Samir Chopra September 2, 2009

The Duleep and Roy Show

A staggering display of flair and style from two batsmen in a Sri Lankan team that was still struggling to find a foothold in world cricket

One of the things I promised myself I would do when I started writing on Cricinfo was to point out cricketing achievements that didn't seem to have been noticed enough by the cricketing world. I'm not sure I've done that adequately yet, but thought I'd make a start by talking about two Sri Lankan batsmen who played two of the most amazing innings I've ever seen: Roy Dias and Duleep Mendis. And they did it in the same Test.

I saw Dias and Mendis bat - on television at least - for the first time during Sri Lanka's first official Test against India at the MA Chidambaram Stadium, Madras, in September 1982. The monsoons had just ended in New Delhi but their traces remained: I was down with a viral fever. This meant I couldn't attend school, and would have to stay in bed. And be forced to watch Test cricket. Truly, it was a tragic time.

I knew enough about the Sri Lankans by then to know they weren't pushovers. They had handed India a crushing loss in the 1979 World Cup when they were (unfairly) regarded as minnows, and in their first ever Test, had put up a brave fight against England. Still, they were relative unknowns in my mind. I didn't know what to expect when the first day's play started.

To say that I was taken aback on the first day was an understatement. Mendis smashed 105 off 123 balls with 17 fours and a six. I could have sworn his square-cutting and driving was the fiercest I'd ever seen in my life. Indeed, I thought this short, burly man with bulging forearms would decapitate an Indian fielder or two by the time he was done. I had seen Viv Richards and Collis King batting in the 1979 World Cup final, but I was suddenly doubtful whether they hit the ball as hard as Mendis. Later that evening, when I was talking about the day's play with my uncles and brother, I struggled to explain just what a revelation his batting had been. The flair and style on display had been staggering.

The Sri Lankans might have been unknown, but they had suddenly created an indelible impression; they had rattled along on the first day, scoring 311 for 8, at a run-rate then unknown in Tests in India, before ending up with 346. India easily outstripped this relatively modest total and posted a 220-runs lead - they did have a strong batting line-up of their own.

Some time was lost to rain on the third day but the Lankans still faced a daunting task when they began their second innings on the fourth day. Matters quickly became worse as the first wicket fell with only six runs on the board. At this stage Dias walked out and launched into an amazing counterattack.

The best way to describe this innings is to mention one simple statistic, which I've never forgotten, and never will: when his score reached 61, Dias had hit 15 boundaries. I've never seen that percentage approached by any batsman in any class of cricket for a score of over fifty since. The boundary rate slowed down thereafter, as did Dias. Finally, when he was out - almost sparking tears in me - at 97, the score was 157. The Sri Lankan second innings continued on the fifth day, and amazingly, Mendis hit a second ton as they went on to make 394 at four an over. India needed 175 to win as time started to run out, but were thrown into a spin by Asantha De Mel who grabbed a five-for to reduce them to 130 for 7 before Gavaskar batted out the last few overs to ensure a draw.

Phew. What an impression to make in your first Test against the local big league. And how. Thanks Duleep. Thanks Roy. I'll never forget those innings.

PS: Wisden disputes my memory of the Dias innings in saying "Dias scattered the Indian attack, reaching his 50 in 53 minutes with twelve 4s." By that calculation, he would have had to make 62 to include 15 boundaries and not 61. But this is one occasion where I trust myself more than the Almanack. Part of the reason Dias' innings sticks out in my mind is that it was always 'fours plus one', and I kept waiting with bated breath to see when he would score his second non-boundary run. And the reason I remember 61 so clearly is that that's when it happened. So I'll back myself against the Almanack. Only the scorer's sheet can settle this dispute.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here