Fear factor

Against India, Jayasuriya's average is a peep over 40. Fix the 1996 World Cup league match in Delhi as the point of inflection and a more vibrant picture emerges. Since that day when he shocked and awed the world, ended a career, and set the stage for a new order, the man from Matara has smote 1,841 runs in 59 matches off Indian bowlers at the staggering average of 51.13.-AP

The Indian bowlers continue to be wary of Jayasuriya, picking him as the danger man, writes S. RAM MAHESH

AT an age most men are introduced to signs of their machismo slipping inexorably away — male pattern baldness, mid-life crises — Sanath Jayasuriya saw an augury. Ahead of the seven-match ODI series against India, the Sri Lankan team was playing a spot of water polo when team physio C. J. Smith accidentally collided with Jayasuriya dislocating the opener's shoulder.

It is a shoulder the Indians are well acquainted with. During the first match of the IndianOil Cup tri-series at Dambulla earlier this year, the 36-year-old's shirt sleeve had a grotesque lump as he walked off the field early in the match. Having popped his shoulder back in, his blood stream filled with painkillers, Jayasuriya returned to bat lower down the order.

"Initially I was in pain since I had taken the injection and it takes 20 minutes to work. I couldn't cut or pull," he said later. Jayasuriya grimaced as ball hit bat — a rare occurrence in his career. The Indian bowlers made the mistake of not snorting a few up his nose early on, forcing him to hook. The left-hander made them pay as he anchored his team with an unbeaten 43 to a win that set the tone for the series.

Australian guts turn green at the sight of V. V. S. Laxman though he is held in the highest regard there. The Indians feel much the same way about Jayasuriya. An ODI average of 32.13 in tandem with a strike rate of more than 88 per 100 balls over a span of 16 years and 339 matches suggests a player of some ferocity. These numbers also stack up well against the other alpha males of blitz — Adam Gilchrist (36.43, 95.72) and Virender Sehwag (31.86, 95.85).

Against India, Jayasuriya's average is a peep over 40. Fix the 1996 World Cup league match in Delhi as the point of inflection and a more vibrant picture emerges. Since that day when he shocked and awed the world, ended a career, and set the stage for a new order, the man from Matara has smote 1,841 runs in 59 matches off Indian bowlers at the staggering average of 51.13. Five centuries including his highest ODI score of 189 and eleven fifties have punctuated these nine years.

In Sri Lankan victories versus India, the average impossibly creeps up to 54.87. The seed of fear was planted at the Feroze Shah Kotla. Jayasuriya had entered the World Cup averaging less than 20. A diabolical plan conceived in the shrewd cricket brain of Arjuna Ranatunga in Australia had yoked the erstwhile left-arm spinner cum bits-and-pieces man with diminutive wicket-keeper Romesh Kaluwitharana at the top of the order.

The pair had set tongues wagging on a controversial tour down under. But their finest hour was reserved for the grand stage. After a Sachin Tendulkar century, the rambunctious Delhi crowd was silenced as 53 came in five overs. Seventy-nine off 76 balls — Jayasuriya slowed down later on — tilted the axis of subcontinental power. It was merely a presage of how the cricketing world's dynamic was to be temporarily re-arranged.

Wisden, in a breach of tradition, named him as one of their five players of the year in 1997 though he had not played in the English season. Jayasuriya's deeds had "reverberated" through the world, said Wisden in defence. "His World Cup exploits in an unexpected Sri Lankan triumph did not just assure him of a lasting place in the game's history, but promised — indeed for a few heady weeks insisted — that the course of the game would change forever. None of the Greats have ever achieved that," read the words in the Almanack.

Laxman's affinity for Australia can be explained as the result of a clash of similar forces. The men with the baggy greens bowl attacking lengths to aggressive fields. Laxman, in turn, quells the shark by biting its throat. The relationship between Jayasuriya and India is more predator and prey. The man with over 10,000 ODI runs and almost every Sri Lankan batting record has in the past fed off the rich batting mixture served up by the Indian bowlers — a lack of pace on pancakes masquerading as wickets.

An eye that helped him pick the length early got him in position — a transfer of weight rather than feet. Jayasuriya would then uncoil to lever deliveries into an arc that spanned from cover through third man and fine leg to midwicket. In his pomp, the Sri Lankan turned top class bowlers into pusillanimous men apprehensive of letting the ball go.

While he no longer inspires the same fear, the Indian bowlers continue to be wary of the marauder, picking him as the danger man. At 36, it is doubtful if Jayasuriya can continue till the 2007 World Cup. "I take it one series at a time. When you come to this level of your career, you have to be physically fit to carry on," he said. "I have been able to play for so long for my country because every time I go out I always tried to give hundred percent."

In the series against India, it will be interesting to see how Jayasuriya counters Irfan Pathan's re-discovered swing. Twenty-one matches in India have yielded 555 runs at a modest 30.83, and India's bowlers will want to ensure it's more than just a statistical oddity. The series is part of a packed road to 2007 and irrespective of whether he goes the full distance, the man who also has a 100 Test caps will not be taking baby steps.

The shoulder injury means Jayasuriya's under-rated bowling (267 ODI wickets, economy rate: 4.76) will take a backseat. "He can bat but it makes our job so much easy if he can bowl because he takes the role of a full bowler," said Sri Lankan captain Marvan Atapattu. "It is an unfortunate situation to go back to square one."