Palitha Perera: ‘Singhalising’ Colonial Cricket

He was in tears before the vast gathering, not once but twice.

Before a jam-packed hall, the famous Ananda Samarakoon Studio of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (or the SLBC, earlier known as Radio Ceylon), he strived to hide his tears, during his thanksgiving speech. The reception was so overwhelming that his inner surprise and satisfaction would have easily found an escape in the form of a weighty tear drop. So natural. Over 45 years of passion and commitment shown in a chosen profession, which he had to define and redefine himself, has brought in its wake, at least belated appreciation.

The scene was the timely felicitation ceremony, organised by the SLBC headed by Hudson Samarasinghe, on September 30, 2009, for a rare personality in this vibrant field of Sri Lanka cricket. He was the laid-back and underrated, yet phenomenal Palitha Perera, one rare person who had probably single-handedly put into the colloquial Singhalese language, the otherwise snooty ‘Suddha’s’ cricketing idiom.

Only those close to him knew that Perera was so heartbroken after he was overlooked at a recent ICC awards presentation aimed at acknowledging those who have voluntarily helped develop the game in national structures in Test playing countries. Like the inimitable Percy Abeysekera, Palitha Perera’s name too had gone missing in the list of 50 recipients of this ICC medallion, only to make such an event a far cry from being a sort of a truly magnanimous salutation to the real heroes, who painstakingly helped uplift cricket in Sri Lanka.

Outsiders of Oval’s cricket

It was during the early 1960s that renowned lyricist and Radio Ceylon programme producer, Karunaratne Abeysekera opted to give nearly an hour-long Singhalese language live cricket commentary of a Colombo school cricket ‘big match’ as part of his popular children’s musical programme ‘Lama Pitiya’. According to Palitha, a junior employee at Radio Ceylon then, this particular programme inspired him to start live cricket commentaries in Sinhala.

It was the days of truly ‘English’ cricket. There was a handful of English cricket commentators at Radio Ceylon, providing live cricket coverage in English. They only addressed the middle or upper-middle class social layers across the metropolis and the suburbs and Kandy and Galle. In that sense, the game, played by gentlemen like CI, PI, Satha and Stanley, was confined to a shell, being an aloof phenomenon to the ordinary. It was a thorough ‘ingreesi mahaththurunge’ (English gentlemen’s) sport placed far away from the reach of the masses.

The ordinary, even though they came in numbers to watch international matches at the Oval on Serpentine Road, Borella, surrounded by the infamous Vanathamulla shanties, were mere onlookers, who would have felt only distant participants of what was a classy show.

That was the case in Colombo. Leading to a worse scenario, the village folks, who later produced the Ranatungas, Muralitharans and Jayasuriyas, had to resort to Singhalese education and had no access to this British game. They would have felt completely alienated in this post-independence era cricketing fanfare enacted by ‘local-suddhas’.

It is in this light that Palitha Perera’s initiative to launch Sinhala language cricket commentaries, in the early ’60s, has to be viewed. The Ananda vs. Nalanda ‘big match’ in 1963 was the starting point. Perera, a former Nalandian and a faithful Buddhist devotee, carried the burden himself, in the rudimentary work like making the ‘gantries’ — with the help of the Radio Ceylon carpenters so as to give shelter to his commentary team at the cricket venues —, went in search of a more localised Singhalese language cricketing vocabulary and made, after years of labour, Sinhala live cricket commentaries on radio a trade and art of its own.

A revolt

In a country sans any TVs or the internet, it was the dawn of a new era. The villagers could now listen to cricket in their homes. The ‘Suddha’s’ game became closer to their hearts. Palitha, in the meantime, nurtured a long line of his understudies, with Premasara Epasinghe being a more popular one to emerge.

With hardly any visual media, in spite of the pitiable black-and-white pictures that appeared in the newspapers, it was the SLBC’s commentaries that created the mental image of the cricketing role models then. Until the advent of TV in the early 1980s, the voices of Perera and Epasinghe portrayed Sri Lanka cricket and brought it live, to far off homes across the island.

Cricket, as a result, had to shed its urbane aura. In the long run, Royal – Thomain metropolitan cricket had to give way to the Sinhala Buddhist Maha Vidyalayas. English was virtually ‘chased out’ from elitist clubs like the SSC and leaders like Arjuna Ranatunga, a doyen of a Sinhala Buddhist culture in the local cricket field, revolutionised the way the game was played here. Palitha Perera, so unintentionally though, became a part of this ‘Singhalese rebellion’. Barely 35 years after Perera initiated Singhalese commentaries, there was not a single Royalist or a Thomian to be found in the Sri Lanka National team as the country won the World Cup in 1996.

Palitha, a shy personality by nature, often takes a bus to travel to Colombo from his home. A staunch Buddhist, he still keeps to the values of ‘upeksha’ (compassion). Like Percy Abeysekera, Palitha Perera too deserved an honour from the ICC as he has not earned anything extra financially for his services, which have been mostly done due to sheer passion. But when one notices the ones who really received such ICC medallions recently at a gala night in Colombo, it is better to be overlooked, as he doesn’t really deserve a place among third rate humbugs.

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