It was with distinct pleasure while reading "Kith and Kin in the Colonial Service"
(OP Number 86, October 2003) that I came across the name A F Abell whom I knew as
Governor of Sarawak in the 50's.
I well remember during my interview at the Colonial Office for my initial posting to
Palestine in 1947 being asked what were my interests in the sporting field and replying that
cricket, rugby and swimming topped the list. Sport in Palestine at that time was a nonstarter
due to the tense political situation. However, my next postings throughout the Far
East showed that all types of sport were very much in evidence with expatriates and locals
alike. Not much appears to have been written in this direction but many of the big houses
or messes, both governmental and corporate, boasted a tennis court.
Clubs played a large part in social life and each club could support several sports such
as tennis, cricket, rugby, hockey and so on, many on a seasonal basis. So it was in
Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, that cricket was very popular and apart from tossing a
coin between two club members to choose teams in the time-worn manner, a signal from a
soon-to-visit naval vessel, either R.N. or R.A.N., would see a scurry of activity in
organising a match. Venues could be a problem as one of our earlier pitches was at the
back of Saint Thomas's Church. We normally played on a Sunday morning as Saturday
morning was a work time 'til 12 o'clock. However, and we could understand this fully, the
Minister found it most disconcerting to have the punch-line of the sermon destroyed by
cries of "How's that?" reverberating through the nave and into his pulpit!
As the Civil Aviation Operations Officer I was at the airport and noticed that the Public
Works roller and grader were extending an area so I asked the Divisional Engineer if he
could allow a little extra grading and rolling to be done explaining that a nice big square
could be our next pitch. He too played cricket and it was as good as done. We could then
make our appeals as loud and often as we wished. We placed our coir matting in the centre
and fixed it with large flat-headed stakes and bingo the games started. The aircraft schedules
were known and the tower would flash a red signal when it was time for them to have
precedence. This gave us a break and time for a welcome beer. Invariably, when there was a
visiting team Sir Anthony would come and have a chat and watch the game with interest.
Apart from visiting ships and the occasional Sunderland flying-boat from RAE Seletar
with personnel keen to have a look at the Borneo Territories and also always ready for a
game, the nearest team able to play was the Panaga Club XI from the Shell oilfields at
Seria in Brunei about five hundred miles away. At the beginning of 1953 they flew a team
to Kuching and a most enjoyable game was played on Saturday afternoon and Sunday. To
say they were a bit strong for us would be an understatement as we were creamed!!
Sometime later at an evening function at the Astana, the Governor's residence, a group
of us were talking cricket when HE joined us and he shortly asked Dennis Bindon, our
captain, if any arrangement had been made regarding a return match with the Panaga XL
Dennis replied that transport was a stumbling block. HE said that arrangements should be
made for the game at Seria and he would make available the Mermaid, his
sea-going motor-vessel. The match was arranged for the weekend 12/13 September 1953
which entailed leaving Kuching on a Thursday afternoon and arriving back the next
Tuesday. His Excellency advised Dennis to choose his team and inform governmental heads and
company directors or managers accordingly. Any mention of dissension was to be referred
to HE - there were none.
Downriver from Kuching we headed north-east along the coast up the South China sea.
It was a bit rough on Thursday night and the vessel developed a considerable roll much to
the discomfort of several of the team, but on Friday the roll abated and the trip was quite
pleasant. All had recovered by Saturday morning when we arrived at Kuala Belait where
Shell had one of their Pembroke aircraft waiting to ferry us to Anduki Airfield at Seria. We
were given a tour of the oilfield installations and the most memorable item was a group of
seemingly gigantic bunsen burners lit and burning off gas twenty-four hours a day. They
could be heard before they were seen and nearer they caused the ground to shake. Then
followed a rendezvous at the Panaga Club where we were collected by our hosts. The
Panaga Club I may add was palatial by any standards and sumptuously presented in decor
On Saturday cricket was played from half past two until six with Panaga at the crease.
After a shower and change there were drinks and a buffet supper at the Club. Now every
home team had its nobblers - a group of supporters whose job it was to keep as many of
the visiting team as long as possible out of bed. After the meal the 'Miri Melody Makers'
played and we danced well into the night. Some of the hosts, mine included, were only to
happy to soldier on and the sun was up before we departed for a shower and breakfast.
The match resumed at nine o'clock and Kuching had been well and truly on the ropes,
again. When I arrived Dennis had one look at my eyes, groaned and said that he'd drop me
from number 5 to number 10!! Panaga were obviously going to 'declare' but left the move
just a little too late. One of our players was a government doctor who was an excellent bat
and was still at crease when I padded up and walked to the wicket. He came to meet me
and said that there was no way we could get the necessary runs to win, but as the so-and-so's
thought they had us we would play for the draw. For over forty minutes I chose the
correct ball to play from the two (or so it seemed to me!) the bowlers dished up to me.
Whilst I scrapped and scraped for seven runs the good doctor scored a magnificent ninety-eight
not out and the day was saved. Funnily enough after stumps when I mentioned the
two balls I seemed to be facing, he was only seeing one. His host was obviously more
abstemious than mine.
After a delicious lunch we left Anduki in the afternoon to fly to Kuala Belait, thence by
boat to return to Kuching where we arrived on Tuesday morning to be greeted by Sir
Anthony who congratulated us on a very good draw.
As a little aside, the Governors Residence, the Astana, was across the river from Kuching
town proper and the normal way of getting from one side to the other was by calling
"SAMPAN" in as loud a voice as possible. This normally resulted in a wait as the sampans
were parked about the middle of the river with outboards off so that they could hear from
which side the call was coming. Sometimes if there was a bit of an "anti" you could call 'til
you were blue in the face before they would deign to appear. Having a go at them merely
exacerbated the situation next time. The Governor had his own sampan, immaculately kept
and tended by four paddlers in white tutop bajus (tunics), songkoks (hats) and colourful
sarongs and for HE it was a pleasant and relaxing few minutes paddle across river.
One time at a meeting HE was asked if he would like to consider updating to an
outboard instead of the four paddlers. It did not take long for him to formulate a reply that
on occasion when leaving the Astana for the town office he was intent on having
someone's head for some misdemeanour or another. However, during the pleasant and
relaxing cross-river trip while enjoying the sights of the area in general he was inclined to
view matters in a much more measured and lenient manner. So, "Thank you but no thanks,
I will retain my paddlers and save someone's head!!"
It was indeed a privilege to serve under such an affable, understanding and capable
Governor as Sir Anthony Abell.