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Tropic thunder

Sriram Veera
Sena Vidanagama/AFP

Sena Vidanagama/AFP

A genial bodyguard waits outside the room. Inside, by a window through which the Indian Ocean glistens in the night light, Arjuna Ranatunga holds court. Clad in a lungi and a shirt, he rolls out one good story after another till late into the night - almost 2 a.m. at last count.
As you would expect, some stories are printable, others are not. Some are dipped in cricketing nostalgia, others are his thoughts on the present state of Sri Lankan cricket and his future ambitions but here we'll stick to the cricket.
Ranatunga talks with that lovely Sri Lankan lilt, where he appears to be almost singing out some of his words. He becomes animated when he talks about the best fast bowler he has faced – Wasim Akram. "He could do anything. He could bowl at 150 kph one delivery and the next ball he could knock your stump out with a slow delivery. And of course he could bowl his fastest after a few steps."
"I remember him hitting me on the helmet with a nasty bouncer," he says, ducking as he says it. "I adjust my helmet, look up and he's ready to bowl! He'd turned around after taking five steps into his bowling mark. I'm not ready, no! He runs in and again hits me on the helmet. If I'm reborn as a cricketer, I'd like to be Wasim Akram." It fits.
Ranatunga, a commanding, aggressive captain, can't be content playing those delicate late cuts - he wants to be the complete fast bowler who can swing, reverse swing, york and bounce you out."He was the most natural cricketer that I saw."
High praise considering he has been associated with Sir Garry Sobers, who was Sri Lanka's coach when Ranatunga started his career and was instrumental in getting him into the team. "Oh he was a genius. Once, in England, the ball was seaming around a lot and we were being beaten and finding the nicks. He stormed across, 'What are you lot doing? Hey fat boy! Give me your gloves.' I offered the bat as well. He brushed me aside and took out a stump.Just a stump, you know. And he played six balls and connected perfectly.
"I remember another incident. This was later, after his coaching days. I was in the nets and he was standing way above in one of the enclosures and watching me. He called me in later and asked, 'Why are you holding the bat this way?' I hadn't realised that my grip had changed. He told me what my ideal grip would be but asked me to not to try it during the tour. I changed it the next game and got a high score.
He charged after me and said, "I told you not to change the grip mid-game and mid-tour. You never do some thing like that!' And I told him, 'Sir Garry' – Ranatunga never ever called him just Sobers even once in the conversation – 'you are genius and I am a genius too. So I managed to pull it off!' We both had a good laugh. He is a great man."
The talk shifts inevitably to Shane Warne. Ranatunga traces the relationship to the first time Warne came to Sri Lanka to bowl. "There was such hype over what he would do to us. I walked in and saw that there was nothing so great. I hit him for a six straightaway and immediately Asanka Gurusinha came across and said, 'Machang cool down. Take it easy.'"
Ranatunga, Gurusinha and Romesh Kaluwitharana all hit centuries as Warne went wicketless in the first innings. "But he came back to pick up three quick wickets at the end of the second innings and Australia won. He went on to become a very good bowler indeed."
But we weren't about to let him go with that platitude, were we? "I had an injury to my hand and when I went in to bat, I was taking my bottom hand off the handle while defending. Warne had men in the deep. He walked up to me and said, 'Hey you're showing respect to Warney?'
'Respect?', I said. 'I'm crippled here and you are bowling with men in the deep. Why don't you bring them in?' He did."
Ranatunga chuckles as he adds, "I went down on my knees and hit him over deep midwicket. He then bowled a googly and I called out googly as I played it to the off side. It was good fun!"
So if it's not Warne who was the best spinner that he faced. "It was Abdul Qadir. I had problems picking his googly." Murali's doosras? Ranatunga didn't have any trouble picking Muralitharan's doosras, though.
The talk moves to Sachin Tendulkar and his admiration seeps through an anecdote. "We got him out twice in consecutive games with a man standing at short very square point. The next game, you won't believe, he never hit one shot in that region. Not one."
Ranatunga has featured in only three advertisements so far. The first was to raise funds for the General Hospital, the second for a polio drive and the third for a garbage disposal campaign. All were done for free. "I got 250 rupees for my first Test and traveled by train to the game. After that Lipton Tea came in and said they would offer me 250,000 rupees to feature in an advertisement. I asked them to meet my mother. And she told them, 'My son is not for sale'. I was lying in my bed that night when she came and sat next to me and explained her decision. I still remember what she said: 'Son, remember, never ever sell your talent and face for anything.'"

Sriram Veera is a former staff writer at ESPNcricinfo