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Want to be bowled over by a soup named after Muttiah Muralitharan and Imran Khan? Ready to face a Saurav Ganguly food platter? No, no one is inviting you to a buffet in a cricket field but, well, it comes close to that. We are speaking of a one-of-a-kind restaurant in the heart of Colombo that was begun 21 years ago as a one-of-a-kind gamble in entrepreneurship.

Cricket Club Caf? (CCC as it is popularly known) has definitely led the way to re-invent the sport that the island nation of Sri Lanka venerates — cricket. Set up in 1996 by a young Australian couple — James and Gabrielle Whight — when Sri Lanka was at the height of its civil war and had scarcity of foreign investors, the caf? criss-crosses between a restaurant and a cricket museum. While certainly bearing all the characteristics of a cricket museum, it is also a hub for bringing people together, irrespective of nationality and even beyond the boundary of sports. It is a place focused on empowerment and equality as well as fine cuisine based on invigorating ambience.

It has been sought after by almost every cricket team in the world and has an all-local staff of around 40 Sri Lankan youth representing the main ethnicities of Sri Lanka, namely Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. One of its staff members honed his culinary skills to the extent that he today works as a chef for the Michelle Obama Foundation in the United States, which focuses, among other themes, on health of children and youth. The all-male staff of Cricket Club Caf? are trained to multitask and the youth who come from rural areas of Sri Lanka, with almost no knowledge of English, leave having mastered the language.

A café in the heart of Colombo uses sport to heal the wounds of war

Gabrielle’s regret is that the caf? does not have female staff but she explains how cultural misconceptions of working for a ‘club’ prevented young women from being willing to join and work long hours in the night as required. “We had named our restaurant Cricket Club Caf? and this had a different connotation to the young Lankan women who applied initially for jobs at the caf? but insisted that they leave for home by 5pm because they did not want to be seen as working late at a ‘club’,” she says.

She traces the start and subsequent journey of CCC with nostalgia.

“We decided to start Cricket Club Caf? in 1994. We were in Melbourne and all our friends thought our decision was crazy. Sri Lanka was at that time embroiled in war and all that they had heard was about bomb blasts. We were motivated by our understanding of the cricket pulse of Sri Lanka and the fact that, apart from 5 star places in the city, there were no restaurants that the middle class could go to. We had done our background research and we were confident with what we knew of the island and its people that our initiative was worth a try,” says Gabrielle, known to her staff and clientele as Gabby.

Her husband James was the key motivator behind the idea, having been a surfer in the coastal areas of Sri Lanka in the 1970s and acculturating himself to the psyche of Sri Lankans.

“James had travelled widely in Sri Lanka. He was friends with diverse sections of people in the country and was confident that the kind of enterprise we were planning would work.”

By 1990, Gabrielle and James were already veterans in the field of culinary arts, having been employed in catering firms in Australia. They quit their full time jobs by taking a leap of faith that it was time to move on their own and take all their chances in opening a food business with a difference in Sri Lanka. With this intention they joined the Sri Lankan Investors Forum in Australia and Cricket Club Caf? was announced as a Board of Investment (BOI) project at a meeting organised by this forum in 1994. The event was attended by Dav Whatmore — who had announced that he would be soon coaching the Lankan cricket team — resulting in avid discussion as to what would be in store for the new restaurant and the new coach of the Lankan team.

“We never knew that Sri Lanka would go on to win the Cricket World Cup in 1996,” says Gabrielle. “Sri Lanka had won the World Cup by March and by August we had opened our caf? and were greeted with an unbelievably positive response. The World Cup victory of the Lankan team did certainly boost our business.”

Gabrielle adds that the end of the war in Sri Lanka in 2009 offered a further heightened scope for the success for the restaurant with the picking up of tourism. However, according to her, the lifeline of the restaurant is still the local patronage.

“While we have had the honour of hosting almost every international cricket team, and have a significant number of foreign visitors, the core success of our business owes to the Sri Lankans who patronise the caf?,” she says.

For 20 years the restaurant was housed in a typically colonial type of bungalow on Queen’s road, off Duplication Road in Colombo. But some months ago it shifted to a similarly impressive building in the city owned by Sri Lankan novelist Ashok Ferry. Ashok worked closely with James and Gabrielle for the restaurant to regain the kind of look it was known for, such as being airy and cozy at the same time.

Located at its new premises down Flower Road in Colombo 07, the restaurant’s cricket exhibits include the Test match jumper of Australian pace bowler Ray Lindwall as well as T-shirts from the Australian T20 teams and cricket bats with signatures of many renowned batsmen.

“Ray was a family friend and he gifted his Test pullover to us. This was one of the first cricket souvenirs that we started our collection with,” says Gabrielle. Since then she and her husband have gathered many significant cricket heritage items such as the bat of Garfield Sobers with which he hit six sixes in an over while representing Nottinghamshire against Glamorgan in 1968. Rare photographs of cricketers in their winning glory as well as items such as the signed bat of Sir Don Bradman and the cricketing attire of those such as Sir Vivian Richard, Wasim Akram and Sunil Gavaskar mark a few of the many cricket regalia that are housed at the CCC.

Most of the items were those bought at prestigious international auctions such as that of Christie’s, represented in over 40 countries including Australia.

Present at the caf? throughout the week, Gabrielle is a keen but inconspicuous observer of the comfort levels of her customers and keeps a vigilant eye on the quality of food that is produced and served there.

Having blazed a unique trail combining cricket with fine dining, Gabrielle and James continue their mission with the same kind of optimism that brought them to Sri Lanka and which they consider their current home.

At a time when the world is in danger of shrinking into narrow pockets of racism and prejudice, the Cricket Club Caf? in Sri Lanka is a step towards celebrating sports, food and joy ... and above all the inter-connectedness of the human race.

The writer is Dawn’s Correspondent in Sri Lanka

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 11th, 2017

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