Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 10 March 2013
The prevailing big match fervour raises the question: why is the quintessentially English game of cricket our de facto national sport? How did a one-time colonial and elitist pursuit evolve into a national obsession, a rare common denominator in a land that has so few?
Cricket didn’t achieve this status automatically (the game was played on the island from the early part of the 19th century). It wasn’t any politician’s diktat or some committee’s recommendation that took cricket beyond urban and English speaking sections of Lankan society.
It was the power of radio: broadcasts of cricket commentaries in Sinhala (and later, in Tamil).
In his 2003 feature film Ira Madiyama (August Sun), award winning filmmaker Prasanna Vithanage captured this unifying power of cricket. The story’s events take place on that heady day in March 1996 when Sri Lanka became cricket’s world champions.
Across the island, everybody cast aside their divisions and labels to follow live commentaries coming from Lahore, Pakistan. For a few hours, at least, our nation was one…
In fact, the ‘cultural revolution’ that democratised cricket in Sri Lanka was launched 33 years earlier, and we mark its 50th anniversary this month. It was the first ever ball-by-ball Sinhala radio commentary in March 1963 when Radio Ceylon covered the 34th annual Ananda-Nalanda cricket encounter played at the Colombo Oval (now P Saravanamuttu Stadium).
The young man who rose to the challenge was Palitha Perera, then 20. He had represented Nalanda College in cricket in 1961-2, and had recently joined Radio Ceylon. Assisting him in making history was Raghunath Weerasooriya, a science teacher at Ananda College.
Together, they pushed the limits of a new domain that had been opened up by broadcaster Karunaratne Abeysekera (1930 – 1983) three years earlier.
Cricket commentaries in English go back further. According to the Janashakthi Book of Sri Lanka Cricket (1832 – 1996) compiled by S S Perera, cricket first hit the airwaves in Ceylon in 1927 – just a couple of years after regular broadcasts commenced. In February that year, Colombo Radio relayed speeches made at a farewell dinner to the visiting MCC team at the Galle Face Hotel.
The country’s first radio cricket commentary was given in 1934 by the lawyer and cricketer F L Goonewardene during a match Ceylon played against the visiting Australians. By the 1950s, Radio Ceylon carried regular cricket commentaries of key big matches and international matches – but all in English.
Localising cricket commentaries started in 1960, when Karu Abeysekera began giving commentaries of the last hour of Ananda-Nalanda cricket encounters. But it was only in 1963 that ball-by-ball commentaries covered an entire match, from the first ball to the last.
Given the greenlight, Palitha had only a few days to find a co-commentator and come up with suitable Sinhala cricketing terms.
It helped that he had grown up listening to cricket commentaries on BBC World Service – he was an ardent fan of the legendary commentator John Arlott (1914 – 1991). But it wasn’t easy describing the game’s many technicalities, nuances and idiosyncrasies in Sinhala.
Standing on Karu’s shoulders, and occasionally advised by the Sinhala scholar Dr Vinnie Vitharana, Palitha coined many cricketing terms that have since come into wide use.“Karu was my guru in broadcasting, and I certainly benefited from his groundwork. But I can honestly claim to have originated more than 90% of Sinhala cricketing terms,” Palitha says in his 2008 book, Palitha Perera Samaga Sajeeva Lesin (Live with Palitha Perera; Surasa Books, Colombo).
The book – which covers this versatile broadcaster’s career in radio and TV across the spectrum of arts, culture, sports and politics – contains a firsthand account of how Sinhala cricket commentaries found its own place on the airwaves.
His bosses gave him a set of technical terms proposed by an expert committee, which proved to be completely unsuitable and quickly earned listeners’ ire. Discarding them, he devised his own cricketing vocabulary. Using these, he delivered commentaries in his eager, passionate style for the next half century.
It took time, effort and persistence for Sinhala commentaries to gain acceptance. During the early years, the station (now SLBC) and its pioneering Sinhala commentators endured mockery and ridicule, especially from English language newspapers.
The tide turned in the early 1970s, when even English-speaking Colombo schools sought Sinhala commentaries for their big matches. In 1971, Palitha invited and involved a witty school master turned banker named Premasara Epasinghe. Thus started one of the most memorable partnerships in our broadcast history.
In their wake, other Sinhala commentators emerged, bringing their own styles and rhythm. The first generation, which included the likes of Thilaka Sudharman de Silva, Amarabandu Rupasinghe, Michael Karunatilaka and Sirisoma Jayasinghe, has since been succeeded by many more.
A few, but not all, adapted to the different commentating needs on TV. Palitha once again pioneered, covering Sri Lanka’s maiden Test match against England in February 1982 for national TV Rupavahini.
Radio (and later TV) cricket commentaries take much of the credit for taking cricket to the grassroots and opening it up to the masses. The march of technology also helped: battery-powered transistor radios first came out in the late 1960s, just in time to enable cricket fans to follow commentaries anytime, anywhere.
Many current and past national players acknowledge being inspired by cricket commentaries of Palitha, Epa and their successors. Over the years, the composition of the national cricket team has changed, with more players hailing from the provinces.As Michael Roberts, the Lankan-Australian anthropologist and cricket historian, noted in Cricket and National Identity in the Postcolonial Age: Following On (edited by Stephen Wagg, Routledge, 2005): “These accounts [Sinhala commentaries] disseminated knowledge and interest in the game among many to whom it had been quite unfamiliar. What one sees here, therefore, is a ramifying effect of socio-political transformation of 1956 – so that its democratising effects only began to penetrate the cricket world some 10-15 years later…”
In his book, Palitha recalls the less frenzied times when big money had not yet arrived and cricket was played for sportsmanship and plain good fun. Achieving Test status in 1981, and winning the ICC Cricket World Cup 15 years later, changed that forever.
Read my book review: Palitha Perera: The man who refused to be His Master’s Voice
Having enthralled cricket fans for half a century, Palitha keeps on batting. Just last weekend, he was a guest commentator at the Ananda-Nalanda match. His voice is so closely associated with cricket that Prasanna Vithanage recorded it for his film – an apt salute to a living icon of popular culture.
Palitha is now one of the longest serving commentators in the world. According to him, only two others have been at it for longer: Anthony “Tony” Cozier of Barbados (commentating since 1958), and former Australian cricketer Richard “Richie” Benaud (since 1960).
Palitha is modest and grateful to all radio and TV channels that gave him access to the airwaves over the decades. “It’s been a partnership of their guns and my bullets — neither could work on their own,” he says.