He could do magic with the willow

THE Aussies converged like a pack of wolves. They knew the significance of the scalp — it had been a Big Kill.

S. DINAKAR

Aravinda de Silva... a top-class batsman.-Pic. AFP

THE Aussies converged like a pack of wolves. They knew the significance of the scalp — it had been a Big Kill.

The dapper man with a slightly bulging waistline also began his trek to the pavilion — it would be Aravinda de Silva's last walk back.

It was a moment at Port Elizabeth that encapsuled so much within it. Emotionally, those few seconds were overwhelming.

For the Aussies, this was the decisive strike of the World Cup semifinal. And for Aravinda, the run-out dismissal was a sad, sad manner of ending his international career.

Yet, what an innings it had been from this gloriously gifted man. A journey that began at Lord's in 1984. Nineteen long and eventful years they were, as Aravinda triumphed and conquered.

Classical was his batsmanship as he sparkled in the sky as Sri Lanka's brightest shining star. Someone who could do magic with the willow.

Truth to tell, Aravinda might have carried on a touch longer, but he was 38 now and hated being considered `excess baggage', just in case his form dropped. He was right. That he could still dazzle was never in doubt — Aravinda's counter-attacking 92 in the Super Sixes clash against the incisive Aussie attack being proof enough.

Yet, he wanted to pick and choose his time to leave and who could fault him? He had already decided to depart from the Test arena, following the ICC Champions Trophy at home last September.

It was the World Cup that had kept the embers burning, rekindling the desire in him — he wanted to give the premier one-day competition one final fling. It would be one last tilt at glory for this champion performer, who has now been made one of the National selectors.

Given the sobriquet Mad Max in the early days of his career for his `all attacking' style, Aravinda progressed a long way making the transition as a complete middle-order batsman with ease.

Reckless he might have been in the beginning, going hell for leather and not bothering about the consequences. However, he did mellow down, maturing into quite the most beautifully refined strokemaker. In full flight he took one's breath away.

His batting had everything — footwork, balance, timing, power and loads of concentration. Aravinda could thump the pacemen off the back-foot, cut and pull them and lean into his cover-drives. He was a delightful user of the feet while countering the spinners, playing them in front of the wicket with a straight blade.

He could pick the line in a jiffy and his exemplary footwork allowed him to adjust to the length and bounce effortlessly. He was one of those batsmen, who appeared to possess a lot of time on hand.

In defence his blade was as broad and in offence it was rapier-like. He had an in-born urge to dominate and he could so easily impose himself on the bowlers, forcing them to change their line, knocking them off rhythm.

This is what great batsmen can do. They call the shots, force the captains to rework their plans, make the bowlers think. In short, they change the rules of the game.

In pressure situations he often was an ocean of calm and once settled he could dismantle any attack bringing into play his rich experience and repertoire of strokes.

Few batsmen have handled the leg-spin of Anil Kumble more competently on Indian surfaces than Aravinda. His judgment was often impeccable, his soft hands enabling him to kill the extra bounce, his canny cricketing brain imploring him to play Kumble more as an off-spinner, who would turn the odd one away.

On bouncy tracks his strong back-foot play served him well with that forcing stroke in the arc between point and cover screaming to be noticed. Once again, his ability to take the fight to the bowlers — Aravinda could unwind for the pull or make room for the cut in a flash — was pronounced.

His scintillating 167 on a seaming, bouncing 'Gabba pitch in the late 80s, was an innings of rare quality as the man faced the marauding Aussie pacemen, meeting fire with fire.

And when in mood, he could keep his mind on the job till kingdom come and Aravinda's monumental 267 against New Zealand in Wellington (1990-91) is proof enough of this. He was not without the rush of blood however, and some arrived at the wrong moments, triggering speculation of a `connection' with bookmakers.

Aravinda did go through a dark phase when his very integrity was questioned, before being cleared by the authorities in 2001. It was ironical that the first Sri Lankan to cross 6000 Test runs had to undergo such scrutiny. Aravinda was rock solid in Test cricket and given his ability to pick the gaps or go over the top at will, without resorting to excessive risks, he did not really have to change his methods in the ODIs.

He was extremely successful in the shorter version of the game, rotating the strike and launching into the bowlers. He understood the dynamics of overs-limit cricket only too well to realise that getting bogged down could sometimes be suicidal.

The Lankan possessed a fine arm and his under-rated off-spin often rescued Lanka during crunch times. He operated flat and to his field, seldom allowing the batsmen to get under the ball for the massive hits.

Aravinda played a major hand during the transitional period, when Lanka, shrugging off the underdog status, emerged as a unit that was feared. Not surprisingly he stopped the desperate Aussies in the World Cup summit clash in Lahore in 1996, glittering under the lights and donning the role of the senior batsmen to perfection, along with `old fox' Arjuna Ranatunga.

There were, on occasions, whispers of strained relations between these two giants of Lankan cricket, but when the need arose, they joined forces to forge a formidable front, blending ability with commitment.

A few unwise ones doubted their motivational levels and these two superstars were even dropped for a tournament in Sharjah during the mid-90s, on the pretext of not being physically fit. That stormy phase came and went and Aravinda and Ranatunga remained pillars of Lankan strength.

Aravinda had his share of run-ins with the Board also and he indeed was out of international cricket for 18 months following an ugly spat, before returning to the side for the series in the Old Blighty. He signed off with a double hundred at the expense of Bangladesh at home, his final Test innings.

And we witnessed in the World Cup in Southern Africa where Aravinda, despite the advancing years, managed to whip up moments of sheer joy. Now he has drifted into the sunset, leaving behind a trail of unforgettable memories.