Nicholas Brookes on the matches that played a pivotal role in the development of cricket in Sri Lanka.
Until 1982 Sri Lanka were stranded on the fringes of international cricket: a small island, marooned. Life on the outside wasn’t easy, but Sri Lanka still had something to make most of the cricketing world envious. You might call it a geographical blessing.
In the days before planes, the only way to get between England and Australia was by boat. It was an arduous journey that could take up to three months and required a stopover. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Ceylon (as it was called until 1972) emerged as the natural point of transit.
So when Ivo Bligh led his men to Australia in 1882 in a bid to “recover those Ashes”, the Colombo Cricket Club (CCC) sniffed an opportunity. Why not invite the English for a game of cricket? It would be easy to organise, since several members of the club maintained close connections to MCC (in true colonial fashion, the CCC was for “Europeans” only). What’s more, the cricketers who’d been cooped up on board for weeks were bound to be bursting for a game.
For close to a century it became common for Ashes-bound teams from England and Australia to stretch their legs on the cricket fields of Colombo, playing single-day matches against the best local talent. According to legend, the ships would sound a whistle when it was time for their passengers to stop play and reboard. So the games got their name – “the whistlestops”.
That first match against Bligh’s XI was a humbling experience for the Colombo Europeans, who were used to dominating the local scene. Their 18 batsmen were steamrolled for 92 in the first innings and were 16 for 7 second time around when the ship’s captain mercifully sounded his whistle.
The hosts found the early years tough but there were signs of progress. In 1890 four local lads were picked to play against the Australians – forming the first Ceylon team that included Sri Lankan cricketers. Nineteen-year-old Tommy Kelaart picked up three wickets with his niggling left-arm medium-slows, good enough to keep his place in the side when Lord Sheffield’s team passed through the following year. Opening the batting for the visitors on that occasion was the most famous sportsman in all Victorian Britain: W.G. Grace.
His arrival brought hysteria. Governor Havelock ordered stands to be taken down so that the Galle Face Ground could “accommodate the many”. A public holiday was declared and 8,000 turned up to watch Grace bat. But if they gathered in hope of runs, they were destined to be disappointed. Having made 14, the doctor was dismissed by young Kelaart.
There is some debate over the nature of Grace’s dismissal. SP Foenander, colonial Ceylon’s one-man Wisden, recorded it as bowled. The scorecard has Grace hitting his own wicket. Cricket historian Arunabha Sengupta claims Grace was fed up with the heat and chose to walk despite nobody else realising he was out. Whatever happened, he made no attempt – on this occasion – to replace the bails. Instead he gave Kelaart a pat on the back and shuffled slowly back to the pavilion, where he hid for some time. The famous explorer H.M. Stanley was in the crowd, and Grace seemed perturbed by the interest he attracted. One local paper noted that he did not like being “eclipsed”.
From the Chappells to the Cowdreys, the Headleys to the Hadlees, cricket tends to be a family affair. The same is true in Sri Lanka, and in 1930, close to four decades since Tommy Kelaart turbo-charged his career with Grace’s wicket, his nephew Ed caused a stir by taking 6 for 65 against the Australians. “The local bowlers were quite good, especially one, Ed Kelaart, who did not a little destruction,” wrote one surprised batsman. His name was Donald George Bradman, and he was playing cricket outside Australia for the first time. No one knew then what he would go onto become – he made 40, before hitting his own wicket. Bradman was out in this fashion only once more through his career, off Lala Amarnath in 1947 – a good pub-quiz question.
Better pub-quiz question: which countries did Don Bradman play cricket in? Answer: Australia, England, Canada, USA, and Sri Lanka, twice.
His return on 27 March 1948 was a day to remember – and probably the most famous whistlestop of all. In the 18 years since Bradman first played in Ceylon, he had grown into the most remorseless run-maker the game has ever seen. For the cricket-starved Colombo crowd, getting another glimpse of the Don was a real treat. What’s more, Ceylon had won independence from Britain less than two months earlier; this was bound to be a more raucous affair than the genteel atmosphere which had greeted Bradman in 1930.
Traffic across Colombo came to such a standstill that police cursed Bradman’s name under their breath. A crowd of 25,000 flooded into the newly-built Oval, and the players’ dressing-rooms became a thoroughfare for spectators searching for the seats they had reserved. So many squeezed into the ground that it became a struggle to keep them outside the boundary rope. Cadjan roofs collapsed under the weight of backsides. Many took to the trees. For Uncle Percy, Sri Lanka’s cheerleader and champion for the past six decades, it was his first game of international cricket. “My two brothers took me by train from Galle,” he remembers. “We were on the grassy bank, the ‘Gandhi Stand’. All the poor people go there. The ticket was 25 cents, and there were flags here, there and everywhere.”
Bradman won the toss and chose to bat. His Invincibles would soon make history by going 31 first-class games unbeaten in England, but on a cloudy Colombo morning they were humbled by Ceylon’s part-timers. The wicket was green and lively, and the seamers caused all sorts of problems. Russell Heyn had Bradman caught at cover for a scratchy 20 made in an hour. Neville Jayaweera, a schoolboy at the time, wrote that an “eerie silence” enveloped the ground when Bradman was batting. “This was a ghost of the Bradman we had read about,” he complained. “A legend drained of all credibility.” When rain came down after 60.1 overs, the Don declared the innings done.
According to some reports, it was only at this stage that a mitigating factor was discovered. The Oval’s groundswoman, Mariamma, had delegated the marking of the pitch to one of her lackeys, who seems to have had trouble with the tape measure. The Australians noticed that the wicket was two yards short – 20 instead of 22 – but, so the tale goes, sportingly bowled from behind the crease for the rest of the match and no more was said on the matter. Sadly, the weather stopped the Ceylon batsmen from building a head of steam.
The whistlestops started long before limited-overs cricket was conceived. Up until 1926 they were two-innings matches played over the course of a day, with no expectation of a positive result (there never was one). They were exhibitions rather than contests, a reminder of the old-fashioned idea that cricket is as much about journey as destination.
Yet they still produced some enthralling cricket. In 1920 MCC came up against a Ceylon side captained by Bill Greswell, a Somerset man. One of the early exponents of in-swing, Greswell was summoned to the island by his father in 1909 aged 19 to join the family business. He had already built quite a reputation at home, taking 72 wickets at 23.44 in the 1909 County Championship – including 4 for 11 from 13 overs against the visiting Australians. He wanted to stay and fight for a place in the England side. Instead he was shipped off to Ceylon, a decision he eternally resented.
With his side bowled out for 122, Greswell channelled his frustrations on the English batsmen. He had Jack Hobbs, Harry Makepeace, Frank Woolley and Johnny Douglas all out for single-figure scores; his teammates also bowled beautifully to leave MCC reeling at 108 for 9 when time ran out. “We had the match in our hands,” Greswell wrote. “Our fielding was simply miraculous. Douglas said he had never seen such fielding in his experience of cricket.” The whistlestops showed many a storied cricketer that these amateur Sri Lankans could play.
Eventually, their opponents extended beyond England and Australia. In 1961, after taking part in cricket’s first tied Test, six of the West Indies team were rowed ashore to Colombo harbour. They joined forces with four local players, and one Mr Hewson – a fellow passenger on their ship – to form the Daily Mirror XI. It was the first time a match in Ceylon had been sponsored. A huge crowd were treated to fifties from Garry Sobers, Rohan Kanhai and Conrad Hunte as the “away” side smashed their way to 305 for 6 declared. (Mr Hewson’s contribution was 0*.)
The organisers had anticipated the pulling power of the West Indians and decided to remove the sightscreens so they could squeeze in more punters. It was a move which became increasingly unpopular with Ceylon’s batsmen when they noticed Wes Hall wandering around where the screen once stood. The sight of the 6ft 5in Barbadian charging in from the boundary was enough to send hearts into mouths. Hall sent three of Ceylon’s top four back to the pavilion for a combined total of one, bringing 21-year-old Michael Tissera to the crease. Over the course of the afternoon Tissera – who would go on to become Ceylon’s most successful captain – showed grit, guts and guile in abundance. It was tricky work on a treacherous wicket, but he played his shots and ended unbeaten on 102. None of his teammates reached 20. Hall gave him nothing for free until the final ball of the match, when – seeing Tissera stuck on 98 – he served up a juicy full toss to let the youngster reach his century.
One of the stranger aspects of these games was that local players could not always call on the support of their countrymen. Looking back on the whistlestops, Channa Gunasekara, who made 66 not out against the Australians in 1953, wrote:
“We had not yet stripped ourselves out of the colonial mindset and had to battle it out before local crowds, still worshipping the white sahibs. One dared not misfield, drop a catch however difficult, or fumble a ball, or you would be the unfortunate recipient of an incessant barrage of hoots or even personal insults. It could be a very unnerving experience but true Sri Lankan courtesy would be extended to our visitors for a similar offence.”
It’s a little jarring, but Colombo’s crowds wanted most of all to watch the superstar visitors bat. Ceylon’s captains soon learned that they should oblige the crowd by bowling if they won the toss, or at least offer a sporting declaration. Building confidence by batting all day was out of the question.
In a way, it’s understandable: column inches in colonial Ceylon’s papers were filled with scores and averages from the County Championship. Since the 1950s the voices of John Arlott and E.W. Swanton had been drifting across the airwaves, transforming Test cricketers’ deeds into scintillating stories. Seeing them in the flesh was a thrill.
And over the years Colombo’s crowds were entertained by some exhilarating batting. When the ship carrying the 1953 Australians docked late – at 9.30am on the morning of the match – there were fears the whistlestop would have to be cancelled. But by 11am they were out in the middle, smashing their way to a score of 209 for 8 in just 39 overs. Three years earlier spectators had been intoxicated by Arthur McIntyre’s flashy 104. It was not enough to watch the greats bat; Ceylon’s cricket-lovers wanted to see them bat with style – as Peter May found out in 1954, when his stodgy nine was met with much derision.
Of course there were times when the crowd couldn’t help but get behind their boys, like in 1961, when C.I. Gunasekara smashed Aussie leg-spinner Lindsay Kline for 24 in an over – three fours and two huge sixes. Any Sri Lankan with knowledge of the incident will insist that Kline was never the same again (he didn’t play another Test, though his bowling already appeared to be in decline).
And Sri Lanka’s cricketing patriotism stretches much further back. At the start of the 20th century professionalism was a thorny issue – so much so that in 1909 the Colombo Cricket Club declined to pay the homeward-bound Australians. The fledgling Sinhalese Sports Club knew this was their chance. They organised a “gate” – enclosing their ground to prevent passers-by from casually wandering in – and realised they could raise enough money to offer the Australians £10 a man as a match fee.
While the previous year’s whistlestop included no Sri Lankans, now the Ceylon side would for the first time be comprised exclusively of homegrown players. What’s more, the Australians were travelling home in two separate parties, so the island’s budding cricketers would get two bites at the cherry.
First to arrive were Monty Noble’s XI. Though the team included seven of the ship’s passengers, they were still widely expected to crush the Ceylonese. The local players went to meet their opponents aboard the P&O SS Mongolia, and early signs suggested they would be obliging hosts. Ceylon were skittled for 110; in reply the visitors were cruising at 50 for 2. Then, in the blink of an eye, Noble’s XI crumbled to 68 all out. To compound their embarrassment, they were politely asked to bat again.
Ceylon’s cricketers were riding high but they knew that Percy McAlister’s XI – who arrived a little more than a week later – would be a trickier proposition. In Warren Bardsley and Vernon Ransford, they had the two outstanding batsmen from the summer’s Ashes. Still, the Ceylonese were unperturbed. Put into bat, they declared five down with 183 on the board. Then the fun really began, with wicket’s tumbling in procession as the opposition were dismissed for 78. Like Noble’s XI, they were forced to follow on and finished on 59 for 4 at the day’s end, no doubt pleased to return to the comfort of their ship. The Ceylonese were in dreamland. None of them had played a first-class game, yet they had shown that they could mix it with some of the world’s best cricketers. What’s more, they had done it without the assistance of the Brits who had taught them the game.
Strikingly, the British periodical Truth took issue with the whole affair, describing the Australians’ “money-grabbing” as “despicable”. “It was a degrading match against a purely native team, which degraded the white men in the native’s eyes,” the writer pompously observed. He missed the point. In an age when Sri Lankans were constantly subjected and had little opportunity to challenge their colonial masters, cricket provided a release valve. It gave them an opportunity to assert their value, their equality. There can be little doubt that the whistlestops helped to boost the spirits of a downtrodden people.
Quite how seriously visiting cricketers took these matches is another matter. In his book Gods or Flannelled Fools, Keith Miller wrote:
“It was unfortunate, of course, for those 12 players chosen for the match that they had to forgo the pleasure and novelty of strolling down the tree-bordered lanes of Colombo, ablaze with blue and red flowers… more than a little unfair that these 12 cricketers had no chance to taxi to Mount Lavinia and sip iced John Collinses.”
Still, despite Miller’s admission that most cricketers would have rather spent their time in Colombo not playing cricket, he understood that their “sacrifice was repaid by the joy brought to thousands of people”. And they brought more than mere joy; the whistlestops nourished the imagination of Colombo’s crowds and gave the island’s cricketers an invaluable yardstick. As a far-flung cricketing colony, Ceylon was – and for decades remained – like an arid scrubland yearning for rainfall. The whistlestops were short, sharp bursts of water.
They also taught local cricketers about themselves, proving that the gulf between them and the foreign players they had heard so much about was not as wide as they had perceived. Mano Ponniah, who opened the batting for Ceylon in whistlestops in 1964 and 1965, sums it up: “When you listen to commentaries, these guys are built up in your mind like superheroes. You create your own picture, then you see them for yourself – and the reality could be quite different.” The whistlestops went a long way to tempering any underdog complex that Sri Lankan cricketers held and helped them to realise what they could achieve.
But they couldn’t last forever. On 6 June 1967 Gamal Abdel Nassar responded to attacks on Egyptian airfields by closing the Suez Canal. It would not reopen until 1975. By 1969 Qantas ran 11 flights a week that cut the journey from London to Sydney to 30 hours. The days of wearied cricketers stretching their sea legs in Colombo became a thing of the past.
For MCC’s final stopover in October 1965, two matches were arranged on consecutive days. Ceylon’s burgeoning strength allowed them to field largely different sides without fear of embarrassment. In the first match Norton Fredrick had John Edrich and Geoff Boycott for five and three; in the second Neil Chanmugam ran through MCC on a drying track. They were bundled out for 127; in reply Ceylon reached 77 for 1. It was a wonderful way to sign off a historic tradition.
Sri Lanka appeared ready to move on. In January 1965 they had beaten India in an unofficial Test in Ahmedabad – propelling them towards ICC Associate membership. By the end of the next decade they would also have a World Cup win over their behemothian neighbour. And in 1996, just 15 years after achieving full ICC status, Sri Lanka were crowned world champions in Lahore. No other nation’s rise has been so meteoric.
It is impossible to precisely determine the drivers of such success, but surely the whistlestops contributed to Sri Lanka’s ability to win so quickly in one-day cricket. Year after year, the island’s men rubbed shoulders with cricket’s elite. They were put under pressure – not only to remain competitive, but to entertain local crowds. They picked up skills from those they came up against but also came to understand their own inherent talent. Ultimately, the whistlestops gave Sri Lanka a unique and unparalleled grounding in the rigours of short-form cricket.
Perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn from them is that exposure brings improvement. Given the ICC’s somewhat exclusionary attitude, we rarely see contests between the game’s giants and those countries trying to find their way. But had Sri Lanka’s cricketing infancy not been punctuated with regular visits by England and Australia, who knows where they would be today?
Nicholas Brookes is a writer who works in London and Colombo. He is writing a book on the history of Sri Lankan cricket.