Aravinda de Silva: The end of the Road

So the time has come to say farewell. An old man's hesitation and tardy running may have cost him the chance of a fitting swansong but the memories will live long anyhow. Aravinda de Silva, Sri Lanka's greatest batsman and the longest-serving player in international cricket, has finally called time on an glorious career that stretches back nearly two decades.

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Despite being 37-years-old and balding fast, he remains capable with bat and ball. Indeed, Sri Lankan cricket officials have already tried to persuade him to stay on for another six months. But de Silva, like any great performer, appreciates the value of timing. Money is not a concern and there is now nothing left to prove. For a man always motivated by the big occasion, a World Cup exit was perfect and now he will begin a new life.

Unlike so many professional cricketers who hang up their boots and wonder "what next?" de Silva's future is already mapped out. Coaching is not his calling, although he is a master cricket strategist and technician, and his soft voice will not sit well alongside the orchestrated hysteria of Tony Greig on microphone. Instead, he seeks the challenge of business; a field that tests the same fierce competitiveness that saw him amass 15,645 runs in Tests and ODIs.

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Already he has proved himself a sound commercial operator: he has been a board member of one of Colombo's largest conglomerates, sold mobile connections to the war-ravaged north, set-up and sold one of Colombo's leading Indian restaurants, silently invested in a series of other ventures and played the stock market with the same dexterity that allowed him to milk the world's best spinners. When de Silva moves, Colombo's businessmen watch. Scoring runs and making money requires ruthlessness. And despite being blessed with the kind of charm that made Canterbury's tea ladies melt, reminding them of bygone eras when cricketers were gentlemen, de Silva is ruthless.

But de Silva will not be remembered for his commercial exploits, no matter how great they will be. De Silva and Sri Lankan cricket have been joined at the hip during the last 19 years, walking side by side on a journey of self-discovery. When he first strode out to bat in international cricket, against New Zealand at Moratuwa way back in March 1984, Sri Lanka had only six ODI victories under their belt and were still two years away from their first Test win. Today, as he lays down his blade, 178 ODIs and 32 Tests have now been bagged and World Cup semi-final appearances invoke disappointment not joy. During that two decade journey there has been a transformation: of man and country.

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During those early years, Sri Lanka were the whipping boys of international cricket: smiling, charming, stylish, talented, but, all too frequently, losers. De Silva was cast in a similar mould: unfailingly polite, soft-spoken, an artisan with the bat but one who specialised in cameo performances, apparently content to play second fiddle to the main act. Dubbed Mad Max for his daring approach and unquenchable urge to dominate, he starred frequently but all too briefly, lighting up a game with his potential but falling short of fulfillment. Even today his statistics, astonishing as they are, tells the tale: on 75 occasions he has passed fifty in an ODI but only 11 of those were converted to centuries. He was the playboy of Sri Lanka cricket: women swooned and fast cars were his passion.

But during the mid-1990's things started to change: style met substance and the purple years commenced. Kent were fortunate enough to hire his services with the metamorphosis in full swing. He plundered attacks across the country, swung mighty sixes into the Tavern Stand during Lord's finals and made friends wherever he went. Canterbury fell in love. Graham Cowdrey, a teammate, still remembers his farewell: "When he packed his bags, he hugged each of us, and I have never known a professional sports team so close to tears."

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And then there was the 1996 World Cup, a tournament that produced the finest moment of his career: a match-winning performance against the Australians in the Lahore final as he pinched three wickets with his off-breaks and then laced the bowlers to all corners on his way to a sizzling hundred. His semi-final performance was, perhaps, even more memorable. He arrived in the middle with both openers in the hutch and only one run on the board. A capacity 100,000 plus Eden Garden's crowd vibrated with delight. Calmly and boldly, he counter-attacked, unveiling his full repertoire of strokes. It was not an attack born out of desperation, but a controlled assault, a rare mixture of power, precision and finesse. 14 boundaries and 66 runs later his greatness was assured and Sri Lanka's arrival in the big-time was confirmed.

Afterwards, for two prolific years, he vied with Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara as the best batsman in the world. Between 1997 and 1999 he played 24 Tests, scoring 2195 runs at an average of 66.5. In 1997 alone he scored seven hundreds and two fifties in just 11 Tests. Unfortunately, the powers started to diminish thereafter as selection squabbles and controversy took its toll.

The match-fixing furore threatened a humiliating end as Indian bookmaker Mukesh Gupta claimed in the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) report that de Silva and captain Arjuna Ranatunga were entangled in the scandal. The Sri Lankan Cricket Board launched an independent inquiry despite stanch denials. Eventually the pair were cleared as Gupta refused to testify in a court of law, but by then the damage had already been done. His interest in the game was waning; the selectors wanted him cast aside and, after England' s 2001 tour of Sri Lanka, he drifted into the wilderness, hanging up his boots for the best part of a year.

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A lifeline was thrown at the beginning of 2002 when a new selection panel was convened. De Silva grabbed his chance, shedding 12 kilos as he sought one final fling on the international scene. Picked first for the Test side during Sri Lanka's tour to England, he also won a one-day recall as the selectors looked to strengthen the middle order for the World Cup. His return produced flashes of a glorious past but never recovered the sustained brilliance of his pomp. Nevertheless, he remained the most feared batsman in the middle order, capable, as he was throughout his career, of single-handedly changing the course of a match. The fact that his semi-final run out by Andy Bichel spelt the end of Sri Lanka's 2003 World Cup campaign spoke volumes of the veteran's enduring importance to the side.

As de Silva finally puts his fading pads to bed and turns his full attention to his loving wife Sarita and baby son Sampras, he will do so in the knowledge that he touched greatness. He may not have matched the phenomenal consistency of a Tendulkar or Waugh, and he may not have scored as many big hundreds as he should, but, for brief moments in his career, he elevated batting to heights achieved by very few. Quite simply, he brought magic to the game. His cricketing journey has ended but the legacy will live on. A new era in Sri Lanka cricket now beckons and de Silva, more than any other individual, helped ensure their arrival in the big time.