A very special venue

It was here that the first-ever Test was held in Sri Lanka, in 1982 against England. It was here that the island nation notched up its first Test win when it beat India in 1985. And, recently, it added another commemorative plaque when it saw one of Lanka’s favourite sons, Kumar Sangakkara, retire.

A general view of the Tamil Union Cricket & Athletic Club.   -  N. SUDARSHAN

Sir Don Bradman walking out for toss with M. Sathasivam in 1948 is frozen in the form of a big portrait in the club bar.   -  N. SUDARSHAN

In Sri Lankan cricketing folklore, the Tamil Union Cricket & Athletic Club occupies a position of pride. No other venue, other than the P. Sara Oval Stadium it houses, is more synonymous with its history, origins, struggles and triumphs.

It was here that the first-ever Test was held in Sri Lanka, in 1982 against England. It was here that the island nation notched up its first Test win when it beat India in 1985. And, recently, it added another commemorative plaque when it saw one of Lanka’s favourite sons, Kumar Sangakkara, retire.

“It is just apt that we bid farewell to such a great cricketer at this ground.” said Chandra (C.T.A.) Schaffter, who captained the club in 1960-61 and was team manager when Sri Lanka first toured India in 1982-83. “It was because of this ground that Sri Lankan cricket got Test status. For 40 years, we were the only stadium to host cricket here.”

The origin of the club is somewhat similar to that of the ‘Bombay Pentangular’ which was held in India from the early 1900s to mid 1950s where teams were divided into Hindus, Muslims, Parsees et al.

“There were Sinhala and Burgher [Christian] Union, Malay Sports,” said Dileepa Wickremasinghe, former club captain and current ground secretary. “On those lines Tamil Union was formed.”

“The club was established in 1899,” said Suresh Murugaser, Hon. Vice-President and Chairman Cricket. “Every touring team, either from India or England on way to Australia and vice-versa, used to come here.

“It would generally be a one-day game. The boat used to come early in the morning and leave in the night. We had the Ceylon Cricket Association then. At that time P. Saravanamuttu, who built this, was the chairman of the cricket board.”

In 1945 the club welcomed the legendary Australian Keith Miller. Three years later the greatest of them all, Sir Donald Bradman, set foot. The latter walking out for toss with M. Sathasivam — described by Sir Garfield Sobers as the greatest batsman he had ever seen — is frozen in the form of a big portrait in the club bar.

While all of these point to its glorious history, the struggles have been plenty, mainly because of the country’s geopolitics.

“This country has gone through all phases; of racism, terror and all that,” said Murugaser. “And we, the Tamil Union, seemed to bear the brunt of it. But we are proud to say we have always come out of it one way or the other.”

When the government was first granting land, the Sinhalese Sports Club, the Nondescripts Cricket Club, Ceylon Cricket Club were all granted prime land in Colombo. The Tamil Union got a marshland. Then, when the anti-Tamil riots broke out in July 1983, the whole place was burnt down. Yet, three years later, it rose from the ashes and hosted a Test. There was also a period between 1994 and 2002, when the club didn’t host a single Test. The stain of politics was stark then too.

At its inception, the club was a haven for everything Tamil. “In the 1960s and 1970s the cricketers were all Tamil,” said Wickremasinghe. “At the time of Murali [Muttiah Muralitharan] 90 per cent were Sinhalese.” Today the side doesn’t have a single Tamil or a Muslim amongst its ranks [the senior team].

Asked if this pointed to a reintegration of sorts after a period of bloody civil war which threatened to divide the island on ethnic lines, Murugaser said it was a moot point.

“That was a conscious decision made in the late 1970s,” he said. “Our selection committee sent out scouts and started picking cricketers from the big colleges in Galle. In the North, cricket had not reached that level. We used to have cricketers from Jaffna. But for them, once the trouble started in the 1970s and 1980s, cricket was not a priority. The schools were good, but sport was neglected.”

“This is how we got Upul Chandana, Pramodaya Wickremasinghe, Chandika Hathurusingha [current Bangladesh coach] to all come and play here.”

The situation seems to be prevailing even now. “The Tamil parents are now pushing their children into studies,” said Murugaser. “With the situation improving and them finding better economic opportunities, cricket isn’t very appealing. Even at the school level you don’t have any Tamil boys playing sports. Hopefully it will change.”

Cricket in Sri Lanka has now expanded beyond the traditional centres of Kandy and Colombo. Though the clubs in the capital city still hold a position of prominence, cricketers are springing up from diverse backgrounds.

“The one whom I like to talk about is Suranga Lakmal,” said Murugaser. “He was spotted by Champaka Ramanayake, the current Sri Lanka fast bowling coach, who used to play for us. He is the son of a slash-and-burn cultivator. He played here and is now an international.”

The club currently has eight such internationals and is nurturing many more. It seems to have regained the pride of place that was once its own. Yet, the longing for the next great Tamil cricketer is visible.

“Personally, I would want them. We now have two very promising under-23 players who captained the best known Colombo school cricket teams. At least one of them is going to make it to the highest level.”