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Ramachandra Guha

Four Sri Lankan masters

From Mendis to Sangakkara, a look at a few iconic batsmen who shaped Sri Lanka's cricket

Ramachandra Guha
Ramachandra Guha
Aravinda de Silva had superb footwork and a wide range of strokes  •  Getty Images

Aravinda de Silva had superb footwork and a wide range of strokes  •  Getty Images

In 40 years of watching international cricket, one of the absolute highlights remains an innings I saw by the stocky Sri Lankan Duleep Mendis. It was played at Delhi's Feroz Shah Kotla ground in the first week of November 1975. Sri Lanka, who had not yet been awarded Test status, were touring India, and playing the North Zone in preparation for the unofficial "Tests" to follow.
Mendis' father was a cricket fan, and named his son after KS Duleepsinhji, nephew of the immortal Ranji. Duleep, who - like his uncle - played for Cambridge University, Sussex, and England, was an artist with the bat, using skill and timing to great effect. His Sri Lankan namesake, however, relied more on brute power. On this day at the Kotla he took apart an outstanding attack, which included India's new-ball pair, Madan Lal and Mohinder Amarnath, and the great slow-left-arm spinner Bishan Bedi. Also bowling for North Zone was Rajinder Goel, a left-armer almost in the Bedi league, who would have played many Tests himself had his career not overlapped with the sardar's.
North Zone batted first, and scored 299. Sri Lanka lost some early wickets, but then Mendis restored his side's self-respect. He scored a brilliant hundred, cutting and pulling, driving and sweeping. It was a blistering exhibition of batsmanship. Some of the strokes he played that day remained imprinted on my memory; among them a lofted cover drive off Bedi that traced an arc against the sky before running over the boundary for four.
Sri Lanka were granted official Test status in 1982. Two years later, they played their first Test in England. I followed the match on the radio, listening as Mendis displayed his wares at the Home of Cricket. A sparse Lord's crowd watched him tear into the England attack, making a meal in particular of Ian Botham. If memory serves, he reached his hundred with a four and a six, both hit off Botham. (The allrounder's figures, which I have just checked, were 29-6-114-1.) Botham got his revenge the second time around. Mendis had reached 94, with nine fours and three sixes, when he attempted to repeat his first-innings feat, and was caught in the deep off Botham.
There were fine Sri Lankan batsmen before Mendis. They included FC De Saram of the 1930s, M Sathasivam of the 1940s, Gamini Goonesena of the 1950s, and Michael Tissera of the 1960s. However, these distinguished precursors were not lucky enough to play Test cricket themselves. Mendis himself was already 30 years old when Sri Lanka were granted Test status. Those who go by statistics may reckon his record to be modest - his Test average is 31.64 - but as the first Sri Lankan to confront and tame high-class bowling attacks he set an inspiring example.
For me, Mendis will always remain special, for the century I watched at the Kotla in 1975 and for the two knocks at Lord's I heard on the radio nine years later. For those too young to have seen him in the flesh, there are some decent clips on YouTube, including this one from a Kandy Test against Australia, where you can see Mendis cutting and pulling Dennis Lillee, one of the greatest fast bowlers who ever drew breath.
Both are world-class players: Mahela, silky and elegant, cutting and cover-driving; Kumar, brisk and efficient, working the ball off his legs and slashing it past point
Making his debut in the Lord's Test where Mendis savaged Botham was a young man named Aravinda de Silva. In build he was not unlike his senior. He lacked Mendis' raw power but had a wider range of strokes. His footwork was superb; reaching back into the crease to cut and pull the quicks, walking yards down the wicket to drive the spinners.
Aravinda played some fantastic innings in Test cricket. But he is best remembered, perhaps, for what he did in the semi-final and final of the 1996 World Cup. The first of these matches was played at the Eden Gardens. Sri Lanka made a disastrous start, losing their (previously prolific) openers with one run on the board. Aravinda walked briskly in, and immediately took control. He attacked Javagal Srinath (who had taken those two early wickets), while his mastery of Anil Kumble was complete. A flurry of boundaries all around the wicket ensued.
Aravinda seemed set for a hundred, till, against the run of play, a fast googly from Kumble breached his defences. By then, with his 66 off 47 balls, with 14 fours, he had decisively shifted the balance towards his side. The lower middle order consolidated his achievement, so that Sri Lanka finally got to 251, a total India never remotely looked like getting.
In the final, Sri Lanka were very much the underdogs. The mighty Australians batted first, hoping to get 300-plus. They were restricted to 241 in part because Aravinda, bowling his rather harmless-looking offbreaks, took three wickets (Mark Taylor and Ricky Ponting among them). Even so, an attack led by Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne might have been expected to easily defend that total. And so it looked when the Sri Lankan openers once more fell early. Aravinda walked in at 23 for 2. This time, he started slowly, but once he got his feet moving the strokes began to flow. He scored a controlled hundred, in which he showed he could handle Shane Warne even better than he had Kumble. (Warne's figures were 10-0-58-0.)
Among Aravinda's gifted contemporaries were Sanath Jayasuriya and Arjuna Ranatunga. His (even more) gifted successors are Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara. Both are world-class players: Mahela, silky and elegant, cutting and cover-driving; Kumar, brisk and efficient, working the ball off his legs and slashing it past point. For the last decade (and more) they have held Sri Lanka's batting together. Mahela is also an excellent slip; Sanga, a high-quality wicketkeeper.
I heard about Mendis and Aravinda on the radio in 1984; now, for the most recent Lord's Test, I watched Mahela and Sanga on the telly. In the first innings, the Old Firm put on a century partnership, Mahela getting out at 55, but his friend and partner going on to score a chanceless 147. Sangakkara got a half-century in the second innings too; without him, Sri Lanka would never have saved the Test. Both batsmen also batted well in the second Test of the series, which, like the first, had a thrilling finish, Sri Lanka getting the last England wicket in the final over of the match.
Jayawardene appears to be an immensely likeable man. His mate is nice enough but really stands out for his intellect. Sangakkara is - and not just for a cricketer - unusually thoughtful, well-read and wise. These attributes are all present in the 2011 MCC Spirit of Cricket Lecture he gave at Lord's, where he ranged widely over history, sport and politics.
Halfway through his Lord's lecture, Sangakkara referred to the pogrom against Tamils in Colombo in 1983, remembering that his own, proudly non-sectarian family, gave refuge to 35 Tamil friends. Towards the end of the lecture, he returned to the theme of inter-faith and inter-community harmony. When he played cricket for Sri Lanka, said Sanga: "With me are all my people. I am Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim and Burgher. I am a Buddhist, a Hindu, a follower of Islam and Christianity."
Sangakkara gave his Lord's lecture on July 4, 2011. On the last day of the same month I was in Colombo, speaking in memory of Neelan Tiruchelvam, a remarkable lawyer-scholar who lived (and died) for the cause of racial and religious tolerance. In the course of my talk I mentioned Sangakkara's MCC lecture, adding that no Indian cricketer, dead or alive, could have spoken with such intelligence or empathy. I was being utterly sincere - but perhaps I should have added that no English, Australian, West Indian, Pakistani or South African cricketer could have spoken like that either.
The next day I was at a dinner where Sangakkara was also present. We hardly got to speak, but when we did, he said that among the things he most enjoyed on tours of my country was the opportunity to drink Old Monk. This further endeared him to me. A great batsman, a superb wicketkeeper, a passionate and truthful public speaker, and a lover of good, strong rum too. What a cricketer, what a man.

This article first appeared in the Kolkata Telegraph

Historian and cricket writer Ramachandra Guha is the author of A Corner of A Foreign Field and Wickets in the East among other books