05 September 2015

Sampath Agalawatte and his Merry Men of '84

Sampath Agalawatte was always a hero to me.  I first saw him when I was 11 years old.  He was, at the time, the unnamed leader of the cricket team of that class. 'Class' as in the entire 6th grade of Royal College, 1976.  He played junior cricket and had he continued he would probably have kept wickets for Royal.  He opted to play rugby instead.  And basketball.  He turns 50 on September 7.  The 'big party' was at the CR&FC on Friday, September 4.  The following is an article published in 'The Island', June 10, 2011.

Big Match time is about recollection as far as old boys are concerned. This is true for cricket and true for other sports too. I’ve always preferred rugby to cricket and chess to both those sports. It’s Bradby time now and therefore my thoughts go back to my-time matches.

The first rugger match I witnessed was the Kandy Leg of the Royal-Trinity match for the Bradby Shield in 1976. Manik Weerakumar’s team had pulverized Trinity by a record 36-0 margin in Colombo. By the time we got to the grounds, the Under-17 game was underway. I think Royal lost. I remember some irate Royalist (could have been an ecstatic Trinitian too), shouting, "this is not a football match, Royal!"

I remember my neighbour, several years older to me, Ajith Perera, responding loudly enough from the sidelines, "first match is football, second match is rugby." Trinity scored a try just as the game began and that brought the dreamy Royal team down to earth. They went on to score 25 unanswered points.

Royal lost the Bradby in 1977, but kept the shield from 1978 to 1980 (under Rohantha Peiris, the late Raba Gunasekara and S. Sukumar). Trinity won from 1981-1983.

Then came ‘Agale’s year’. 1984.

That was my last year at Royal College. The team was full of batchmates, led by Sampath Agalawatte, ‘Agale’ to us then and now. I had watched enough matches by then to know the rules and to differentiate the bad from the good and the good from the exceptional.

Royal was on paper, the stronger team and was expected to win. The Bradby is what counted, but I went for all the ‘home’ games that year. Just to watch my friends play.

There were eight coloursmen that year, but the freshers were highly talented too. Mahil Kuragama had to compete all season with Ajmal Ariff for the hooker’s position and had been playing since he was 10 or even younger, I believe. Mahendra Navaratnam was the ‘baby’ at 16, but he was made of and for rugby. Some might add, "for rugby alone." He was a thinking No. 8 (some would say, his thinking stopped with the long-whistle) and I still remember an excellent move, where he grabbed the ball from a line-out and broke through a couple of defenders to score the winning try against S. Thomas’.

Kimal Thunku Ousman, also 16, was a reliable place kicker. In fact, he scored all the points for Royal in that year’s Bradby.

I am not sure if Allam Ousman was at ‘The Island’ at the time, but I remember reading the pre-match reports eagerly. Players were given tags. I forget most of them, but remember reading about Ajith ‘hard-as-nails’ Weeratunga. He was a flanker.

Janaka Lenaduwa was the other and they were in fact lethal that year. Sanjaya Sigera and Lalith Samarawickrama were the props. They weren’t as fat as today’s ‘Fat Boys’, but they had power and they delivered consistently. Duminda (Dumma) Senaratne and Chiro Nanayakkara made the second-row and made sure Royal won enough possession in the line-outs.

Jehan CanagaRetna and Sampath Agalawatte made the best halves combination in schools that year. Feroze Suhaib was a composed, but a penetrative centre. His partner-in-crime, Ajith Gunasekera, had a reputation, let’s say. He had his days, good and bad. He was fearless though.

Krishan George manned one wing. He was better known in basketball circles, for he captained the team and the Sri Lanka Schools team and later, if memory serves me right, the National team as well. Georgie was an all-rounder, like Agale (who could have played cricket and basketball for Royal and probably have made it into the athletics team as well) and had colours in athletics as well (he was in the 4x800 relay team that won the ‘Gold’ at that year’s Tarbet). Finally, there was Ahamed Cader, full of smiles, but rock solid as fullback.

I don’t remember all the matches of course. As I said, only the Bradby counted. Royal remained unbeaten that year. Only Isipatana managed to hold Agale’s ‘Invincibles’ to a nil-all draw. Royal didn’t take a healthy lead to Kandy, having won the First Leg 6-3.

From here, i.e. in 2011, after many years of reading about high scoring Bradby Shield encounters, that seems ‘close’, but I think that was a different time, a different game with different rules.

I remember watching the Royal team walking to the dressing room at Bogambara. I was with about 50 prefects and stewards. We all got to our feet and cheered them. They were ‘our boys’. We knew they would bring the Bradby back. We stood for a full 10 minutes, cheering and singing the college song. Later, Agale told me, "I wanted to get on the field right then and there and play; we were given such a boost."

Agale’s team won all trophies on offer that year, including the ‘Sevens’ which I believe, sadly, that Royal hasn’t won since then.

Perhaps, it is because we are all much older now, but I remember that team (including the reserves, some whom won their colours in subsequent seasons, for example, Amith Sumanapala) as one made of very gentle people, good-humoured and humble, utterly self-effacing and ‘normal’, when normal was something they didn’t have to be. They were heroes.

Over the years, I’ve asked Agale and others what was different about that team. Agale is not one to compare. He simply said, "14 players were always ready to help the 15th score a try." Things were very simple those days.

Sampath Agalawatte was the youngest in a family of three boys. The last memory I have of that evening at Bogambara was Agale on his eldest brother’s shoulders, flag in hand, roaring jubilantly as his ‘loku aiya’ carried him to collect the Bradby Shield.

They gave us a lot to remember, not least of all because the three Bradbys before and the three that were to follow were eminently forgettable!

Take a bow Mr. Agalawatte, along with you ‘invincibles’!


jo said...

Nicely written Malinda. Sampath Agalawatte is a Hero to many of us. In leading that team he displayed many talents specially in his Management of the team on and off the field. This was a team with varied individual personalities. And Sampath made it look so easy. It is now as we are so much older that we realise the Value of what he did at the age of 18.

Amal Agalawatta said...

Great write up about my cousin, I remember that season very well. But just for your information Agalawatta is spelled with an “a” at the end. Thanks again for the write up.

Anonymous said...

I've heard that Sampath Agalawatta passed away after an illness and the funeral is taking place today (29 Aug 2018) at Borella cemetery. May he rest in piece.

Unknown said...

Just returned after paying the last respect to Agale . True to the word of a Gentleman and such a humble personality. Loved and respected by young and old

Dilani Gamage said...

Tribute to Sampath aiay

pathmi soysa said...

My deepest sympathies on his death. Kanthi @ M&W

pathmi soysa said...

My deepest sympathies on his death. Kanthi @ M&W

Anonymous said...

Excellently written as always Malinda
I do remember this ‘force’ led by Agale winning not only the games but hearts and minds of rugby loving people

Sadly he is no more and also is Sanjaya Sigera who passed away a few years back