The myths and realities of the Josephian Mafia
Think of Sri Lankan school cricket rivalries, and the first thing that comes to mind is Royal-Thomian annual clash, now 133 years old. Another rivalry, though not as steeped in history, is the Battle of the Saints, between St Joseph's College and St Peter's College. Think of school cricket heroes, and it's hard to forget Sachin Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli sharing a world-record 664 for their school Shradashram Vidyamandir, a record which stood nearly 19 years. Angelo Mathews and Thisara Perera may not have shattered the record books as a pair, but they were fearsome enough to earn the popular nickname 'The Josephian Mafia'.
Both allrounders are pivotal to Sri Lanka's limited-overs teams' success; they're impact players, capable of turning matches around. Darley Road, in bustling Maradana, was where it all began. Both players helped St Joseph's break their jinx in the Battle of the Saints, which lasted nearly 36 years. Harsha de Silva never experienced victory as a player for St Joseph's, but is proud to have tasted it nevertheless through two of his most famous wards, Mathews and Perera.
De Silva, who now coaches the Sri Lanka Women's team, recalls Mathews as a talented teenager who made the Under-19 side at just 15. He remembers spotting Perera's potential in a match against St Joseph's. The young big-hitter had done enough to convince St Joseph's to offer him a scholarship. The 'mafia' was starting to take shape. Contrary to popular perception, the nickname was born only after they started playing for Sri Lanka.
De Silva says the players' character and strengths weren't very different from the present. Being two years senior, Mathews was the 'leader' who Perera sought to emulate. The rivalry, de Silva says, was friendly and productive for the school.
"Being fast bowlers, Angelo and Thisara put a lot of fear in other players. When they bowled it at 120-130 kph, the batsmen found them a handful," de Silva says. "One year we had a record season where we won nine outright wins, and our record was phenomenal mainly because of these guys. Between 2002 and 2010, we won four national championships."
De Silva singles out Perara's temperament during the big games. "When we won the Saints match after 36 years, we were rewarded with a trip to Australia. It was jointly organised by the (St Joseph's) Old Boys in Australia and those here in Sri Lanka. Thisara couldn't make the tour because of a family commitment I think and the Old boys in Australia were really looking forward to meeting him. So when he finally made it to Australia with the national team years later, some of the Old Boys were really happy to finally meet him."
Both players, he says, were rarely up to pranks and mischief, save for one famous incident involving Perera.
"Once, Thisara didn't show up for the second day of a match. Being a Catholic institution, the priests wouldn't tolerate any indiscipline. I think he was suspended for two matches. It was the same year we won the Battle of the Saints and this was a crucial game for us. We were doubtful if he would play the big game. Then, Chaminda Vaas (an alumnus of St Josephs) pleaded with Fr Rector to allow Thisara to play. As the games are played on Friday and Saturday, the team usually stays together from Thursday at the college. Chaminda spoke to the rector at around 5.30pm. One of the Old Boys fetched Thisara from his house and so he was a last minute inclusion and it paid off."
Did they buy Perera's story? "Back then security was tight around the country, and Thisara claimed he was stopped by a cop and was made to turn back because he didn't carry a valid ID card. But, till this day, we've always had our doubts about it," recalls de Silva with a chuckle.
Was de Silva more than just their coach? "I believe so. I knew there was a fine line that either of us wouldn't cross," says de Silva. "But there have been instances where I've advised them on their personal issues. I've seen Thisara especially undergo the hardship of having to travel every day from the outskirts of Colombo. I think he had to wake up at 3.30-4am to get to practice and then head for classes."
While Mathews is being groomed for the Sri Lanka captaincy, de Silva feels that Perara is equally capable of taking on a leadership role. "Everyone sees Thisara as a playful character. But if you speak to him, he has very good ideas and I think he's good captaincy material."
De Silva also busts the myth that he was ever nicknamed 'The Godfather' with peals of laughter. No, we're not talking guns, Brando or Sicily here.
Kanishkaa Balachandran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo