A wonderful display of aggression

IT was an innings which signified the aesthetics of skilful batsmanship, the tenacity of a sound warrior who was a pastmaster in crafting lethal finishes. It had everything that was needed to herald a new chapter in Sri Lankan cricket.

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

IT was an innings which signified the aesthetics of skilful batsmanship, the tenacity of a sound warrior who was a pastmaster in crafting lethal finishes. It had everything that was needed to herald a new chapter in Sri Lankan cricket. For Aravinda de Silva, and Sri Lanka, that symphony at the Eden Gardens was an epic phase, a most unforgettable experience for those who saw the magic of the great middle-order batsman from Colombo.

His fascination for fast cars reflected in that innings as he put the Indian attack to the sword and raced to a half-century in a mere 32 balls. And pray what was the team score at the point he crossed the 50-mark. Sri Lanka was 63 for three. The batsmen who had perished were Sanath Jayasuriya, Romesh Kaluwitharana and Asanka Gurusinha.

Talking of Aravinda's love for fast cars. He owned a Ferrari and was extremely proud of it. At the end of his career, when he reflects on his cricketing days, he would remember the innings against India in the 1996 World Cup semi-final with similar pride. It was an innings which was the key to Sri Lanka's glorious victory that night. It was an innings which catapulted Sri Lankan cricket to great heights and placed Aravinda in a very special category.

It was not easy to whip the ball around on that pitch. It was two-paced and had developed cracks even as Aravinda mounted his assault. He had read the pitch superbly and knew that batting was going to be one hazardous task in the afternoon. The two early dismissals of Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana had created panic in the Sri Lankan dressing room.

It was Sri Lanka's maiden entry to the semi-finals of a World Cup. How could they give in so easily? Not until Aravinda was in the middle. The stocky right-hander, with experience and potential to back him, tore the Indian attack and set up a winning path for his team. Aravinda was in sensational form that day and those who saw that gem from him would remember the terrific combination of timing and authority as he established early command over the bowlers.

Aravinda began with a nudge off Anil Kumble. It was a point made tellingly by Aravinda who relished having a go at the Indian leg-spinner in all conditions. This was a stage tailormade for Aravinda to exploit and he did not relent from the time he cracked that boundary. The Indians had tactically opened the attack with Srinath and Kumble but Aravinda was ready. The old fox knew the conditions much better.

"I had to attack" was Aravinda's simple reaction to that brilliant charge. And attack he did in a manner befitting his stature. The celebrations in the stands, as Sri Lanka lost three wickets, appeared out of place as he rapidly settled the issue with a flurry of dazzling strokes. The ball flew in all directions as Aravinda seized up the opportunity to let his bat do the talking.

A hush fell over the stadium as the Indian bowlers bowed to the flourish of Aravinda which marred a few reputations that day. Venkatesh Prasad, the Karnataka seamer, was belted to the tune of 22 runs in two overs. It was this daring attack by Aravinda that took the steam out of the Indians and also gave his mates the confidence of matching the Indians in their own backyard.

Aravinda was like a man possessed. He made his runs mainly through boundaries. Eleven boundaries adorned his half century and that should sum up his effort. Aravinda knew he had to excel because one more wicket would have put India in the driver's seat.

It was not the first time that the Indians had run into a swashbuckling Aravinda. Countless times in the past he had displayed his penchant to flay the Indians and this was one innings he owed to his followers. Sri Lanka had shown the promise in the past but lacked the guidance. Here, Aravinda, as one of the senior members along with Arjuna Ranatunga, was playing a role which he was expected to. That he did a perfect job was just in keeping with his form.

Aravinda won the `man of the match' award for his matchwinning 66 off 47 balls with 14 fours. Roshan Mahanama, Ranatunga and Hashan Tillekaratne chipped in handsomely to shine on a pitch which later saw batsmen struggle to put bat to the ball. Barring a 65 by Sachin Tendulkar and a sedate 25 by Sanjay Manjrekar, none of the Indians had any clue. The match was abandoned in unfortunate circumstances and Sri Lanka declared the winner. Aravinda had done a wonderful job.

In the final, Aravinda cracked an unbeaten century to seal Australia's fate. It was again a classic innings, an all-time great knock for the simple reason that it carried Sri Lanka to the World Cup title. Aravinda was again the best batsman of the match and for the second time in the tournament the `man of the match'. It was Aravinda at his best, nudging, driving, sweeping, pulling... .He played every stroke from the book and evoked appreciation from the opposition too.

Two epic innings made it a memorable World Cup for Aravinda. He had been put through trials by selectors back home and he came out a winner, silencing his critics with a wonderful brand of batsmanship aimed at winning matches. Aravinda was hailed as Sri Lanka's man of the hour and his two innings stood out for their invaluable impact on the team's chances. For sheer poetry and class, his sensational strokeplay at the Eden Gardens will be rated as the best innings of the 1996 World Cup. There were other brilliant innings in the competition but they paled against Aravinda's fabulous, racy 66 — like the Ferrari he drove — in quite testing circumstances. It was an innings which gave Sri Lankan cricket a new direction and thrust in the shorter version of the game.