Friday, July 04, 2008

Jayasuriya – Cricket’s Ol’ man River

"Ol' man river,
Dat ol' man river
He mus' know sumpin'
But don't say nuthin',
He jes' keeps rollin'
He keeps on rollin' along"

A decade ago, he was the most feared batsman in the one-day game, intimidating bowlers even as he walked jauntily to the crease.

Not much has changed since then.

Adam Gilchrist who succeeded him to the title has come and gone and Shahid Afridi another claimant to the throne is going through a rather extended lean period. But the ever-youthful Sanath Jayasuriya, like Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Ol’ man river, just goes on and on.

The tally of runs and centuries against his name keeps growing and his average and strike rate keep getting better. Not bad for someone who has entered his 40th year. In fact, only the swashbuckling left-hander could have come up with the story-book feat of getting a hundred on his 39th birthday in the Asia Cup match against Bangladesh a few days ago.

Jayasuriya made his ODI debut in December 1989 just a few days after Sachin Tendulkar played his first game in the shorter version. Today, he is well past the 400-ODI mark.

In fact, he was the first to play 400 ODIs and he has since been joined by Tendulkar.

He has retired from Test cricket, but there is no indication that he will be quitting the limited-overs scene in the immediate future. Why should there be any such talk when he is batting as fluently as ever. Why, only last year, he played in the Twenty20 World Cup and enjoyed himself, particularly, while hitting 88 off 44 balls against Kenya and followed this up with 61 off 44 balls against a much stronger New Zealand attack.

The secret behind Jayasuriya’s successful career is that he enjoys the game and that he is still young at heart. That’s why even as Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and Tendulkar, all a few years younger, opted out of the Twenty20 World Cup, Jayasuriya was still around to regale audiences in South Africa.

But, then of course, he has been regaling audiences all over the cricketing world for almost two decades.

With the proliferation of ODIs, it was always on the cards that a player would reach the landmark of figuring in 400 such games sooner rather than later, and it is but fitting that this honour should go first to Jayasuriya. It is a tribute to his skill, enthusiasm and fitness levels that he has lasted so long, and like good wine, he only seems to be getting better with age.

Why, his birthday century came up off only 55 balls, the sixth fastest in ODIs.

`The Matara Mauler’ has lit up one-day cricket at the highest level ever since his power-hitting at the top of the order enabled Sri Lanka to win the 1996 World Cup. In fact, at Jayasuriya’s peak, in the mid- and late-90s, his buccaneering batting emptied bars as followers of the game rushed to their seats to watch him take the bowling apart. Similiarly, cricket fans rushed to the TV sets as Jayasuriya wasted little time in hitting the new ball to all parts of the grounds

Fours and sixes flowed off his blade and I was once a happy witness to Jayasuriya and his opening partner Romesh Kaluwitharana bringing up Sri Lanka’s fifty in 3.2 overs against Kenya in the World Cup match at Kandy in 1996. He was certainly the batsman whom bowlers did not want to come up against, for it was mayhem from ball one. He intimidated bowlers like few batsmen have done, dispatching even the good balls to the fence by virtue of his extraordinary hand-eye co-ordination and super-fast reflexes complimenting his natural talent.

He has more than his fair share of notable feats in the shorter version of the game - still the fastest 50 (off 17 balls), a century off 48 balls (the fifth fastest), the highest partnership (with Upul Tharanga) of 286 for the first wicket, being the only player to complete the double of 10,000 runs and 300 wickets, the second highest individual score along with Vivian Richards (189), second behind Tendulkar in the list of run getters and century makers (26), a still impressive career strike rate of almost 91.

Remarkably, he has also been an outstanding player at the Test level - the second highest run-getter for Sri Lanka with over 7000 runs at a pretty impressive average of 40 coupled with a bag of almost 100 wickets. Till Mahela Jayawardene overtook him by scoring 374 Jayasuriya held the record for highest individual score for Sri Lanka (340 against India in 1997).

In the new millennium, as players like Adam Gilchrist, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Shahid Afridi, Andrew Symonds and Virender Sehwag have upped the career strike rate to anything between 91 and 111, Jayasuriya achieving the status of elder statesman, has stayed in the background. But he remains dizzily dangerous and no bowler or captain can take his challenge lightly.

Sri Lankan coach Trevor Bayliss has made it clear that he is in no hurry to pension Jayasuriya off despite building a team for the next World Cup being staged in Asia in 2011.

Soon after taking over last year from Tom Moody, who guided Sri Lanka to last year’s World Cup final, Bayliss sought out Jayasuriya. It was one of the first things I did, admitted Bayliss. “I asked Sanath what he intended to do and he told me that as long as he was enjoying his cricket, he would continue,” Bayliss added.

Jayasuriya seems to be doing that at the moment. And that is good news for cricket fans everywhere.

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