With A Few Choice Words: Appreciating FC de Saram’s Cricket Career

Eardley Lieversz, a reprint from the Royal Cricket Souvenir, 2005, where the title runs “With a few choice words, Royal cricket under F. C. de Saram’s Tutelage”

Many distinguished old boys have coached Royal at cricket.  Names such as “Chippy” Gunasekera, Dr. C.H. Gunasekera, Barney Gunasekera, Mahes Rodrigo, Gamini Salgadu, H.T. Gunasekera and Channa Gunasekera immediately spring to mind.  To that illustrious list may be added relatively recent old boys such as Nihal Kodituwakku, Vijay Malalasekera, Dilip Somaratne (who coached Royal to successive victories in the early nineties) and Nirmal Hettiaratchy.  All of them were good at their job.  However, none of them had the mystique of Colonel Derrick de Saram (aka FC, Derrick, and Colonel) whose last coaching stint with Royal was from 1968 to 1974.

 young FC de Saram on song

I first set eyes on the Colonel in the late fifties at the CH & FC clubhouse, across the road from Royal’s practice turf, engaged in witty banter with fellow old Royalist, Lal de Silva.  I was intrigued by their almost courtly repartee and good-natured ribbing.  Even then I was overawed by his larger than life persona.

For the benefit of younger readers, Royal won three of the four Royal-Thomians F.C. de Saram played in, including the year he captained (1931).  In 1931, he scored 140 and took 6 for 52 in the Thomian second innings.  He played alongside luminaries such as Barney Gunasekera, Russell Heyn and future Ceylon captain, Sargo Jayawickrema.  He was coached by “Chippy” Gunasekera, whom he revered.  He also represented Royal in rugby and tennis, was head prefect, and took out the Dornhorst Prize for the most outstanding student.  He went on to represent Oxford, and was the fourth Asian, and first Sri Lankan, to obtain a cricket blue from one of the prestigious universities of Britain.  He also obtained a tennis blue.  In 1934 he scored 128 out of a total of 218 against the touring Australians.  He turned down an invitation from the MCC to tour the West Indies in 1934-5.  When he retired in 1957, he had scored 63 hundreds representing Royal, the SSC, Oxford, the Minor Counties and All Ceylon.  In 1981, when Sri Lanka gained test status, no Sri Lankan cricketer had scored more centuries.  He captained the SSC for a long time, led Ceylon in two Gopalan Trophy encounters, and in 1952 captained a combined test team vs. the MCC.

Pic courtesy of Lionel Gunasekera

A successful coup

The Colonel’s involvement in an attempt to torpedo the ship of state in the early sixties only increased his heroic stature.  And by the end of the decade he had engineered a successful coup in wresting the Senanayake Shield from St. Thomas’.

At the end of the 1967 season Royal cricket was in disarray after an embarrassing performance in the Royal-Thomian.  Although overflowing with talent her cricket lacked focus and direction.  Even with the best will Royal seemed unable to reverse STC’s dominance of the sixties.  However, change was in the air.

Ranjit Gunasekera, one of Royal’s finest cricket minds acceded to the captaincy.  John de Saram, the master-in-charge with the Midas touch, who had, commencing with the under XIV, brought out the best in Royal cricketers, took over the administration of the first XI.  And two former captains and a distinguished ex Royal cricketer, persuaded the Colonel to take over as head coach.

In 1968, for the first time in the sixties, Royal dictated a Royal-Thomian.  Royal would have won in 1970, as she did in 1969, if rain hadn’t intervened.  In 1971, despite the loss of playing time due to rain, STC hung on for her dear life.  And it was only a century by Duleep Mendis, plucked out of St. Sebastian’s in the wake of STC’s loss of 1969, which enabled STC to share the hours in 1972.  Royal reverted to her dominance in 1973 and 1974.

An inspirational figure

It is easy to attribute Royal’s successes to a surfeit of talent and the luck of the toss.  However, the Colonel made a difference in little known ways.  For instance, it was his idea to reduce the number of water breaks from two to one per session, which made all the difference in Royal-Thomians that went down to the wire.  He also saw the merit of declaring at tea on the first day of a Royal-Thomian.

The Colonel’s presence was extremely inspirational.  In the first instance his reputation preceded him and, like Churchill, he increased morale, on and off the field, even if his advice was sometimes ignored.  And like Churchill, his humour created a wonderful camaraderie.  His impact is best illustrated through specific examples.

A magnanimous spirit

Although the Colonel was seen as a domineering character who insisted on having his way, this was not borne out in his relationships with Royal’s captains.  In the late sixties he had to work with some headstrong captains who frequently disregarded his tactical advice.  In fact, Royal’s win over St Joseph’s in 1968 was achieved amidst a most unpleasant disagreement between captain and coach.  By close on the first day Royal were 56 ahead.  The Colonel was insistent that Royal should bat only for 30 minutes on the second day to prevent the Josephians from getting into a defensive mode.  This went totally against the captain’s instincts who was confident that Royal’s spinners would dictate terms to batsmen intent on defence and prone to pad play.  After about an hour’s play the Colonel concluded that his advice was being disregarded and was clearly annoyed at not being consulted.  He didn’t say a word except to tell the captain, after a declaration was made with Royal 150 runs ahead, that he’d bet Royal wouldn’t win.  The captain then let the team in to what was going on which motivated the players to go flat out.

Royal eventually won by an innings and 16 runs with half an hour to spare.  As the captain raced back to the pavilion the first person to greet him was the Colonel who said whilst offering his congratulations “Well, you won your bloody bet but next time you better do as I say” or words to that effect.

The Colonel was man enough to admit to being wrong.  And I suspect that he admired those who had the courage of their convictions in preference to those who uncritically accepted his advice.

During a conversation held in his office along Kannangara Mawatha in 1980, with a captain he once disagreed with, the Colonel gleefully recollected the events of the late sixties, and celebrated the ex-captain’s defiance.  The Colonel had a rebellious streak in him and probably appreciated the same in others.  Even when he disagreed with either tactics or selections he still supported the captain’s right to have the final say.  He valued adherence to principle over personal victories.  And the idea of principle, applied to the game itself, as much as to inter-personal interaction.

The game’s the thing

Royal’s defeat to Wesley in 1969 will long be remembered long after many of her wins are forgotten.  Wesley declared at 260 or 9 and had Royal struggling at 67 for 4.  The next morning Royal struggled to avoid the follow on, rallied and declared 53 runs behind.  Wesley was at one point 45 for 7 when a sitter was dropped.  Wesley eventually declared at 105 for 8.  Although a token declaration, Royal made a fist of the target of 158 in 70 minutes, refusing to pull the shutters down at any stage of the innings, losing the match by 10 runs in the last ball of the match.

Defeat was a poor reward for a side which took all the risks despite being in survival mode for four sessions.  However, the Colonel was absolutely delighted with the result.  In his “choice words” as he described his speech at the post match dinner hosted by Wesley, the Colonel expressed few words of commiseration to Royal, preferring to dwell on the grandeur of the finish.  A defeat was preferable to yet another draw, however exciting.  What was significant is that he never once criticized his losing team.

I’m certain that the Colonel was glad that Royal’s last man failed to negotiate the last delivery.  And I always wondered whether a Royal win was his preferred outcome?  Perhaps only if the runs were made off the last ball.  And if the simple catch at gully had been held and Royal were set a simple target in even time, he would probably have obtained less joy than from the actual outcome.

The Colonel was satisfied that, as TM.K. Samat remarked, Royal were “near perfect” in defeat.  He understood better than anyone else the mood of the rank and file.  One group of Royalists sang the school song all the way to Town Hall much to the consternation of Wesleyites who couldn’t understand why Royal’s supporters were acting like they had won.

Anyway, the Colonel’s celebration of the game was preferable to an agonizing reappraisal as to why Royal lost.  He understood instinctively that Royal had won a moral victory.  Having lost once it would be easier to take risks in the future.  Defeat was no longer a stigma, particularly if it was entered into magnanimously.  By teaching us that playing the game was more important than winning, he brought us closer to victory.

Dismissing Dijen

If any proof was needed of the Colonel’s consistency of attitude it was in his reaction to his son’s dismissal in the second innings of the 1969 Royal-Thomian.  T.M.K. Samat sub headed his article on the first day of the 1968 Royal-Thomian as ‘Royal Coach F.C. de Saram has a problem – “How to get my son out”’  No one came close to Dijen’s ability to save games for St. Thomas’.  When he dug in wild horses couldn’t dislodge him.  Time and time again Dijen stood between STC and defeat, and Dijon rarely let his team down.

In 1968 Royal dismissed Dijon for 23, but not before he and Kariyawasam had seen STC avert the follow on.  In the final session of the 1969 Royal-Thomian Dijen had to see his team through the remaining 100 minutes to close.  It was a situation tailor made for Dijen who played the familiar back to the wall role to perfection.  For 42 minutes, he and Wijesooriya successfully negotiated every wile Royal came up with.  It took something exceptional to dismiss Dijon in the nick of time.

Although the belief that the Colonel schemed in his son Dijen’s dismissal can be disputed, what is revealing is his willingness to be seen as the instrument of his son’s dismissal.  Although, he would no doubt have been proud if Dijen had forced a draw, he relished those subliminal moments which elevated the game, often at the expense of school and kin.  Hence, his delight in Royal’s loss to Wesley and his son’s demise two week’s later.  Just as much as he reinterpreted the meaning of failure, seeing merit in Royal’s loss to Wesley, he saw no disgrace in his son’s dismissal to a magnificent catch.  I’m certain that if STC had beaten Royal in 1969 in a close game, he would not have felt let down and rued the sporting declaration.  What disappointed the Colonel was cricket that wasn’t played in the right spirit and which lacked ennobling qualities.  To him a single moment of gallantry was worth a hundred paltry actions.

The Colonel reinterpreted the meaning of failure, which was less to do with defeat in the statistical sense but an unwillingness to play bravely.  However, he did not pursue tragic grandeur for its own sake.  In 1970 and 1971, when Royal dominated her opponents, he expected Royal to be daring in its approach without necessarily pursuing the nobility of defeat.  However, any captain who took risks could be assured of his sympathy whatever the outcome, and irrespective of differences that may have existed.

That Colonel persona

The Colonel inspired Royal’s cricketers, not by stirring speeches or stern admonishments, but through the force of his puckish personality.  His reputation had a demoralizing effect on the opposition as he sat outside the dressing room, especially in home games.  To quote “The sometimes ironic or caustic comments he would deliver in that plummy Oxbridge drawl were never unpleasant and rarely directed at the opposition.  Yet they would surely have had an impact.”  With him around Royal always appeared to have more tricks up her sleeve than she actually had.

The Colonel even kept the umpires on their toes.  Observed the master-in-charge “Many a time when Royal was chasing a target and the umpires seemed to be savouring their tea-time patties and cake too deliberately, a puzzled glance accompanied by a puff of thick cigarette smoke in their direction would generally send them scurrying for their white coats.”

Outside interference in team selection is the bane of school cricket administration.  The Colonel nipped such attempts in the bud.  To quote ”Most importantly, for a harried ‘cricket master’, the Colonel’s mere presence effectively snuffed out any efforts by fond parents to press their sons’ claims for selection.  The occasional pestiferous old boy anxious to pontificate on tactics used in the previous week’s game suffered even shorter shrift.”

A loyal soul

The Colonel has often been portrayed as a martinet who was bent on dominating those around him.  However, he was more often hurt than hurtful.

The disappointments of the 1969 season prior to the Wesley game, took its toll on one and all.  Wrong signals were sent to the Colonel who misconstrued the captain’s lack of communication as an indication that his presence as coach wasn’t desired.  The captain followed him as he wended his way to the tamarind tree, caught up with him at the mat, and did his utmost to assure him that his contribution was valued.  Despite the captain’s contriteness he initially played hard to get.  In retrospect he was making certain that his hurt was recognized rather than trying to extract revenge.  Eventually, he winked in characteristic manner and said that he would be back the next day.

In 1975 the Colonel was eased out of the coaching role.  He paid the price for supporting the Royal captain’s right to the ultimate say in selection matters.  If the captain caved into the pressure to modify the make up of the team, he would have let his players down.  Despite having his prefect’s badge withdrawn, the captain, with the backing of coach and master-in-charge, ensured that eight regular freshers received colours.  Between the Royal-Thomian and the limited over game the Colonel was sacrificed to appease the thwarted conspirators.  For the second time in six years he had stood up against outside interference in the running of the team: this time he paid the price.

An incomparable wit

Even those at the receiving end of the Colonel’s barbed comments considered it a badge of honour and gleefully recount them to this day.  S. Thalayasingam, who fielded at first slip, had the safest pair of hands in the business.  Yet, the Colonel remarked that the only reason he held on to his catches was because he was too slow to get out of the way.  The chronicler was once compared to a member of Gandih’s non-violence resistance movement on account of his passive approach to batting.  Ajit Pasqual, Royal’s captain of 1973, was won’t to exclaim “Shall we?’ when calling for a run, to which the Colonel remarked that these words were only appropriate on one’s wedding day.  These are just three examples of his keen wit.  There are no doubt many more gems which other Royal cricketers of the era will testify to.

A flair for mischief

Prabodha Kariyawsam, ex-Thomian skipper, recalls an occasion in the early 70s when former Thomian opening bat Ajit Jayasekera had come to meet him at the SSC along with his girlfriend Jacintha whom he later married.  When Kariyawasam introduced the lady to the Colonel, the latter queried “Ajit, is this the same girl I was introduced to a few weeks ago?”  There were the red faces all around at this display of his irrepressible wit.  This takes me back to the moment at a party hosted in 1970 by Royal’s vice-captain of 1969 prior to his departure to the U.K., when the Colonel repeatedly asked of a perplexed host “Who are you?”

In 1968 the Colonel sat next to the chronicler on the benches of the Royal gym as the captain unveiled the game plan.  While the captain held forth the Colonel alluded to a bruise he had incurred in a recent game for the SSC.  While all eyes were on the captain the he proceeded to drop his pants and display the said bruise.  The chronicler, to whom the Colonel’s remarks were directed to, was extremely embarrassed as he tossed between loyalty to his captain and acknowledging his coach’s “revelations”.

However, the best example of the Colonel’s mischievous wit occurred in 1970 was when he arranged a pre big-match pep talk to Royal cricketers at the bar of either the SSC or the golf club.  Not soon after ordering a round of soft drinks he announced that it was time for a “Pee”.  He then made his way to the toilet followed by the players irrespective of whether they had the same need as him or not, because they felt to do otherwise would be tantamount to an act of insubordination.

A sturdy character

I have been told that the even after a hard night the Colonel was up early to attend to a case.  Apparently, on one occasion while driving out of his house at first light he passed his son Dijon returning home after post-cricket match revelries.

Leading by example

The Colonel wrote at least one book on cricket technique.  A series on cricket technique by A.V. Fernando which appeared in the Times of Ceylon in the sixties was illustrated by photographs of the Colonel (and C.I. Gunasekera).  However, unlike Mahes Rodrigo and Channa Gunasekera, who were still close to their prime, and were won’t to pad up at practice, the exemplary facets of the Colonel’s batting technique were rarely observed in the flesh.

Royal beat St. Sebastian’s by an innings in a 1967 third term fixture with hours to spare and were preparing to take an early mark when the Colonel decided to hold a practice session in the middle.  Further he padded up and gave us the first glimpse of what we had only read about.  He showed us what his fabled back foot technique was all about.  Unless the ball was a half-volley he went on his back foot and monitored the movement of deliveries before hitting them on the rise.  Even at 55 years of age the Colonel had so much time to negotiate the likes of Chris Chitty, Jayantha Kudahetty and Nisal Mendis, whom he made look ordinary.  Many of Royal’s batting maestros of the forties admitted to inheriting their back foot technique from him.

A shrewd tactician

On the 12th & 13th of February 1977, the Colonel showed that he was not an armchair captain.  He led the SSC in a two-day Donovan final against the Sebastianites, led by Gerald Mendis (brother of Duleep).  SSC declared at 303 for 7 and dismissed the Sebastianites for 299.  The SSC opening bowlers were getting blitzed but the Colonel shuffled the bowlers so skillfully that after the openers departed, no one was allowed to settle down to a long innings.  The celebrations went on till late into the night with the Colonel and C.I. Gunasekera keeping the team spellbound with explanations of how they plotted and planned each batsmen’s dismissal.

When ex-Thomian captain Kariyawasam was first given the ball by the Colonel in an SSC game, he was set two short legs.  After an over the Colonel realised that the off-spinner’s deliveries were not turning but drifting with the arm.  Said he “Son from now on you will be Toshack” and shifted the short legs to the off side where four catches were snapped up in the newly constituted cordon.  Concludes Kariyawasam to whom Toshack could well have been a new brand of whiskey – “Be it a field placing, a bowling change or a psychological remark while crossing for the batsman to hear, FC was a master tactician” (1999 Thomian Cricket Souvenir).

Just like the Don

Because Don Bradman and Len Hutton were so defined by their cricketing prowess, their respective skills on the piano and dance floor were little known.  Likewise, the Colonel was a virtuoso in classical piano.  He was best known for the French National Anthem which he could sing and play flawlessly.  He, along with another famed pianist Robert de Saram, provided accompaniment to the Royal choir every Sunday, unfailingly.

The Colonel would never miss a concert of the famed duo Rohan and Druvi de Saram, his nephews.  Apparently he was wont to carry a hip flask to those concerts and would sit through them to the end with a glass of brandy in his hand.

The Colonel was too modest to bring attention to his commendable skills on the keyboard.  He preferred to project an image of a jovial cricketing intellectual, raconteur and lawyer.  However, the sensitivity that he often showed and his delight when a game of cricket reached subliminal levels, must have owed much to his artistic temperament.

During the period he was behind bars the Colonel studied Buddhism under the patient tutelage of Sylvia Gunatilleke (now in her eighties and able to confirm the classes).  This is another instance of the cultural sensitivity which he carefully concealed.

An enduring legacy

It has been almost 35 years since the Colonel left us.  But such was his impact that it seems like only yesterday we were reveling in the atmosphere which resulted from his mix of wisdom and wit.  He taught Thomians as much as Royalists, to rise above themselves and to cherish all facets of the game.  His legacy is reflected not merely in the spirited approach to the game that has been handed down generations, but in the manner in which people vividly recall incidents associated with him.

In the ultimate analysis the Colonel belonged to St. Thomas’ as much as to Royal.  Because his son represented STC, the Thomian cricketers of that era would have been more familiar with his residence at 5th Lane, than their Royal counterparts.  And of course, he became an honorary Thomian by coaching STC from 1976 until his death in 1983 at the age of 70. …..   Eardley Lieversz 

   ***   ***

A BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE on FC  from Eardley: For the benefit of younger readers, Royal won three of the four Royal-Thomians F.C. de Saram played in, including the year he captained (1931).  In 1931, he scored 140 and took 6 for 52 in the Thomian second innings.  He played alongside luminaries such as Barney Gunasekera, Russell Heyn and future Ceylon captain, Sargo Jayawickrema.  He was coached by “Chippy” Gunasekera, whom he revered.  He also represented Royal in rugby and tennis, was head prefect, and took out the Dornhorst Prize for the most outstanding student.  He went on to represent Oxford, and was the fourth Asian, and first Sri Lankan, to obtain a cricket blue from one of the prestigious universities of Britain.  He also obtained a tennis blue.  In 1934 he scored 128 out of a total of 218 against the touring Australians.  He turned down an invitation from the MCC to tour the West Indies in 1934-5.  When he retired in 1957, he had scored 63 hundreds representing Royal, the SSC, Oxford, the Minor Counties and All Ceylon.  In 1981, when Sri Lanka gained test status, no Sri Lankan cricketer had scored more centuries.  He captained the SSC for a long time, led Ceylon in two Gopalan trophy encounters, and in 1952 captained a combined Test team vs. the MCC.


Four former Royal captains and one former Thomian captain provided me with invaluable insights on FC and took time to examine my draft article.  They are Ranjit Gunasekera (1968), Ajit Pasqual (1973), Sam Lawton (1974), Prasanna Kariyawasam (1975), and Prabodha Kariyawasam (1969 – 1970 Thomian captain).  Sahadevan and Jayendran Thalayasingam, who represented Royal between 1967 and 1971), FC’s son Dijen (Thomian cricketer, 1967-1969) and daughter-in-law Chantal, were delighted to share their memories of FC.  Dr. Prakash Nayagam and Prasanna Mendis assiduously researched various publications for information on FC’s career.  Tisara Gunasekera provided a valuable spectator’s perspective on the 1969 Royal-Wesley game.  This article would never have got off the ground but for the encouragement of John de Saram, the master-in-charge of Royal’s first eleven from 1967-8 to 1972-1973, who, befitting someone who was more closely associated with FC than any player, provided invaluable and brilliantly articulated insights into the persona of FC, which I have used verbatim.  Paras 1 to 3 on page 7 are all his.  And many thanks to the incomparable T.M.K. Samat whose evocative prose enables one to recapture times gone by with freshness and clarity.

eardley lieversz  Eardley Lieversz

A NOTE from Michael Roberts

After mulling my options, I have chosen to place this item in THUPPAHI rather than CRICKETIQUE. This is because cricket has been of considerable significance in the international scenario for “Ceylon” before the 1970s  and for “Sri Lanka” since 1972, with the victory at the World Cup in 1996 serving as a  landmark political event.

A tenuous  secondary reason arises from my awareness of the importance of Royal College in the political history of the island — beginning with its association with the Colombo Academy of the mid-nineteenth century where the minds of the”Young Ceylon” circle around Charles Ambrose Lorenz, the Nell brothers, Charles Ferdinands and John Prins were nourished. It was here that the first questionings of colonial rule in terms of liberal political  thought were nurtured and were expressed in such newspapers as the Ceylon Examiner.

Nor should we forget tha,t in an era when any challenges to British rule were seen as “sedition,” the fitrst challenges were elliptical; on the cricket field. This was in 1887 when the Best Local Ceylonese XI faced the local Europeans in a “Test Match”.  That Ceylon side was made up of eleven Burghers (mostly from the Colts CCC based in the Pettah).

The Europeans won  that match, but by the 1930s the Ceylonese were trouncing the Europeans. So -cricket was liberating


* SP Foenander, Sixty Years of Ceylon Cricket, 1924

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