November 07, 2005

The moody face of Sri Lankan cricket.
Is Sanath Jayasuriya the last reminder of a bygone era that Sri Lankan cricket refuses to let go off? By Gaurav Sethi

Notice Sri Lanka’s game plan in the on-going series – it’s uncannily similar to 1996. To top that, now a few key players are also playing far too many key roles.

Ranatunga’s masterstroke in the 1996 world cup was to promote Sanath Jayasuriya from a forgotten tail-end batsman to opener and chief destructor in charge. At the top of the order, Sanath blazed with little Kalu. Strain you ears and you can almost hear Tong Greig go – “Kalu has come to the party!” Their job was simple - to attack, attack, attack! End of story, start of glory. The World Cup was won and Sanath became part of Sri Lankan folklore.

Though not everybody else had it that good. For starters, the multi faceted Kalu self destructed, and went on to retire prematurely. Worse still, Ranatunga and Arvinda, key players and strategists from that golden run, retired around the same time, leaving a huge void in Sri Lankan cricket. Lankan cricket may never see another cricketer of Arvinda’s class or Arjuna’s guile, but it has been widely believed that in Kumara Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene the future of Sri Lankan cricket was secure. As for Jayasuriya, it appeared, he would always be there to win games single-handedly - at least in the subcontinent against teams like India.

Unfortunately for Jayasuriya, from a pinch hitter he now has to play multiple roles – (almost like Tendulkar was meant to be attacker, sustainer and winner for a long time). There has also been an attempt to slide Sangakkara into Arvinda De Silva’s role of champion player. Brimming with ability, Sangakkara is saddled with the task of attacking and consolidating almost simultaneously. However, he also has the added responsibility of keeping wickets and being senior council to Atapattu at all impromptu crisis meetings. Imagine Gilchrist with all that? Won’t quite pack the same punch will he?

Then again, Sangakkara is perceived as the prime threat, and has already made a classy hundred in the series, while batting through the innings. However, the added responsibility of playing such an innings does take it toll, and Kumara failed in the next two games. Worse, Sanath Jayasuriya is yet to fire in the series. Previous wins, especially against India, always saw Sanath running amok, whether it was with Srinath, Prasad or Zaheer. For years, India’s medium pacers were clueless, not knowing what lines or lengths to bowl. For years, it really didn’t matter. Sanath Jayasuriya, possibly made a lion’s share of his runs against India – triple hundred in tests and some biggies in one day games as well.

You might wonder what has changed today? Why has Sri Lanka been so beatable in the Videocon series? For one, Jayasuriya at 36 is the senior statesman of the side. Plagued by injuries, he is still expected to open the innings, and smash the bowling round the park. Will someone tell Moody (the coach) and Marvin (the captain) that this is not circa 1996 and Jayasuriya is not getting younger.

Unfortunately for Sri Lankan cricket have not found a player like Virender Sehwag – someone who could take the pressure of Jayasuriya and the repetitive madness of one-day cricket; that demands a rotational policy among top players, if their fitness is to be maintained. While India has over the years had the successful combine of Sachin and Saurav opening; the timing of Sehwag’s arrival cannot be undermined – off late, the loss to Indian cricket via Sachin’s frequent injuries and Saurav’s loss of form, both were too some extent negated by Veeru’s presence. However, for Jayasuriya there has been no such reprieve. Even in the present series he nurses an injury, and only turned his arm in the 5th game. While Sachin Tendulkar sits back and takes a breather after four frantic games.

Of course, Sri Lanka has Marvin Atapattu, the captain. As a player though, he is stylish and at best rock steady in the one-day version. Almost like a vintage Dravid (strike rates are similar too); but today, even The Wall has acclimatized to the rigours of One Day cricket, and his strike rate is on the up – touching 70. Which reads better when coupled with an average of nearly 40.

What really ails the Lankan one-day team is the inability of a supposed top player like Jayawardene to either master the role of Atapattu or of Jayasuriya – with an average in the early 30s, and an average strike rate around 70, he has still not mastered the role of either attacker or sustainer. And that, after being given top billing for years, from senior pros like Ranjit Fernando, in the box.

Talking of which, may be Lankan cricket hasn’t been thinking out of the box. For years, classy bats like Jayawardene and Arnold (who has been in and out of the team) have rarely, if ever, had any competition. They have continued to play in the same mode, lacking consistency, more so, when playing overseas – where their records (like of most other team players) are abysmal.

The options tried, haven’t really come off - even Tillekratne (an ex-captain) who was more in the test mould couldn’t cement his place in the one-day team for long. Where as Gunawardene with his crazy quick-fire approach, lacked consistency and didn’t find favour after a few games. Which meant, back to the likes of Arnold (who at least had won games initially). What’s that they say about a known devil…

So, that’s how it is. And Sri Lankan cricket has not been able to nurture fresh talent – they are still stuck at the Yuvraj and Kaif stage of the early 2000s– for them that would be the Arnold and Chandana stage. Since then, new faces have emerged and vanished with the regularity of one of those vintage Jayasuriya flicks behind square. But that seems like a long time ago.

Although unlikely as it seems, there might be one last hurrah from the maestro of the 1996 World Cup. Amen.

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