The History of the Dimbula Athletic & Cricket Club

By Selva Kanagasabai

The Dimbula Athletic and Cricket Club (abbreviated to DACC and also known as Dimbula and the Radella Club) is a sporting club founded in 1856 by British coffee planters. Situated at an elevation of 5000 feet above sea level, it is the oldest sporting club in Sri Lanka and in earlier times, its activities included rugby, cricket, squash, billiards, snooker, tennis and badminton.
The club is most synonymous with rugby, as Dimbula A & CC was the only Up Country club to win the coveted Clifford Cup twice:
1953: Beat CR & FC: 6 – 0.
1959: Drew with CR & FC: 11 each, to share the Cup.
1963: Narrowly lost to Havelocks in the final: 0 - 8.
1970: Finished at the top of the points table after all the matches played in the league part of the tournament, but lost to the Police Team in the semi-final of the knock-out round.

The club's first official rugby match was played on 7 March 1880 against fellow Upcountry club, Dickoya Maskeliya Cricket Club, (DMCC), at Darrawella, with Dickoya winning 9 – 3. Both clubs played a return game the next week, this time at Radella, where Dickoya was again victorious 3 – nil.

The annual rugby match between Dimbula and Dickoya, is one of the oldest rugby fixtures in Sri Lanka. In 1908, Dimbula was one of the six founding rugby clubs that formed the Ceylon Rugby Football Union.

The first Upcountry cricket match was played in 1870 at the club's home ground against Dickoya, which thereafter became an annual fixture in the region. In 1962 / 63, Dimbula won the Daily News Tournament Trophy for club cricket. Following a promotion to the Donovan Andree Tournament the next year, the club again emerged winners. This resulted in Dimbula playing at the highest level of club cricket, the P. Saravanamuthu competition.

In 1909, the club introduced Badminton to the country, with its own indoor court, becoming the first badminton club in Ceylon. Dimbula conducted two badminton tournaments annually from 1911 until 1926.

In its heyday, Radella Club had been the venue for several noteworthy and prestigious events: The first recorded cricket match was played on its grounds in 1892, between a touring Lord Hawke’s XI and an Upcountry side.

During World War II, Lord Louis Mountbatten, the head of SEAC (South East Asia Command) was headquartered in Ceylon after the fall of Singapore to the Japanese and stayed in the Radella Estate bungalow which overlooked the club when he visited the troops. They used the club’s grounds for their parades/drills, as well as for exercise.

On 17 April 1954, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and His Royal Highness Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh visited the club, as a part of their tour of Ceylon: They were hosted to a tea party, attended by planters and several dignitaries.

Led by Ted Dexter, MCC played a game against an Upcountry cricket XI at Radella in 1962. Several rugby clubs from England played there, one being Blackheath, with that game being organized by Noel Gratien, a former Justice of the Supreme Court of Ceylon.

Other notable visiting sides included an Australian Colts rugby team in 1957, the Bosuns (from Britain) in 1969, Paris Universities a few years later, Nomads in 1983 and also Dulwich College from Britain in 1984.

During the pre-independence era, the local clubs were considered their second homes by the ex-patriate British planters, as well as the small number of Sri Lankans who had been recruited into such positions. Even a junior Assistant Superintendent (abbreviated to SD, for “Sinna Dorai”) was permitted to leave the estate by late afternoon on the weekly “Club Day”, on the strict understanding that he would be at the club to participate in sport or other recreational activity: That ensured ongoing membership and support for the club.

The Victorian-style club house, with its wood paneling walls and an antique clock on top of the pavilion, was destroyed by fire in 1964. The fire destroyed all team photographs and other memorabilia which were at the Club.

A new building was constructed thereafter, with a substantial donation from Mr. Chandra Hemachandra, owner of the biggest transport agency in the district, M.Y. Hemachandra & Co, Talawakelle, as well as from several plantation companies. However, the ambience and elegance of the original club proved difficult to replace.

The changes leading up to and following the nationalization of plantation companies in the mid-1970s, resulted in the departure of most of the expats, as well as several senior Sri Lankan planters, who left the country.

Many of those promoted to take over those positions maintained a second home in Colombo or Kandy, to accommodate their families close to leading schools. This inevitably resulted in a shift of focus and interest away from the planters’ clubs, which then experienced a decline in activity.

When Mr. P.H.A.N. Dias (“Phan”) took over as a long-serving President, during those challenging times for the club, he initiated steps to revive interest and participation in club life, by opening the door to the wider community.

This seems to have reflected a change in attitudes within plantation circles towards social and class distinctions, which brought into the club sports talent from sources such as Ceytea, (non-managerial) plantation staff and past students from schools in Nuwara Eliya.

At higher organizational levels, both the Janatha Estates Development Board and Sri Lanka State Plantations Corporation, which managed all the plantations after nationalization, also adopted the practice of recruiting sportsmen as trainee planters and encouraged them to continue their active pursuits.

This enabled Dimbula to continue playing both rugby as well as cricket in national competitions, although by that time, it was in the lower tiers of both sports than had been the case in prior decades.

In 1985, Dimbula was a finalist in the national rugby “B” Division, losing to the CH & FC Kabaragoyas in Colombo. When the Bombay Gymkhana Club held a rugby tournament to celebrate its Centenary in 1992, Dimbula was one of several teams that participated. The host side was rated as the hot favourites, but in a hard fought final, Dimbula emerged victorious.

In cricket, Dimbula played in the third tier Daily News Cricket competition, with practices being well attended on club days. Most of the games were played at Radella, but bad weather often caused disruption as there were no covers to protect the turf wickets.

Due to the untiring efforts of Phan Dias, in 1982 the Radella grounds was elevated to an International Cricket venue and a historic one-day international match was scheduled to be played at Radella in 1983 between Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe: Unfortunately, the match had to be called off after a few overs, due to rain.

Conceived by veteran sports car enthusiast, Ananda de Alwis, two exciting new events were introduced during the April festive season in the late 1970s. First, a sprint rally for cars on the far side of the ground, which produced a strong response from petrol heads. The next was a “Radella Hill Climb”, which was a time trial from the bottom of the hill at the turn off to the club to the top where it joins the Nanu Oya Road, an event held annually to date.

The Club celebrated its 150th Anniversary in 2006. Based on Dimbula’s long historical links with rugby, the office bearers prevailed on the SLRFU to allow the club to enter a team to play “A” Division club rugby once again, after a lapse of more than three decades.

The SLRU acceded to the request and Dimbula was grouped in the second segment of that division, alongside teams such as the Police, Galle RFC, Uva, Kurunegala RFC and Jawatte RFC.

Mr Hemaka Amarasuriya, then Chairman of Singer Sri Lanka, was contacted for financial assistance and this resulted in donations totalling Rs 1.2 million. A similar generous sponsorship was extended by Singer the following year as well. Although it was hoped that most of the team would comprise planters, that did not eventuate, and payments had to be made to recruit players from Kandy.

In 2006, DACC emerged winners of the Caltex “A” Division Bowl Championship. A comparable performance in 2007 enabled the club to qualify to play in the Caltex “A” Division Plate Tournament, finishing as the runner-up.

As the club house had declined to a dilapidated condition, the Chairman of Tea Tang, Mr Mahen Dayananda, who had known and enjoyed the club’s facilities in its illustrious years, made an unsolicited donation of Rs 3 million for its renovation. The improved condition of the club was due to his magnanimous gesture.

In recognition of DACC’s 150th Anniversary and its significant contribution to rugby in the country, the SLRFU organised a Professional Rugby 7-a-side tournament in Nuwara Eliya in 2006 (as the club house renovations were still in progress). A second such tournament was conducted in 2007 at Radella, with all the leading rugby teams in the country taking part, followed by a dance at the club. The detailed planning and extensive arrangements that preceded the hosting of these major national events were rewarded with resounding success in the tournaments, as well as the dance.

Though no longer playing rugby at the levels for which it was famous in earlier times, the club has annually hosted the Inter Plantation Company Six-a-side Cricket Tournament since 2007. The Club also celebrated its 160th Anniversary in 2016 with a Gala Dinner, where most former stalwarts and other dignitaries were in attendance.

Compiled by Selva Kanagasabai and Devaka Wickramasuriya (January 2021)
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