Meet the pioneers of Sri Lanka women’s cricket in Centenary year | Sunday Observer

Meet the pioneers of Sri Lanka women’s cricket in Centenary year

16 July, 2023
Leila Abeykoon-Beverley Roberts
Leila Abeykoon-Beverley Roberts

Long before the island enlisted foreign coaches, a woman from the West Indies, CG Roberts, settled in Panadura to teach English literature and coach:

Pioneered by St. John’s College Panadura in 1923, women’s cricket in Sri Lanka has a rich history. They were coached by GC Roberts, a skilled cricketer who had previously been a member of the West Indies (Barbados) cricket squad in the late 1910s. Roberts moved to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in the early 1920s and settled in Panadura, where he joined St. John’s schools as an English literature teacher and cricket coach.

During this time, there were no girls’ schools in Sri Lanka that had ever considered playing cricket, making it difficult to form a team for friendly matches. However, in 1933, a significant milestone was achieved when a match was organized between St. John’s College and St. John’s Girls’ School. This historic match, which took place on July 12, 1933, on the Panadura esplanade, marked the first-ever women’s cricket match played on the island’s soil. Notably, this date coincided with the founder’s day celebration, adding to the significance of the occasion. The encounter between the two St. John’s teams became an annual event, solidifying the foundation of women’s cricket in Sri Lanka.

Three Panadura girls in first team vs England 1948

Since then, women’s cricket in Sri Lanka has steadily grown, with the national team making its international debut in 1948 against the visiting MCC (England) team. Over the years, the Sri Lankan women’s cricket team has achieved remarkable milestones and faced numerous challenges. One standout moment came when Chamari Atapattu led the team to a historic victory over the powerful New Zealand side, further elevating the stature of women’s cricket in Sri Lanka.

The journey of women’s cricket in Sri Lanka is a testament to the passion, dedication and perseverance of those involved, from the pioneers of St. John’s College Panadura in 1923 to the talented players who continue to represent the country at the highest level.

Several other girls’ schools from Colombo joined women’s cricket a decade or so later, further expanding the sport’s reach and popularity among Sri Lankan women.

Chamari Atapattu, a star player from Sri Lanka, made history by becoming the number one batter in the women’s ODI batting ICC rankings, joining Sanath Jayasuriya (men’s ranking) as the only two Sri Lankans to achieve this prestigious spot in the history of the rankings. In a spectacular batting display, Chamari led the team to a comprehensive victory in the ICC Women’s Championship series. Currently, Sri Lanka is in a favourable position with ten points, just behind first-placed India, who have 12 points.

When the MCC announced English women’s Australian tour in 1948, the usual stopover en route to Australia was an opportunity for the CCA to grab. By then a few ‘big girls’ schools in Colombo were already playing cricket. However, trials held proved that the Panadura girls were far superior in both talent and experience. During the first ever International match that was played against England in 1948, three players from St. John’s Panadura, namely Beverly Roberts (daughter of GC Robert), Leila Abeykoon and Phyllis de Silva (an aunt of Duleep Mendis), made an impression with their performances. Despite being defeated, the Sri Lankan women’s team earned praise from both the spectators and the English visitors for their commendable efforts. Leila Abeykoon’s wicket-keeping skills, batting technique and defensive play were especially appreciated.

On November 2, 1948, the Ceylon Times published the headline: “Ceylon team goes down fighting.” The article described a remarkable catch by Beverly Roberts to end the innings of centurion Hide. The catch was hailed as one that any first-class cricketer would have been proud to take, as Roberts made a brilliant one-handed effort above her head.

Similarly, the Ceylon Observer, on the same day, acknowledged that although Ceylon’s women cricketers were decisively beaten, as expected, they left a lasting impression on the large crowd that witnessed their match against the English women’s team at the Colombo Oval (Sara Stadium). The visitors were amazed to learn that the Ceylon team had practiced together for less than two months.

Leila Abeykoon (wicket-keeper), the sole surviving member of the 1948 team is 97 years old and lives in Kandy. Her exceptional wicket-keeping skills, combined with her precise batting technique and strong defensive play, garnered praise from the visiting team. Despite the defeat, the performance of the Ceylon women’s cricketers was remarkable and earned the respect of both spectators and the opposition.

In a year 2000 interview with Premasara, she reflected on her cricket journey, expressing gratitude for her parents’ unwavering support and encouragement in her involvement in sports, particularly cricket. She also shared her joy and excitement upon learning of her selection to represent Ceylon in 1948, alongside two other Johnians, Phyllis and Beverley. --‘Sports’ by Premasara Epasinghe- The Sunday Observer- June 25, 2000.

Gilbert Clyde Roberts (who taught English Literature to this writer in form II in 1955) and the man who introduced women’s cricket to Sri Lanka hundred years ago migrated to down under in the 1970s. He passed away on April 7, 1981.

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