Harrowing Memories! Profound Gestures! Harrow, Tsunami, Galle, Cricket and Vidyaloka College … Two Tales

I= Peter Foster: “Harrovian cricketers return to tsunami scene,” in The Telegraph, 24 December 2014.

A group of Old Harrovian cricketers has marked a symbolic moment on Sri Lanka’s slow road to recovery three years after the island was hit by the Boxing Day tsunami. Charlie Pelham, now 20, was with a team from Harrow School warming up for a match at the cricket ground in the fishing town of Galle when the wave swept in, lifting up their team bus and depositing it on the outfield.

HARROVIANS AT GALLE Julian Ayer’s widow, Harriet, and her son, Spencer Crawley, at the ground in Galle 

The boys and their coaches took refuge on the balcony of the ground’s pavilion and watched in horror as the bus-stand behind was engulfed by a 30ft surge of seawater, killing several thousand people.

Although the boys did not know it then, among the 35,000 killed on the island was Julian Ayer, the step-father of one of the Harrow players, Spencer Crawley. Mr Ayer and his wife, Harriet, were travelling by bus to watch the team in Galle when the vehicle was swept away by water. Mr Ayer helped his wife escape through a window but could not save himself.

Survivors of that day visited Galle as England’s cricketers took on Sri Lanka in the first Test match played in the town since the tsunami. It was a time for reflection, but also celebration of the small part that the Harrow old boys and their associates played in helping Galle get back on its feet.

“It was a very emotional moment,” said Mr Pelham. “After all that destruction and loss of life, to see England as the first Test team to play on the ground really brought a lump to my throat.”

Despite a last-minute rush to get the ground fit for play, the stadium was unrecognisable from Dec 26, 2004. “As we stood on the pavilion balcony with the water rising, we could see the team bus floating out on to the pitch – and even six months later when I saw photos of Galle it was still there surrounded by mud,” said Mr Pelham.

After the team returned home, Harrow launched a massive fund-raising effort to help the Sri Lankan people. The Harrow Tsunami Relief Fund raised more than £475,000, a large part of which was spent rebuilding a local school, Vidyaloka College.

Mr Pelham, who worked at the college in his gap year and is now a student at Leeds University, said last week had brought painful memories but it was satisfying to see tourists in Galle again. “The people here were hit very hard by the tsunami and many depend heavily on the tourists. To see them back has made everyone happy,” he said.

A new cricket centre, named after Mr Ayer, has opened in Galle thanks to funds raised by his friends and family.

II = Laura Davies: “Harrow School’s Return to Sri Lanka,” 19 December 2014

Back in 2004, two-thirds of the way through the tour, I remember sitting in our hotel on a hillside above Kandy, watching the rain teem down in straight grey lines. We had started in the dehydrating heat of Colombo, becoming the first-ever touring team to defeat Royal College, before climbing to Kandy’s cosy splendour. It was a thrill to play at the historic Asgiriya Stadium but it was there that rain arrived halfway through the day. The heart sank to see the great ground at St Anthony’s College deep under water and then the boggy outfield at Dambulla International Stadium. Play was cancelled but at least we had the glorious fish curries to keep us going, together with rich cultural experiences at Kandy and Sigiriya.

hARROW AT ASGIRIYA Handshakes-500x333

And now, at last, we were down at Galle on Christmas Day, the skies clear, the weather and setting idyllic. Surely there was nothing that could stop us playing – apart from a wall of water hurtling towards us from a plate boundary off the coast of Sumatra.

It is amazing to think that the first reaction of many was disappointment that another match looked like being washed out; a feeling that paled into insignificance when the scale of the tragedy truly hit home. As we struggled to make sense of it all and to make the decisions that would best serve our group in our small corner of the chaos, lives and livelihoods were at stake across the continent. Our story of survival and how we made it back to Colombo with just our cricket bags for company is a mini epic when compared to the cosy routine of our normal lives. But we were all part of a much bigger story. On our return to the country in 2013 for another cricket tour, it was difficult to escape the shadow of 2004. For the School’s Cricket Professional, Stephen Jones, and me, the days spent in and around Galle were particularly poignant. The Galle International Stadium and the bus station behind it had been redeveloped, improvements typical of a rapidly developing Sri Lanka, but it was still possible to mentally piece together the locations and scenes of that incredible day. It was important for us to have a quiet beer in the Galle Fort Hotel – the place of refuge for the squad on that fateful night – and it was good to travel to Colombo after the Galle match to honour the Hirdaramani family – the rescuers and guardians of us all in the days that followed the tsunami – at a reception at the family home.

Perhaps the most amazing event of the 2013 tour was the visit to Vidyaloka School in Galle. This was the school that had benefitted from our huge fundraising effort after the tsunami. The idea was that we would just pop in for a quick hello before the long road trip east to Hambantota but, the moment that we were met by the school brass band on the main road outside the school, it was clear that the occasion warranted much more than that. There was a slow-paced march into the school grounds holding banana leaves in cupped offering, followed by a raising of the school flags, all accompanied by the band, who then performed a medley of their greatest hits. There were formal speeches and presentations, and then a guided tour around the new gym (with a demonstration of local skills) and the classroom blocks that Harrow had helped to construct. All in all, it was quite overwhelming.

HALLIDAY HANDOVER Simon Halliday presenting a print of the School signed by all members of the tour to the Vidyaloka School for which Harrow fundraised heavily in the aftermath of the tsunami.




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