December 6, 2007

Journeyman and genius

Jayasuriya's significance is not statistical, though heaven knows that at the high points of his career he climbed peaks never attempted by more consistent players
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When Sanath Jayasuriya announced his retirement from Test cricket in the course of the first Test against England, the way he signed off was nicely representative of his extraordinary career. He failed in the first innings with the bat, then hit a quick 78 in the second innings. As a bonus in the second innings, Jayasuriya took a wicket with his slow left-arm spin.

A fifty and a wicket: useful but not remarkable figures…unless you know that 24 of those 78 runs had been scored in a single over off that blameless swing bowler, James Anderson. Jayasuriya's career statistics--his aggregates, his averages, his centuries, the number of wickets he took--give the same impression: they suggest a more than useful player, not a remarkable one. They lie.

In a career that spanned eighteen years, Jayasuriya played, in the idiom of Hindi films, an extraordinary double role: journeyman and genius. He was a useful bits-and-pieces player, fielding alertly, chipping in with the odd wicket (he took 98 wickets in 109 Test matches) scoring the necessary fifty (he had 31 half-centuries to his name); he was also, in his fearsome prime, the most destructive opening batsman in the world.

Sri Lankan cricket over the turn of the century resembles nothing as much as the great Bombay multi-starrers of the Eighties. It's a romance with three outsiders as leading men: Arjuna Ranatunga, Muttiah Muralitharan and Sanath Jayasuriya. None of them belonged to the tiny elite that dominated cricket in their country. Murali, the Tamil from Kandy, Ranatunga, the man who became captain despite not having attended St Thomas and Royal, the two public school nurseries of Sri Lankan cricket and finally, Jayasuriya, the maverick from Matara who re-invented himself as a player in mid-career and in the process changed the nature of batsmanship.

It might seem odd to bracket Jayasuriya with Muralitharan, a man who has broken nearly every bowling record in the book, and who has a real claim to being regarded as the greatest bowler in the history of the game. Jaysuriya's batting average in Test matches is in the region of 40 and in the limited overs game it hovers in the low thirties, decent figures but scarcely a claim to cricketing immortality.

And yet Jayasuriya was the most significant batsman of the fin de siecle, historically more important than Sachin Tendulkar or Brian Lara or Ricky Ponting. Glenn McGrath, no friend of Sri Lankan cricket had this to say of him: "…it is always a massive compliment to someone to say they changed the game, and his storming innings in the 1996 World Cup changed everyone's thinking about how to start innings."

Jayasuriya's significance is not statistical, though heaven knows that at the high points of his career he climbed peaks never attempted by more consistent players. He is a landmark in the history of the game because he was a successful heretic, the Martin Luther of modern cricket. He made the rules of orthodox batsmanship (getting to the pitch, getting in line, playing along the ground and that holiest of holies, playing with a straight bat) seem overstated and dogmatic.

Jayasuriya needed to play away from his body because he routinely hit balls wide of him on the up; he played with his bat at an angle of forty-five degrees because he was not trying to show the whole face to the ball, he intended to hit it with an angled blade and he used eye, timing and powerful forearms to get elevation and power. Jayasuriya's batting stance has been hugely influential. The classical stance had the feet six inches apart: Jayasuriya stance has his feet more like two feet apart. He didn't so much go forward or back as shift weight, rocking on to the back foot for the cut and the pull or crooking his front leg to drive, flick or pull on the up. He played like a batter in baseball: if the ball was in the hitting zone, there or thereabouts, it had to go.

What's more, he did this in Test cricket as an opening batsman, with a triple century against India in Colombo in 1997 and that magnificent double century against England at The Oval in 1998 which, as much as Muralitharan's bowling, won them the Test match. It was one of the great attacking innings in the history of Test cricket, played as it was to force a result in limited time. It was Jayasuriya's success in proving that his unorthodox methods worked in both ODIs and the more demanding context of Test cricket that paved the way for players like Virender Sehwag and Adam Gilchrist: that's the real significance of McGrath's tribute.

More than most batsmen, Jayasuriya's technique reflected the way the game had changed. He was one of the main conduits through which the lessons in attacking batsmanship taught by the one day game were channelled into Test cricket. His technique took full advantage of the physical immunity that modern helmets lent batsmen. He hooked firm-footed or off the front foot without going back and across because the old fear of mortal injury that had been hard-wired into the heads of an earlier generation of opening batsmen vanished from the minds of contemporary players. And the astonishing power of modern bats was tailor-made for Jayasuriya's game: those short arm pulls that would have once steepled into waiting hands, now cleared the ropes.

There were better batsman than Jayasuriya during his time in international cricket and there will be many better ones in the future, but for the cricket historian he will remain that rare player who embodied a turning point in the game. As the twentieth century gave way to the twenty first, the art of batting was transformed and for a brief but critical period--say from 1996 to the end of the century--Jayasuriya was at the cutting edge of change.

This was published in the Telegraph, Kolkata.

Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in New Delhi

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • testli5504537 on May 20, 2008, 8:22 GMT

    Considering his unbelievable performance in Indian Premier League in India, he should be recalled for Test Squad again. His wonderful batting performance in IPL has made people wonder why he is not playing test matches for Sri Lanka. He made 48 balls 114 not out with 11 sixes and 9 Fours against Chennai and wondering all the Cricket Fans all over the world. His amazing forearms power to hit the ball for SIX and his veteran all-round performance has lead the IPL more colorful. Now he has more records in IPL Twenty 20. Most strike rate Most Sixes Most runs in BOUNDRIES. No anyother Sri Lanken Test playing Batsman like Mahela ,Sanga,Chamara or Upul Tharanga were able to play like Jayasuriya. Considering his wonderful POWER and PERFORMANCE in IPL in India he should be RECALLED for Sri lanken Test TEAM.

  • testli5504537 on February 4, 2008, 8:11 GMT

    great, superb, best batsman, fantastic, best player in all kinds of sport. I madly watch his all innings,if anyone ask what is your last wish, i say just once i want to see sanath's 189 once more. he is master player. i hope the best of sanath will come on this australia tour.

  • testli5504537 on January 7, 2008, 17:09 GMT

    I just cannot understand why it is so difficult to introduce challenges to the umpire's rulings. All you have to do is allow for two per innings by each team - if the challenge is unsuccessful you lose the right to the second challenge so you carefully pick your challenges based on the batsman or fieldsman certainty. You wd not lose any more time than when someone is hurt or the over rate slow or any other delaying intervention. WHAT IS THE PROBLEM? Why do people find it so difficult to accept change? The tennis challenges work beautifully.

  • testli5504537 on January 6, 2008, 16:12 GMT

    India needs to boycott the remaining 2 tests by not playing Sachin, Saurav, VVS, Kumble and Rahul. This would be a good way of protesting the umpiring decisions and Aussie attitude. The crowds come to watch these great players and India should respond by not playing them, to teach Aussies a lesson. I had so much respect for the aussies and now, I feel that this present team under Ponting does not deserve any respect. They are bringing the game of cricket to disgrace.

  • testli5504537 on January 6, 2008, 10:19 GMT

    It is apparant to me that the jealousy of some Indians is descending to levels even low for Indians. It is funny how they can never praise a cricketer other than their own. But yet when someones praises Sanath's acheivements they are all too ready to give credit to New Zealanders. The point of all of this is that Sanath was the most attacking batsman who maintaned consistancy in his style for such a long time. By the way his first test hundred was as no.1 batsmen against austrailia in adelaide. He was not a batsmen who like Sachin just wanted to raise his avarage by scoring runs in a pointless and selfish manner. Do Indians remember his contnous thrashing of them including his 180+ in Shajah where he again captured 4 wcts and bowled India out for less than 100 runs. He is the only player in ODI history to score 10000+ runs and get 300+ wickets so there!

  • testli5504537 on January 6, 2008, 10:13 GMT

    It is apparant to me that the jealousy of some Indians is descending to levels even low for Indians. It is funny how they can never praise a cricketer other than their own. But yet when someones praises Sanath's acheivements they are all too ready to give credit to New Zealanders. The point of all of this is that Sanath was the most attacking batsman who maintaned consistancy in his style for such a long time. By the way his first test hundred was as no.1 batsmen against austrailia in adelaide. He was not a batsmen who like Sachin just wanted to raise his avarage by scoring runs in a pointless and selfish manner. Do Indians remember his contnous thrashing of them including his 180+ in Shajah where he again captured 4 wcts and bowled India out for less than 100 runs. He is the only player in ODI history to score 10000+ runs and get 300+ wickets so there!

  • testli5504537 on December 16, 2007, 5:23 GMT

    Great post on a gem of a player, the likes of whom we would be hard pressed to find again in cricket.

  • testli5504537 on December 15, 2007, 11:40 GMT

    Those predicting 5-0 and 3-0 victories for India were dreaming. Even against the weakest Pakistan team ever further marred by illness and injuries, India was only just about a better side. The third test draw was of India’s own making though. A slightly earlier declaration would have given them another victory.

    The series was generally fought without any major incidents. However it was a real disappointment to see the like of Kumble behave with Yousaf the way he did. Yousaf, as we all know is such a mild mannered person who can’t even hurt a fly even if he tried. So, it was quite surprising to see Kumble acting in that manner and has surly dented his “clean cut” image.

    One other big disappointment was India’s ungamely vociferous appealing at everything that hit the pads which was really putting-off the Umpires. It made even Ian Bishop mention that such appealing would have affected a weaker umpire. This is best illustrated with a picture posted at www.cricketfiles.com

  • testli5504537 on December 13, 2007, 7:39 GMT

    I agree! He was a good player. No Gilchrist and short of being great, as many have better averages overall. Any rational comparison has him near the elite, second eleven perhaps. Maybe he stands out when compared to his mediocre team mates, but he's been good to watch and seems a nice guy.

  • testli5504537 on December 13, 2007, 5:06 GMT

    I'm very thankful to Mukul for his great BLOG and specialy writing about Great Sri Lanken Cricketer even though Mukul is not a sri lanken. I beleive Writers like Mukul is very important to keep the Criket as a Gentlemant's Game.

    And further more I'm thankful commentors like John Lennon writing true from the over the world.

    I liked Jayasuriya first because of of his STROKES but later beause of his qualities as ahumble and wonderful human being

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