When the Sri Lankan cricket team arrived in South Africa before their tour of the country, Proteas batsman AB de Villiers admitted that he “hardly recognised half of their team”.
In contrast to the popular recognition accorded such high-profile cricketing visitors as India and Australia, few are anywhere near as familiar with our current cricketing visitors.
Indeed, it has been five years since South Africa last played a Test against Sri Lanka and eight years since they last played them in a Test in this country.
Coupled with this, the enigmatic Sri Lankans – who are capable of beating any side on their best day – are expected to field a number of new players in a team veteran batsman Kumar Sangakkara describes as being “in transition”.
However despite the lack of familiarity between the two sides the history between both cricket-mad countries goes back further than most people might realise.
While both nations have faced each other in 14 Test matches and 46 One Day Internationals since 1992, a little known fixture took place more than a century ago.
In 1901 South Africa was in the midst of a bitter war for its territories – yet cricket was still being played. Indeed, while the 1901 “official” South African side was touring the cricket fields of England, another, and in many ways more historic, contest was taking place.
On July 5 and 6, 1901, a match took place between a team of Boer prisoners of war from Diyatalawa in Sri Lanka (known then as Ceylon) and a local team – the Colombo Colts. This sporting challenge, made even more historic by its being played out during the South African War, was the idea of J Heyzer, one of the prominent members of the Colombo Colts Cricket Club. Despite resistance from some people in the community who were upset about a cricket match against prisoners of war, permission was received from the authorities and the game was played at the ground of the Nondescript Cricket Club in Victoria Park in Ceylon.
In total 27 000 Boers were captured during the South African War and 24 000 of them were sent to prisoner-of-war camps abroad in the British enclaves of St Helena, Ceylon, India and Bermuda. Sport came as a natural deliverance from the adversity of the camps and it was during this period that a large percentage of the Boer prisoners were introduced to British sports, such as cricket, for the first time.
Some prisoners, of course, were already capable cricketers, having played the game at a high level at clubs back in South Africa. Most notably PH de Villiers, who had played representative matches against the first three English sides to tour South Africa, and G Sennett, the Orange Free State wicketkeeper. De Villiers, had circumstances been different, would most likely have toured England with the 1901 team instead of being incarcerated in Ceylon. C Otto, another prisoner of war, was a member of the Jamestown Cricket Club and later also played for the City and Suburban Club in Johannesburg.
The Boers, who were given special parole for this particular match, had already established a cricket club at Diyatalawa with a healthy membership of more than 70. The management of the Colts granted 600 Rix-dollars to prepare for all the spectators who were expected. Apart from the four temporary stands that were erected, a special seating area was decorated with plants from the nursery of PD Siebel for the Governor of Ceylon, Sir West Ridgway. Accommodation was provided for the players in the form of a marquee while a private bar provided refreshments of “excellent quality”.
For the duration of the match the Boers travelled to Victoria Park every day from their prisoner of war camp at Mt Lavinia.
An enthusiastic crowd witnessed how PH de Villiers, the captain of the Boers, won the toss and decided to send the Colts in to bat first. The Colts were bowled out for 146 runs.
C Otto took 7 wickets for 50 runs, while CE Perera scored 90 runs for the Colts – including 4 sixes and 8 fours!
The congenial spirit continued as the Boers enjoyed lunch at the Galle Face Hotel as guests of the Colts, after which the match resumed. The Boers’ lack of experience however was evident in their first innings when they could only muster 53, of which P du Plessis scored 25. At the end of the first day the Colts were already standing at 71 for 6 and they decided to continue the match on the 6th.
After lunch the next day, the teams reappeared where, according to the local newspaper, “the reception accorded to the Boers was of the most cordial description”.
It appears that the prisoners, who may have expected a chilly reception before the start, had during the game won favour with the crowd – both European and Ceylonese.
At 3pm the Colts were all out for 114 runs and the Boers needed 207 runs to win the match. The Boers however, scored only 66 runs and the Colts won by 141 runs. The leading run scorer was G Kotzé with 13.
The Ceylon Independent had the following to say about the match: “The Boers can bowl and the Boers can field and they are by no means indifferent performers with the knife and fork, but at batting, well, one must defer final judgement upon this delicate point until the return match which we hope to see, Governor permitting, played in Diyatawala before many weeks are past.”
There was, however, no return match. Within months the Boer prisoners of war were on their way back to South Africa and the chance to avenge their defeat gone forever.
Perhaps, then, old scores can be settled as the Proteas host the Sri Lankans over the coming weeks.
Certainly if the matches are played with the same passion as this little-known yet significant fixture in July 1901 then we should all be in for an entertaining series.
* Allen is a senior lecturer at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. He has lectured at universities in the UK, Ireland and Australia, and has written extensively on cricket history.
His book, Logan of Matjiesfontein: Cricket, War and Empire in South Africa, will be published next year.