Today the Sri Lankan women's team receives excellent support from the government, but back in 1948 women's cricket in the country was practically non-existent. Despite this, the British Women's Cricket Association (WCA), while on their way, by boat, to play in official Test matches in Australia and New Zealand in 1948/9, made the decision to break their journey in Colombo, and play a women's team at the Colombo Cricket Club Ground.
During my research into the history of the women's game in the UK, I uncovered a tour diary from the tour of Australia and New Zealand (the only other countries where the women's teams had Test status, at the time). This was written by the England manager, Netta Rheinberg, and contains her private reflections on all aspects of the tour.
Rheinberg reveals that while en route to Colombo, she received a telegram stating that the Ceylon cricketing authorities had decided to put forward a men's team to play the WCA. She hastily responded that “our WCA rules forbid our playing officially against men” - something which had been the case ever since the WCA's formation in 1926. It appears, then, that in the intervening weeks a female team had to be thrown together from scratch. According to Rheinberg, the Ceylon team was made of up five European and six Sinhalese women, some of whom were schoolgirls, most of whom had picked up a cricket bat for the first time only six weeks previously. The captain was a European women – Mrs Turner – who Rheinberg knew as “the sister of Molly Leachman, who plays for Kent”.
Prior to the match, “various members of the Ceylon cricketing fraternity” took the English team sightseeing. Rheinberg's intial impressions of the island were of
lovely women in bright saris – men wearing sarongs, rickshaw boys...bullock carts...roadside bazaars selling huge bunches of bananas...mixed with marvellous American cars...Europeans in white suits, buses straight from London, and English road signs.
This was the Ceylon of 1948, newly-independent but full of colonial leftovers.
The match was not a long one. England made 168-7 dec. in 38.3 overs, with Molly Hide, England's captain and probably the best batsman of her generation, making a century. Ceylon's innings followed; they were all out for 51 in just 92 minutes. Their top scorer was “E Fernando”, one of the Sinhalese players, who made 22 runs, outperforming not just the rest of her team but the majority of the England players as well. Unfortunately little is currently known about her.
The match clearly attracted a great deal of local interest. The crowd was 8,000 strong and according to Rheinberg, “one of the most appreciative ones I've ever come across. Absolutely everything one did was watched and applauded or the reverse!” At the end of the match her anxiety about Ceylon's newly-independent status can be perceived, however. “At the end of the game”, she wrote, “the crowd rushed on to the pitch and mobbed us! I was quite anxious as I watched a sea of brown faces approaching and wondered whether to give the order to 'beat' it.”
After the match, the President of the Board of Control for Cricket in Ceylon presented the England players with “a silver chip bearing an elephant and the crest of the Ceylon Cricket Board”. This was followed by a party at the Ceylon Cricket Club, before the English team left to continue their sea voyage to Australia.
Members of the British armed forces – who would remain in Ceylon until 1956 – were also watching the match, and shook hands with the English players after the game, saying the English women “had started to put English cricket back on the map”. Perhaps, though, its most important legacy was to begin to put Colombo – and Sri Lankan – women's cricket on the map. One hopes that this hastily-composed team of women continued to play the game long after England's women left the island.
(The scorecard of the above-mentioned match can be found here: http://cricketarchive.co.uk/Archive/Scorecards/136/136849.html )