Aravinda de Silva September 19, 1995

Hi Ho de Silva

Murray Hedgcock

Nothing in the new Australian cricket season is more mouthwatering than the prospect of a duel between spinner supreme Shane Warne and the quick-silver master of the crease, Aravinda de Silva.

The Sri Lankan will be a key figure when his plays Australia in Tests at Perth (December 8-12), Melbourne (December 26-30) and Adelaide (January 25-29), before contesting the one-day World Series. He has a score to settle with Warne. It was against Sri Lanka only three years ago that the new spin star crashed into the headlines with a spell of 3-11 to snatch a 16 run victory when the home team seemed to have the Test sewn up. De Silva was dismissed by Greg Matthews and Craig McDermott in that topsyturvy match. He mad six and 37 - but still boasts the marvellous average of 71 for the 500 runs he has scored in five Tests against Australia.

If performances in England are any guide, this fine player consolidated his reputation and broadened his skills in remarkable fashion in the past few months. The Colombo-born batsman hit 1781 first-class runs for county side Kent at an average of almost 60 (with no not outs to inflate the figures), putting him third in the season`s aggregates, and sixth in the averages.

The right hander, 29, was a late signing when Carl Hooper, after three splendid seasons with Kent, had to join Richie Richardson`s West Indies tourists. Kent officials, players and supporters were dubious initially; Hooper had been outstanding and it was felt the first Sri Lankan Test man to join a county could not match his predecessor`s success. Then southern England`s driest summer for 400 years took over and de Silva`s batting burst into bloom like an exotic flower.

On hard wickets, with the sun on his back, he cut and drove and hooked joyously against the best bowling, to be the first to reach 1000 runs in the season (a mark set the prvious year by Brian Lara). Perhaps his finest innings was one that should have won a match, but didn`t, because his teammates could not match his example - a scintillating 112 off 95 balls in the Benson and Hedges Cup final before an enthralled Lord`s capacity crowd. De Silva had scored double centuries in his two previous first-class knocks, but had a modest run in one-day matches: this time he was in full flow, finally caught on the boundary seeking his fourth six. Lancashire won by 35 runs, but the Sri Lankan master was the obvious choice as man of the match.

The old Kent and England skipper Sir Colin Cowdrey, whose son, Graham, has shared a string of stands with de Silva, told SPORTS WEEKLY: "He`s the most delightful player who`s ever walked on a cricket field. Graham says he`s a really lovely chap. He`s a wonderful batsman - a freak really." Sir Colin said the tiny de Silva - 159cm, 3cm shorter than former Indian opener Sunil Gavaskar - uses a schoolboy bat. "It`s a special lightweight bat with a very thin handle - really a Harrow bat, the size used by boys," he said.

But if the bat is small, then the scores are big - perhaps because that light weight allows de Silva to use his wrists in a fashion impossible with the bludgeoning favored by many top players. The outspoken Geoff Boycott said: "He`s a very talented player with a lot of shots. Like all shotmakers, he`s vulnerable at the start of an innings - but if he gets going he`ll thrill a lot of people. And he certainly won`t be overawed by the bowlers or the situation."

As Hooper is due back with Kent in 1996, de Silva will have to find another club and his performances this year make it certain they will be queuing up for his services. De Silva was so loyal to his adopted country he missed the first stage of the Sri Lankan tour of Pakistan, including the First Test, so he could complete his season with Kent. But speaking just before flying out to join the Sri Lankan tourists, de Silva said he was ready to leave England because the weather was turning cold again.

He was philosophical about his hectic schedule - after the Pakistan tour he plays the Champions Trophy in Sharjah before arriving in Australia on November 22. After the Australian season, it is off to the sub-continent, a program to daunt any sportsman. "I`ll only have a couple of days off, but there`s no choice in professional cricket these days," he mused. He handled the seven-day-a-week grind of English cricket without problems. Sri Lanka has made a feeble start to its Pakistan tour, but de Silva believes once several newcomers have settled down, the team should give a good account of itself in Australia, "especially if we have the sun and good wickets".

De Silva learned his game with Nondescripts Cricket Club, making his test debut at Lord`s in 1984 in his country`s first test in England. He is the only player to reach test centuries three times with sixes. Sometimes criticised for aggression leading to impetuosity, de Silva said: "That`s my natural game - I don`t want to change because I feel confident playing that way. If someone is capable of dominating the bowling, they should do it. It`s the way I`ve been playing since I was a youngster."

De Silva recently launched a fund aimed at raising $500,00 to boost the game in his islans with an Australian-style cricket academy. But for now his focus is on Australia - and his battle with Shane Warne. "I`ll play each ball on its merits," he said firmly.