for our shots. By then, the Thomians at the boundary line were enjoying themselves and Royalists had given up as we had a decent lead and overs were running out. Yet both of us wanted to bat till the end. Then towards the end of the session, I managed to score my half century. Then when I reached 66, equalling the innings highest score by Pasqual, I think that was a few minutes before the scheduled close of play, the match was stopped briefly as Thomians invaded the pitch.
“No sooner the match restarted, I hit the next ball to the boundary and crowd invaded the ground again. That time I knew the match would come to an end, so we both grabbed the wickets and ran to the pavilion. Actually, I couldn’t reach the pavilion, halfway through I was carried off on the shoulders of the supporters. I remember Milinda Morahella, a prefect who found the ball, coming up to me and giving me the match ball.”
At the close of play, the Thomians were 252 for 8 and their ninth wicket pair had
put on an unbroken 91-run partnership which is well remembered by those who witnessed it. Chandra Richards (20 not out) playing only his second match for the season, walked into a hot pressure situation when the Thomians were in deep trouble and teamed up with Mahinda (70 not out) to keep the lethal Royal attack at bay. It’s their guts and courage that helped them on that memorable day.
With Thomian grit and Halangoda’s and Richards’ heroics S. Thomas’ staged one of the greatest fightbacks seen at the Battle of the Blues and avoided certain defeat. Perhaps a Great escape from an innings defeat. Yet, both Royal and S. Thomas’ can be proud of the result. Mahinda’s pick from that encounter: “It was a team game, not only Richards and I, who saved the game. We all had a role to play and we all did it. We did it for college. Our college motto Be Thou Forever and the determination and our preparation helped us. I can recall at practices FC used to get our opening bowlers to bowl at us (the middle-order and tail enders) using the new ball. Usually, only the frontline batsmen faced the new ball and the opening bowlers. That really helped us on that day when facing Asantha and the crew.
“The early learnings of the game under George Ponniah and then strategies we learnt from F.C. De Saram all came handy. Even to date. I think it’s about the attitude and not giving up, to commit yourself and work towards your goals. Nothing is impossible.”
Ending this story of a Great Escape we take a famous quote from Mahinda Halangoda.
“Thomians are not dead until they are burid.”
It was a team game, not only Richards and I, who saved the game. We all had a role to play and we all did it. We did it for college. Our college motto Be Thou Forever and the determination and our preparation helped us