As an expert fast bowler in a country known for its spinning tracks, Chaminda Vaas carried Sri Lanka on his shoulders in the 1990s and 2000s. He partnered Muttiah Muralitharan in some of Sri Lanka’s most memorable wins. Originally headed towards life as a priest, Vaas found his divine calling in cricket instead and continues to try and use the game to give back to the people. The 48-year-old speaks to W. V. Raman about his contribution in Murali’s 800-wicket haul, bowling to India’s Fab Five, and much more. For the full interview, visit Sportstar’s YouTube channel.
Q. I’ve had some idea of Sri Lankan cricket because I’m from Tamil Nadu and we used to have the Gopalan Trophy. Of course, I’ve seen Ashantha de Mel, and then came Rumesh Ratnayake, who was your inspiration?
A. When I started playing school cricket, my heroes were people like Dilip Mendis, Roy Dias, Sidath Wettimuny and, being a fast bowler, Ashanta de Mel, Ravi Ratnayake, and Saliya Ahangama, those are the guys who inspired me to play cricket. Looking at them made me want to be like them. I always wanted to be a fast bowler. Even during my school career, I started as a batter. I opened the batting and I opened the bowling. In the latter part, I focused a lot on my bowling.
Now, talking of your batting, you talked about it with your usual humility. Did you pay enough attention to your batting?
I started out as a batter in school. But when I joined First-Class cricket and moved on to the international arena, I didn’t have much time to concentrate on my batting, even though I did get the opportunity to bat in the middle or at practice. I used to always concentrate on my bowling. I then realised that batting is as important as bowling for an all-rounder and then started to concentrate on my batting as well.
Let’s talk a little bit about when South Africa was in Sri Lanka, Brett Schultz was making an impression, you were planning to become a priest, but then, there comes a messenger – Sanath Jayasuriya who takes you to the nets. Talk us through that and what happened after that.
We had been practising, and after practice, Sanath came to me and asked if I was in a hurry to go home. I said no. I said I’m going by bus so I have plenty of time. He then asked if I could do him a favour, and asked me to bowl to him in the nets because they were preparing for the South African tour. I bowled to Sanath for almost an hour. After that, he took me home. My cricket turned around from there. After practising with the likes of Arjuna (Ranatunga), Aravinda (de Silva), Roshan (Mahanama), and others, I then played first-class cricket and did really well there and that’s how I got into the national team.
You spoke about bowling for an hour. Was that a regular thing that happened during your career?
During that time, we didn’t have physios or trainers. Most of the bowlers during that time would bowl for quite a while, for one hour [or] an hour and a half hours. Sometimes, I would bowl with the national players. Once I finished, I’d go to my club again and bowl for half an hour or 45 minutes. Normally you say to be a good fast bowler, you need to have muscle memory. Bowling those lines and lengths constantly did that for me, I think. That’s how I learned to bowl in the good areas most of the time.
You are the second-highest wicket-taker for Sri Lanka, behind Muttiah Muralitharan. No diplomacy Vaasy. How much did Muralitharan benefit from your bowling from the other end?
I think Murali has benefitted hugely because, being a fast bowler, I never complained about bowling in the subcontinent. Irrespective of the wicket I got, I always did well and I always supported Murali. And so, I can say that Murali has taken 800 wickets because I supported him. Sometimes he would come to me after lunch and say, Vaasy, can you bowl eight overs with me at the other end? When you bowl in partnership, you will be able to take wickets because someone is keeping things tight at the other end. [The reverse was also true]: Murali would sometimes bowl maiden overs and I would get wickets. So, it’s all about partnerships in Test cricket.
You played a lot of county cricket. How did it help you? And what about workload management?
I think it’s good for a fast bowler to play at least one season of county cricket. I played for four counties — Hampshire, Middlesex, Worcestershire, and Northampton. One thing you will learn is patience and consistency. You’re bowling plenty of overs there because, playing as a professional cricketer, they always throw the ball at you and expect you to perform really well there. I think I have bowled over 1,000 overs in County Championships. The most important thing is injuries, but if you have good physios and if you train hard and take fitness seriously, I think it’s possible to survive in the County Championship.
What was it like bowling to the Fab Five of the Indian batting line-up - Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly, Sehwag, and Laxman - either in Sri Lanka or India?
It’s not easy, Raman. You know, it’s not just one batter. When you have so many good players in the Indian team, you need to concentrate, you need to be focussed. Sachin, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, even Sehwag, and V. V. S. Laxman. Not just them, but so many great cricketers. With people like them, the margin of error is small so you need to put the ball in the right areas to minimise the damage. I’ve learned this from practice and doing the right stuff in practice to then make it happen in the match. Definitely, one of the greatest batting line-ups I have experienced bowling to.
It’s rather unfortunate, the recent strife and struggles that’s been life for people in Sri Lanka. Gut-wrenching, isn’t it, to see all that happening?
We have gone through a lot, Raman, over the last eight months. It’s not easy, as a country, struggling for everything. We have a gas issue, we have electricity, petrol, and food crisis. But somehow, we managed to support the communities and helped them to come out of it. But you can’t expect things to change just so. Everybody has to change. People are expecting systemic change. But more than the government, we all have to sacrifice and we all have to change and look to the future. It’s getting better, but it will take time.
Amidst all these struggles that the people were going through, the Sri Lankan cricket team gave a bit of cheer for them, didn’t they, when they did extraordinarily well against Australia?
Cricket in Sri Lanka is like a religion. After winning the World Cup and for the last 30 years, people are following Sri Lanka cricket and cricket is No. 1 in Sri Lanka. For people, winning a cricket match is what they have to celebrate, through all their struggles. The Sri Lanka team is doing well and even though they have sacrificed so many things – the cricket team – they want to give something back to the Sri Lankan people.
But the current day cricketers are accused of not having the pride of playing with Sri Lanka. Any merit in it?
I will disagree with that, Raman, because you can’t compare [a] generation to [another] generation. When we were playing, we played for passion and pride. We played for the country. Not that these boys are not playing for the country, but now this game has gone to a different level. It’s all about the financial benefit, it’s all about the commitment. There’s so much cricket to be played and they also play for the national team. You can’t expect the old days to remain and things are going to change from generation to generation. You need to earn something as well because, in cricket, you never know whether you will play for 15, 20, 10 years, or maybe two-three games. If something happened to them, there will be no one to take care of them. So, I’m not blaming anyone from the new generation.
Chaminda Vaas is a very popular man among the voters. Any ambitions of becoming a politician, becoming a parliamentarian?
So many parties have invited me to become a politician, but that’s not my road, Raman. People love me because I am a cricketer. Politics is a different ballgame in Sri Lanka, in the subcontinent even. I can work for people in different ways and give back to Sri Lanka with cricket. I don’t want to be a politician.
When we were playing, we played for passion and pride. We played for the country. Not that these boys are not playing for the country, but now this game has gone to a different level.