P. Sara Oval oozes history and tradition

Avishek Roy

Colombo, March 28 (IANS) Stepping into the P. Saravanamuttu Oval is to immerse oneself into Sri Lanka's cricketing history. The quaint backdrop of the small ground only adds to its aura.

Better known as the P. Sara Oval, it has been the nursery of Sri Lankan cricket and many well-known cricketers have played here, including the great Donald Bradman in 1948.

A picture of Bradman walking in to bat during the match between Australia and the All Ceylon XI, and another in which he is out in the middle for the toss with Mahadevan Sathasivam, adorn the 'Oval Traverners' which has all the memorabilia of yesteryears.

Sathasivam is regarded as one of the greatest batsmen ever to step on to a cricket field in this part of the world. Old-timers who have seen him bat insist that the world would have admired his batting if only Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was known then, had been part of the international cricket community.

West Indian greats Garfield Sobers and Frank Worrel have hailed him as a great batsman. He played between the 1940s and 1960s and later turned out for Singapore and Malaysia.

Bradman, who never toured South Africa, India, New Zealand or the West Indies, played in Sri Lanka twice.

From 1884 to 1981, Australian teams travelling to England used to take a break and play a match against Ceylon in Colombo.

In fact, Sri Lanka's first Test against England was played here in 1982 and though they lost by seven wickets, the team did enough to hold their heads high. Three years later, they gained their first Test victory, beating India in 1985.

The nicely-maintained ground, named after the first president of the Sri Lankan cricket board, is home to the Tamil Union Cricket and Athletic Club. With stands on one side and grass banks on the other, it can seat 7,000 spectators.

The stands are in the names of some of the Sri Lankan greats like Sathasivam and Sathi Coomaraswamy.

It still hosts Test matches and the last one was when India played Sri Lanka in 2010. But the international matches have been few and far between.

'It is a 110-year old club. It used to be the venue for most Sri Lankan matches until the past two decades or so before new stadiums came up,' club chairman Prakash Schaffter told IANS.

'We have revamped the ground. We have a sports complex with badminton and squash courts and a swimming pool. We have done all this for our members.

'But we need to upgrade it more to international specifications and the Sri Lankan Cricket Board has to pitch in with more funds,' he said.

A steady stream of players have learnt their cricket here and gone on to represent Sri Lanka. The name of spin king Muttiah Muralitharan among the present players stands out.

'We have three players in the current World Cup squad - Muralitharan, Tillakaratne Dilshan and Rangana Herath. We are proud of their achievements,' Schaffter said.

One of the high points of the ground has been the fast and bouncy pitch that foreign players have liked.

'Keith Miller once said that he would like to roll up the surface and take it with him,' said Schaffter.

'The Tests played here were all highly competitive. Even the last Test between India and Sri Lanka had lots of twists and turns,' he added.

(Avishek Roy can be contacted at avishek.r@ians.in)