Have you ever been to Gunnepane, near Kandy, on the Sinhalese New Year Day ? If not make a note of it in your 195o diary. (I’ll try and meet you there, if possible).
On that day for about the last thirty years there has been an annual cricket match between Gunnepane and Amunugama, villages in Dumbara, which adjoin each other.
The match, which is a local Derby, attended by the total populations of both villages, begins early in the morning, and, although it is a two innings’ game, played under the authorised laws of cricket, it is always brought to a definite decision by nightfall, which is more than can be said for a good many four or five day Test Matches. There has never been a draw yet!
This game stirs up locally all the public excitement associated with Test cricket. But, as there is room on the ground for all the three hundred or more partisans who flock to cheer on their champions, there is no need for them to rise before dawn to queue, as did so many of my friends in England, in 1948, for the England-Australia Tests.
The grandstands are more or less limitless at Gunnepane, for they consist of the terraced rice fields, recently harvested. So men, women and children spread themselves on their home-made grass mats in comfort, as they chat, eat, drink and watch the game.
There is one secret of their craft into which no professional groundsman in the world has been initiated: how to prepare a paddy field wicket!
Some weeks before the match the pitch is measured and the stubble removed. This, of course, leaves pits in the ground, which have to be filled with earth. After this two or three " light rollers" are brought on for several hours each.
These "rollers" consist of small boys squatting on the large, (fifteen by about forty inches) tough leaves of the arecanut tree, which are pulled along the pitch by men, who haul the leaves by their stems.
So is a shirt-front wicket perfected for the many practice matches which arc eventually followed by the grandest game of the season.
Just as in stately Canterbury there is a band during the annual Cricket Festival, which plays soft, sweet airs even during play—what an accompaniment this used to make to the graceful poetry of the cricket while Frank Woolley was at the wickets — so there is also an accompaniment to the rhythm of bat and ball at Gunnepane.
Not everyone near Dumbara aspires to the heights of becoming a cricketer. There are other local arts.
Fifteen stalwarts bring their udakkis to the ground, and the rhythm of their drums rolls across the field of play from its start to finish.
There is never any need to barrack during this New Year fixture, for the play is fast and furious. A lofty six, a hat-trick, a fine return to the wicket-keeper or a brilliant catch brings forth from these drummers a tribute worthy of the feat.
It is said, by those who understand both, the art of drumming and that of cricket, that these udakki beaters are able to render a sensitive musical running commentary on the play!
What an ear-splitting roll of the drums greets the opening pair as they walk to the wicket in their sarongs! It is more or less accepted that trousers are tabu in this holiday fixture which is essentially an expression of village communal life, though, of late, shorts though very rare, have not been altogether unknown.
We notice that the batsmen carry bats made by the village bass from jak or sapu wood. The umpires have erected stumps of areca wood and capped them with bails of similar material. The bass has made a good job of these, too.
The first ball is delivered by a youngster who has clearly mastered the art of spinning a tennis ball. We are surprised what tricks he makes it do and how he manages to keep it stump-high by administering top-spin.
Unskilled bowlers of a tennis ball are usually unable to prevent its bouncing so high that all that the batsman has to do to preserve his wicket is to leave it alone.
Than which nothing more certainly kills a game in no time.
However, there is no thought of playing for safety here. The bowler attacks the wicket and, as a result, the batsman attacks the ball, which is the essence of cricket.
The fielders are on different levels. Cover-point is three terraces higher than square leg, which makes a crack through the covers or a square or late cut all along the carpet a bit of a difficulty, until the fielders change round at the end of the over, when the position is reversed.
No one makes any attempt to take advantage of his sarong in the field. It is well known that catches taken in that way will be disallowed by the umpires.
During the luncheon interval while the players enjoy a repast of rice and curry so plentiful, one would have thought, as to have put cricket out of the question for the rest of the day, the spectators unpack the oil cakes they have brought with them. Huge clusters of plantains, cut straight from the tree, are everywhere and much toddy is drunk. It is a rare feast and, indeed, once it has started it never seems to languish for the rest of the day!
The game usually ends, amidst enthusiastic cheers all round, just before dusk; though on several occasions, when the ball prematurely triumphed over the bat, it ended earlier, and a scratch game had hurriedly to be arranged to fill up time.
But all good things must come to an end, (although it is one of the beauties of cricket that it furnishes such splendid material for conversation for years afterwards), and just before sunset stumps are drawn for another year, and the villagers make their way homewards. They fall into procession, the drummers leading the way, while men, women and children alike chant local kavi songs.