Teams: Sri Lanka
One of my earliest memories of cricket goes back to the year 1992. It was an Australia v Sri Lanka match played at the P Saravanamuttu Stadium in Colombo. Australia batted first and got around 250 in their 50 overs. The Sri Lankan openers that day were Roshan Mahanama and Hashan Tillakaratne. Both got out within the first few overs. Asanka Gurusinha at No. 3 made a painstakingly slow fifty. Aravinda de Silva came at No. 4 and smashed the Aussie attack that consisted of McDermott, Whitney, Dodemaide and Moody all over the park and made a run-a-ball hundred.
But just when it seemed like Sri Lanka was going to steal an unexpected win, Aravinda got out. Australia saw the opportunity and clawed their way back in with a couple of quick wickets, leaving Sri Lanka needing about 30 to win in the last 3 overs. At the crease, Sri Lanka had Arjuna Ranatunga who had to shepherd the tail, and finish the game.
Finishing chases in the subcontinent is an art as much as it is a science. Spinners slowing it down, forcing the batsman to generate all the power, the ball gripping off the surface and turning square at times, the discoloured white ball, the heat, batting gloves drenched with sweat. In my mind, there have been three great ODI finishers in subcontinental conditions - Javed Miandad, Arjuna Ranatunga and MS Dhoni.
All three have fascinating similarities. Stocky, portly even, in build, with tinges of gray in their hair in the latter stages of their careers, all three had a Don Draper like presence - confident but not self-absorbed. All three were respected in the Western cricketing fraternity but were not necessarily looked at as Spirit of Cricket material.
All three had the ability hit the ball to unorthodox areas in the ground that were hard to protect.
Miandad was one of the earliest proponents of the reverse sweep. Ranatunga had a trademark flick that would bisect the leg-side field with surgical precision. Dhoni has the helicopter shot that can send even the fullest balls into the stands.
All three were perceptive runners, excellent judges of the quick single and seemed to always know of opposition fielders, their throwing arms, their aches and pains and the times when they were taking their afternoon siestas. And all three knew how to take it easy and conserve energy, when there was no incentive to hare off.
Most importantly, all three had the ability to bring their A game under pressure.
Cricket is Sri Lanka's biggest pastime, perhaps its only major one. Cricket is played in beaches, in alleys, in classrooms when teachers are late, and inside office lunch rooms. Cricket is played with tennis balls, leather balls, plastic balls that reverse swing, taped tennis balls, rubber balls and even pingpong balls. Softball bats are made from a wide variety of wood. In the Pita Kotte area where I grew up, a suburb of Colombo, there was a local kreeda samajaya (cricket club) where the bats were hand-crafted by the batsmen themselves. Some of the bats that were made would have left the engineers who work for big bat manufacturers in awe.
To me, the greatest thing that happened to Sri Lanka following the 1996 World Cup win was the transmission of cricket to villages. Before 1996, Sri Lankan teams were predominantly composed of players from bigger city schools. In the 1970s and 80s it was mostly the elite schools in Colombo such as Royal, St Thomas, St Peters, Amanda and Nalanda. The late 80s and early 90s heralded the emergence of cricketers such as Sanath Jayasuriya from Matara, Muttiah Muralitharan from Kandy and few others from Kurunegala and Galle.
Still, talent from the rural areas had a mountainous task on its hands to make it in Colombo, in cricket and in life. To begin with, they had to get to Colombo. It is said that when Sanath Jayasuriya first came to Colombo to take part in a youth team audition, he had asked for a chance to bat early so that he could catch the last bus back to Matara. I remember the tour of the Under-19 Indian team led by Ajit Agarkar that played against Sri Lanka in 1996-97, and even then the Sri Lankan team consisted of players mainly from the bigger schools. There was Kumar Sangakkara from Trinity, Russell Hewage from St. Benedict's, Hemantha Boteju from Thurstan, and Rangana Hearth from Maliyadewa. All these schools had the infrastructure and strong alumni support to run cricket programs. The vast majority of the Madhya Maha Vidyalayas (town based schools) from rural areas did not, even as late as 1996.
Jayasuriya was the first rural Sri Lankan player to make his mark as an international star. Lots of sports analysts think of Sanath as someone who possessed tremendous natural ability, which he did, but a lot of them forget his unwavering desire to succeed during his formative years. For five years, from 1989 to 1994, Sanath did for Sri Lankan Cricket what the Chandimals and the Thirimannes have been asked to do for the team now (and what the Mubaraks and Kapugedaras failed to do in their time). Sanath was prolific, having scored back-to-back 200s in the Sri Lanka B team tour of Pakistan in 1989, but had no choice but to bat at Nos. 7 and 8 due to the top-order slots already being occupied by heavyweights like Aravinda, Gurusinha and Ranatunga. Sanath would come in to bat in the last 3-4 overs and get out trying to clear the boundaries.
He knew he had to build more muscle so he started working harder in the gym. He also knew that he had to add value by improving his left-arm spin and by being as asset in the field. I still remember the two brilliant catches he took against South Africa in the 1992 World Cup game.
Sanath got his opportunity to bat up the order around 1994. He was given a few chances at No. 3 when Gurusinha was out of the side and he batted with gusto and flair. I remember him opening in a game against New Zealand and making 140 which was the highest ODI score by a Sri Lankan batsman at the time. He made the limited opportunities he got count, probably more so than anyone else in world cricket. The forearms were becoming bulkier and the self-doubts were slowly but surely being conquered.
In 1996, when Phillip DeFreitas ran in to bowl in the World Cup quarter-final, Sanath Jayasuriya was ready. It was a classic case of preparation meeting opportunity.
Life in Sri Lanka in the 80s and 90s was complicated. There was a brutal war going on in the North. There was an insurgence of youth from 1987 to 1989 leaving many killed. There were riots in 1983. There were bombs in Colombo that went off near schools targeting children. There were terrorists, there were freedom fighters, there were rebels and it was all blurry. Blurry and tangled. Our survival was nothing short of miracle.
The biggest difference between the first world and the third world is that in the first world you have a higher probability of achieving your potential. There is no guarantee but the probability is higher. Exponentially, in some cases.
And in the end, whether a nation or an institution or sports team succeeds depends on how well it can capitalise on its human potential. The smaller the difference between potential and achieved potential is, the more successful your society, your organization, your team is going to be.
When Kevin Pietersen faced rejection in South Africa, he had a way out - his British passport allowed him to move to England and to realize his potential. Manny Ramirez came from an impoverished background in Washington Heights, New York but was part of a system that was tolerant enough to see his potential and allow him to flourish. Diego Maradona was only eight years old when he was spotted by talent scouts while playing in the neighbourhood club Estrella Roja. Maradona was part of sub-system that was visionary enough to identify raw soccer talent very early on, even when the larger socio-political landscape was dysfunctional.
Sri Lanka has come a long way since those dark days during the war but there are still miles to go in terms creating a system that identifies nurtures and unleashes the true potential of its citizenry, be it in sports, business or art.
I still vividly remember the way Arjuna went about his business that day at the P Sara. He was in his element, waiting to seize the right moment, like the great Ali against Foreman. The singles were walked briskly, energy getting conserved in the process, while the twos were run with more purpose. There were glides and dabs, and flicks and sweeps. There was finesse and force, and charm and cunning.
And in the 48th over, Arjuna hit 20 runs off Craig McDermott. It was clean, precise, single-minded power-hitting. There was not a pinch of self-doubt. There were two sixes. McDermott did not know what had hit him. His system had not prepared him for this kind of assault.
Arjuna had delivered the final blows. For a polarized nation finding its feet. For the bruised and battered. For their hopes and dreams. For the mothers of the disappeared. For the ones who could not flourish. For the resilient few who showed up every day amidst all the chaos. For the love of the game.
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