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January 31, 2014

From 'sarong Johnnie' to national icon

Janaka Malwatta
Ranatunga drew a line in the sand for Sri Lanka when he backed Murali against the umpires  © Getty Images
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Sri Lanka always had cricketers who made the world sit up and take notice.

Sidath Wettimuny, refined and understated, and Duleep Mendis, buccaneering and devil-may-care, were the early heroes of a nascent Test nation. Aravinda de Silva, one of the most graceful batsmen to play the game, was Sri Lanka's first true great. In an era of Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting, Wasim Akram described de Silva as the most difficult batsman to bowl to. More recently, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara have compiled over 10,000 Test runs each, putting them among the top ten run accumulators in history. And no discussion of Sri Lankan greats could even start without reference to Muttiah Muralitharan, arguably the greatest spin bowler of all time, who carried Sri Lanka's bowling attack almost single-handedly for much of his 18-year career.

But top-level sport is won and lost in the mind. One man was responsible for changing the mentality of the Sri Lankan team he captained and the individuals in it. In so doing, he forged a team that believed it could defeat all comers. Under Arjuna Ranatunga's leadership, Sri Lanka went from charming amateurs to World Cup winners. It didn't happen by chance.

Arjuna was born in Gampaha, a town outside Colombo, and went to school at the unfashionable Ananda College. In the pre-Test match era, schoolboy cricket was the pinnacle of the sport in the country, and the anglicised elite schools dominated both cricket and the back pages. Ananda College, established by the Buddhist Theosophist Society specifically to counter missionary activity, was the antithesis of the elite schools. It is well documented that a 15-year-old Arjuna was dismissed as a "sarong Johnnie" by an elderly member of the Sinhalese Sports Club when he first arrived. Colonial attitudes run deep in the colonised. Perhaps these early outsider experiences shaped Arjuna's belligerence.

He made his Test debut in the inaugural Test in Colombo in February 1982, at the age of 18. Though still a schoolboy, he led Sri Lanka's first Test fightback. Coming in at 34 for 4, Arjuna hit a fluid fifty, incidentally also Sri Lanka's first Test fifty. It was a mature and assured debut. When the match finished, he went back to school. But it is not for his batting that Arjuna is remembered.

Arjuna captained Sri Lanka on their 1995-96 tour to Australia, a pivotal tour in the team's development. On arrival, they were regarded as a harmless and exotic distraction. By the time they left, they had demonstrated a capacity for a fight. It was an ugly tour in many ways. It is said racial vilification was never far from the surface, and the tour is most remembered for the controversy surrounding Muralitharan.

Arjuna was a constant irritant to opponents throughout his career. His policy seemed to be to go where the exchanges were spikiest, and get stuck in

Murali, already an established Test player, with 22 caps, was called for throwing. Arjuna's response could have come out of the manual that showed you how to forge a unified team. He backed Murali unconditionally, remonstrating forcefully and publicly with Australian umpires. Meek capitulation would not only have imperilled Murali's career, it would have set the self-esteem of the team back severely. Instead, Arjuna demonstrated the fighting qualities of the warrior prince he was named after.

Although Sri Lanka were outplayed by Australia, they knocked out West Indies to make the final of the triangular ODI series. In the process, they honed a strategy that was a vital part of their World Cup win. Romesh Kaluwitharana and Sanath Jayasuriya opened the batting with a blaze of boundaries. Sri Lanka's blitzkrieg approach at the top of the innings was born.

Arjuna was a constant irritant to opponents throughout his career. His policy seemed to be to go where the exchanges were spikiest, and get stuck in. A powerful man, broad in the shoulder and forearm, he seemed immune to intimidation. He was certainly effective at riling opponents. I recall an apoplectic Alec Stewart screaming at his own fielders while Arjuna ambled between the wickets.

Arjuna was also influential in the policy of seeking cricketers from the provinces. At the time, Sri Lanka struggled to harness cricketing talent outside Colombo. Jayasuriya was an early beneficiary of Arjuna's vision. Arjuna brought Jayasuriya from his home town, Matara, to Colombo, and even put him up. Jayasuriya, now chairman of selectors, has given five young cricketers from the north and the eastern regions central U-19 contracts. Arjuna's legacy lives on.

By refusing to back down, by returning all and any insult with interest, Arjuna proved to the opposition, and more importantly to his own team, that Sri Lanka had earned the right to compete as equals. He certainly blew away the last remnants of the post-colonial mindset that had been directed at him at the SSC.

Sri Lanka's two most hailed triumphs, the 1996 World Cup and their first Test win in England, occurred under his leadership. His successors, notably the statesmanlike Jayawardene and the fiercely intelligent Sangakkara, have benefited from his groundwork. Different captains for different times, they had no need of Arjuna's in-your-face bellicosity. The teams they inherited knew they had it in them to stand toe to toe with the best.

Janaka Malwatta is a poet, doctor and cricket lover who lives in Brisbane. He tweets here

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Keywords: Captaincy, Legends, Mindgames

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by vatsap on (February 3, 2014, 6:00 GMT)

Ranatunga, what a leader. I am sure deep down the Aussies also admired his guts. The Muralitharan video clip in youtube is an education on how to confront and take down, unethical practice in the field. A lot of captains get bogged down by the spirit of sport etc. Inzy another legend, clearly missed this during the infamous Oval test. Handling of Shane Warne in the world cup finals, giving it back to Alec Stewart and the English all mark of a great leader. Sri Lanka, needs a Ranatunga a hard but fair player.

Posted by NALINWIJ on (February 2, 2014, 12:47 GMT)

Whoever called him sarong Johnnie did not know his background of privilege but I heard that he used to hang around the rough neighbourhood of maradana near his school that may have given his hard edge or may be he was born with it. What he gave the country is the tough competitive edge to take on countries like Australia. England certainly found this against Australia and Bangaladesh can do with someone like this. I see that Sri Lanka''s future XI as 1.Karunaratne 2.K.Silva 3.Thirimanne 4.K.perera 5.Vithanage 6.Mathews 7.Chandimal[WK] 8.Dilruwan 9.Eranga 10.Lakmal 11.Mendis and not to forget T.Perera, A.Perera, Prasanna and Senanayake and whether Mathews can lead them to the future.

Posted by stonk on (February 2, 2014, 12:19 GMT)

Him being called ;Sarong Johnnie' is pure folklore. He went to Ananda College a leading and much sought after school in Colombo and played for a leading Colombo cricket club. I respect him for standing up to the Australians but not for much else.

Posted by Rufus_Fuddleduck on (February 2, 2014, 4:28 GMT)

The last point said it all. Captains beyond Arjuna have never needed to be bellicose - it is only the first one who walks down a road that gets to experience maximum mud and grime. His behaviour is totally understandable. Article is good, only complaint is that the writer could have extended the scope to include some of Arjuna's innings. He suffers no doubt in comparison to Mahela and Sanga, but many of his and Aravinda's runs were crucial to Sri Lanka at those times.

Posted by pitch_fly on (February 1, 2014, 20:48 GMT)

Thanks for the walk down the memory lane.

Posted by   on (February 1, 2014, 15:05 GMT)

very true, AR' a man with stature

Posted by Charith99 on (February 1, 2014, 14:04 GMT)

Even after retirement he has won many hearts for his honesty which is rare for politicians. RESPECT!!!!!

Posted by Longmemory on (February 1, 2014, 7:07 GMT)

Nothing but respect for the man. A captain in every sense of the word, and such a rarity in the subcontinent. What I liked most was the unhurried style of batting - and yet, when you looked at the scoreboard, he'd already reached 40 or 50 with you barely even noticing. Seemed overweight and slow - and yet he was hardly ever run out. One of the all-time great captains in my book.

Posted by   on (February 1, 2014, 6:00 GMT)

Nice article that sums up what Arjuna has done for the game in SL. Despite his involvement in politics and the decline of the team during the latter part of his tenure Sri Lankan fans (at least those who were old enough to remember the 1990's) have a huge deal of respect for him. Interestingly Ranatunge's two biggest match winners both came from out of colombo, Jayasuriya from the south and Murali from the Central Province.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Janaka Malwatta
Janaka Malwatta was born in Kandy, grew up in London, and now lives in Brisbane. A lifelong cricket lover, his writing is informed by a passion for telling Sri Lankan stories. He writes YA fiction and performs poetry, which has been published in Australia. Occasionally he moonlights as a General Practitioner. @janakamalwatta

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