By Rohan Wijesinghe
His hand upon his precious heart, Derrick De Saram did what he thought was best for Royal College, Sinhalese Sports Club and his Country. As folklore has it he was arguably the most opinionated Royalist to have drawn breath. His characteristically colourful and robust language delighted his acquaintances and no doubt made Mother blush. Royalists in particular had more than a sneaking affection for the outrageous Colonel. His rather aristocratic carriage nonetheless may have conveyed an image of blunt arrogance to those who didn’t know him too intimately. More than a few cringed, even at the very sight of his roofless beach buggy, as it traversed the leafy lanes of Reid Avenue.
A SELF MADE CRICKETER
Frederick Cecil De Saram was not born a genius at cricket but very much a scion of an incomparable sporting dynasty. His two uncles Shelton and Douglas besides his Dad Freddie, all wore the Ceylon cap with much distinction at cricket. A proud and principled man, replete with a wry sense of humor, hardly ever pulling his punches, parading an utterly imperial approach to life. Another priceless gem in the long and distinguished tradition of Royal College.
BRILLIANCE AT SCHOOL
Schoolboy scorebooks bursting with his runs and deeds, Derrick went on to skipper Royal College in the year 1930. De Saram signed off at school as their head prefect besides having captained them at tennis, rugby and football as well. Batting was his forte. The moment he parked his bat at middle and leg, he looked certain to score runs. He would push into the covers, up until the anxiety racked first hour was behind him. The maestro would then climb into top gear so majestically, unraveling his bouquet of champagne shots on the leg side, silky on drives, picket crushing pulls, chic glides and his characteristic whip off his hips past square. He always batted well behind his chin and chest, so fearless against searing pace. As the sun baked the pitch, his crisp, concise, compact footwork would come into play against spin, as the strip took turn.
BRILLIANCE IN ENGLAND
Following the passage to prosperity aboard the vessel S S Arnhem, Derrick sailed to England, dropping anchor at the immaculately manicured ‘Parks’ at Oxford in hot pursuit of his twin passions, cricket and the study of law. He was quick to pick up the threads of first class cricket, Greeting Woodfull’s Aussies of 1934 with a brilliant 128 runs, 98 of those coming in boundaries. For good measure he notched a lovely 208 against Gloucestershire. In the big ‘Varsity’ game against Cambridge University he scored 80 and 22, and it is said that a gate of 10000 stood to him, as he walked back to his dugout. An exciting English cricketing future beckoned him. MCC invited him to tour the West Indies in 1934/35 under Bob Wyatt which offer he had to reluctantly decline due to pressure of examinations looming in the horizon. For Hertfordshire in the minor counties that year, he scored 904 runs in 12 innings averaging 90.40 with 182 as his highest score. At this point of time he was awarded the coveted Oxford Blue in cricket and tennis and a half blue in golf. That De Saram was brilliant at Billiards is a little known fact.
On his return to Ceylon in 1937 he scored 1190 runs for Sinhalese Sports Club with 5 tons and carved a torrent of runs in the Gopalan Trophy against stiff South Indian opposition. For the record Derrick scored 63 tons in club cricket as against Sargo Jayawikremes 58 tons and Sathasivams 45 centuries, if one were looking for yardsticks. Fielding was his sore point as he gawkily goose stepped around the field to retrieve balls. Subsequently he paved his way to brilliance at slip, having slaved away for hours on the slip cradle. Derrick wore the Ceylon cap with immense pride in the years 1949 to 1954. Against the Pakistani Test side Derrick unveiled a splendid 118 in 1943, following his stubborn 90 against New Zealand in 1937. With Tyson, Statham and Loader snarling off the grassy Oval surface, Derrick made a defiant 43, the year being 1953.He notched up a fine 94 against the West Indies in 1950 as well.
In 1947 he bucked the trend by boycotting C K Nayudu’s Ranji Trophy holders Holkar, playing pied piper to a star studded retinue to shun the games; the line up consisting of Gerry Gooneratne, Sargo Jayawickreme, Ben Navaratne, Bertie Wijesinghe, and C I Gunasekere; the bone of contention being the country’s captaincy, the tussle for the leadership between the two mavericks De Saram and Sathasivam. There emerged in F C de Saram, as must emerge in all great leaders a certain quantum of steel, conceit, and self centering. The legend had the requisites in just the required quantities. A man of firm conviction, he captained with loads of imagination, against the heaviest of odds and must be saluted for that.
AWARDED THE OBE
The Sandhurst trained colonel proved his mettle in the army as well. As the officer Commanding the Artillery Garrison the Colonel resisted the Japanese fighter planes that were hell bent on blasting Colombo in the year 1942, for which gallantry he was awarded the OBE, in 1950.
I can well imagine the crusty Colonel firing his missiles and bawdy expletives at the hapless japs.
The maverick Derrick surfaced from his bunker in 1962 to mastermind a militarily conspired coup against the incumbent Sirimavo Bandaranaike government which ended in abject failure. De Saram was found guilty by the Supreme Court following a lengthy trial, and the grim judgment was so thankfully overturned by the Privy Council of Britain on an appeal.
HELD SWAY AT THE BOARD
The Colonel colored our committee rooms with his boundless energy and incomparable expertise, bearing the mantle of Honorary Secretary of the Ceylon Cricket Association from 1953 to 1956 and served for many years in the Board of Control for Cricket, supposedly denting a few egos as can be imagined, exercising something like a military sway over the proceedings.
Traversing and criss crossing the length and breadth of this land in his beach buggy, preaching his gospel on cricket, the great man gave so much of himself and asked for so little in return. As with so many of our past greats our appreciation of the Colonel has been terribly tardy at best. He coached Royal from time immemorial, whence so many honours came to roost at Reid Avenue on the wings of his precious produce, Prasanna Kariyawasam, the Pasquals Ajita and Sudath, Ashok Jayawickreme, Rohan Jayasekere, Asitha Jayaweera, Ranjan Madugalle, and Rochana Jayawardene amongst so many others. School boy batsmen had to play utterly straight. I remember a torrid time at the Torrington nets at a coaching clinic of sorts, when he crept behind my back and held my bat on its downswing from third slip. The ball swung in, crashing into my abdominal protector denting all three; my ego, my dignity and my manhood. Quite Apart from playing straight I couldn’t straighten my school tie for many a day.
The cricketer, administrator, selector, coach and lawyer par excellence retired from the game in 1960 having devoted well nigh 50 years towards this passionate pursuit of his. At 65 years of age it had been a marathon spell and twas time to take the sweater. The Grand Old Man of our cricket passed away peacefully on the 11th of april 1983, rolling away to infinity having contributed so infinitely to the renaissance of Sri Lankan cricket.
The writer is a former Josephian, BRC, NCC and Sri Lanka Under 19 Opener and now a Cricket historian