Journeyman and genius
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