Sri Lanka August 14, 2012

The wasted talent that was Ajit de Silva

Nirgunan Tiruchelvam
Ajit de Silva was one of the finest left-arm spinners that Sri Lanka has ever produced. He had nagging accuracy, biting turn and a lovely loop. Standing over six feet, he could extract bounce from the tamest of tracks

In little over a month, Sri Lanka will host the World Twenty20. It has been 30 years since the island's inaugural Test. Neither Twenty20 cricket nor Sri Lanka as a host of a world event seemed a prospect in 1982. 

Most of the current players were not born then. They should heed the lessons of the tragic hero of that match - Ajit de Silva.

Ajit de Silva was one of the finest left-arm spinners that Sri Lanka has ever produced. He had nagging accuracy, biting turn and a lovely loop. Standing over six feet, he could extract bounce from the tamest of tracks. 
De Silva was a master of drift, a quality that made him a formidable customer irrespective of the surface. His deliveries used to hiss in their flight. They were like grenades once they pitched. Only Erapalli Prasanna, among Ajit's contemporaries had that ability among finger spinners.

Ajit de Silva's first class statistics are solid but unremarkable. He took 161 wickets at 27 a piece in 53 matches. A ten-wicket haul eluded him.

But, the figures are misleading. His appearances were infrequent. Sri Lanka's club cricket was not recognized as first-class. The statistics do not record his dominance. Club cricket was more intense in the 1970s and 80s than today. There were only a dozen clubs, which is half of today's number.

World-class batsmen like Duleep Mendis, Roy Dias and Anura Tennekoon were in their prime. National players had no option but to play club cricket. Today, our national cricketers rarely play domestic cricket. Ajit de Silva was the leading bowler during the heydays of club cricket.

In a club match for Bloomfield against SSC, Ajit de Silva took nine wickets in an innings. The tenth victim was run out. It is no wonder that Arjuna Ranatunga once rated Ajit de Silva second only to Muttiah Muralitharan.

The highlights of his career were the unofficial Test matches that Sri Lanka used to play in the pre-Test era. He dismissed the Indian maestro Gundappa Viswanath seven times in eight innings. In 1981, he took 9 for 100 in an unofficial 'Test' in Colombo against Kim Hughes. This paved the way for the Sri Lanka's elevation to Test cricket.

The inaugural Test match was played on a dusty track at the P Sara Stadium in Colombo. As the leading spinner, he held the fate of the match in his hands. In the first innings, he toiled for 30 overs taking 2 for 52. Greater deeds were expected in the second innings, as England had to bat last.

However, Sri Lanka's batsman were brilliant, but brittle. A classy 77 by Roy Dias was followed by a shocking collapse. John Emburey used his height to skittle out the Sri Lankans on the fourth morning. Seven wickets fell for eight runs amounting to a procession of batsmen. The match ended with a seven-wicket win for the visitors within four days. 

Ajit de Silva played three more Tests with limited success. His powers were in decline at precisely the wrong moment, as he began to drink heavily. His strength and stamina suffered. 

In October 1982, the lure of riches ended his international career. Ajit de Silva joined the rebel tour to South Africa led by Bandula Warnapura.

South Africa was in the grip of apartheid. Coloureds were accorded third-class status. This pariah state was in desperate need of international cricket.

The Sri Lankan rebels shamed the country. They were the first coloured team to tour South Africa. Ajit de Silva was the main draw in this ramshackle bunch of club cricketers. Some of the players were on the fringes of national selection like Bernard Perera. Perhaps, they were embittered by the lack of opportunities. Others were minor players in club cricket like Flavian Aponso and Lantra Fernando. 

Ajit de Silva's betrayal had karmic consequences. On the South Africa tour, his extravagant turn deserted him. He could not even land the ball. Jimmy Cook, a heavy scorer in county cricket, was initially wary of him. Reports of de Silva's prowess had reached him. But de Silva could not live up to his reputation. He was ravaged and went wicketless in the two 'Tests', conceding over 7 runs an over.

Fittingly, the tour was a disaster both financially and in cricketing terms. The Weekend Post, a South African newspaper, reported that "Unfortunately, due to their [Sri Lanka] disappointing performances on the field, the crowd attendance was poor". "..Their real weakness was their bowling". 

The Sri Lankan rebels lost both 'Test' matches by an innings, as well as all four one-day matches. Even the side matches against South African domestic teams such as Natal and Transvaal ended in innings defeat. The pace of the South African bowlers and the professionalism of their batting was overwhelming. The vast South African grounds were simply too large for the hapless visiting fielders.

Ajit de Silva was banned from all forms of cricket for 25 years. He dabbled in politics, but remains a forgotten figure.

His fall from grace has lessons for our current players. The pot of gold that Ajit de Silva coveted was not sustainable.

In 2008, Mahela Jayawardene's team lobbied for a tour to England to be scrapped in favour of the IPL. Cricketers became agitators. But like the South African rebel tours, the IPL has not been a limitless pot of gold. It has not always been advantageous from a cricketing point of view. For example, in part, due to the IPL, Lasith Malinga, was recently taken to the cleaners by India, his once-feared yorkers proving ineffective against them.

There is only one way for the present players to avoid Ajit de Silva's fate: they must give Sri Lanka their full priority.

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • testli5504537 on September 5, 2012, 8:05 GMT

    Ajith was without doubt the best leftarmer we have ever produced, I todate remember the ball he bowled sudath Maunaweera with at Peradeniya Campus grounds, bowling round the wicket from the very edge of the crease, the ball which pitched a foot and a half outside leg stump, hit the off stump of Muna's wicket with his sweep hitting thin air, this was magic of the first class and todate , for me it even rivals Warne's ball of the century, sadly for SL he was lost to the game like so many others and this happens even now the best examples are Charith jayaweera and S Jayaratne who played for tamil union (left arm fast medium and left hand bat)

  • testli5504537 on August 17, 2012, 14:30 GMT

    Oh..god! 161 wickets in 53 matches without ever getting a 10-for,and you call this bowler a great!and even comparing him with legendary Prasanna.What sort of a contribution had Mr.Ajit given to win a single international match for Sri Lanka? I would be happy had you mentioned Mr.Antony Opatha instead of this Ajit.Antony Opatha(aka "Tony") was also a member of the rebel tour.But he gave a good contribution to win our first ODI in 1979.He was a promising fast bowler.We missed him a lot.

  • testli5504537 on August 17, 2012, 10:39 GMT

    As sad as Ajit de Silva's story is, to compare his rebel tour to SA with the IPL is a load of rubbish. By all accounts, Ajit de Silva wanted to make the most of his cricketing skills at the fag end of his career. The fact that cricketers especially in the 1970s and 80s had to fend for themselves financially is not even considered by your blog. Today's Sri Lankan cricketers are hardly paid on time either. To financially secure themselves is not a bad thing at all especially since their playing days are limited to 15 years at best.

    While you may have a point with Malinga's lower performances, it does not tell the whole story either. Half truths often mislead. Malinga is more potent with reverse swing, which is negated with 2 new balls instead of one. Also Malinga's over all performance and average has considerably come down since 2007, he has not been as effective as he was at the start. That has nothing to do with IPL either. This is such a misguided article.

  • testli5504537 on August 16, 2012, 15:59 GMT

    There are more dangerous sides of SL cricket than this isolated facts of an individual. Cricket administrators have taken the SL cricket to the cleaners so that they cant question back any player. If KPetersen incident happened in SL would the SLC have the backbone a player & ask for explanations ?

  • testli5504537 on August 16, 2012, 14:38 GMT

    The only other candidate to Ajit de silva was another left arm bowler called daya sahabundu who having played him could never understand what the hell he was bowling, he could bowl 6 different balls and all with minor adjustments.

  • testli5504537 on August 15, 2012, 19:08 GMT

    This article is ghost written by a SL board official to persuade SL players to continue playing for SL despite not receiving salaries ;-)

  • testli5504537 on August 15, 2012, 8:16 GMT

    Indians have played Malinga well not because of the IPL because he is not that effective with the two new balls as there is no reverse at the end of the innings and he is highly predictable with his yorkers .If he dont change soon he will be taken to the cleaners by all and sundry.IPL is not responsible for that.What a waste of an article about an ordinary cricketer and comparing him with an all time great.

  • testli5504537 on August 15, 2012, 6:53 GMT

    I was a kid and junior level cricketer when TNCA used to host Srilankans before their entry into the international cricket and I have seen Ajit DeSilva and some other greats of Srilanka like duleep mendis, roy dias, warnapura, kaliperuma, tennekoon, another desilva and others, I believe if my memory is right they used to participate in few tournaments like Buchi Babu and MJ Gopalan trophy and TN used to have guys like Krishnaswamy, Belliappa, sivaramakrishnan who used to feast on srilankan bowling. You have quoted that he took the wicket of Vishwanath 7 out of 8 times. I acknowlege the genious of Ajit but Vishwanath was past his prime and also those were unofficial tests which were used to encourage srilankans rather than dishearten them and if Vishwanath would have batted as he is capable of even when not in his prime he could have made Ajit and others cry, which vishu being a gentleman didnt like to do that. This is not to descredit his ability though.

  • testli5504537 on August 15, 2012, 2:20 GMT

    There's a significant moral difference between touring Apartheid South Africa and choosing to play in a domestic 20-20 tournament. I'm not a huge fan of the IPL but I'm dubious that you can put too much blame on it for Malinga having a bad tour. I'll also point out that when the cricket board has been significantly behind on player payments the attraction of a tournament that actually pays players might be quite high.

  • testli5504537 on August 14, 2012, 23:13 GMT

    Very true about Ajit - I have read so many great things about him, unlucky there is no a single video footage of his bowling.

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