Nicholas Brookes and Benjamin Golby in The Cricket Monthly, 19 November 2018, where the title is “In Colombo, three is not a crowd” …..
courtesy of the two authors, my new pals…. with some liberty on my part with reference to the title, the pictorial illustrations and the deployment of highlighting to aid understanding … and a few additional pictorial touches.
Learn more about the SSC, P Sara and the Premadasa and you will understand Sri Lanka a bit better as a country. Colombo has 3 active international cricket grounds. Indulgent? A triumvirate of venues when Kolkata, Karachi, Cape Town and Melbourne settle for a single ground; even London houses merely two.
When new stadiums are built, predecessors are usually laid to rest. Granted, Antigua 2009 showed the value of having a spare venue up the sleeve. More often than not, though, cities’ attempts to house multiple stadiums haven’t come off (think Mumbai, or Sydney). Not so Colombo. The city proper might span less than 15 square miles, but when it comes to cricket, Sri Lanka has made a habit of punching above its weight. It’s fitting that its capital should have not one or two, but three international grounds.
Each of The Colombo 3 has its peculiarities and complex reasons for existence with centuries-old ethnic divisions, politics (lots), and the bumble and immoderacy of Sri Lankan cricket. Really, the city is neither populated nor prosperous enough to warrant its glut of grounds – but politics, connexions and sentiment keep pragmatism at bay.
The Premadasa Stadium was built to give Colombo a fully floodlit stadium – but also as a Prime Minister’s vanity project; a tool to score points off his rival the Sports Minister. The Singhalese Sports Club replicates what the island’s colonial oppressors did three doors down the road (play cricket, dine and drink) but on an exponentially grander scale with koi fish. The P. Sara Oval came to be when a civil servant decided that, while laying a new wicket for his club, he would construct a great stadium for the nation.
Consider their continued existence. SSC is posh and makes heaps of money. P Sara serves Sunday lunch on the field of play. Premadasa has cows tied up out front next to a tuk tuk graveyard.
Understanding Colombo’s 3 international grounds, located in 3 distinctive neighbourhoods, provides a glimpse into factious, charming Sri Lankan cricket.
THE SINGHALESE SPORTS CLUB (SSC): HEART OF THE ESTABLISHMENT
Gym shoes distinguish Colombo 7. While most in the city wear 100 rupee sandals; here it’s legitimate branded footwear with full cushioning. Impatient men in tracksuits and ladies wearing shorts stridently power-walk, or trot an underwhelming tropical jog, round the Torrington Square concourse. Literally well-heeled, this is Cinnamon Gardens, where Dutch plantations once scented the air, now home to the Colombo elite. On wide boulevards designed for horses, the salubrious walk their retrievers. Beam at them and expect stony eyes in return.
It’s hard to imagine this oasis of space elsewhere in the scramble of Colombo. Within the city’s density and bustle, respectability centres itself around a faux-fancy shopping precinct (converted from an insane asylum) and, as a beguiling monument to Independence, a replica grand hall of the Kandyan kings. Follow the broad way down and around, and you’ll arrive at the gates of the Singhalese Sports Club: home of Sri Lanka Cricket and Colombo prestige.
This is the club of blue blood. Among its ranks Sidath Wettimuny, Duleep Mendis, Arjuna Ranatunga, Marvan Atapattu, Mahela Jayawardene and Dimuth Karunaratne. Cricketers are mere mortality, though: more impressive is to pass the giant marble entrance and amble along the pools moating the Members’ with koi, all open mouth and barbel, paying greeting. There’s a garden cafe selling the same short-eats as the bakery outside at inflated prices. The oak-panelled Members’ Centenary Bar’s dress code keeps the flip-flopped and ill-clad out (but even those poor souls can sit behind the pavilion below television screens, and dine on a plate of pie and chips superior to the fare at any other Sri Lankan cricket ground).
Singhalese Sports Club (note the anachronistic spelling) has asserted itself as the most prestigious venue for Test cricket on the island. It’s a lovely place to watch a match but to say so is almost extraneous. Test cricket anywhere in Sri Lanka is a joy. The weather is warm, spectators are convivial, often knowledgeable and hospitable, tickets are inexpensive and, so long as England aren’t playing (with their attendant hordes) there’s plenty of space to stretch out over five days.
Gaze out on the wicket where Shane Warne came good in his 3rd Test, and where Jayawardene and Sangakkara put on 624 for the 4th wicket in international cricket’s highest stand. Eight years later, Mahela was feted here with a truly monumental retirement procession. It’s been a happy hunting ground for Sri Lanka’s bowlers too: from Vaas’ ODI record to Herath’s historic 13 against Australia. Murali has 14 five-fors here; no other bowler comes close to that tally at a single ground.
The club, like the neighbourhood, is rich, exclusive and a place of the Establishment. Three of its Presidents have held Sri Lanka’s top job. Situated adjoining the club, sharing the same street address, Sri Lanka Cricket’s offices overlook the ground: if the club was ever in doubt of its primacy, powerful neighbours are on hand to offer some gentle reassurance.
But for all the contemporary-style bars serving old arrack, leashed labradors roaming the streets and variegated carp, the Singhalese Sports Club’s prominence is only as an ancient as modern Sinhalese hegemony – and its place within cricket even shorter lived.
The club existed for 50 odd years, playing from a municipal park, before taking these premises.
Through the offices of D.S. Senanayake (orchestrator of independence, Ceylon Prime Minister and club President), an opportunity emerged to repurpose a defunct airbase in Colombo’s plushest neighbourhood. The new digs held a particular residence, as they were across the road from the former centre of cricketing prestige, the Colombo Cricket Club; throughout its proud eminence, this white European club barred visiting players (of “colour”) from using the nets or visiting the bar. When the SSC’s ground was laid, in 1953, the club’s new President (another Ceylon Prime Minister) performed the honours. Other early benefactors included horse racing and show business impresario, Donovan Andrée, (who somehow staged an ice-skating revue in 1950s Colombo) raising funds for the pavilion by putting on a couple of racing carnivals.
The SSC was the venue for the biggest partnership in Test cricket: 624 between Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara © Getty Images
The Singhalese Sports Club truly came into its esta te with Sri Lankan international cricket status in the 1980s. Club President, JR Jayewardene, who also happened to be President of Sri Lanka, entrenched privilege within the club – with more seating constructed and more oak lined into the bars – and Gamini Dissanayake, an acolyte of Jayewardene (and the Sports Minister who orchestrated the drive towards Test Status), established the headquarters of what is now Sri Lanka Cricket at the SSC. The club styles itself as the Lord’s of Sri Lanka and has hosted the lion’s share of Test cricket in the island since the early 1990s.
The SSC has made the most of its opportunities and the handsome ground that stands is a graphic testament to the ascendency of Sinhalese Sri Lanka. But, perhaps it was only natural that the meteoric rise of one ground would precipitate the steady decline of another.
P SARA OVAL: THE SHUNNED ELDER
East from the city is Borella, where the suburbs begin. Here, tucked away in a neighbourhood crook, behind a magnificent leafy cemetery, humming thoroughfares and chaotic adjoining ways is a cricket ground. As Ishmael to Isaac, The Iliad to The Odyssey or Bach’s St John’s Passion to that on St Matthew, so the Singhalese Sports Club has an elder, hoary counterpart in The Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu Stadium Colombo Oval (most settle on calling it P Sara Oval). It may be an unlikely spot abutting an urban slum on one side and a series of quiet middle-class back-streets on the other – but for 40 years this was Sri Lanka’s Mecca of cricket, graced by the likes of Gavaskar, Garry Sobers, the three Ws and Keith Miller.
Hedges of ivy bedeck The Oval’s clock-crowned manual scoreboard. Square of the wicket, a neatly gated seating reserve for pensioners – with their newspapers, bifocals and beatific expressions – sets the tone. Visiting the base of the Sathasivam Stand, one can procure a frosted glass-bottle of ginger beer from the memorabilia-walled Members’ bar and, beneath ceiling fans, languidly watch play from behind the wicket.
P Sara is the preserve of the Tamil Union Cricket and Athletic Club, marking a bygone time of affluence and connexion among the island’s minority group. Well-educated English-speaking Tamils enjoyed elevated social status in pre-Independence Ceylon, dominating the white-collar professions and merchant classes. Spearheading its establishment was a rare visionary, Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, a civil servant recently returned from a prolonged stint in the provinces, who utilised this milieu to build a grand stadium. Soliciting the future Prime Minister, DS Senanayake, and the colonial Governor, Tamil Union were beneficently granted some canal side marsh on the edge of town in deepest Borella. Saravanamuttu raised a fortune through his fellow club members and, in the midst of World War II, obtained scarce supplies through the amenable all-powerful military Commander-in-Chief of Ceylon. Swamp was converted into a first-rate pitch, offering those must un-Sri Lankan characteristics, pace and bounce, and pavilions and seating were constructed for the thousands who would come to watch not only cricket but anything else important happening in Colombo. The Oval housed hockey, athletics, greyhound racing and, when Duke Ellington visited as America’s Musical Ambassador to the Far-East, was the only venue capable of hosting the show.
Notwithstanding the ground’s impressive 1945 baptism – when Sri Lanka’s greatest batsman, Mahadevan Sathasivam, made a century for Ceylon against India and Keith Miller, deified after the Victory Tests and headed home from war, scored 132 in an innings defeat over the island side – the only event widely remembered today from those times, less glorious but more momentous, is when Bradman captained The Invincibles here in 1948.
‘Bradman came here’, any kindly old Uncle about the ground will tell you (invited or not). Two full length photographs in the Members’ Bar – with The Don strangely garbed in dark glasses, tie, high-waisted trousers and pith helmet – attest to the grand man’s presence. 20,000 came by rail, bus and foot, cramming into and around the recently constructed ground (and the trees above) to watch Bradman make 20 scratchy runs. Fittingly, the pitch was 20 yards in length rather than the regulation 22. The same kindly uncles will likely blame this, in charmingly modulated misogynist tones, on P Sara’s ground-lady.
Yes, ground-lady. Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of P Sara among international cricketing venues is its succession – matriarchy even? – of female groundstaff commencing with the appointment of Head Ground Keeper, Mariamma, in 1947. While the good matron is generally credited for the pitch mishap, carping critics of Bradman have alleged the captain made a fuss after his unflattering innings, and that remeasuring the pitch was simply a result of Sri Lankan politeness and deferentiality toward their distinguished visitor. A line of female groundskeepers has continued to the present day and an aged sari-clad custodian, as busy with broom as any Sri Lankan auntie at home, can still be spotted in the intervals between play. Stalwarts of the club speak of these “Indian Tamil” ladies, who reside beside the ground, in their almost mystical connection to its earth with attuned nimbleness of hand spreading grass seeds. This strong female link to turf and surface is seemingly a unique characteristic of the P Sara Oval, at least amongst international cricket grounds.
Bradman’s visit set in train 35 halcyon years of cricket both local, regional (against neighbouring Tamil Nadu) and international as sides stopped at the island while headed elsewhere in the subcontinent or further abroad. However, while many sepia moments of the island’s cricket history played out on this fine wicket, increasingly less are being made. Sri Lanka’s maiden Test in 1982 should have marked the ground’s apogee but instead presaged its decline. The next year, a miscalculated ceremony at the Borella cemetery, for soldiers slain by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, turned into a riot. Vigilantes targeting Tamils ravaged the way through the neighbourhood — beating, killing, raping and burning — and sacked the club looting The Oval’s bar and razing the ground. Instead of succour in its hour of need, the combination of burnt out ground, inconvenient Borella location and, ostensibly, prejudice (as Civil War raged on) led to the passing of cricketing pre-eminence in the city from P Sara Oval to its Colombo 7 counterpart. From 1982-200, the Oval hosted 6 Tests; during the same period the SSC held 23.
P Sara’s fate is not all dour. Tamil Union rebuilt The Oval, hosted Sri Lanka’s first Test victory, and began to host international matches again during the 2000s. Today it’s Colombo’s second-string Test venue, but faces an uncertain future of international cricket. Sri Lanka has regular Test grounds in Galle and Pallekele, and there are three further stadiums in the country that could be used for the purpose (with yet another supposedly under construction outside Jaffna– as yet a pile of rubble)). Then, of course, there’s Sri Lanka’s ever dwindling home Test schedule to contend with.
These days, the one-day games which once brought crowds flooding to the ground play out at a stadium two miles up the road. Like, the P Sara it was converted from swampland; but here you’ll find no rattan or remnants of the past. Sri Lankan cricket’s present – and perhaps its future too – is a purpose-built, concrete monster.
PREMADASA STADIUM: THE ENFANT TERRIBLE
The Premadasa is not prepossessing. Opposite the stadium, shells of tuk-tuks are sprayed, repaired and upholstered. Cattle and goats graze on the banks of a fetid river. A shanty stands, bulldozed but not cleared, with children left to play amidst the carcasses of buildings and shards of broken glass. The traffic is bad: the hum of engines and din of horns inescapable. At one corner is a temple: partitioned from the Premadasa by a fringe of palms, its proud white dagoba looks almost lost in the surroundings. In reality, the SSC is just down the road, but genteel Cinnamon Gardens feels a million miles away.
Here, you’ll find no stands commemorating de Saram or Sathasivam; no honours boards adorned with names of captains and presidents past. At the purpose-built Premadasa most choose to sit in the unromantically entitled Blocks C and D: ground-level, concrete rafters that arc around from mid-on to fine-leg. Sure, it lacks the history of the P. Sara Oval or the Sinhalese Sports Club, but this stadium can lay claim to something its elder counterparts crave: people.
On match days, crowds flood through the gates. Groups of guys idly chat, half of Colombo’s schoolboys search for a spot in the shade, even a stray dog finds its way into the ground and lopes excitedly back and forth. The more expensive stands – which come with an actual seat coloured Lankan yellow or blue – start to fill up too, albeit more slowly. Boundaries bring boisterous cries of approval. Drums appear from nowhere and pockets of dancing spring up. The disjointed sound of multiple papare bands is din to the uninitiated but sweet Ivesian cacophony to lovers of chaos. The occasional punter lies passed out, the combination of arrack and sweltering sun suddenly too much. Toilets become a destination venue for smokers. Once night falls, the party really gets going.
Of course, the Premadasa’s popularity owes less to the stadium itself and more to the kind of cricket that’s played there. Younger Sri Lankans fans have shown a marked apathy towards Tests for some time. Everything about the Premadasa – the floodlights that loom over the ground, the less than salubrious setting and its 35,000 capacity – suggests that this was a stadium designed for short-form cricket.
Indeed in its 26-year history, only nine Tests have been held here, four of them against Zimbabwe or Bangladesh (including last year’s romper). Still, it will likely remain part of five-day cricket folklore for as long as the game lasts, the monstrous 952-6 dec. Sri Lanka racked up here against India in 1997 unlikely to ever be surpassed. Some reports claim that on the final day -with Sanath well set and Lara’s record in his sights – 30,000 responded to the call of free tickets, cramming into a ground which at that stage was only meant to hold half that number. Rarely since have so many turned up for a Test in Sri Lanka.
Limited-overs games, on the other hand, have often been sell-outs. So much so that in late 2009 the Premadasa underwent a total redevelopment. The plan for the new ground to host a Test against the West Indies in November 2010 appeared ambitious: unsurprisingly, the game was played in essentially a construction site. But, in typical Sri Lankan style things came together last minute: the Premadasa was certainly rocking four months later when a packed house watched Malinga, Murali and Ajantha Mendis bowl the home side into the World Cup final.
In the shortest form of the game, it’s brought Sri Lanka little joy. Fortunes looked to be changing in the 2012 World T20 final – but a blistering Marlon Samuels knock and a batting collapse from the home side saw them lose their fourth consecutive major final. All in all, Sri Lanka have won four T20is and lost a whopping 14 at the ground.
But most of the complaints about the Premadasa have nothing to do with the home team’s performance. You’re more likely to hear locals moaning that it’s difficult to get to, that there’s nowhere to park and that they wouldn’t be caught dead walking outside the ground after dark (unless they have a death wish). Certainly, none would put Khettarama in their list of Colombo’s friendliest or most charming areas. So how did it come to be home to the city’s largest stadium, its international poster boy?
The clue is in the title. Those well-versed in Sri Lankan history will know that Ranasinghe Premadasa was Sri Lanka’s third President. And while the idea of a Tony Blair Oval or John Major Cricket Ground would make most English fans shudder, in Sri Lanka it’s not so unusual for politics and cricket to become intertwined. When Premadasa initiated plans for the Khettarama Stadium in the early 80s, one of his main presidential rivals was Gamini Dissanayake, the charismatic minister who had just masterminded Sri Lanka’s final push towards Test status. Building a cricket ground in the impoverished neighbourhood of his youth was the perfect way for Premadasa to drum up popular support, while giving something back to the ordinary folk of Colombo. Positioning the stadium here made him look like a man of the people – and more than likely, Khettarama was close to his heart. He was born half an hour’s walk from the ground, and although not poor, his family belonged to the lowly Hinna caste, a people traditionally associated with washing clothes.
The street outside the Premadasa: get your tuk-tuk repaired here © Nicholas Brookes
In the far-off days of Premadasa’s youth, cricket remained tantalizingly out of reach for the working classes. The game belonged to the elites: SSC was the club for the wealthy Sinhalese; Tamil Union for the affluent Tamils. There was nothing for the common man – a situation that in many ways remained the same right up until the 1980s. The Premadasa Stadium went some way to redressing this.
The well-to-do who live south of the ground will never understand its placement here, but ultimately it wasn’t built for them. Its proximity to the transport hub of Colombo Fort means fans can flock from far afield. Its birth brought new economic opportunities to one of Colombo’s most deprived areas. The Premadasa rises from the slums like a beacon of hope. It’s a symbol that cricket belongs to everyone; a reminder to the underprivileged children who play in its shadow that the game is close enough for them to grasp.
Can The Colombo 3 continue to coexist harmoniously? As hopeful as we remain, it looks increasingly unlikely. To all on the outside, the P Sara, one of the few Asian grounds in world cricket that retains any long-toothed sense of history, is being ejected from the international scene faster and more forcefully than a streaker at the Boxing Day Test.
‘…if there is a match on,’ relates current ground lady, Saroja Vellayan, ‘my children and my sister come to the stadium to help me out. Once the match is over, we all sit by the pavilion and sometimes, I tell them stories of my childhood in this ground.’ As Perth learns in a blaze of nostalgia, cricket memories are dear and not so easily made in bland, functional surrounds. One of the most appealing reminiscences (a national pursuit in Sri Lanka) encountered in the course of this article came from supreme Ceylon fast-bowler, Darrell Lieversz,
My first visit to the P. Saravanamuthu Oval was when my father took me to watch Australia play Ceylon; I was about 8 or 9 years old. It was quite a memorable day which is still vivid in my memory. When the Australian Team was walking to field I ran out with my autograph book hoping get a few autographs of the players. I nervously approached Keith Miller who was lagging behind the rest of the team. When he saw me, he scooped me up in his arms, carried me almost up to the centre wicket, signed my book and gently put me back on the ground and gave me a pat on the back. I ran back towards the boundary line, but I could not find my way back to my seat. Being totally lost, I started to cry until a good gentleman guided me back to my seat in the midst of laughter and applause. From that day Keith Miller was my all-time hero.
If P Sara were to fall, Colombo would be left with two grounds, neither of which will be going anywhere fast. The Premadasa’s lights mean it’s sure to remain Colombo’s designated one-day ground – and should day-night Tests make their way to Sri Lanka, it may well find a more prominent place in all forms of the game. Indeed, if the T20 Lankan Premier League ever actually gets off the ground it will be a place of true consequence. Likewise, the SSC is established as an immovable object, its status only set to grow thanks to the demise of its neighbour. We would mourn the loss of the P Sara, but two is still better than one.
There are grounds outside the city, though. Nice ones, too: Galle beside the sea, Pallekele in the Hill Country, Dambulla, Hambantota in the backwoods. Want to hear about them?
A cross-section of social classes watch the Aussies playing Ceylon during their whistle-stop match at the SSC grounds on the 30th March 1938 …… SEE Michael Roberts, “Social History within Cricket,” 18 July 2016, https://thuppahis.com/2016/07/18/social-history-within-cricket/.
The score sheet for this match can be located within Michael Roberts & Alfred James, Crosscurrents, Sri Lanka and Australia at Cricekt, Sydney, Walla Walla Press, 1998, p. 54…. ISBN 0 9587079 4 4 …. & …. 0 957879 9 5