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A Cricket Craze That Bowled Us Over

2021 Apr 19

Come March and the gentleman’s game of cricket becomes the cynosure of all things in Sri Lanka. This is none other than for the ‘Big Matches’, and as the name suggests – they’re ‘BIG’ here. The Big Matches are annual fixed cricket encounters between different schools in Sri Lanka – with the same schools having played each other for many years. With fellowship, good old-fashioned rivalry and a whole lot of fun all packed into one – they are the ultimate celebration of not just cricket, but school culture as a whole.

How it all began…

It all started in 1879 when Royal College, Colombo – then called Colombo Academy – met S.Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia for the first Big Match. Not only is this the oldest Big Match in Sri Lanka, but approximately 140 years later – this encounter has entered the world’s record books as being the second-longest ongoing cricket fixture to be played annually without a break. Now, this is definitely something to be proud of! Talk about facts that will leave us stumped – the Royal-Thomian is indeed older than ‘The Ashes’ and is only behind the annual cricket match between St. Peter’s College and Prince Alfred College in South Australia played since 1878.

It was in the 1950s that the Big Matches saw a transformation from being merely a cricketing encounter to an annual festival beyond the arena. The spectators became active participants to add new jollity to the event. An unstoppable transformation had started and a new culture was born which gave pride of place to the enjoyment of thousands. An atmosphere was thus created – that turned the traditional Big Match season into the nation’s March Carnival of Cricket.

International reputation…

In addition to the international reputation of the Royal-Thomian, the Big Matches have produced world-class sportsmen over the years – including Muttiah Muralitharan from St. Anthony’s College Kandy, Kumar Sangakkara from Trinity College Kandy and Arjuna Ranatunga from Ananda College. The Big Match is the initial platform where raw talent is displayed and picked up by discerning selectors. In fact, every cricketer in the national team began his career at the school Big Match.

This is no doubt a testament to the quality of Big Match cricket and definitely adds to the excitement – I mean you could be watching Sri Lanka’s next cricketing sensation live without even knowing it!

The Battle of The Maroons between Ananda College and Nalanda College is the Big Match that has produced the most Test Players into the Sri Lankan National Team. Moreover, the Big Matches have international spectators – with old boys across the globe flying in to join in the camaraderie and cheer their alma mater.

Why is it so much more than just a match?

With the actual Big Matches, comes a whole lot of hype in the form of fluttering school flags, merchandise such as headbands and armbands, and of course, the cycle and truck parades. These make the month of March a season of colour in and around Colombo. It was in the early 1950s that the Royalists began this tradition with the Royal cycle parade on the eve of the Big Match, to pedal their way to the home of their captain. This was followed simultaneously by the Thomian truck parade – an impressive convoy draped in blue and black that start from their college in Mount Lavinia to the venue of the match.

And of course, the celebration is not complete without the ‘Papare’ bands which go hand in hand with the matches, parades and Sri Lanka’s brand of cricket even in the form of radio commercials, TV ads and ringtones. This infectious melody is truly a hallmark of the Big Match spirit.

The flip side…

Not only do the various parades make it a frustrating time for motorists and traffic police, but the parades also involve hordes of schoolboys clad in coloured clothes storming into leading girls’ schools and vandalising them in a bid to have some innocent fun (or so they claim). This only seems to be tolerated by the girls’ school administrations during this time of the year, and while initially being considered a joke – concerns are now being raised that this is patriarchy and sexism in its most ignorant form.

Which schools no longer play and why?

St. Benedict’s College started playing a Big Match with its ‘Combined Sister Schools’ in 1957 – whose team comprised of cricketers from St. Anne’s Kurunegala, St. Anthony’s Wattala, St. Sebastian’s Moratuwa, De La Salle College and St. Mary’s College Chilaw. This fixture ended prematurely in 1961 owing to some of the schools being taken over and made into Maha Vidyalayas.

The negative aspects of the Big Match culture mentioned above have even resulted in some schools discontinuing to play. For example, St. Benedict’s College played D.S. Senanayake College from 1990 up until 2002 but discontinued the annual Big Match due to incidents that resulted in vandalism of school property.

Following this, D. S. went on to play Mahanama College. And after many many years, celebrating 125 years since their very first cricket encounter, St. Benedict’s played their inaugural cricket match with Wesley College this April 2021. However, this match is not to be considered a ‘Big Match’.

Big Matches and COVID-19…

In 2020, the Big Match season just finished before the brunt of COVID-19 hit Sri Lanka. Except for the Benedict-Wesley encounter, no Big Matches have been held so far in 2021, but there are plans of hosting cricket encounters such as the Royal-Thomian on the 6th, 7th and 8th of May at the Mahinda Rajapaksha International Cricket Stadium in Hambantota. Other Big Matches such as Thurstan College vs. Isipathana College, St. Joseph’s College vs. St. Peter’s College and Ananda College vs. Nalanda College are also to be held soon after. These will be held without spectators and will be live-streamed – as most international matches are currently taking place. Will this be the beginning of a whole new culture?