Friday, July 04, 2008

Harsha Bhogle - "Shy and mighty: At 39, there's still no stopping Sanath"

Harsha Bhogle

Posted online: Friday , July 04, 2008 at 2300 hrs IST

Sanath Jayasuriya is 39 and not yet doing all those things that cricketers look down upon while playing. He is not putting on a tie and selling real estate, searching for coaching assignments, walking into commentary boxes or indeed playing county cricket.

It’s funny how your view of the world changes once you stop playing. But Jayasuriya hasn’t stopped playing even though there are some in his country who believe he should. Instead, he is still taking attacks apart and thrilling his legion of admirers. One of them is writing this article.

He must enjoy it. That must seem a strange statement because surely everyone enjoys playing cricket. Not quite true. Often time dulls the instinct, selectors and administrators take the fun away, children tug at the heart, training becomes a chore, injuries seem to hurt a bit more and muscles take longer to recover. It is a battle most people lose by the time they are 39. And while Jayasuriya has had a few arrows aimed at him, he is still up and around, taking on young kids, sometimes closer to half his age. Yes, he must enjoy it.

I watched him closely this year when he turned up to play for the Mumbai Indians. There was still the twinkle in the eye, still the excitement of a challenge before him, the satisfaction of an innings thrillingly played; youngsters are still bowling short and wide and fetching the ball from the point boundary, they are still feeding the pick up shot that makes boundaries seem much smaller than they are. He hit a couple on the roof of the Wankhede this year and whether he plays in the IPL or for Sri Lanka, his is the wicket that is still the most sought.

Maybe that is why he is still playing, maybe there is another peak to be conquered, maybe a point to be proved, maybe just the fear of it being all over one day. But his body is holding up to the challenge, he is still turning quickly for the second and charging from point. That is the key. When the body starts complaining, it isn’t fun anymore.

Only twice in recent times have I wondered at the wisdom of continuing. In Australia he seemed to be a fraction late against Brett Lee and in the IPL, young Ishant Sharma had him bowled playing late. Against the quickest maybe the eye is a touch slow in sending signals to the brain. But those are occasional moments. In Mumbai this year the crowds wanted him to go on. “Suryaaaaaa, Surya” they chanted and he blushed shyly in the dressing room as he often does. There is little sign of the arrogance that can sometimes visit those that achieve much.

But for some reason he is putting catches down. Not the tough ones that fly by, and which he could catch, but the slow, loopy ones that he would hold ten times out of ten. Could it be the eye? Surely it couldn’t because balls are still being dispatched over point and through cover. But it is something worth pondering over.

I asked Marvan Atapattu, who is with us in our studio for the Asia Cup, how it was being non-striker when Jayasuriya was in full flow. Did he make it easier for he almost scored enough for two? Surely his partner didn’t need to worry about things like strike rates etc? Atapattu had a different point of view. He thought the pressure was on him to keep taking singles all the time since Jayasuriya was the player everyone, including him, wanted to watch. Sometimes, he said, you could almost try too hard to get a single.

So how much longer? Jayasuriya will be aware that he will be under closer scrutiny than most for the first sign of a lean patch will be interpreted as a sign of the end. But since he doesn’t have to worry about playing Test cricket, he has longer to recover, more time to work on fitness and to get the hunger back. Sometimes, when you play everyday, you don’t have time to reflect on how much you really enjoy what you are doing.

Will he celebrate his 40th on the field? I suspect he would put his money on it!

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