When brilliant captaincy resulted in a Royal win

by Mahinda Wijesinghe

The first Royal-Thomian I witnessed was the 1951 encounter at the Oval, now referred to as the P. Saravanamuttu stadium. Indeed watching a Royal-Thomian as a nipper waving a blue-gold-blue flag was a dream come true. The Royal players, led by T.Vairavanathan, seemed ten-feet tall, and being first-formers we hero-worshipped them.

How did we think of the Thomians? They were our enemies. How dare they try to beat us? What gall? Little did I know that in later life they became some of my best friends.

The matches in those far-off days were two half-day games with play starting at noon on Friday and Saturday; a far cry from the modern three-day games that more often than not still manage to end in no-decisions. That is another story.

Though much has been written on this particular game over the years, we Royalists still savour that famous and, may I add, an unlikely and dramatic victory by a hair-raising 13 runs on the stroke of time. An example of clinching victory from the jaws of defeat.

As a cricket match pure and simple it had all the ingredients to make this a memorable one. Just as it takes two to tango, and though rain interrupted play, declarations from each side, hell-bent on reaching a decision resulted in a pulsating game of cricket. Ironically, the highest total in the game was made by the losers (177) and the only batsman from either side to reach a half-century (D.S.Samuel- 51) was also for a losing cause.

Before reminiscing on the game let me recount some of the events leading to the Big Day. Of course, each college first XI game was an event we watched and analysed in our little minds and, in retrospect, came to bizarre conclusions. However the Royal-Thomian is what mattered. Even if we had lost any or all of the earlier games but beat the Thomians all is forgiven. The captain and his players suddenly sprout wings and even the coach is hailed as a wizard.

For weeks before the game, the boys are planning and plotting. What are we going to wear for the match? Remember it has to be fancy-dress. What about the all-important question of finances? Raising the princely sum of Rs.2-3 was all that was necessary to sustain us through both days which included a hopper-dinner at the end of the match at Lion House in Bambalapitiya, with a 9.30 p.m. film. Of course the dinner and the film were not included when we were in the first-form. That came later.

One of the main features, or shall I say, the main pre-match feature was the cycle parade.

The organizing was done by the seniors, and a participation fee of .25 cts was levied. This was by no means extortion. Such monies were utilized to add glamour to the procession. One year, I recall, a glitzy car had been hired and a senior – whose name I should not divulge to prevent embarrassment – was seated in the back seat dressed as the Queen and waving demurely at the imaginary crowd! Bringing up the rear was another senior on a cart, dressed in a banian and sarong, shouting "juck" "juck" and urging the reluctant bull to proceed amongst the many cyclists! It was all grand fun.

The cycle parade wended its way, and by design, not via the shortest route to the Oval. Somehow many a girls’ school seemed to have suddenly/accidentally appeared to have sprouted along the way. Being gallant and chivalrous, and not forgetting the warm welcome accorded by the girls, we paid our vociferous tributes until we were shooed away by the tutorial staff. So it went on until we reached the Oval well past an hour after the game had begun.

Once the cyclists parked their machines and joined the crowd, the welcome cheering increased as if a shot of adrenaline was administered and the "papara" bands played with more gusto. Tea-time was an event that enabled us to obtain a brown paper-bag consisting of a few goodies and a bottle of aerated water. Each break during the game enabled us to walk around the ground, inspect the pitch – without a clue as to how to read it – and snatch a Thomian flag! Not to be outdone, the Thomians (bless them) did the same as well. So it continued, and when the match ended on the second day it was an anti-climax with only memories – until the next year.

Coming back to the 1951 match. Batting first, the Royalists were bundled out for a modest 146 (Barrow 5/18). The Thomian innings were interrupted after a couple of overs and there was no further play on Friday. With a bare 5 ½ hours play left on Saturday, a decision seemed impossible. When play began on Saturday on a damp pitch, good fielding backed by superb bowling (G.V.F.Wille 4/25, elder bother of Michael Wille, skipper of the 1957 Royal team) and astute captaincy by Vairavanathan made mincemeat of the apparently strong Thomian batting line-up. At 61/7, Roger Inman, the Thomian skipper declared the innings closed – 85 runs behind – obviously hoping to subject the Royalists to a similar fate. But skipper Vairavanathan decided to open the innings with Unamboowe, neither of whom had opened the innings earlier in the season. In effect, the Royal skipper made his intentions clear – we are going for a win. Despite early setbacks, Vairavanathan (38) and Jayawickrema (39) played attacking cricket and put on a priceless partnership of 65 runs for the third wicket. Royal skipper then closed the innings at 105/8 leaving the Thomians a victory target of 191 runs in 140 minutes. Even Stevens it seemed.

But the Royal ploy seemed to have misfired. Brilliant batting by Samuel (51) and Ian Pieris (47) tore into the Royal attack and put on the highest partnership of the match (67) while Jayalingam (33) consolidated the position. At 154/4, and a mere 37 runs to get in half an hour, the game was definitely see-sawing towards the Thomians. The key for a Royal win was to dismiss the dangerous Jayalingam. That was exactly what the Royal skipper did. By a cunning field-placement, the Royal skipper himself was instrumental in running out Jayalingam. Now it was 154/5. Making further bold bowling and fielding changes, ‘Vaira’ inspired his men to wrap up a sensational win, the last 6 Thomian wickets falling for a mere 13 runs. In fact, by bringing himself on with his supposedly gentle off-spinners, he scalped two crucial wickets including the final wicket, and the delirious Royal supporters went berserk.

True the Royal skipper Vairavanathan scored a mere 3 and 38 and captured a modest 2/17, (he did not bowl in the first innings). On mere figures along these are not spell-binding feats by any means. However, his astute field-placings and bowling changes along with the fact that, in a daring move, opened the batting in the second innings, and decided to bowl at a crucial stage of the game, showed here was Captain Courageous.

If ever a player deserved a Man of the Match award (never heard of at that time) there would never have been a more deserving player than Royal skipper T.Vairavanathan.

Remenber, it took another 18 long years for Royal to beat the Thomians.

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