'It was like Michael Jackson coming'
P Sara Oval, the venue for the third Test of this series, is the only ground in Asia where Don Bradman played. He did so on a 20-yard pitch. In Brightly Fades the Don, Jack Fingleton writes: “It is possible one of her male assistants (the round had a lady curator) measured the pitch and not she. The Australian batsmen found the going rather tough in the morning. It was hard to get the ball away, and it was Ian Johnson who discovered largely why.
“He had his doubts about the pitch, measured it and found it was only twenty yards. From that point onwards the Australians bowled from two yards behind the crease and everybody was happy.”
An 18-year-old who saw the match live from a crowd of 20,000 which, according to The Janashakthi Book of Sri Lanka Cricket, occupied every inch of space right up to boundary line, has a slightly different account. That 18-year-old was Chandra Schaffter, of the Tamil Union Club, who played three first-class matches in the fifties and also hockey for Ceylon. “Bradman, I think with all his experience, realised it was short, and he was the one who pointed it out,” says Schaffter. “He mentioned it to the umpires, they measured it again, and then rectified it.” Take your own pick, Fingleton’s realism, or Schaffter’s romanticism.
Regardless of what happened and how it happened, the match - a “whistle-stop tour” - was a huge event in Sri Lanka. “It was like Michael Jackson coming,” says Schaffter. As soon as they came to know Bradman would play, March 31, 1948 became a big day in Ceylonese cricket.
Sri Lanka had an advantage, vis-à-vis India, in that teams had to pass through the country when going back home from long tours. The ship would stop here for a day, and the cricket board would entertain the sea-locked cricketers with a day of cricket.
When the Invincibles were on their way back from England, the Ceylon team put behind them the huge controversy surrounding the captaincy, between FC de Saram and Mahadevan Sathasivam. “There wasn’t a hint of tension or dissension in the Ceylon ranks,” writes SS Perera in the Janashakthi Book.
“It was a chance for Sri Lanka to see the foreign players, and for our players to play against those cricketers,” recalls Schaffter. “We didn’t have any other international cricketers playing here. We had a Gopalan Trophy, the odd Holkar side coming, but no international team at all. So this was full house, all tickets were sold.”
The visiting team was of course allowed to bat. They came to watch Bradman bat, not Ceylon. Of the match itself Schaffter remembers this: “Bradman didn’t score very much. Neil Harvey didn’t play. Sid Barnes played, but he started vomiting after too much of beer the last night. Arthur Morris also played. Keith Miller also played.
“Something happened, somewhere maybe in so much of excitement, maybe they measured it [the pitch] two yards too short. Unlike nowadays, those days the umpires never measured the pitch. Genuine mistake. You don’t prepare a 20-yard pitch to face Keith Miller.”
The excitement that Bradman’s visit brought, Schaffter says, is rivalled only by the West Indians’ trip in 1967, when Garry Sobers, Clive Lloyd and Basil Butcher scored centuries. “I don’t think anybody today will draw that kind of crowds,” says Schaffter. “Maybe people nowadays have other priorities.”
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo