The boys storm the girl’s school in broad daylight. The more athletic jump over a boundary wall. A wheeler dealer type gives the security guard the eye, offers him a cigarette and walks blithely in through the main gates. A tubby chap directs traffic outside the school with considerable drunken elan. Teachers flee in mock horror as the boys take over teaching duties.
An assault on women’s education in some oppressive Islamic state? Nah. This is all about a schoolboy cricket match in Sri Lanka – though not quite what the English intended when they introduced their hallowed sport to the colonies.
The boys demonstrate their blackboard skills with impressive illustrations of the human anatomy. The girls giggle and discuss whose brother is the cutest. As the cops arrive the boys melt away. No one is arrested. The “raiding” of girls schools is a time honoured part of the big match ritual. The fact that the ritual is completely pointless adds to its charm.
The boys regroup on bicycles and ride en mass to the home of their cricket captain for a raucous rendition of the school song and bidding of good wishes for the next day’s big match. They stop traffic along the way. The cyclists are joined by vehicles of dubious roadworthiness crammed with rowdy supporters. The parade stretches for a mile. Trumpeters and drummers play a driving calypso rhythm called baila. They are dancing on the streets. A drone live streams the event. There’s a police escort. And….an elephant.
I flew in with alumni from around the world to revisit the scene of teenage misdemeanours; the 137th Battle of the Blues. The cricket match is played between two boy schools in Colombo, my alma mater Royal College (a state school established by the British Raj), and our opponents across town, St Thomas’ College (a private school established by missionaries). The three day match is one of the oldest continuously played sporting rivalries in the world. Wars don’t stop cricket in Sri Lanka. During its deadly 26 year civil war both sides would declare a ceasefire whenever an important cricket match was played. In Sri Lanka even the terrorists are cricket fans.
I arrive at the 15,000 capacity cricket stadium by tuk tuk on the second day of the match, a Friday. Traditionally, the Colombo Stock Exchange registers its lowest volume on this day as traders and their bosses head for the match.
Polite young boys in impeccable whites, straw hats, and school ties help me locate my classmates. Somewhere in the background, almost unnoticed, thirteen teenagers toil with bat and ball in humid 30 degree (30 degrees Celsius – about 86 degrees Fahrenheit) conditions.
The old boys are clustered in “tents” according to age group; Colts, Mustangs, Stallions, Thoroughbreds etc. Women are only allowed in the Stables. Curiously, old boys from both schools share the tents. It’s a friendly rivalry.
There is a pervasive smell of sweat and alcoholic ooze. The tents compete for entertainment honours. Someone is mixing mojitos in a tiny air conditioned bar in the Stables tent. Elsewhere a cluster of water coolers have been rigged to hold gin. There are live bands. There are dancers and cheerleaders. One tent was reputed to have flown in Eastern European cheerleaders – formerly grim ex-Soviet states now export good cheer. There were rumours of topless Russian waitresses in another. Somewhere in the melee is the prime minister…
The prime minister and a large swathe of the current cabinet in Sri Lanka attended Royal College. Yet, while the kids I went to school with were smart, they weren’t necessarily privileged. For every scion of the ruling class there was a smart kid from the Colombo slums. Guided by an uncompromising motto, Disce Aut Discede, (literally “learn or depart”!) we studied, played and fought; we grew up together. Along the way, we cemented friendships of the kind where after a decades long pause, the conversation still flows without interruption. I must do this more often. Floreat!
Royal won incidentally, which led to the prompt declaration of a school holiday.
What to drink when it’s hot, humid, and the mosquitos are vicious
Gin & tonic is the preferred drink in the tropics. The Brits invented the G&T as as a more palatable way to ingest quinine, an anti malarial that is used in making tonic water. I discovered Colombo Gin on this trip to Sri Lanka – a newly introduced gin made to a forgotten WW2 recipe. Deprived by the German naval blockade of the imported ingredients necessary to distil gin, the locals improvised with domestically grown spices. After the war the recipe was lost, only to reappear in a London attic a few years back. Redolent of the tropics, this is a delightful spicy gin, perfect in a G&T or a martini. I mix my Colombo G&T with crushed curry leaves, cinnamon peel and a squeeze of lime. Crush the curry leaves and cinnamon and stir with a measure of gin. Fill a highball glass with ice, pour the gin and top with a decent tonic water and a squeeze of lime. Garnish with a slice of lime, a curry leaf and more cinnamon peel. Yo Anopheles – bite me!