Marvan Atapattu November 21, 2007

A fighter and a frank talker

Tragically, one of the finest batsmen in Sri Lanka's history, a technical artisan with a cover-drive from heaven, has ended his international days in a fog of injustice



Look back in anger: the controversial last few months of his career might overshadow Marvan Atapattu's earlier achievements © Getty Images

Marvan Atapattu's retirement announcement was widely expected in Sri Lanka after the second Test in Australia. All his recent public comments, most obviously the amusing "muppets and joker" broadside at the selectors, indicated a man poised to bid farewell. Tragically, one of the finest batsmen in Sri Lanka's history, a technical artisan with a cover-drive from heaven, has ended his international days in a fog of injustice. If Roshan Mahanama had not already used it, Retired Hurt would be the most fitting of autobiography titles.

The Atapattu saga has been a sorry and disruptive affair that stretches back to 2004 when Ashantha de Mel, during his previous term at the helm, clashed with Atapattu, the captain at the time, over the axing of Tillakaratne Dilshan for a two-Test series against Pakistan. Ironically, on that occasion de Mel was determined to blood young players. Three years later Atapattu has publicly condemned de Mel for being too reliant on the older brigade. In truth, back then Atapattu was furious not so much because of the policy but because the decision was forced upon him without any consultation whatsoever.

Ever since, Atapattu has been deeply suspicious of de Mel's motives as chairman of selectors. While he was not overly enamoured of the team management as a whole during the time he watched the World Cup earlier this year from the bench, he blamed de Mel the most, apparently convinced that his omission was personally motivated. Unfortunately, like any top-flight sportsman with self-belief, Atapattu simply could not accept that the ODI team was better balanced without his massive experience.

Rather than try to understand that Chamara Silva's sudden emergence just prior to the tournament was the chief reason for his misfortune, Atapattu descended into a schoolboy-ish sulk. After being omitted for the ODI series in Abu Dhabi that followed, he grew even more distrustful and started looking at other options, signing-up with Lashings CC and starting negotiations with the Indian Cricket League (ICL). Offered a berth for the Bangladesh series last July, he saw a snake trap where others saw a golden opportunity to resurrect his Test career.

The selectors publicly stated that they wanted him to play Test cricket and for Sanath Jayasuriya to concentrate on ODI cricket. Even his team-mates wanted the same, aware that even at 36 he had plenty to offer in the longer game if he could retain his fitness. Mentally he was far stronger than at any time of his career, and during the next 18 to 24 months he could have been a far better player than his final career average of 39.02.

The problem, though, is that Atapattu is a proud and stubborn man. And unlike many others, he steers his own ship. He felt victimised - not for the first time in his career - and he was not going to bow to a selection chairman he distrusted and disliked. Only de Mel's departure would have paved the way for a proper recall. But that was never likely. de Mel's political support base is rock-solid in the current climate. So Atapattu started to plan for life after Sri Lanka.

It is possible that he will wake up one morning and regret some of the decisions he has made during recent months, but this is improbable. They may have triggered his downfall, but his straight-talking honesty and open dislike of the extremely politicised cricket set-up in Sri Lanka have always been among his most endearing characteristics. Atapattu had little time for Sri Lanka's cricket administrators and wasted even less trying to ingratiate himself with them. When cricket politicians tried to get him to play their games, he invariably ran in the opposite direction.

It is possible Atapattu will wake up one morning and regret some of the decisions he has made during recent months, but this is improbable. They may have triggered his downfall, but his straight-talking honesty and open dislike of the extremely politicised cricket set-up in Sri Lanka have always been among his most endearing characteristics

Sadly this controversial last year might overshadow his great achievements as a player, and especially as a captain.

The way he fought his way back into the team after the abysmal start to his career, scoring piles of runs in domestic cricket, was a lesson in bloody-mindedness and determination. Once back in the team, he grew better and better as he gradually overcame all his inner demons.

His greatest weaknesses as a batsman were his nerves at the start of an innings, his often appalling running between the wickets, and the traditional subcontinental frailty outside the off stump, especially on bouncy pitches. However, these frailties gradually faded in significance as he matured in his thirties into a top-class batsman. Technically he had no peer in Sri Lanka and his unbreakable concentration helped him to six double-hundreds. His off-side play was his strongest suit and his skill against the slower bowlers was exquisite.

His captaincy tenure was cut short by his back injury, but he was also an accomplished leader when he was finally, apparently reluctantly, handed the reins. Indeed, another irony of his World Cup fate was that he had played an important role in laying the foundations for the team's success, helping to foster a new team culture that embraced egalitarianism, self-improvement and personal responsibility. This fact has been frequently acknowledged by the current captain, Mahela Jayawardene, who referred to himself as the interim leader for many months after taking over.

Whether Atapattu plays any further part in Sri Lanka's cricketing future remains to be seen. His abrasive relationship with the establishment will always make it difficult for him to fit in and the likeliest scenario is that he will carve out a career overseas. The ICL might be his immediate priority, and then a relocation to Australia to play club cricket appears an increasingly likely possibility. A TV commentary role has also been discussed. Whatever he does, though, one thing is for sure, he will do it his way.

Charlie Austin is Sri Lanka editor of Cricinfo

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