The really big cricket match in Colombo on March 13, 1993 attracted a crowd of 15,000. There was radio commentary all day long; most of the back-page space in Colombo's two newspapers was devoted to it. The build-up, to the great event had been going on all week. President Premadasa (assassinated only a few weeks later) was there on the first day, not so much because he was a cricket enthusiast as because this was the place for a politician to be seen. The match was staged on Sri Lanka's most famous ground, where Test cricket was first played. But this was not a Test match: it was the annual game between two of Colombo's largest schools, Royal College and St. Thomas's. The final day of three in the 114th match between the two clashed with the opening day of the Test between Sri Lanka and England and, though cricket followers in other lands may find it hard to believe, it completely put the Test into the shade.
Eton and Harrow at Lord's cannot, these days, hold a candle to what claims to be the oldest school fixture staged without interruption. Nowhere in the world is a school match accorded anything like the same attention. Tickets were more expensive, and in far greater demand, than those for a Test which ought to have been a rare treat for such a cricket-loving island, only the second Sri Lanka had ever played at home against England. In the circumstances it defies belief that the Sri Lankan Board should have allowed any other major event, let alone a Test, to clash with the battle of the blues, although this is only the oldest and most important of many traditional encounters given extraordinary status at this climax of the school season. I was told that all five Sri Lankan radio channels were carrying cricket commentaries on March 13, only one of them on the Test.
Mike Atherton, who had played a match for England Schools before a crowd of 40,000 at the Khettarama Stadium a few years ago, had less than one-twentieth of that number to watch him open the innings for England at the Sinhalese Cricket Club. Crowds in Colombo are as excited by one-day internationals as they are elsewhere. But it is tradition that really matters. Royal and St Thomas's were modelled on the Victorian public schools of England and the game survives in a Henry Newbolt time-warp that is not only very charming but also ensures a steady stream of talented cricketers better prepared for tough, competitive two-innings cricket than their English counterparts.
Before the game began at the P.Saravanamuttu Stadium, the atmosphere was that of a university rag week, with bicycle parades of students carrying either the blue and gold colours of Royal (motto: Disce aut Discede--Learn or Leave) or the blue and black of St Thomas's (motto: Esto Perpetua--Let the School be forever). The atmosphere inside was pure carnival, reminding me of St. John's, Antigua, when West Indies are winning a Test match. While the players, who all had to have been under 19 the previous September, went about their game with intense keenness, the social event whirled around them. A live band blasted out from the Mustang tent, where the most successful old boys of both schools mix merrily and the tipple is Scotch. Current pupils--and Royal has almost 7,000 boys ranging from six to 19-yelled themselves hoarse from their designated tents actually tin-roofed, single-storey stands.
The batting was not obviously better than you would witness in a game between two leading English schools but the fielding was outstanding at times and a leg-spinner, Nalliah Rajan, took five for 77-and would probably have had seven for 40 against, shall we say, Winchester. The appealing was often outrageous and so, alas, was the umpiring, but neither of those things is very different in English schools. What is completely different is the incredible interest the annual game generates. I like to think Royal v Thommies will still be the match to be at when Sri Lanka are playing their 50th home Test against England. It was not until the 1993 game had finished, indeed, that Sri Lankans began to notice that the Test had already started. The fact that Sri Lanka subsequently won it had much to do with the strength and prestige of their schools cricket.
Christopher Martin- Jenkins is cricket correspondent of the Daily Telegraph.