Aubrey Kuruppu’s ode on the Asgiriya cricket grounds and its role in the promotion of international cricket in the hill-country prompted me to remark on my experiences as a bystander of international games there in the 1960s and 1970s. This included a reference to the facility it provided for agile males and youngsters to watch the matches for free from the branches of some trees in the surrounds.
That remark triggered a memory. Not something witnessed, but re a treasure of a picture in my stock: namely, a photograph of Sri Lankans watching the Australians playing a one-day whistle-stop match in Colombo in 1938. One does not see any famous Aussie cricketers in this image. Here, too, one sees blokes perched on trees. But that is not the main point. It is the varied forms of garment and head-covering displayed by the avid cricket-watchers that is the beauty of it. It is a revealing glimpse of the cross-class character of this particular segment of the crowd.
It is a priceless social document. It also anticipates the cross-class and cross-ethnic dimensions of cricketing enthusiasm that reached its apotheosis on 17th March 1996.
This match between the Australians and A Ceylon XI, incidentally, would have been played on the grounds of the SSC – thus the playing arena where Nomads were housed in the 1960s and where the monstrosity known as the “Nelun Pokuna” holds court.
The picture of the crowd in 1938 should be set beside an image from an earlier era in the 1890s taken from HW Cave Book of Ceylon p, 53 entitled “Natives watching cricket at Galle Face Green” – then one of the principal cricket playing fields and competing with “Racquet Court’ between the Fort and Pettah.
The sartorial preferences of the 1890s highlight the contrasts seen in 1938.
For more images of sporting events from the British period of colonial rule and the whistle-stop matches of the post war period, see Michael Roberts, Essaying Cricket. Sri Lanka and Beyond, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publishers, 2006, ISBN 955-1266-25-0 as well as Michael Roberts, Potency, Power and People in Groups, Colombo, Marga Publications, 2011, ISBN 978-955-582-129-2
ADDENDUM, 19 July 2016:
Writing from Sydney Eardley Lieversz has indicated that “those old gal thoppies were used even at Royal in the early sixties.” The term gal thoppi translates as stone hats but this requires elucidation from someone versed in the nuances of Sinhal and/or the etymology of this sobriquet. I suspect it was the term used to depict the tin helmets worn by soldiers. Why it was extended to the pith-helmets used by explorers, adventurers and cricketers I know not why. Many people in the older generations would recall images of Don Bradman wearing one. I presume they were meant for protection from the sun as much as the cricket ball? But in the colonial order there also were white gal thoppi. These hats were standard ‘gear’ for the British officials and were also adopted by some Ceylonese.
One who had this type of hat almost as second nature was my guru and mentor, WJF Labrooy. Peradeniya personnel of the 1950s to 1970s will have mental pictures of him and hat. I note here that I have his hat as a treasured heirloom. Since I will be be moving soon into the realm of ashes-to-ashes and dust-to-dust –hopefully via the sea off the fort of Galle — I must decide soon where this heirloom should eventually repose., whether with the Labrooy lineage or some Sri Lankan Archive. It is NOT an item for some dustbin.
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