CRICKETER OF THE YEAR 1996

Aravinda de Silva

It was the biting southeaster that so discomforted him at the start of last summer. The layers of thermal garments and sweaters reached right down to Aravinda de Silva's bandy legs as he ruminated at third man over whether a season of county cricket was really for him. He spoke, when he arrived, of the need for adrenalin in his game. A one-day final at Lord's, he felt, would be his ideal stage.

Indeed it was. His 112 off 95 balls in the Benson and Hedges final was arguably the finest innings played in England last summer. De Silva demonstrated all too vividly that top-class batsmen need not be constricted by the artificiality of one-day cricket. Even when the asking-rate was reaching absurd proportions, he did not have to resort to slogging. This was as felicitous a piece of batting seen in a limited-overs final since Asif Iqbal made 89 for the same county, Kent, against the same opposition, Lancashire, in 1971. Neither of these innings could have been played by an Englishman, for the ball was feathered, not bludgeoned, persuaded, not carved. Throughout the season, De Silva batted in this manner. In the first-class game, he scored 1,781 runs at an average of 59.36. Around him nothing was happening and Kent finished bottom of the County Championship table. But his standards never wavered.

De Silva took to Lord's early in his career. He was 18 when he made his Test debut there, going in at No. 7. He did not have particular cause to remember his own contribution - 19 runs in two innings - but this was Sri Lanka' s inaugural Test at Lord's and they marked the occasion by comprehensively out-batting England. Three of De Silva's colleagues made centuries and the whole side won over a predominantly English gathering. And yet, 11 years on, there was to be no Test at Lord's or anywhere else in England for him and his country. De Silva, by now regarded as a world-class batsman, unashamedly used his innings in the Benson and Hedges final as a platform to air his grievances. "Since 1984 Sri Lanka has always played a one-off Test against England after each West Indian tour, but in 1995 we were dropped. It is disappointing because we won the last time we played England, we feel we deserve a three-Test series and, given the opportunity, we would prove good value," he said. After the way De Silva batted when the two countries last met - his innings of 80 was an important factor in Sri Lanka's victory in Colombo in 1992-93 - the marketing men ought to think likewise.

PINNADUWAGE ARAVINDA DE SILVA was born in Colombo on October 17, 1965, and, in spite of his size (5 ft 3½ in) was soon demonstrating that he possessed an exceptional talent. Like many small men, he learned to cut and hook proficiently. He started attacking the ball while playing weekend club cricket that scarcely differed in approach from the Sunday League in England. Hence De Silva's fondness for the one-day game (it was no coincidence that Kent won the League during his one season with them) and his desire early in his career not to let anything go by outside off stump. As a 19-year-old, he took part in his country's first victory, against India in Colombo, making 75 in the second innings. A decade later, he was part of the side that beat New Zealand in Napier, Sri Lanka's first victory outside their own country. It might conceivably have come earlier had England not deigned to play Sri Lanka only five times since they achieved Test status in 1981. Other issues have affected De Silva's motivation and concentration: "When the troubles were at their height in my country, the game did well just to survive. I lost my best years. It was not easy to remain motivated, training all year to play, perhaps, in just one Test."

Yet De Silva would seem to have had little difficulty in playing the long innings. At the age of 30 and after more than 50 Tests, he has a batting average that has not veered much from 40, the bench-mark of the very good batsman. His highest score, 267, was made against New Zealand in 1990-91. In addition to these accomplishments, he bowls passable off-spin that can be effective in the one-day game. His failings, indeed, have less to do with technique and character than cakes (in England) and fast cars (at home) both of which, of course, are an integral part of the game.

De Silva did not want his season with Kent to end. He would have preferred to have seen their triumph in the Sunday League through to completion rather than leave England a few days before the end of the season to rejoin Sri Lanka for the last two Tests of their series in Pakistan. "I cannot believe any player, anywhere, has been so popular," said Graham Cowdrey, his county colleague. "Ari was an inspiration to me and the whole side felt the same. When he packed his bags, he hugged each of us and I have never known a professional sports team so close to tears." - Ivo Tennant.

© John Wisden & Co