Saturday, July 19, 2008

There is more to Sanath Jayasuriya than brute strength

CHARMED RETURN - Sanath Jayasuriya in IPL

I must admit that some good came out of the Indian Premier League after all — the great Sri Lankan batsman, Sanath Jayasuriya, withdrew his retirement from international cricket.
It was on Indian soil, during the 1996 World Cup, that Jayasuriya gave notice of his extraordinary talents. The innings with which he made his mark was played at the Ferozeshah Kotla, the ground where Vivian Richards and Kapil Dev (among others) also first displayed to the world their prodigious powers with the bat. In this match, India, batting first, had scored 271, a total that, at that time, was regarded as well-nigh unsurpassable. But the then-unknown left-hander had other ideas. Opening the batting, he scored 79 at better than a run a ball, taking his side to a comfortable win. So demoralized were the Indian bowlers that towards the end, Manoj Prabhakar was reduced to bowling off breaks.
I did not see that innings, but heard of it from friends, and also read about it in the newspapers. It was then conventional wisdom that the batting side in a one-day match paced its innings. The new ball had to be safely negotiated, a good start had to be consolidated — only then was one supposed to convert ones into twos or fours into sixes. But in that innings in New Delhi, Sanath Jayasuriya had turned this logic upside down.
One expects innovators, in cricket or otherwise, to be young and inexperienced, and hence reckless and brave (could Steve Jobs have invented the Apple Macintosh had he been the wrong side of thirty?). The odd thing about Jayasuriya was that he had already spent six years as an international player. Born in a poor family from Matara, he had moved a hundred miles up the coast to the capital of Sri Lanka, and of Sri Lankan cricket. To help him save money, Arjuna Ranatunga gave him a room in his house in Colombo. For several years thereafter, Jayasuriya was considered one of the coming cricketers of Sri Lanka. And for those several years he never came.
After hearing about what he did at the Kotla, I stoked my memory, and remembered watching him play a Test in my home town, Bangalore, a year or two previously. The indispensable guide to world cricket, the website Cricinfo, informs me that the Test was played in the last week of January 1994, that India won by an innings, and that one S.T. Jayasuriya scored 22 and 1, and bowled a few overs without taking a wicket.
Except for inhabiting the same physical form, and carrying the same name, the S.T. Jayasuriya who played in Bangalore in 1994 was not the man who played in New Delhi in 1996. In his first few years in international cricket, he was known as a bits-and-pieces player, who bowled slow left-arm spin restrictively if not penetratingly, who batted in the lower middle order, and fielded well wherever he was placed. But that single innings changed him forever. The image makeover, we later learnt, was the handiwork of the Sri Lankan coach, Dav Whatmore, who, seeing something no one else had seen before, decided to push him up the order, from number seven to number one, while instructing him to trust his reflexes and to disregard the bowler’s reputation.
The first time I can properly recall seeing Jayasuriya bat was at the Oval in 1998. England won the toss, and plodded through the better part of two days to post a total of 445. As the last wicket fell, I heard the commentator, Bob Willis, say that “surely England can’t lose from here”. But the little islanders had other ideas. By the next evening, one of them had scored half of England’s total on his own. Watching on television, I was deeply impressed by how crisp and clean his strokes were — particularly through the off-side. The fast bowlers were hit behind point, between point and cover, and between cover and mid-off. In six sparkling hours at the crease, Jayasuriya scored (as Cricinfo now confirms for me), 213 runs in 276 balls, with 33 fours and one six. Sri Lanka exceeded England’s total by 146 runs, a margin ample enough for Mutthiah Muralidharan to make Bob Willis publicly eat his words. When Murali spun out nine Englishmen in the second innings (to add to the seven wickets he had taken in the first), his side were left with 30-odd to win, and hours to get them in. Appropriately, it was Jayasuriya who hit the winning runs. As they were made, I heard Willis say, “Surely Sri Lanka will be allotted more than one Test on their next tour of England.”
In that contest, I was naturally on Sri Lanka’s side. But in later years, as I watched Jayasuriya carve a swathe through the Indian bowling, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I could not but admire the ingenuity of his strokeplay. In Tests, he played from the crease and mostly along the ground. But in the shorter form of the game, he would advance down the wicket and carve the ball over cover and into the crowd. For variation, he would flick the ball over square leg, also for six. All this I admired; what I liked less was who the fours and sixes were being hit off. I speak here of the years 1998-2001, when India — for the first time since Nissar and Amar Singh in the Thirties — had an opening attack that was less than non-violent. Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad were both very fine new-ball bowlers, who moved the ball both ways and at a brisk pace. Both were also decent human beings. And they both came from my hometown. That it was these two good men and skilled bowlers who were being given the cricketing equivalent of corporal punishment meant that my admiration for their disciplinarian was always qualified.
In those days, I defined a nightmare as what happened to Srinath or Prasad if, in the course of a night’s sleep, the person or bat of S.T. Jayasuriya was to appear to them in a dream. Srinath probably sleeps very peacably nowadays. So did Prasad, until the IPL provoked Jayasuriya to revoke his retirement and seek some more chances to take on the Indians. Now he would do to Venky’s wards what he once did to the good man himself. In that match-winning innings in the Asia Cup, he was especially severe on the Indian seam bowlers, hitting them into the crowd with the same ease as he had once hit their far-more-talented predecessors.
Anyone who watched Jayasuriya’s last innings would know that there is more to the man than brute strength. He knows how to conserve his energy, how to pace an innings, and, above all, how to place his side’s interests first. That day in Karachi, after taking 26 runs off a single R.P. Singh over, he settled down to ones and twos. Four wickets were down already, and the last recognized batsman was at the crease with him. Once the momentum had shifted away from India, he would not allow a careless mistake to let it shift back again.
During the IPL tournament, the press made some play about a century Jayasuriya was alleged to have hit for the Mumbai Indians. I say ‘alleged’, for with fifty-yard boundaries in place, half his sixes were actually mishits, which in proper cricket would have been claimed as catches. One can be certain that when Jayasuriya’s memoirs are ghost-written, that ‘century’ in Mumbai will go unmentioned. But there will be, by way of compensation, several pages on the magnificent, authentic hundred he hit against India in the final of the 2008 Asia Cup.

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