IF God played cricket, he would play like Aravinda de Silva,” says Zimbabwean captain Alistair Campbell. He’s probably right. On the eve of the Singer Cup finals with Australia, de Silva said a prayer, locked himself in his room, took his phone off the hook and went to bed early at 10 pm. The next day—September 7—he smashed his way to 75 runs off 64 balls, the 38th half-century of his career. That took his tally of runs in the Singer series to 334, and took his team to victory. It was a sledgehammer knock, simply unstoppable: no bowler came close to dragging the de Silva name to his list of victims on the World Tel graphic monitor.
With each tournament, the Sri Lankans are getting more accustomed to the idea of winning. Now people have stopped wondering whether their World Cup win was a fluke. The question now is when they, with their gladiatorial style, will be recognised as a team comparable to the greatest ever—Clive Lloyd’s eleven. They are a class act and, at the moment, few can match their ability to combine a radical approach with so much zest. Post-match, Australian captain Ian Healy was gracious in his praise: “If any team is taking cricket to a new evolutionary leap, it’s the Sri Lankans.”
Says Asanka Gurusinghe, Sri Lanka’s bearded number three batsman: “After the Australia tour, de Silva was very hurt with the things that happened and kind of took it as a personal affront. Since then, he has taken upon himself to see the team to victory each time. He’s so determined that the team should do well that he does not want to leave the scoring to the next guy. That’s what behind his four not-outs in the tournament.”
For Sri Lanka, the 50-run win in the Singer final was their third straight triumph over Australia and effectively reaffirmed their world champion status. Says Healy: “They played great cricket. It’s going to take other teams some time to copy the way they’re playing right now. First the openers go after you and everybody knows by now that their success is not a fluke. Then this demigod comes in by the name of de Silva. If you set the field close, he goes over the top. If you spread the field, he finds the gaps. Unless he self-destructs, there’s no way of stopping him.”
Divinity, it’s turning out, is easily mentioned in the same breath as de Silva. But the man, like most of his amiable mates, is not entirely bereft of earthly desire. He’s always had this strange fetish for luxury cars. The fact that he comes from a wealthy trading family has helped—his mother presented him his first at the age of 17. Now, de Silva has five cars, amongst them a BMW, an Audi and a Volvo. And now a Kia sports car—good going for a man who likes the driving seat.
Says Healy: “Right now, everybody’s trying to control the two openers. Teams are only reacting to what they’re doing. It’s taken Sanath Jayasuriya more than a 100 one-dayers to evolve into the player he is today. He’s a 10-over batsman.”
Cricket has seen sloggers before. So what’s special about Jayasuriya and hunting partner Romesh Kaluwitharana? It’s simple. Today’s captains, oriented to the cut-throat run-battles of one-day cricket, have become very good at preventing normal scoring by innovating new field positions that cut run angles on the field. In this light, the assaults the Lankan duo launches on the world’s opening bowlers becomes all the more creditable.
Even selection policy has adapted itself to provide a support system. The team management goes out of its way to assure the two openers that their place in the side is secure even if they get out cheaply. Explains Sri Lanka’s coach Dave What more: “Even though Kaluwitharana did go through a bit of a lean patch in the World Cup earlier this year and afterwards, we didn’t let that affect him at all. Now, he has come good in the finals. We personally don’t like the phrase ‘we will win’. That puts too much weight on our shoulders. What I tell the team is to concentrate on what it takes to win.”
The finals showed the team is quick on the uptake. De Silva hammered what could be called a vote-of-thanks half-century. Roshan Mahanama fielded brilliantly to get Mark Waugh out early. As if the superb run out wasn’t enough, he took what was arguably the most spectacular catch in the deep in the last 10 years to grab the last Australian wicket to fall, that of Glen Mcgrath. And earlier in the innings, Muthiah Muralitharan took another stunner to dismiss Stuart Law, an on-the-run dive that scooped the ball inches from Mother Earth. Upal Chandana took four wickets. And so it went…
This cavalier attitude spills over from the field and colours their personal lives. Sanath Jayasuriya, for instance, holds forth on his selection process for girlfriends in the same breath as he talks about cricket. In relaxed conversations, his team-mates analyse the possible scenario if the LTTE decides to disrupt a match—not really something to worry about, they concede later, as Prabhakaran is a cricket fan and watches all their ties.
It’s easy to catch these off-the-cuff nuggets. For, in contrast to the stiff, protocol-bound Indian team, the Sri Lankans are a happy-go-lucky lot and one can easily walk into their rooms for a chat or accost them anywhere in the hotel premises. If that isn’t possible, all of them are armed with cellulars and are always agreeable to a conversation. At best, you might get asked whether manager Duleep Mendis has given clearance; but none of them bother to crosscheck anyway. They are a bunch of nice blokes, eminently likeable for their in-it-for-the-pleasure kind of attitude.
If one were to award points for accessibility, the Indians would come last. The press isn’t supposed to approach players without the manager’s consent, but only the Indians follow the stricture seriously. Every approach road, ultimately, leads back to manager Sandip Patil. As for the Zimbabweans, one just has to call them and they invite you over to their rooms. The Aussies are more elusive—at training sessions, they pull their caps over their
faces to frustrate photographers. Try chasing an appointment, and you find them acting strange. The typical exchange goes: “Ahm, may I talk to Steve Waugh please?” “I’m afraid he isn’t in at the moment.” You recognise the voice though.
Personality traits tend to encroach onto the field, but the Sri Lankans are of late learning how to put an edge into their cricket, Aussie-style. Which means they will no longer be intimidated by Aussie sledging, a past weakness. Says former England captain and television commentator Tony Greig of the Lankans: “I think they are the intimidating team now. Their level of confidence was even higher than in the World Cup. The Aussies had a leak in theirs.”
In the first Sri Lanka-Australia group match, Steve Waugh showed his flair for some old-fashioned sledging by picking on Kaluwitharana. The diminutive opener lost his concentration and promptly got out to the next ball. (Subsequently, the ICC was to slap a three-month suspended sentence on Waugh for arguing with umpire B. C. Cooray in the match with India.)
In the tense final, it was the Sri Lankan’s turn to return the compliment from his position behind the stumps. The altercation saw the umpire intervening to cool tempers, but the deed was done. Before anyone could say Romesh Kaluwitharana, Waugh was walking back to the pavilion.
And during his own opening knock of 58 off 45 deliveries, ‘Kalu’ didn’t let Healy behind the stumps spoil his concentration. Two evenings back, he was sponging wicket keeping tips off the Aussie skipper, of whom he is a great admirer.
For Healy himself, the match was an experience that left him fatigued, but wiser. Says the veteran keeper: “The way their bats-man were going after us, I found the going tough. The experience is going to make me a better vice-captain once Mark Taylor returns. I would be interested in seeing, however, if the Sri Lankans play the same way in the next World Cup in England, where the pitch won’t be conducive to their kind of play.”
As of now, though, Healy doesn’t think the Aussies would try to change their style to counter the Lankans. “Our style is more Test-oriented. We would have to overhaul entirely to adapt to this style. Right now, for us, winning in this part of the world with these kind of pitches is still a small priority.” Sour grapes, Ian?