Cricket has always been Sri Lanka’s favourite reason for celebration.
More importantly, it is something that we all believe in celebrating as one nation. When it comes to cricket, it has always been all of Sri Lanka against the world. All disputes and differences are kept aside as everyone comes together to support the boys in blue as they enter the field to defend the country we all love.
Among the many traditions aligned with Sri Lankan cricket, the big match season is one that has stood the test of time. It has lasted for over a hundred years, with passionate youngsters taking on the field to play the game they love. The big match encounter between Royal College and St. Thomas’ College is hailed as the longest standing uninterrupted cricket rivalry in the entire world. It was first played in the era during which Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon and was under the rule of the British Empire. Since then, the event has taken place every year. Only the encounter between Britain’s Eton and Harrow schools has stood for a longer period of time, however, it has been interrupted (as many Royalists and Thomians like to brag) for many years due to the war.
Put simply, a big match is an exclusive tournament played between two schools which are closely associated. The encounters are defined as ‘battles’ and christened with names that define the nature of the relationship between the two schools.
Battle of the Blues – since 1879
Battle of the Saints – since 1933
Battle of the Golds – since 1933
Battle of the Maroons – since 1924
Lover’s Quarrel – since 1905
Battle of the Brothers – since 1964
And the list goes on to cover over 30 different battles played across Sri Lanka.
In the recent past, big matches have transformed into commercial events that are followed not just by school boys and past pupils, but also by major brands and media entities in the country. This has also led to increased visibility and public involvement. People have started analyzing various components of the event and now treat the arrival of the season as an opportunity to voice their opinion on various social matters– from nurturing school spirit, to sexim, to traffic violations, underage drinking, and the list goes on.
However, as the concept of the big match evolved throughout the years, most people have failed to recognise the true purpose it serves.
Are big matches really about cycle parades and papare bands? What does it really mean to those who work tirelessly to be a part of the team? And how about those who wait all year long for a much-needed reunion amongst their school friends?
What does it mean to be a part of the team?
For a young man representing his school at the big match, there is no better place to be. The preparation for the season starts in September and extends over 7 months until the actual event commences around the months of March and April the following year.
The immense pride and responsibility they feel towards their school as they take the pitch amidst roaring crowds is unmatched. All the early mornings and long nights spent perfecting techniques and supporting their fellow teammates become distant yet sweet memories when they get the game-changing wicket or score their first half century.
“It’s a pressure-filled game and I enjoyed every second of it. The feeling when lifting the trophy is unexplainable. However, staying calm and focused amidst the noise and excitement is key for every player”, says Dinuk Wickrmanayakae, a former player of Trinty College Kandy.
“It’s the ultimate goal of a school cricketer”, says Jeson Buultjens, a former player of St. Peters College Colombo.
“It was a proud moment”, says Rasith, a former player of Ananda College.
At the end of the day, regardless of how sweet or bitter the final digits on the scoreboard are, the teams learn to walk away with a sense of fulfilment – staying true to the purpose of the game.
Even though the flags, parades and celebrations are a big part of the big match, the real reason for its existence is very simple. Big matches were first played as a way of strengthening relationships between two schools. It was never meant to be a competition but a friendly encounter between two teams. It was a remarkable accomplishment to represent the first eleven squad at the big match, simply because it was the biggest event of the school, not because it was a chance to beat a fellow team.
However, all the hard work the young cricketers put in for months isn’t merely spent on a celebration of brotherhood. Big matches also allow them to be recognised and appreciated, or even to be picked up by a club which would further enrich their cricketing career.
Big matches were never meant to be an excuse for disagreement, violence or arrogance, but an opportunity for happiness and celebration.
What does it mean to others?
Sri Lanka as a nation has always enjoyed watching a game of cricket. Without the energy the spectators bring into the stadiums, matches wouldn’t be half as eventful.
Old boys reuniting, proud parents cheering for their sons on the field, school boys making the best use of the few extra holidays they get… the atmosphere at a big match is always positive and uplifting.
The game means as much to the spectators as it does to the players. While a total of twenty-two players would talk about how they played for the big match of 2017, thousands of people will talk about how they were at the big match of 2017. They will speak of the nail biting, heart clenching moments that they experienced and of the high fives and embraces they shared with their friends as their team went on to become victorious. And if the match was a draw? Well, nothing lost. At least they got to enjoy the weekend with their friends. After all, Sri Lankans are world renowned for their ‘win or lose, every match is a party’ attitude at cricket matches.
“During my school days and even after leaving, the big match was and still is the place where everyone comes together. Not only the Royalists but the Thomians as well. I haven’t witnessed unity like this in any other sporting event. I agree that sometimes we do exchange harsh words and sometimes a bit more than that, but at the end of the day we only take the memories back home and return the next year to make new ones,” said Avishka Ariyaratne former student of Royal College.
Boys just being boys
While a lot of aspects about the big match deserve to be appreciated, it’s almost impossible not to notice its negative attributes. Cycle parades, for instance, are loved by its participants. However, they have the tendency to create a lot of chaos on the roads like any other public demonstration. Similarly, the physical conflicts stemming from unhealthy competition between schools has tarnished the beauty of the game. Traditions such as sneaking into girls schools can be interpreted as actions that give young men a wrongful sense of entitlement that further promotes the patriarchal culture that is predominant in Sri Lanka. These lesser appreciated traditions are most often claimed to be a part of the whole big match experience and justified as “boys just being boys”.
Granted, these are all extremely valid concerns, and hopefully, the respective authorities will look into these issues so that the true spirit of these events aren’t called into question.
At the end of the day, despite its few shortcomings, big matches will always be very close to the hearts of many people.
They will be embraced as the greatest teachers of patience, endurance, and acceptance and celebrated as a testament to peace, loyalty and the greatest form of alliance.
While inviting everyone to enjoy the upcoming season with the true spirit of cricket in mind, Save Your Monkey takes this opportunity to wish every team the best of luck for a memorable experience.