CRICKETER OF THE YEAR 1997

Sanath Jayasuriya

Great players invariably possess an individuality that imprints itself forever on the memory: the ethereal grace of David Gower's strokeplay, the brightly scrubbed, soap-opera fantasy of Australia's leg-spinner, Shane Warne, or the brooding and intelligent menace of the West Indian fast bowler, Malcolm Marshall. Techniques might be largely unchanging, or at least evolve only slowly, but those who scale the heights do so in a distinctive manner that forever sets them apart.

Sanath Jayasuriya cannot yet be classified as a great player, which makes his influence in 1996 all the more remarkable. His World Cup exploits in an unexpected Sri Lankan triumph did not just assure him of a lasting place in the game's history, but promised - indeed, for a few heady weeks, insisted - that the course of the game would change forever. Few of The Greats have ever achieved that.

It is a mark of cricket's changing emphasis that Jayasuriya is celebrated not for years of consistent achievement in five-day Tests, but for a brief outpouring of intemperate strokeplay in a one-day tournament in the emotive atmosphere of the subcontinent. Traditionalists may be wary of the accolade. But all those who witnessed Jayasuriya's audacious attacking batsmanship - most particularly against India, in a group match in Delhi, and England, in the quarter-final in Faisalabad - gaped in admiration.

This was combustible strokeplay that challenged our assumptions. Steady starts ... playing yourself in ... wickets in hand ... such tenets had been adapted, for sure, to the demands of one-day cricket, but never so freely abandoned. Jayasuriya's method of playing himself in seemed to consist of taking three steps down the pitch and carving the ball high over cover. He was batting as if in a baseball diamond, entirely overtaken by attacking intent. The defensive policy adopted by England's openers, Geoff Boycott and Mike Brearley, in the second World Cup final at Lord's in 1979 seemed the stuff of a different age.

It was the introduction of artificial attacking fields for the first 15 overs of a one-day international, combined with reliable batting surfaces, that provided the conditions for Jayasuriya to flourish. The term pinch-hitter was stolen from baseball to define an opening batsman specifically given the licence to adopt a high-risk approach in the opening overs. The very word caused some offence, but no one summoned up a more vivid description. And while other countries, notably England, viewed the new tactics suspiciously or half-heartedly, no batsmen accepted their roles with more alacrity than Jayasuriya and his opening partner, Romesh Kaluwitharana.

Their joyous, uninhibited style brought starts in the first 15 overs of 90 against Zimbabwe, 117 against India (42 in the first three overs), 123 against Kenya and 121 against England. Sri Lanka were merely tapping their inclinations. As their captain, Arjuna Ranatunga, said: "They are playing their natural game. They can hit over the in-field, so we get the maximum out of them." It was Jayasuriya who was by far the classier and more successful of the two. England attempted to quell him by opening with Richard Illingworth's left-arm spin, but Illingworth was struck out of the attack within two overs as Jayasuriya breezed to 82 in 44 balls. Even after the World Cup, he was not spent, recording the fastest one-day international century, from 48 balls, and then the fastest fifty, from 17, both against Pakistan at Singapore's Padang ground in April. Pakistan did gain rich recompense six months later, however, when Shahid Afridi hit Jayasuriya for 41 in two overs on his way to an even faster 37-ball hundred in Nairobi. One-day cricket recognises few barriers.

Sanath Teran Jayasuriya was born on June 30, 1969, in Matara, a fishing town which rests at the end of Sri Lanka's south-west coast railway, 100 miles from the capital, Colombo. Renowned for its local delicacy of curd and treacle, only in the last decade has it begun to make a consistent contribution to Sri Lankan cricket as the game has expanded beyond the traditional base provided by the leading Colombo colleges. His cricketing pedigree was scant: his father, Dunstan, who worked for Matara Council as a sanitary supervisor, had no active involvement in the game, and his brother, Chandana, abandoned it as a teenager to work in the council's fisheries department. St Servatius College in Matara, where Jayasuriya studied from the age of nine, also had a limited cricketing background, but the enthusiasm of the college's principal, G. L. Galappathie, and his first coach, Lionel Wagasinghe, ensured that his talents flourished.

In the late 1980s, Sri Lanka was in the grip of civil unrest. The government had invited Indian peace-keeping forces on to the island to try to suppress the terrorist activities of the LTTE, the Tamil Tigers, and that fuelled a further backlash from nationalist groups. Cricket tours to the island were being cancelled. It was no time to be considering an international sporting career, but in such pressing circumstances the Sri Lankan cricket authorities stalled a mass overseas migration of their top players by establishing the first-class game more firmly.

Jayasuriya, at 19, was the discovery of the first season of the new system, 1988-89. He hit successive double-centuries, in Lahore and Karachi, on a B tour of Pakistan; a Test debut followed in Hamilton on Sri Lanka's 1990-91 tour of New Zealand; and, at Lord's the following summer, he registered his first, typically enterprising, Test half-century. It was against Australia at the Adelaide Oval in 1995-96 that his maiden Test hundred finally followed, the ground's short square boundaries encouraging the jubilant square-of-the-wicket shots that have become his hallmark.

Jayasuriya's Test record remains modest, if improving. After Sri Lanka's series with Zimbabwe in September 1996, he had 830 runs in 19 Tests at an average of 34.58. Allied to that, he is a useful left-arm spinner and excellent close catcher. He has already played more than 100 one-day internationals, although only comparatively recently has he been freed from the frustrations of the lower middle order.

However unexpected his World Cup exploits were, he is no overnight sensation. Rather more, this is the story of a man who persevered in the face of considerable hardships and, when success finally came, enthralled millions.

© John Wisden & Co