The Colts from Colombo and the Boer prisoners-of-war who played a two-day match in July 1901.
Back (left to right): Phillipus Ooosthuizen (scorer – Boers), Gert Kotzé, J Coetzer, W de Fransz, Piet du Plessis, C. E. Perera, Sydney Tennant (umpire – Boers), AC Solomonsz (umpire – Colts)
Middle (left to right): Jim Ludovici, Cornelius Otto, S. P. Joseph (scorer – Colts), Alexus Smuts, Tommy Kelaart, RC Dunn, EA Joseph, AT Pollocks, J Forsyth, Tommy Hilder
Front row: JC Heyzer, J Kelaart, Coert van Zijl, Dr Allan Raffel (captain – Colts), Pieter de Villiers (captain – Boers), George Sennett, L Thomasz, Johannes Scheepers

July 5, 1901. That was the day the first ever South African side played a cricket match in the Indian sub-continent. Oddly enough, this was a team of Boer prisoners of war, most of them Dutch speaking Afrikaners. In this two-part series, Arunabha Sengupta writes about the historic contest that took place between the Boer Prisoners of War and the Colts Cricket Club at the Nondescripts Cricket Ground, Colombo.

The surprising pioneers

When the South African cricketers returned to international fold after their two-decade long sporting isolation, Clive Rice famously led his band of men on to the fielding a raucous, filled-to-the-brim Eden Gardens.

It was symbolic, especially when seen against the background of — to use culturally insensitive wordplay —the colourfully chequered history of the country.

The policy of apartheid across all spheres of life, which affected sports as much as anything else, had prevented South Africa from engaging in cricketing contests other than against England, Australia and New Zealand. It was only when the rest of the world clamped down on sporting ties with the country that the government welcomed rebels from Sri Lanka and West Indies to the land. Ironic, indeed, considering that the immediate cause of their isolation had been the obstinate refusal to allow Basil D’Oliveira from playing in the country as a selected member of the England team.

No representative South African cricket team had ever toured a non-white nation before 1991. And hence, the visit of Rice’s men to India was historic. It was a return to 22 yards after 22 long years. Additionally, it was a huge step for the game, venturing beyond the fragmented world of narrow racial walls.

Yet, strange as it may sound, that was not the first time a team from South Africa had played in the sub-continent. The pioneers had actually played their first match ages ago, as many as 90 years before the epochal Eden Gardens encounter of Rice’s men.

More surprising is that the team that had played that first match of cricket in 1901 did not consist of men of British descent who spread the game in the southern land as part of the Empire.

We now know that the sport had been very popular and exquisitely organised among the black populations as well. Cricket among the blacks sprang up first in Cape Town where the sons of the Xhosa Chiefs were educated in the Zonnenbloem College in the English style with the noble game forming a major part of their curriculum. Yet, the first team from South Africa to play in the Indian sub-continent was not a black one either.

This side surprisingly consisted of the third dimension of the South African cultural landscape, the population apparently least involved in the game of cricket — the Dutch-speaking Afrikaners. In popular perception, the Afrikaners were not really associated with cricket till the 1960s, always preferring other sports, especially rugby.

Yet, the members of this pioneering cricket team were Boers, most of them from the Boer republics of Transvaal and Orange Free State. In both these parts of the South African subcontinent the development of cricket had been at best rudimentary. Only two of the members of the team hailed from the Cape where cricket had seensome structure. Furthermore, no one hailed from the other nurturing home of the game — Natal.

But, in July 1901, the best players of the Boer Prisoners of War of the Diyatalawa Camp travelled 306 kilometres to Colombo to take on the local Colts XI. This match has gone down as an important episode in the history of the game.

The Boers come to Ceylon

The Boer War turned out to be the biggest, and arguably the most important, conflict in the century that spread between Waterloo and the Great War. Vast resources of gold and diamond in the Boer republics of Transvaal and Orange Free State led to the loss of over 60,000 lives and three years of severe fighting. It was a tale of greed and gore.

With the action arose the need of Prisoner-of-War camps. The Boer prisoners of war could not be hoarded near the scene of action. The British were wary of the Boer commandants storming such camps, trying to free their comrades. Thus, in the Cape, the captured Boers were accommodated in camps set up in Simonstown and Cape Town. In Natal similar camps were set up at Umbilo, Durban and Tin Town, Ladysmith.

However, when first General Piet Cronje, hero of the Jameson Raid, and later General Martinus Prinsloo, surrendered, there was the sudden requirement of 8,400 men to be held in captivity. In size and facilities, the prison camps of South Africa were ill-equipped for this purpose. Of course, for security reasons, these men could not be sent to Britain either.

Thus they were shipped to the far shores of the Empire — Bermuda Islands, St Helena, India and Ceylon.

Cricket comes to Diyatalawa

In Ceylon, the biggest camp was Diyatalawa, housing 4,000 Boer prisoners.

The name of the camp literally meant ‘happy valley’. The prisoners were less than happy, though. Their voyages to Ceylon were most often full of appalling hardships, and the huts they stayed in generally accommodated 40 to 50 men.

The camp was divided into two groups of huts, named Krugersdorp and Steynburg — named after Paul Kruger, president of Transvaal, , and his counterpart in Orange Free State, Martinus Steyn.

In spite of the difficult conditions, the Boer prisoners actively pursued recreation in many forms —rugby, soccer, athletics, boxing, swimming, tennis, quoits, skittles, billiards, croquet, cards, table tennis, chess … and cricket.

The driving force behind cricket among the Boers was Pieter Hendrik de Villiers. One of the few of the prisoners to come from the Cape, de Villiers was an off-spinning all-rounder who had played First-Class cricket before the War.

Groomed in the game while representing Kimberley, he had played for the club alongside Bernard Tancred, one of the pioneering Test cricketers of South Africa and a member of the country’s earliest and most influential cricketing families. Apart from representing Western Province in four First-Class matches, de Villiers had also played for Kimberley and Transvaal against the touring English sides of Major Wharton in 1888-89 and WW Read in 1891-92. While his bat had been rather unproductive in these matches, he had captured a bagful of wickets.

A keen cricketing man, de Villiers worked as an accountant before the Boer War. Once shipped to Ceylon and interned in Diyatalawa, he arranged for a cricket field to be laid out and formed the Stiffs Cricket Club. The camp authorities were happy to supply the equipment.

Another leading cricketer of the Boers was Gerhadus ‘Gert’ Kotze. A clerk to inspector general of the Customs Department under President Kruger, he was just 23 when the War broke out. A distant relative of the Springbok fast bowler Johannes Kotze, he himself batted as an opener and played for the Union Cricket Club under the captaincy of Vincent Tancred. He had even played against Lord Hawke’s Englishmen in 1898-99 for the Transvaal XI. 

George Sennett was yet another useful cricketer. The young man attended the Grey College in Bloemfontein and excelled at rugby, cricket, represented Bloemfontein in hockey, played first league tennis in Orange River Colony tournaments, and furthermore was a scratch golfer and marksman. He was barely 18 when the Boer War started, and later, played for Orange Free State XV sides against HDG Leveson-Gower’s MCC side in 1909. He represented Orange Free State in 13 First-Class matches, the final outing being against Johnny Douglas’s English side of 1913-14.

The other fantastic sportsperson was Cornelius Otto. A star rugby player of Orange Free State, he was to dominate the New Year Boer sports meet in 1902. A fast bowling all-rounder, he was one of the mainstays of the team.

Furthermore, there were men like Alexus Smuts and Coert van Zyl, who hailed from parts of Transvaal not really known for the sport.

The club also boasted a cricket song, which went:

What Africanders shall dare
Any pastime to compare
With the great and grand old manly game we love,
What sight so sweet to view
As a wicket hard and true
And the fieldsman kept for ever on the move.
(Chorus) Run, run, run the balls a rolling
Scarcely to the boundary she’ll go
And the throwing’s getting wild
And the wicket keeper’s riled
So we’ll try to steal another for the throw.

A match is arranged

The Prisoners of War of Diyatalawa were not the only Boers to play cricket in the subcontinent. Their fellow men who had been sent to Ahmednagar camp in Maharashtra, India, were known to play frequent matches against their British guards. However, it was the Diyatalawa team that played the most important match of this period.

The match itself was the brainchild of Julian Heyzer, an important member of the Colts Cricket Club. According to him, it was important to correct the impression abroad that the Boers were devoid of opportunities of qualifying themselves to take a worthy part in athletic pastimes with clubs outside. The match between the Colts and the Boers was to be a prominent advertisement to the external world of the liberal and lenient governance prevalentin the camps.

Arrangements were made to obtain passes for 11 men and two officials to leave the Boer camp and travel to Colombo for the game. De Villiers, Smuts, Kotze, John O’Reilly, Piet Steyn, Sidney Tennant and Philippus Oosthuizen formed the selection committee. They did a creditable job. Steyn and O’Reilly, two of the selectors, did not travel for the game themselves. The team was thus chosen purely on merit and form.

The idea had been to hold the match at the Colombo Sports Club. However, the Colts and the Sports Club fell out while discussing the details, and the venue was shifted to the Nondescripts Club at Victoria Park.

The Victoria Park ground too had a splendid cricketing history. Ivo Bligh’s English team had played the Royal Dublin Fusiliers there in October 1882 on the way to their landmark tour to Australia to recover The Ashes.

In return for the flexibility of Nondescripts, the Colts Club sanctioned the expenditure of 600 rupees for suitable accommodation of all classes of spectators who might be attracted to the game. Four large stands were constructed and a special pavilion was erected for His Excellency the Governor. The pavilion was carpeted and decorated with foliage from the nursery gardens of PD Siebel. Arrangements were made for a special marquee for the players. The owner of the Globe Hotel set up a public bar to be run during the match. A section of the ground was also set aside for spectators who could not afford the entrance fee.

Thus all was set for the match to commence on Friday, July 5, 1901.

On Thursday, the day before the scheduled start of the match, the 13 men slotted to travel were at the gate of the Diyatalawa camp as early as a quarter to six in the morning, waiting fervently for their paroles to be inspected. Soon they were walking briskly to the station on the hill, to start out on their day-long journey to Colombo. There as the train puffed in, the two hospital nurses who had come to wish them well took their leave.

The Boer cricketers were thus on their way to take part in one of the most unusual matches in the history of the game.

Coming up: Part 2, the match

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at