July 1, 2002

Opening berth could be a lifeline for Arnold

CricInfo Staff

Russel Arnold
Arnold - middle order specialist ?
Photo CricInfo

Don't despair: in every cloud there is a silver lining; in every crisis there is some hope on which to cling. And so it is for Sri Lanka fans after a disastrous Test series against England.

As England romped to their most emphatic series win for 16 years at a gloomy Old Trafford, the one bright light of the game for Sri Lankans was the sight of Russel Arnold throwing off the shackles of poor form.

`So what?' you may scoff. But hang on a second, this was a moment of significance...and not just because he has been picked to showcase Woodworm's revolutionary new Wand cricket bat, an innovation that will maximise his productivity.

For two and a half years the 29-year-old left-hander had struggled in Test cricket, hanging on to his place by the skin of his teeth. The statistics told a sad tale. Whilst most of his colleagues were averaging in the forties, he averaged just 21.63 in all Tests from January 2000 to December 2001. His Manchester hundred was the third of his career, but the first for 43 innings.

Had it not been for Sri Lanka's nine-match winning stretch and the contributions of his high scoring teammates, the selectorial axe would surely have fallen, possibly condemning him to live out his cricketing career in coloured clothing, a form of the game in which he excels.

He was dropped once, against Bangladesh in the Asian Test Championship last year, but soon returned. The team management were convinced of his all-round value, as a cricketer and competitor, even if their exasperation with his continued under achievement became increasingly visible.

Sri Lanka's previous selection panel, headed by former Sri Lanka captain Michael Tissera, also admired Arnold. In their eyes he was a versatile and strong-minded cricketer. Maybe not the prettiest strokeplayer in the squad, but a workmanlike and intelligent player, who displayed a fierce commitment to the team's cause.

Ironically, his unselfishness contributed to a dip in his personal performance. When the South Africans toured Sri Lanka in 2000 coach Dav Whatmore was concerned about the strength of his middle order; he wanted a player with the courage to muscle the side out of a hole. And Arnold, who been very successful in the middle order in the limited overs side, agreed to drop down the order.

But the plan backfired. Arnold struggled to adapt his game, preferring the harder ball and open spaces of the top order, where he had scored both of his previous centuries. His confidence started to sag and uncertainty crept into his strokeplay. Poor fortune also played a part with a string of poor decisions heightening his frustration.

Thankfully his performances in one-day cricket didn't suffer, a fact that must have helped sustain his natural self-belief. Throughout his barren run he maintained a one-day average in excess of 40 - a fine achievement in the shortened game, especially when you are batting in the late overs.

In 2002 he started to show the first signs of form, scoring 71 at Kandy and 40 at Galle against Zimbabwe and then 44 at Lahore in the Asian Test Championship final. It was enough to guarantee himself a place in the tour to England.

As soon as he arrived it became clear that he was hitting the ball with a new crispness and authority. But although he sparkled at Lord's, where he thrashed an entertaining fifty, the real turning point proved to be another reshuffle in the order: Sanath Jayasuriya, his technique exposed against high class quick bowling on English pitches, dropped himself down the order for the final game.

Arnold, probably aware that Jayasuriya would be keen to slot back into the top of the order once the side returned to the sub-continent, grabbed his opportunity. Afterwards, as he fended off questions about Sri Lanka's defeat, Jayasuriya admitted that Arnold had made a compelling case for an extended spell as opener.

In fact, Jayasuriya may well have to make way in more ways than one. Arnold is one of the candidates for the captaincy should Jayasuriya not be able to display greater tactical acumen and stronger leadership in the forthcoming year.

And he would do a good job. Self-confidence and good communication skills have long marked him out as a natural leader, someone who could wield together and motivate the team, protecting its spirit from the disruptive political undercurrents that so hamper Sri Lanka's cricket.

Moreover, an aggressive streak could lead to the development of a more battle-hardened edge. Whilst the differing leadership styles of Arjuna Ranatunga, shrewd and arrogant, and Jayasuriya, down to earth and consensual, each have their advantages, the optimum approach is probably somewhere in between - a course that Arnold could steer well.

Perhaps he will never get the chance. Certainly there are other contenders, his friend and colleague Kumar Sangakkara being an outstanding prospective captain.

But that matters not. The point is that Arnold's performance at Old Trafford should not just have been the source of momentary celebration, but also of hope for a better future - a time when Sri Lanka's openers score more consistently, where the top order shows greater obduracy abroad and the team is led with greater verve and direction.