December 26, 2009

Sanath makes batting easy

In ODIs and Tests alike, Jayasuriya deflated bowling attacks, taking pressure off his team-mates

My oldest memory of Sanath Jayasuriya is of the time he was asked to open in Tests, and he scored a century, in Adelaide. Later that year, he had the whole nation glued to the cricket during the 1996 World Cup.

Immediately he was one of the big stars, up there with Aravinda de Silva and Arjuna Ranatunga, but to us, youngsters in their formative years, Sanath was much more. Here was a man from a humble background, from down south, perhaps the first "outstation" player to make it big, changing the way cricket was to be played - not only in Sri Lanka but the world. It said to every youngster growing up in Sri Lanka at the time that he too could achieve anything. Apart from Sanath, Muttiah Muralitharan was the other big player to come from outside the main cricket centres, but it took Murali time to become a hero for the country. Sanath's appeal and impact were immediate.

My first memory of Sanath as a team-mate is my debut, the famous Test where he scored 340 against India. When I first met him as a team-mate, I found him to be a very simple person. The remarkable thing - and the biggest lesson for others - about him was that he hadn't changed at all in the years till then. He was still the same person, his game was still the same. It told me, as a youngster, that I was in the team because I had something, because I had been doing something right. Normally youngsters, when they come to Test level, try to change things, but here Sanath was. He had made slight technical changes here and there, but the core of his cricket had remained the same.

In the dressing room Sanath is no Murali. Then again, not many are. He is quiet and simple, but whenever there is a contribution or a point to be made, he makes sure he does it, and in the right spirit.

As a captain, and as a senior player, he has always been aggressive, and he has wanted to see aggression in his team. He does get angry at times - he would as a captain too - but he doesn't go wild. You could see it in his eyes, though, and like any leader he was never short of a harsh word or two when it was needed.

Before heading to Australia in 2005-06, we had a team-bonding session down south, which is his part of the world. We had a lot of water activity lined up, which he loved. It involved banana boats, and he warned us it could be dangerous. We took the warning lightly and went about it. There was an accident and one of the guys fell on Sanath's shoulder, dislocating it. He was out for the first half of the tour and was really disappointed, but he took it in the right spirit. And his comeback innings was a match-winning century.

When he is playing one of those special innings and you are padded up to go in next, you have to keep reminding yourself that you are not Sanath and that you can't just go out there and do the same

When he is playing one of those special innings and you are padded up to go in next, you have to keep reminding yourself that you are not Sanath and that you can't just go out there and do the same. The only bigger joy than watching him bat is to bat with him. When you are batting with him, you see that the bowling side is spending all its energy focussing on him, which ends up taking all the attention off you. You can quietly slip in, keep taking singles, keep doing your job, and let Sanath do the rest. Batting doesn't come much easier.

While Sanath is given due credit for his revolutionising ODI batting, scoring at eight or nine an over, his Test batting often didn't get as much credit. I have seen him score 96 in the first session against South Africa in Galle - against a decent attack featuring Shaun Pollock, Makhaya Ntini, Jacques Kallis, Paul Adams and Lance Klusener. Such innings deflated bowling attacks. They took out all the venom, and made it easy for the batsmen coming in. That sort of batting was not common in Tests when he started playing in that fashion, but it came to be recognised slowly.

My favourite innings of Sanath's - there are so many in one-dayers - was played in a Test, at The Oval in 1998, in the same match in which Murali took 16 wickets. England had already scored 445 in the first innings. Teams would have been pleased to have drawn that match after that, but Sanath's 213 at a strike-rate of 75-plus stunned England and gave us enough time to bowl them out again.

I am not surprised at all that Sanath has survived 20 years in top-level cricket. He was one of the first professional cricketers from the country. Before 1996 we had a lot of talented players, but we had no fitness routines, nobody to tell us what was the right way to go about things. But with Dav Whatmore and Alex Kountouris coming, we developed a professional approach. And Sanath was among the first ones to catch up with it. He is still as hungry as the next youngster; his eye may have slowed a bit, but he makes up for it with his work ethic and fitness. At times, even at 40, he can be faster than some of the youngsters in the field.

Outside of cricket, Sanath is a busy man. He has many friends: he has not let go of them as he has gone along. He is a big star and everybody wants to know him and wants to be associated with him, but like with his cricket, the core of the man has remained the same.

Former Sri Lanka captain Mahela Jayawardene is the country's leading Test run-scorer