by Trevor Chesterfield
There is a growing feeling, for some of us, even a heavy touch of nostalgia, of how the national practice sessions in leafy Maitland Place will soon not be quite the same.
Maybe not this year, but sometime in the not too misty future, two familiar left-hand athletic figures will have departed the scene. One is Chaminda Vaas, aka the high priest of left-arm swing. The other is Sanath Jayasuriya, aka the Matara Mauler.
While the first named – now edging close to 35 - is missing from the Sri Lanka T20 team for a quadrangular in far off Canada from October 10 to 13, the 39 year-old flamboyant Jayasuriya is not only pencilled in the squad. He also when he returns has a confirmed date in South Africa where he has been signed by the Durban based Natal Dolphins.
In the past, the KwaZulu-Natal Cricket Union has not always had an enviable record when it comes to what could be referred to as quality signings, or even shopping events: squandering sponsors cash on a dead racehorse, believe it or not has been one of the less extraordinary examples. How the Dolphins opponents smirked over that administrative howler.
But, as their 2008/9 season looms and the SuperSport Series is about to start, the arrival of the Matara Mauler later in the summer for the limited-overs competitions at least has merit. How he plans to squeeze all this in with his Indian Premier League and other slog events is up to how he manages his fitness.
While the left-handed opening batsman’s distinguished career may be coming to the end, you could feel from the shake of his hand his rippling muscles and strength as he gave a cheerful welcoming grin one recent evening.
The way the Dolphins see it, is as it was with the great Malcolm Marshall’s input in the 1990s. Jayasuriya’s influence could be just as important in helping shape the future development of the younger players in the squad. He is still a superb cricketer and has much of value to impart.
It was last December, when Vaas, looking you squarely in the eye and with a ghost of a smile announced it’s time to quit, how immediate thoughts are that he is about to deliver a Shaun Pollock-style ‘My last Match’ valedictory message.
That really is headline stuff. There are no second guessing games here.
It indicated how his last international mission de guerre from the Sri Lanka front lines was likely to be the Commonwealth Bank triangular tournament in Australia earlier this year, and which also involved India, who went on to win it.
But there was that quiet, mischievous glint. No . . . no . . . Take it easy. It is not the time for such fond adieus: more it is about reflection and some insight from the thoughtful and highly professional Sri Lankan left arm swing bowler who now has 348 Test wickets and 400 wickets at limited overs level.
Here is the man, long the standard-bearer for fast bowlers on the Emerald Isle south of Palk Straits, playing host and honouring the media for their role in his career.
On a recent balmy evening, he held a special dinner at Waters Edge, the upmarket golf course on what could be described as being close enough to Colombo’s doorstep. There was a generous greeting from the left-arm fast bowler and smiling sincerity which made this ‘outsider’ as such feel welcome among players, friends and good colleagues.
There are often times during a game when Vaas moves into his delivery stride that his action brings to mind all the dignity of a man who honours the game. Batsmen of course may not appreciate this view, but the sight of him slanting the ball and setting up an in-swinger creates such magic moments.
As he did all the hard work and shed sweat during his labours for his country by taking all these wickets and scoring runs, it is he who should have be fêted. But instead he wanted to pay tribute to those who helped him achieve his special niche in international cricket’s hard-nosed annals and arenas which he has graced around the globe.
A man whose career has eschewed controversy in an age where media hype has looked for such unsavoury crumbs to feast on, Vaas has gone about playing the game with honour and respect and what has followed are headlines such as ‘The High Priest of left-arm swing bowling’. These are the words which have heralded his success.
Even the inscription on the invitation explains the upbringing of a family man who you know fully appreciates and respects how those around him are part of what is an ‘extended family’.
‘. . . Without your support and guidance it would not have been possible for me to represent my country at 100 Test matches and take 400 one day international wickets. In appreciation for your encouragement in many ways which has inspired me, Vasana and I are most pleased to welcome you to dinner . . .’
Now the 348 wickets at Test level and 400 in ODI’s, are records that do not look too bad on any sportsman’s CV and explains why he has earned a lot of respect in Asia for his left-arm swing and seam bowling that has shouldered the island’s new ball attack for more games than he cares to remember.
All Vaas is saying is, as did South Africa’s Allan Donald some years ago and as did Pollock, it is time to start winding down his international career and allow others to take over.
As with Jayasuriya, the Vaas farewell tour will different, dignified and meaningful. The first of the goodbyes were in Australia and followed by the tour of the West Indies; India’s tour of the island later this year to give him another chance to wave goodbye to opponents.
One memory is of that chilly December 2005 afternoon in New Delhi when he collected his 300th Test wicket, trapping Gautam Gambhir in front as he fell across the line of a ball that cut sharply off the seam.
More than once in his career as others faltered, he has had to put up his hand to wrest the initiative from an opposing side in the heat of Test battle.
Not that he finds the path he treads as he wanders back to the mark that lonely. Each ball he bowls is a challenge and becoming the second Sri Lankan to pass the 300-wicket mark, some three years after his partner, Muttiah Muralitharan, was a welcome relief and a sense of achievement.
‘Getting to know pitches and understanding them, (very much Sir Richard Hadlee style of thinking), is part of getting to know your own capabilities,’ he once said.
But carrying the burden of Sri Lanka’s pace and seam as well as swing bowling attack is all part of the challenge of keeping fit.
For Sanath the ride into the sunset may come sooner.
His Test career of 6 397 runs at a fraction over 40 in 110 games is a fair reflection. His ODI record of 12 785 runs places him among the greats at this level.
As with Vaas, however, it is the value of the statistics and what the pair have done for their country that has given them hero status and celebrity images. From this you feel that when it is time to say goodbye, they will do so in their own way.