Cricket April 13, 2007

The reasons we root for Sri Lanka

Watching Chaminda Vaas open the bowling yesterday (three overs, no runs, two wickets) was scary, it was like being allowed to watch a master hit man at work

Watching Chaminda Vaas open the bowling yesterday (three overs, no runs, two wickets) was scary, it was like being allowed to watch a master hit man at work. First his bunny, Stephen Fleming, trapped in front, business as usual. Then the right-handed Taylor done by the ball that didn't come back at him, caught Kumar Sangakkara, diving to his right. Not a run conceded in eighteen balls. Match over in three overs. And all this at under 120 kmph. No sound, no fury: just lethal seam bowling with the silencer on.

Why does watching Sri Lanka win give non-Sri Lankans so much pleasure? It's not because they're the little guys. They're not. The Sri Lankans won the World Cup eleven years ago: they've been big boys in the one-day game for over a decade now. No, we love watching the Sri Lankans win not out of chivalry, but because they're the new West Indians. Their crowds make more musical noise than Caribbean spectators ever did and their players do the gay cavalier business to the manner born.

Three of these guys are so old they should be playing veterans' charity matches. Vaas, Murali Muralitharan and Sanath Jayasuriya helped Sri Lanka win the Big One in the last millennium for god's sake! Sanath's even retired once. But instead of sitting on their rocking chairs waiting for their pension cheques, they're in the West Indies, terrorizing a new generation of cricketing infants.

Who can forget Vaas's return catch to dismiss Robin Uthappa? Young Uthappa decided to go after the slow-bowling ancient, whacked him for a couple of fours and then swatted another ball (that flat-batted straight hit that modern batting brutes so favour) only to have Vaas catch it with both hands on his follow through. Exit, bewildered youth, sent on his way with a few instructions.

If Vaas favours the cold steely look, Muralitharan is the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of modern cricket: like the giggling guru, he just never stops grinning. Watching him frolic with delight after taking catches in the outfield as the Sri Lankans picked off long-faced Indian batsmen, I wondered why Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar and the rest didn't smile more. Why did they always look like oppressed Atlases holding up a billion people?

And then there's Jayasuriya: he has held Sri Lanka's batting together for a decade now and he has bowled more balls in one-day cricket than most specialist bowlers. But does he go around looking as if he's in the trough end of a manic-depressive cycle? No. He gets hit by Shane Bond (consensually the most fearsome fast bowler on view in this tournament) and then takes the Kiwi attack apart in trademark fashion. I look at him and think, if he can carry on batting exactly the way he has always done at the top of the order, why is Tendulkar batting like a barnacle at number four?

Nor do the young ones show any sign of being mass-produced mediocrities: as an Indian fan I've seen a lot of those in the last two years. Lasith Malinga's so wonderfully strange they should freeze him in his delivery stride and suspend him in formaldehyde for posterity. Chamara Silva is the kind of young batsman Team India would die for. Even the middling Sri Lankans, neither young nor old, are remarkable. Sangakkara is on the brink of batting greatness, he's a fine wicket keeper and he talks such a good game that most countries would have fast-tracked him into captaincy by now. Dilhara Fernando, after years of waywardness is bowling fast and straight again.

They won this one without Malinga, but they'll need him against the Australians. I'll be rooting for the Sri Lankans to win for many reasons and one of them is that Sri Lanka is the only team on show that brings the variety of Test match bowling to limited overs cricket: medium, fast-medium, fast, plus left-arm orthodox and right arm off spin, absurdly unorthodox! Blond highlights, round-arm thunderbolts, leg-spinning off-spinners, deadly old men: weird and wonderful is what they are—it's why we love them.

Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in New Delhi