Gilbert Roberts: Barbadian-Lankan Virtuoso … and A Johnian

KKS Perera, in The Island, 27 February 2020, where the title reads G C Roberts, Barbadian 12th man in Windies became a Sri Lankan”

Continuing on ‘Nostalgic Memories of Windies’, I thank Lalith Fernando, “…my own native citizen unknown to me,” [quoting from his own letter…] for the correction on the day and date of 1967s 3-day match. Let me quote an extract from the last paragraph of my letter which appeared in these columns on Feb 4, 2016, under the popular series, four years ago on, “Kollo/Kello in Girl/Boys’ schools.”

“… Accompanied by my older siblings, [all Johnians], I went for the last big match played against Prince of Wales, at the Panadura esplanade, in 1953. Our team [St John’s] was captained by Herbert Roberts, son of G. C. Roberts, my English teacher, at Std 6, and the 12th man in the West Indies team in the early 1930s.[1] When Herby [Herbert], the handsome batting star, was carried all the way to the pavilion by Johnian kollo…,”

[His pater] GC Roberts was a European/Barbadian [that is, a West Indian of English origin] who married a Sri Lankan Dutch-Burgher lady from Panadura and settled down here in the 1930s.[2] His mansion was within walking distance from my house, St John’s College, and Panadura Sports Club. He joined the staff at St John’s College and taught English Language and Literature, and played cricket for Panadura Sports Club, and was honorary coach for St John’s and Panadura Sports Club for many years. While his elder son Herbert [Herby] captained the College in 1953/54, his second son Ryan was my classmate, from 5th to 7th Standards.

The writer spoke to Neil Perera, the most respected old Johnian and former Honorary Secretary of the Board of Control for Cricket, as it was then known, and also a former General Manager, CEB, from 1970-1980s, who was responsible for making Sri Lanka a co-host of the 1996 World Cup. Neil confirmed the fact that Roberts was a Barbadian who played cricket for the Colony in the West Indies, and also about his marriage. What actually brought him here from the Caribbean, and the truth about the story that he played as 12th man for Windies, I failed in my week-long research with Caribbean cricket records of the 1920s and 30s for authentic source [confirmation],[3] though every septuagenarian and octogenarian sportsman I spoke with agreed on it. [Unfortunately, all these men of vintage who lived in Panadura are no more].

Roberts, whose passion was cricket [was unlimited], [would] read the first few lines of a poem in the class, for instance ”The Walrus and the Carpenter” by Lewis Carroll aloud, dramatizing and emphasising the funny parts, then review it, before he commenced ‘coaching’ [us] on the forward defence or hook shot to us 10-12 year olds. Cricket-loving septuagenarians and octogenarians in Panadura yet remember this man, who never got out of the house without the white drill coat [no tie] and Planter’s hat, with gratitude. He peddles his blue coloured ladies push bike with its cane basket in front which carried an empty half bottle, to the esplanade, like a prayer for coaching and from there to the beach for exercises.[4]

Whenever a cricket match is being played, he was there discussing a shot with the spectators, adding a few snippets from his Barbados days as well. Roberts and family migrated Down Under in the early 1970s, where old Roberts died a few years later,[5] followed by his two sons Herbert the cricketer, and my friend Ryan who undoubtedly was the ‘Big brother’ in our class 65 years ago.

 My thanks to Mahinda Seneviratne and PP Silva for the reminiscences.

Gilbert & Jean with their children and grandchildren in Melbourne on thrir 50th Wedding Aniiversar

END NOTES inserted by The Editor, Thuppahi 

[1] Errata: Herbie’s only surviving sister could not confirm that Herbert captained St. John’s. There are errors about GC Roberts’s history here. He may conceivably have been a member of the Barbados cricket squad in the late 1910s and/or early 1920s. He moved to England and was working in a boot-shop (his mother’s homeland) in the mid-1920s and was considering emigration to Australia when he heard that his mother Florence Roberts, nee Tarrant, was seriously ill. He borrowed 30 pounds from an Anders (a Tarrant kinsman) and took a ship to Ceylon in early 1925 – reaching the colony just before she passed away in July that year.

[2] Some details are wrong. Gilbert married Jean Bastiansz from Matara in 1929 a few years after his father TW Roberts took Miriam Perera as his second wife. Miriam’s mother was a Bastiansz from Matara. The tale of the Gilbert-Jean love match arises from cricket: Gilbert had taken a Panadura team to Matara to play a match and they were lodged in a cheap resthouse in the Fort of Matara that neighboured the house of Stanley Pereira (Perera). Gilbert spotted a framed photo of his father therein through a window, so he wandered in to inquire/investigate. THAT is when he met Jean. The meeting was fruitful.

[3] Gilbert’s father, TW Roberts certainly played for Barbados against a visiting England team when he was a mere stripling because he told me the Englishmen were amused by the fact that a teenage stripling was opening the batting. He promptly hit a few fours: but was then dismissed as a fruit of this rashness. This event probably occurred in the mid-1890s just before my pater went to Oxford on a scholarship. His batting talents are well documented in SP Foenander’s book on Ceylon Cricket: Sixty Years of Ceylon Cricket, Colombo, 1924 Likewise, Gilbert Roberts was a man of cricketing virtuosity. When I was visiting Panadura as a schoolboy he demonstrated some technical requirements to me. And then showed me how a batsman could [and should] glide a yorker on the toes to fine-leg … by spreading the legs and working the glide between the legs. I never tried that: that suggestion, that stroke was placed in the too-difficult basket in my thinking cap.

[4] These anecdotes are not concoctions: Gilbert did have a bike with a basket and often exercised on the beach at Panadura – inclusive of headstands. Later, when he moved to his daughter Marcia’s apartment in Bambalapitiya, his headstand exercises were pursued at Havelock Park.

[5] Gilbert Clyde Roberts passed away on 7 April 1981 ….. Herbert in January 2012 and Ryan on 23 March 2016.

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