The 'Gymkhana' for all reasons Celebrates its' 150 year rhapsody
October 2013


Entrance to the Colombo Cricket Club, the ancestral home of the Gymkhana at Maitland Crescent, Colombo 7

Words and Photography Manu Gunasena


The champagne corks are set to pop, the red carpet is being rolled out and the musical score carefully orchestrated to reach its crescendo as Colombo's oldest gentlemen and sports club - Colombo Gymkhana Club - gears to trip the light fantastic and celebrate with all pomp and revelry its chequrered history of 150 years this year. Throughout the length and breadth of the Asian subcontinent not many clubs can boast this feat of endurance.


And it all began at a gentlemen's saloon at the Galle Face Green. Established in 1832 and called the Colombo Club, it was the regular watering hole of the ruling British class who came for their pre-lunch gin and tonics and their sundown scotch and sodas. The rules of Cricket had just been codified in England and the talk at the club centred on wielding the willow on the local turf. Over malt singles the idea was spun and soon distilled in consensus that the best way of fostering the game was to start a cricket club. Thus was it that in the year 1863 the Colombo Cricket Club was born.


The ball started rolling when a land was identified for the purpose and the Colombo Cricket Club came to occupy its first and only home 31, Maitland Crescent Colombo 7. Soon the welcome air of bonhomie that pervaded within the club enclosure spread its whiff of comradeship and goodwill abroad. Almost overnight the club became the hub around which all social activity of the British community revolved.


It was the laidback era when the British had finished their empire building and could well afford to rest on their laurels. Though sport was ostensibly the mainstay, the name of the game was social interaction. It was the magnet that drew the crowd day after day to haunt the gentlemen clubs and thereat to discuss, debate, exchange news and gossip and generally unwind at the end of a long drawn day. And the Colombo Cricket Club was the new one-stop-club to deliver both sport and interaction making it the ‘in' place to be ‘seen' at.


With cricket progressing at a smooth pace with scarce a dot ball to blot the scorebook, news was arriving from England of the advances made by football after its rules were formulated in 1863; and soon the Club decided, in the self same manner of spirit the British had expanded their empire tofar flung shores, to branch out and in 1892 established an affiliate club, the Colombo Hockey and Football Club, popularly called the CH & FC.


Rugby football and hockey kicked off in the nearby Race Course grounds and soon the members of the CH & FC began to display their prowess on the field. When the Army acquired the Race Course and the Grandstand in 1962, the CH & FC came to the ancestral home at Maitland Crescent where, in spite of the setback, it continued to thrive.


But the Kohinoor Diamond which crowned Colombo Gymkhana's achievements was the formation of the much revered Queen's Club in 1899 which became the exclusive preserve of the tennis and squash playing gentry. With over 17 tennis courts, squash courts and an elegant club house located at Bullers Road, Colombo 7, it was the Wimbledon of Ceylon tennis Though the Queen's Club functioned as a separate entity and had its own membership and was a pillar of the sporting establishment where Victorian decorum was strictly demanded and rigidly observed, members of its associate clubs the more liberal and easy going CCC and the CH & FC were welcome to use its facilities.


With the birth of the Queen's Club it was game set and match for the Colombo Gymkhana Club. Now they were in command of three main clubs: one dedicated to cricket, the second to hockey and rugby football and the third to tennis and squash. These were the five main sports introduced by the British Raj; and the responsibility of nurturing, developing and promoting these sports and providing each one of them the necessary training grounds and the wherewithal to flower, fell on the broad shoulders of the Colombo Gymkhana Club which merged all three clubs under its auspices and brought them under one banner in 1959.


And the Gymkhana did not take its duties lightly but approached it tasks with an almost religious zeal. With missionary fervor they embarked upon their avowed mission to make the three clubs the doyens of cricket, rugger and tennis, for the three clubs to be the launching pad for Sri Lankan youth to enter the international arena. That their dedication, perseverance and patience born of the faith they possessed in abundance bore fruit and still continue to bloom are evidenced by the great advances made in the fields of cricket and rugger and in the courts of tennis and squash.


Take cricket. It is no exaggeration to state that the great strides made by the Sri Lanka cricket team and its much vaunted accomplishments on display today were made possible only due to the indispensable efforts of the Colombo Cricket Club to set the ground conditions necessary, to ensure the nursery bed of talent was carefully tended to bring forth the seed and blossom's true potential and that it was not nipped in the bud by want of care and lack of facilities. Throughout the years many of cricket's titans have strode from the relative anonymity of the CCC Pavilion to occupy the flamboyant fame of the international crease. Notable out of them have been Micheal Tissera, Graham Labroy, Ashley de Silva, Roshan Mahanama, Sanath Jayasuriya, Lanka Perera, Kumar Boralessa, Kaushik Amalean, Kapila Wijegunawardana and Athula Samarasekera to name a few.


The CCC ground is currently used for domestic club matches and as a venue for warm up matches for touring teams. It held its first international test match in 1984 and is ranked as one of the smallest test grounds in the world.


In the field of rugger amongst the many Lions who scrummed for CH & FC were Danielle Wickremeratne, Dr Hubert Aloysius, Noel Brohier and Y. C. Chang. The indefatigable Chang, known affectionately as YC, captained the team in 1972, and was chosen by the Rugby Union of Sri Lanka to captain the national team ASIAS in Hong Kong. During his tenure at the helm, CH & FC went to win many trophies the most prestigious being the Clifford Cup. YC also rose to become the President of the Asian Rugby Union and was also elected the Chairman of the Club.


The Queen's Club was the tennis Mecca to which the faithful religiously came to serve. Endowed from the beginning with 17 well maintained courts and blessed with an ornate club house for social mixing, wining and dining, she was baptised as the Prince's Club at first and then later christened the Queen's.; and no tennis suitor worth his salts could afford to spurn her charms and risked a tennis elbow for a chance to play on her immaculately groomed grass courts. Here at Queen's Hildon Sansoni, P. S. Kumara, D. D. N. Selvadurai, Navin Gooneratne, George Paldano, Umesh Walloopillai, Arjun Fernando and Suresh Sivagnanam made their names, the latter two reaching the world ATP ranking of 200. Amongst the ladies, the most notable were Doreen Sansoni, Sriya Gooneratne, Srima Abeygunawardene and Susima Abeygunawardene.


Work has already begun to give a new face lift to the Gymkhana clubhouse which they hope to complete by November in time for the gala birthday dance to be held during the festive season. There are also plans afoot to launch a membership drive with a host of attractions to woo the younger generation and bring in new blood.


As George Paldano, a life member of the club and a tennis professional of the Queens who first joined in 1966 says: "the Gymkhana made a mark in every sport for which it had facilities. We have personalities who have lead and represented the country, manned national and international teams and reached great levels in world and regional rankings. We have been the mother board in launching elite sportsmen. And even today our committee, with Shiran Anthony at the helm, is working towards introducing new areas of activity to the club."


On the cards are a new Business Centre, a Library, a Card Room, a Karaoke Parlour, Cinema, a Film Library and a Study Hall for languages. Plans also provide for the setting up of The Gymkhana Sports Academy where professional training will be available for eight sports. This is on top of what is already provided namely cricket, rugger, hockey, tennis, squash, swimming, billiards and a gym.


But like man does not live by bread alone neither does the Gymkhana thrive by sport only. That's the secret of its longevity, the secret why it's not only alive but robustly kicking a storm of inspiring cheer as well. For even as the Gymkhana Clubs celebrates its 150th birthday this year its underlying philosophy which has steered its existence has been that, whilst the club's corporeal frame must sweat it out on the playing fields competing for accolades, its soul must hover over the clubhouse infusing the spirit of social intercourse to all who grace its environs and imbibe its ambience.

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    The Pavillion

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    Spectators enjoy the action from the pavilion bar in the clubhouse

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    THE PAVILLION………The quaint old grandstand set amidst verdancy is a welcome delight

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    ANYONE FOR TENNIS…….Playing the game at one of the seven remaining courts at the Queen’s Club

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    THE PLAYING FIELDS……..Club members enjoying a spot of rugger at the club grounds which is also home to CH & FC

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    THE SHORT COURSE POOL……. Eight lanes wide and 25 metres long first floor newly built swimming pool at CCC

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    TRAINING GROUNDS….. Learning to play with a straight bat at the CCC practice nets

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    THE ROLE OF HONOUR………The wooden plaques in the main hall record the names of those club greats who had made their mark in their individual fields

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    THE DRESSING ROOM………From here players walk on to the field, from obscurity to the broad limelight

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