Aravinda de Stroyer
The knock lasted just 63 minutes. It contained no big sixes and broke no records. It was a modest 66 that ended in the 14th over. And is remembered as the most important innings by a Sri Lankan ever.
I wasn’t alive to witness Mahadevan Sathasivam, Ceylon’s batting genius of the 40s. Nor born early enough to judge the brilliance of the Tennekoons, the Gunasekeras and the Tisseras of yester-year.
But I was around to endure Sri Lanka’s formative test-playing years. To suffer through the batting collapses, to yawn at the assembly-line bowling and to howl at the shabby defeats from the jaws of draws.
Dias may have had better technique, Jayasuriya may have had more firepower; Mahela, more strokes, and Sanga, better stats. But for long-suffering Sri Lankan fans, the mantle of our greatest batsman belongs to one man.
When Aravinda de Silva made his debut in ‘84, we’d won just 6 ODIs and the grand total of zero tests. By the time he crooned his swan song with a double ton in 2003, we’d been victorious in 32 tests, 178 ODIs and one World Cup.
He was there for Lanka’s neglected childhood, awkward adolescence and glorious youth. And there it was, mirrored in his mutation from “Mad Max” of the 80s, to master craftsman of the 90s.
If Ranatunga gave Lankan cricket its cunning, Aravinda gave it its class. Our first truly world-class player, a short man with a big hook, a destroyer of worlds, and sometimes of himself.
“If I had a brain, I’d really be dangerous,” he said of his early years, in his eponymous biography. Thank the cricketing gods that he developed an astute one and learned how to use it.
Twin centuries against Imran’s Pakistan announced his arrival in ‘85. He rescued our dignity on many a tour, with memorable knocks in one-sided encounters. Like his brazen 167 against Border’s Aussies and his majestic 267 vs Crowe’s Kiwis. And then, in the ‘96 World Cup Final, he conquered the team that would dominate world cricket for the next decade, with a measured century.
But the innings I return to, the one I cheer myself up with when Sri Lankan cricket embarrasses itself, (which these days is quite often) is the semi-final against a super-charged India at Eden Gardens.
The score was 2 for 2, our terrifying openers, Sanath and Kalu were back in the pavilion, removing their pads and shaking their heads. It’s a moment every Lankan fan is familiar with. The start of the perahera or procession of departing batsmen. But not this time. Not on de Silva’s watch.
He credits his father with forcing him to practice mental arithmetic during a run chase. And judging from that innings, he had also brushed up on his physics and his geometry.
He’d hold off till the last nanosecond and then nudge, caress or thump the ball to anywhere the opposition were not. Bisect the field at impossible angles and pump the run-rate with steroids.
We all knew he could hook, cut and drive any bowler to any part of any ground. And so did he. But this wasn’t about showing off. This was about getting the job done.
In his youth, he had treated us to too many blistering cameos, premature dismissals and unconsummated 30s. But this here was no uncontrolled explosion. This was calculated slaughter.
66 in 47 balls. Mathematics with a splash of poetry. He left the score at 85 in 14 overs, humiliating collapse averted, foundation for a semi-final winning score laid.
Die-hard Lankan loyalists, the same who spray chat rooms with expletives in defense of Murali’s elbow, will claim that he belongs with Tendulkar and Lara. That he was the forgotten batting genius of the 90s.
A case could be made based on the World Cup, the heroic season with Kent, the many centuries against the Wasims and the Warnes, and the 6 entries in Wisden’s Top 100 Batting Performances of all time. But that case won’t be made by me.
The fact is, he was far from flawless. Effortless at times, yes. Fearless on occasion, most definitely. But not quite the perfection that he could’ve been.
A soft-spoken, earnest man, he was neither a street fighter like Ranatunga, nor a compulsive grinner like Murali, nor a smooth-talker like Sanga. He reserved his charisma for the field, though perhaps not as often as he should’ve.
While his rotund figure did not attract the scholarly interest that his skipper’s did, he was hardly a skilled athlete. At times he gave the impression that the mental calculator had been switched off and that the arms were swinging without aim.
But for two decades, the sight of his balanced posture and his sliced backlift told cricket fans that magic was possible. That it didn’t matter who held the ball at the other end, if Aravinda was on song, he would use every weapon, including the one between his ears, to find the boundary or the stands.
He could wield a bat like a scimitar and lead us to the promised land with balls to spare. And for a tattered nation, short on its heroes, Aravinda was willing to stand up at his full 5’3” and become one. Sri Lankan cricket may have proved that it could out-play and out-dazzle the opposition. But with Aravinda de Silva, we showed the world that we could out-think it as well.