A giant of Lankan cricket

S. DINAKAR

HIS batting has a certain timelessness about it, much like the relentless waves that lash the seashores on those lovely beaches in Sri Lanka.

V. V. KRISHNAN

And, despite the passage of years, there is that refreshing quality about his ways at the crease, much like the cool, soothing breeze that often sweeps across the hill country in the Emerald Isle.

Aravinda de Silva symbolises the best of Sri Lanka, a batsman glittering with the riches of the oriental, in an exotic land blessed by nature.

Well, in our cricketing journey we take back some precious memories and this vignette was very special. It was, in fact, a fleeting glimpse of magic. All too brief, but a lasting one at that. Aravinda de Silva contemptuously putting away Ajit Agarkar for five boundaries in an over, strokes laced with timing and placement, in the replayed final of the ICC Champions Trophy.

They were all there, the rasping cover drive, the clinical flick, the delicate glance. It was perhaps the last roar of this famous Lankan Lion in its den.

This delightful cameo from Aravinda de Silva lasted only 24 deliveries - he made just 27 - yet it was an effort that captured the essence of Aravinda's approach, that spirit of freedom, that desire to conquer.

Soon after that summit clash at the Premadasa Stadium met with a watery end, came the confirmation from Aravinda that he was retiring from Test cricket.

He had revealed his plans to bid adieu moments after he had been nominated the Man of the Match for his bowling in the semifinal, where the Aussies had been humbled.

This was followed by requests from skipper Sanath Jayasuriya and coach Dav Whatmore, urging the 36-year-old batsman to reconsider his decision, but Aravinda had made up his mind.

A proud man, he would rather leave in a blaze of glory, rattling up a double hundred in his last Test innings, in August. The Bangladesh attack might have been toothless. However, Aravinda had displayed that he still had the heart for the battle.

Yet, years of cricket had taken its toll on his body and mind, and he decided to say goodbye, at least to the longer version of the game. He will go down, without doubt, as Sri Lanka's finest Test batsman, the first to cross the 6000-run barrier.

In all, he represented his country in 93 Tests, made 6361 runs (20 hundreds, 22 fifties) at 42.98, with the highest of 267, against New Zealand. It is an immensely creditable record, but, given Aravinda's ability, it could have been so much better.

Indeed, there were moments where he left his supporters exasperated, giving it away rather too easily, after doing all the hard work. Had he pushed himself a little harder, especially in the pre-1989 period, he could have averaged well over 50.

But then, it can be argued that this great game travels beyond mere numbers, and given the sheer joy he provided through his classical batsmanship, Aravinda deserved to be ranked with the greatest of our times.

At his best, Aravinda's batting has just about everything, balance, footwork, power, timing. He is comfortable, both against pace and spin, wading into the bowling effortlessly, transferring weight to either foot with ease... the hallmark of a quality batsman.

A short man, he took on the big, mean fast men from across the globe fearlessly, hooking and pulling them with disdain when they dared to pitch short. He would take them on, meet fire with fire, winning the psychological battle.

There was that little bully in him that urged Aravinda to dominate the bowlers, seize the initiative from the attack, and he did that throughout his international career, though in a more refined manner after the turbulent early phase.

When he burst on to the scene in the early 80s - his Test debut was at the hallowed Lord's in '84 - Aravinda was more like a newly constructed, untested, race car that could so easily self-destruct.

He was given the sobriquet the 'Mad Max' and with a good reason too. Aravinda was then a 'one-pace' batsman who would strike the ball hard from the word go, not bothering about reputations, and the barrage of strokes would continue till he ran out of luck.

The gifted Lankan was too precious a batsman to continue with this approach, and skipper Duleep Mendis impressed upon him to develop innings building skills.

Aravinda the 'Master Batsman' was beginning to emerge, and soon the career of this lover of fast, sleek cars, was now firmly on the road to glory.

Not surprisingly, he played a prominent part in Sri Lanka's first Test victory, against India at the P. Saravanamuthu Stadium in 1985-86, his second innings 75 providing just that much more time for the bowlers to finish the job.

In the same year, when Sri Lanka travelled to Pakistan, Aravinda, not flinching against the pace and fury of Imran Khan and Wasim Akram, made a strokeful 122 in the Faisalabad Test.

This was the transitional phase in Lankan cricket, the graceful Roy Dias and the powerful Duleep Mendis, the pillars in the line-up, were now in the twilight of their illustrious careers, and it was now up to the youngsters, Aravinda, Arjuna Ranatunga, Asanka Gurusinghe and Roshan Mahanama to carry the torch forward.

The young guns took up the challenge, the Lankans continued winning friends with their flamboyant approach, and Aravinda was in the forefront really... the No. 1 batting star.

And towards the end of the 90s, he was making more runs in Test cricket, his 167 on a bouncing seaming 'Gabba wicket oozing with class. Aravinda is an impressive back-foot player, thumping the ball between point and cover, cutting and pulling with aplomb.

Technically, he is exceptional and developed a water-tight defence off either foot that made it hard for the bowlers to spot a chink in his armour. On most occasions, it was either a lapse in concentration or the wickedness in the delivery rather than any flaw in Aravinda's batting, that cost him his wicket.

It was in Wellington, during 1990-91, that Aravinda notched up his highest score in Test cricket - 267. He was now making his wicket count, and the Kiwi attack had few answers. In the third Test of the same series, at Auckland, the Lankan came within a whisker of scoring a century in each innings.

Runs flowed from his blade, yet, it was a stint with Kent in '95 that transformed Aravinda's outlook towards the game, blending professionalism with flair.

Indeed, the period between '95 and '97 saw Aravinda at the peak of his powers. He dazzled as Sri Lanka won the World Cup, and enjoyed a remarkable two years in Test match cricket.

His 105 in Faisalabad was worth its weight in gold. It was a series where Sri Lanka, defying odds and predictions, upstaged Pakistan on home soil. A landmark victory it was for the Islanders.

In 1996-97, and 1997-98, in an astonishing run, Aravinda rattled up six hundreds at the expense of the Pakistan and Indian attacks. At this point of his career, he was Mr. Infallible.

There was no let-off for the Indians when the Lankans paid a return visit to India in the same season - Aravinda's supremely confident unbeaten 110 in Mohali rescued what appeared a lost Lankan cause.

He handled the leg-spin of Anil Kumble, even on the Indian tracks, better than most, playing the bowler more as an off-spinner, who would turn the occasional delivery away from the right-hander.

The fact that he can pick the line a shade quicker than most batsmen gives him the advantage against the spinners, and given his exemplary footwork, he can always adjust to the length. Aravinda seldom allows the spinners to call the shots, often using his feet to either kill the spin, or drive firmly.

And he possesses such delectable shots in his armoury that he can leave the best of spinners frustrated with strokes like the late cut, the fine sweep, the glide; he does have soft hands.

And he can adjust to the differing conditions so easily. His 152 in the one-off Test at the Oval in 1999-2000, where Sri Lanka registered its first Test win in the Old Blighty, was as solid as it came. So was his 112 countering Pakistan's varied attack in Rawalpindi, '99.

Yet, his career has not been a bed of roses; he had his run-ins with the selectors and the establishment and the needle of suspicion in the match-fixing scandal pointed at him, until he was cleared of the charges.

There were occasions when he perished to loose strokes, and there was the odd whisper about him, that he was not entirely honest with his cricket. On one such occasion, an ill-advised stroke from him when Sri Lanka was in a dominant position, enabled Australia to pick themselves off the mat and script a remarkable comeback, with a young Shane Warne in the thick of things. The year was '93.

Aravinda faced an angry reaction following the conclusion of that dramatic match.

Yet, to be fair to him, being a strokemaker can be a double-edged sword. There is a thin line between an audacious blow that would have the crowd in raptures or a miscued hit, leading to an embarrassing downfall.

Throughout the 80s and 90s, there was a strong bond between Aravinda and Ranatunga. However, there were occasions when the two superstars did not see eye to eye. Wisely, they often buried their differences for the betterment of Lankan cricket.

Aravinda had a rather brief stint with captaincy, but then he was always a player first and a leader of men next. And the sheer magnificence of his batting clouded the fact that he was a swift, attacking fielder and a more than a useful off-spinner, who could bowl to his field.

The power of his forceful personality was best reflected in his cricket, where he took the fight to the enemy camp in a blazing fashion. Taking into account his stature and contribution to Sri Lankan cricket, it was sad that he wasn't treated too well by the powers that be in the last two years.

His match fitness was questioned, and it was only in England this summer that a slimmer Aravinda, after 18 months in the cold, was drafted back into the Lankan side.

By his standards, he had a lacklustre Test tour, yet, when Aravinda was recalled into the ODI squad for the three-nation tournament in Morocco, his match-winning qualities surfaced again.

This champion performer has one final dream left - to waltz for his country in yet another World Cup. It will be the last dance of the old soldier.