Couch Talk

'I don't blame Arjuna for my early retirement'

Former Sri Lanka batsman Asanka Gurusinha talks about playing and coaching in Australia, and tactics during the 1996 World Cup

Subash Jayaraman: Could you talk about school cricket in Sri Lanka, which is pretty huge? Also, your playing relationship with Hashan Tillakaratne from a young age?
Asanka Gurusinha: Hashan and I started playing together from the age of seven. So we go a long, long way back. I was captaining the Under-11 team and he was the vice-captain. Even at that age, I saw him scoring hundreds for the school side. Hashan and I put on a partnership when we were ten years old - an opening partnership of 200-something, and we both got hundreds. Our families know each other very well. That friendship kept going.
When we were young, we didn't know Test cricket. When I was playing school cricket, there was no Test cricket in Sri Lanka. I always wanted to play cricket and I know Hashan did. It is something that we both cherished. Over 40 years, the friendship has been just fantastic.
SJ: At the time, Sri Lanka was still young as a cricketing nation, with not a lot of opportunities to play first-class cricket. How did you go about developing your batting? You were known as a patient No. 3 batsman.
AG: I used to listen to the radio, because we didn't have TVs initially. We used to play in the backyards, playing England v Australia. There were players whom I knew and I thought I wanted to do this one day. I never dreamt, to be honest, of playing for Sri Lanka and of winning a World Cup.
In school cricket I was a very aggressive batsman, but after coming into the national team and then in 1986, when I was asked to bat at No. 3, that was when I changed my style.
SJ: Who were some of your batting role models and the people who helped you with your game?
AG: I think my role model was David Gower. I loved to see him. He was so relaxed that sometimes [people said] he was too relaxed. The record speaks for that as well. He could have been like Mark Waugh, who had a fantastic record. I enjoyed watching him.
The people who helped me - Hashan and I both can say one person right at the start of our careers - a gentleman by the name Raja Athukorala, who, from the age of seven, when we were in school trained us and disciplined us. That was really helpful at that age. A gentleman by the name Nelson Mendis actually took me under his wing in school, and that was when I improved a lot.
Outside school, I had two people who helped me throughout my cricket career - WAN Silva who was the manager and coach, and a few times the assistant coach in the 1980s and early 1990s, and Ranjit Fernando, who is a commentator as well. Ranjit and WAN helped me a lot. They knew me as a kid as well. For them it was very easy to look at my batting. If I was not scoring well, they would get me into a net. They were always available. Those two gentlemen helped me a hell of a lot.
SJ: Though you debuted in 1985, it was only in 1991 in New Zealand that you hit your first purple patch. What was the maturing process as a batsman like, from 1985 to 1991? What went right for you on that tour?
AG: I think when I made my Test debut in 1985, I didn't take it too seriously. It was just another game for me, I don't think I understood too much about the importance of the Test match.
In my first Test, against Pakistan, I played against Imran Khan, Javed Miandad. So I go back a long way with those guys. People like Mudassar Nazar, Mohsin Khan, Qasim Umar - those were the guys I played with. The Indian side - I was privileged to play against Sunil Gavaskar. To sit next to him, talk to him - I enjoyed that part.
But then I had a stint in Australian district cricket in 1988-89, where I scored heavily in that season in Melbourne. After that, I changed my attitude. It helped me against the bouncing ball and I knew how to handle short-pitched bowling. District cricket in those days was very strong. I played against Merv Hughes and Tony Dodemaide. We played on greentops in New Zealand with Danny Morrison and Chris Cairns and all those guys. That helped me a lot. I was always good against pace right at the start. When I am settled, I handle spin pretty well.
SJ: Eventually you went on to play in Australia again, after international cricket. Could you talk a bit more about the set-up there?
AG: These days it has changed a lot. There is so much cricket happening, you never see a Australian Test cricketer playing in a district game anymore. That is what is missing - district cricket. I realised that these guys [district players] train very hard. We would practise for three hours and then do one and a half hours of fitness work straight after that, till about 9.30-10 in the night. I realised the commitment needed. They trained so hard in the middle. That changed my attitude to training. I became fitter after that tour, and I have spent more time on my fitness since. They had their fitness trainers and gyms. In Sri Lanka, we didn't have a gym like that to walk into in the 1980s. The state-of-the-art gymnasium in the club that I played in in Australia - North Melbourne - was right next to the pavilion. I think that the environment changed a lot, the way I handled pressure.
SJ: You also hold the record for scoring one of the slowest Test centuries! Apart from that New Zealand tour, what are some of your fondest memories from your Test career?
AG: My first Test hundred, at 19, is always something that I will cherish a lot. I got that against Pakistan who had Imran, Wasim [Akram] and Abdul Qadir - I thought that was one of the best bowling attacks that I had faced on turning wickets.
New Zealand has been a happy hunting ground for me. I have about three Test hundreds and a couple of fifties there. You mentioned my slowest Test hundred - I was coming back from injuries and a lot of people didn't realise that. Zimbabwe were bowling a foot and a half outside the off stump in the Test match with eight fielders on the off side and only one fielder in the leg side who was at mid-on. We lost wickets because Aravinda [de Silva] and others started chasing balls outside the off stump. We just had to bat on. That was the start of their [Zimbabwe] Test careers, the bowlers weren't quick or difficult. I won't say that that was one of the greatest innings, but that showed how tough I am to mentally handle it. I look back and wonder, "Why the hell did I bat for so long?"
The last one that I would like to talk about is the hundred at the MCG. At that stage, no Sri Lankan had scored a century at the MCG in a Test match. I played against probably two of the world's greatest Test bowlers - Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, and Craig McDermott, Paul Reiffel and Mark Waugh. I scored 143. I can still remember that by lunch I was in my 70s. I scored pretty quickly.
Another thing I will mention is that Shane Warne has never got me out in Test cricket. I have two Test hundreds against Warnie. I think I have played about five Tests against Warnie, and I am proud to say that I am not one of his 700 victims! But I must mention that I never went after Warnie. I realised what his strengths were and didn't let him get to me. I don't think he bowled well against left-handers. If you look at his career, he didn't like bowling to left-handers because he didn't have a good googly. Whereas Mushtaq Ahmed and Abdul Qadir bowled fantastic googlies and that's how they troubled the left-handers. Warnie had the flipper, legspin and all that, but the googly - he always flighted it in those days and you knew it was the googly.
"A lot of people might say that India should have batted first in the 1996 semi-final. If we were India, I would have done the same and put Sri Lanka in, because Sri Lanka were always wanting to chase"
SJ: You were the sixth-highest run-getter in the 1996 World Cup, averaging over 50. With Jayasuriya, Romesh Kaluwitharana and Aravinda de Silva around you, was it Arjuna Ranatunga's plan to let you bat in your own way? And how did you keep yourself under control even with the other batsmen going hell for leather from the other end?
AG: We had a plan from the start. We knew that we had the most experienced batting line-up in the '96 World Cup. If you take the top seven to eight players, we had more than 1000 ODIs between us, whereas none of the other sides had that. We knew our batting line-up had a lot of experience in handling pressure and we knew we had five players - Arjuna, Aravinda, myself, Roshan [Mahanama] and Hashan - who had a lot of experience in one-dayers. Sanath and Kalu [Kaluwitharana] were given the green light to go hell for leather. My job was to bat around them. I knew what I had to do. As long as I was doing my job, I wasn't worried about how many balls I faced. I knew if I batted 50 overs, I can get a hundred, because I can be aggressive if needed. We were lucky that the top order scored in every match and we didn't have to use the lower order at all. Aravinda and I had three 100-plus partnerships, Sanath and I had two in six games. Arjuna's instructions were: "I don't care what anybody else says but this is your job."
I heard that when Stephen Fleming was in the country recently to promote the 100 days to the World Cup 2015, Arjuna said that I had carried the team. It's good to hear that from the former captain and a good friend now, but at that time I didn't think like that. I was supposed to do a job for the country and as long as I did it, I was happy.
SJ: I want to get your thoughts going in to the final and also as the match unfolded.
AG: Going in to the final, I thought we were very relaxed. We were not really putting ourselves under a lot of pressure and we kept playing the way we'd been playing. Each person in the team knew the job they had to do. When I say relaxed, we were still serious and absolutely focused but we were still joking around and feeling relaxed in the dressing room and the hotel. We trained hard as we had three days before the game. We did a night session when we realised there was dew at Lahore. But that didn't change anything since our tactic was always that we can chase and win. The dew had no role in us batting second. We were going to bat second no matter what happened.
In the semi-final, we lost the toss and India put us in. To be honest, if we had won the toss, we would have chased in Calcutta as well. In the final, we went in with a really good plan. When you look back, Sri Lanka executed their plans very well in every game of the World Cup.
SJ: You would have played Australia in the round robin stage but they chose not to come to Sri Lanka, along with West Indies. Was there any added motivation while facing them in the final, to get back for that?
AG: Absolutely. It was added motivation. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't. The things started in Australia with Murali's chucking incident; we were accused of ball-tampering, which we didn't do, and we proved it wrong. So many things had happened in Australia. We had that motivation of wanting to beat them in the World Cup. Especially when they didn't come to Sri Lanka, but it's all history now and we won the cup.
Beating Australia was always on our minds, but I wouldn't say it was "getting back at them", it was that they were the best side in the world and you wanted to beat them.
SJ: Could you talk a bit about Aravinda's innings in the semi-final? Was it part of the game plan that he would continue to attack even if early wickets fell?
AG: I don't think we told anything to Aravinda, to be honest, throughout the tournament. The batting plan was around Arjuna, Roshan, Hashan and myself. Sanath and Kalu knew they had to go out and put pressure. They were great batsmen and we didn't have to tell them anything.
Aravinda to me is a legend and the best batsman Sri Lanka has ever produced. I know a lot of people will say Kumar Sangakkara, but he is a very close second to me. Probably I am biased because I played along with Arvi for so long, and I am good friends with him. He could play any game he wanted when he went out to bat, and our plan was to work around the game he was playing. That World Cup he was in unbelievable form and that really helped us. I haven't seen anybody play the way he did, on that Indian wicket. Every ball was hit from the middle of the bat. I can still remember him hitting some shots off [Anil] Kumble, just left and right of the fielders and they were rocketing to the boundary. His 60-something and Roshan's fifty took us to a total which we always knew was going to be difficult for India.
As I said, we each had a game to play and we played it very well. We didn't panic in the game, even though Sachin [Tendulkar] was in unbelievable form. We knew if we took Sachin and Azharuddin, couple of wickets like that, we could get on top. We knew the wicket was difficult, since we struggled on it when we were batting. It was not an easy wicket to play on.
A lot of people might say that India should have batted first. If we were India, I would have done the same and put Sri Lanka in, because Sri Lanka were always wanting to chase, why should you give them that opportunity? It was one of the greatest games I've played in and it was sad that it ended the way it did. Hundred thousand people screaming, that atmosphere, that's the best place in the world to play.
SJ: This is a question from a listener, Dennis: What was Arjuna like, as a captain and as a person? Wasn't there a period when things weren't smooth between the two of you?
AG: Yeah, everyone knew about the few things that were happening between the two of us. I had played under about four captains for Sri Lanka, and to me Arjuna was the best. One thing I knew was that once inside the field, he would back me. His game plan, and the way he plays with you during the game, I've never played with anyone who played like that.
He is a very nice person. He has got a very good heart, prepared to help any time. We were very close friends from when we were 17 or 18. We played for SSC together. The Ranatunga family and my family are very close. We have gone on trips together with both families. I was more close to Nishantha [Ranatunga], who is the current SLC board secretary, than to Arjuna. While playing, Arjuna and I had a fantastic relationship. Our eldest sons were born just 18 days apart.
There were a lot of things like that, but certain things changed and Arjuna and I did not see eye to eye from about the middle of 1995 or early 1995. I think it started with Dav Whatmore coming to Colombo. But inside the ground, I knew he would back me and he knew that I'll give him everything I have. We both had that confidence in each other, but it was sad at that time there was no trust between us [off the field]. It was after the World Cup that it got worse. I came to a stage when I didn't enjoy playing. When I got the offer to play three seasons with North Melbourne, I took the offer and the rest is history.
Since our earlier friendship was strong, we since have talked and met and have got back our friendship. Whenever Arjuna comes to Melbourne now, he stays with me. Whenever I go to Sri Lanka, I'll always meet him. He'll pick me up from the airport if it's needed.
We were both promoting the World Cup in Papua New Guinea in September and spent seven days together. I am not blaming Arjuna for my early retirement. At the end of the day, it was my decision, but I didn't think it wasn't a pleasant place for me to play. It wasn't just Arjuna, it was the Sri Lankan cricket board as well.
SJ: A lot of your 1996 World Cup team-mates are now back in cricket as administrators, in the media, and some in Sri Lankan politics. Do you feel you could have been associated with Sri Lankan cricket in that way? Is there a chance of you being associated with Sri Lanka cricket any time in the future?
AG: Absolutely. I'll never say no to anything. To me, I would always want to give something back to Sri Lanka. There were about two to three times in the last ten to 15 years, when the board was talking to me about some positions. We discussed in detail but it didn't materialise because we couldn't agree on certain things. Currently I have had some discussions with Nishantha Ranatunga about a few things I could do from Australia.
I'm a Level 3 qualified coach in Australia, and I have a lot of business experience as well. I'm managing sales for a German company here - about $40m in business. So I have two sides of it - cricket and business. My children are grown up now. My wife and I would like to retire in Colombo and would love to do something for Sri Lanka cricket. But it has to be something that is mutually beneficial for both parties.
Whatever others might say, Nishantha Ranatunga has done a hell of a lot for the game there. The other person I've followed with interest is Sanath Jayasuriya as chairman of selectors. When he first came into that position, I thought that was the wrong position for him and he wasn't going to do well. But he proved me wrong. Bringing all those youngsters and rebuilding that team, and their playing, fitness etc, you have got to thank him for that. I think these two guys are the reason I might go back one day. I trust them and I know what they have done for Sri Lanka cricket. If I can grow the cricket from where they are now to another level, well, I'll be the happiest.