By Emil van der Poorten
I have had some feedback subsequent to the recent piece I did on some exceptional athletes of the ’50s at Trinity, urging me to put more reminiscences on paper.
What I propose doing this week is to talk about the culture that Norman Walter, Principal of Trinity College, Kandy from 1952 to 1956 or 1957, created at “the best school of all.” This will not take the form of a recounting of the sporting achievements of those years – they were many and significant – but relate to the sports culture that this man established at TCK.
My introduction to N.S. Walter was in the living room of my home in Galagedera on, if I remember right, a December morning subsequent to a late night when I had been entertaining my friends at what was, for many years, an annual Christmas party my father, a single parent of a son on the cusp of his early teenage years, not only permitted but always helped make a success. It had been a late night by our standards (perhaps, midnight!) and I had slept late, only to be awakened by the sound of voices downstairs. I came down in my pyjamas, only to be greeted by the sight of, I think, Hilary Abeyratne (a very senior teacher) or Gordon Burrows (a co-Vice Principal), and an Englishman whom I didn’t recognise. They were in conversation with my father in the living room.
This constituted no small embarrassment for someone of my years, brought up, as we perhaps all were at the time, in a very conservative milieu. Anyway, after awkward introductions, I made myself scarce wondering what opinion would be held of me when I returned to school in the next term: rich, spoiled son of an indulgent father, perhaps?
I discovered that whatever Norman Walter’s first impression of me was, it didn’t colour his conduct towards me in the several years I was a student and he my principal. This is one of the traits that I recall of those important years in my life: a fairness and principled conduct where it was always example and not merely precept in the matter of conduct that was front and centre at all times.
I believe this was particularly so in the standards that were set and we were all expected to adhere to on the rugby field, the cricket pitch, the boxing ring or the track and field athletics arena.
Among what I remember to be the revolutionary changes affected was the fact that we were told that barracking the opposition at matches was simply a non-starter and there was to be nothing but acknowledgement of good play by both the opposition and our team, at all times. School uniform – white longs or blue shorts and white shirt – were to be worn at school events, to school and in public. This, in practical terms, meant we could only wear anything else in the privacy of our homes!
I tried to persuade my father to speak to the Principal about the impracticality of wearing white longs to sit on the dusty ground at Asgiriya, but to no avail. I don’t think my dad made representations on my behalf even though I tried to give him the impression that the whole school was behind me on this one, believing it to be of earth-shaking significance!
During Walter’s tenure came the very, very controversial decision to suspend the fixture against St. Anthony’s College, Katugastota because that school would not fall in line with the age restriction that had been adhered to by every other school against whom our Ist XI played. I don’t know for how many years this match was not played, but it was a very long time. While most of the students supported our school administration’s decision, many of us missed the “Big Match” which was an integral part of our school’s sports history and tradition.
Insofar as participation in sports, I don’t know whether any school at any time followed the regimen that Norman Walter introduced at Trinity. Every single student had to take part in whatever sports activity was being conducted at any given time of the year unless they could produce a medical certificate to prove that they should not for health reasons. The students were organised by class, if memory serves me right, and we went to Asgiriya to participate in cricket, rugby, track and field athletics, hockey etc. There were no exceptions except for medical reasons.
During the inter-house (track and field) athletics competition, every student was expected to participate in at least one event. Those who either didn’t qualify to run, jump, putt the shot, throw the javelin or vault, had to participate in the House Race which was once round the old Asgiriya ground – 400 metres or thereabouts. The first and last of each house team was clocked, the times averaged and a team was declared the winner and garnered a very significant points score, far in excess of that awarded for victory in an individual event or a relay race.
We were expected to be sportsmen in every sense of the word, at all times. No exceptions. I remember one particularly dramatic incident during an inter-school cricket match. We had, probably, the best spin bowler in schools cricket on our team. This chap, while he possessed exceptional skills wasn’t noted for his mental acumen. During this particular match our friend, no longer among the living today, shortly after he’d completed a bowling spell claimed to be hurt and returned to the pavilion. A substitute went in to field and our champion spinner was warned by the coach (who shall also remain anonymous, particularly since he is still alive!) not to bowl at any cost when he felt well enough to return to the field. Our friend, however, couldn’t resist the temptation and persuaded his captain to give him the leather with which he proceeded to wreak havoc on the opposition.
I don’t recall the final result of the match, but I do recall our bowling friend, returning in what he thought would be triumph to the pavilion. He was met halfway out on the pitch by an irate coach who proceeded to administer a stinging slap to his face in front of the teams and spectators! A dramatic end to an innings, perhaps, but something that epitomised what Trinity sport stood for in the Walter years.
As much as I chafed at what I saw as the regimentation that Norman Walter brought to Trinity in the final years before Bandaranaike and Sinhala Only, and which I characterised as some form of neo-colonialism at the time, I can only look back with the greatest regard to a regime that placed the highest priority on honourable, principled and ethical behaviour at all times, without recourse to the escape hatch of “pragmatism” or any avoidance of that nature being an option.
It mattered not whether you won or lost, it was how you played the game.