Marching ahead, majestically

REX CLEMENTINE

Arjuna Ranatunga (middle) was mainly instrumental in transforming the team into a match-winning outfit.-V. V. KRISHNAN

SINCE gaining status as a full member of the ICC in 1981, Sri Lanka became the eighth country to have played its 150th Test match — against the touring West Indies at the Sinhalese Sports Club ground in Colombo last fortnight. Over the past 24 years, the country has become a strong force in the big league and has produced several world-class cricketers.

There is a general feeling that the island should have been granted Test status much earlier. In the 1970s, Sri Lanka would apply for full membership year after year with the firm backing of neighbours India and Pakistan only to be vetoed by superpowers England or Australia.

In the early days, several teams from England, Australia, India, Pakistan and the West Indies would stop in Colombo to play friendly games on their way either to Australia or England to play more serious cricket. This provided the local players the opportunity to show their talent against established cricketers and the local fans had a chance to witness the best cricketers around. The opportunity the Sri Lankans got to play in the inaugural World Cup in 1975 and the following one in 1979, too, helped their cause as the cricketing world took a note of the islanders.

Sri Lanka played its first Test match in 1982 against England, captained by Keith Fletcher, at the P. Saravanamuttu Stadium in Colombo. It fared well, giving the English some anxious moments before going down by seven wickets. Bandula Warnapura, presently the Director of Cricket Operations in Sri Lanka Cricket, captained the Lankans.

In the inaugural Test, an 18-year-old schoolboy named Arjuna Ranatunga made his debut and he would go on to be part of many a historic moment in Sri Lankan cricket.

Only a few months had passed since the team had played its inaugural Test and several leading players, including captain Warnapura, took off on a rebel tour to South Africa. The home board penalised the players with a rather severe 25-year ban ensuring the rebels had nothing to do with the sport thereafter. The ban was reduced to 10 years later, but by then, all those rebel players had reached the end of their careers.

Having done so much of hard work to gain recognition and Test status, the rebel tour came as a severe setback for the cricket establishment. As a result the selectors had to bring in several young players, most of them just out of school. The situation would have been even worse had Duleep Mendis and Roy Dias, who were originally planning to join the rebel tour, stuck to their decision.

The rebel series however, proved to be a blessing in disguise as the selectors invested in young talent such as Aravinda de Silva, Roshan Mahanama, Asanka Gurusinghe and Rumesh Ratnayake, with Ranatunga and Ranjan Madugalle already in the side. These players had several years of cricket left in them and they would go on to become world-beaters.

Naturally, the team struggled in the initial stages, but despite these setbacks its early performances were far better than those of Bangladesh or Zimbabwe.

Sri Lanka's first tour to England was in the year 1984 where it played extremely well to win the hearts of many English supporters by drawing the one-off Test at Lord's. Playing against a strong England side captained by David Gower, the babes of international cricket scored a massive 491 and bowled out the host for 370. The hero for Sri Lanka was Sidath Wettimuny, who scored a brilliant 190. Captain Mendis was at his best making 111 and 94, while wicketkeeper Amal Silva scored an unbeaten 100 as well.

By 1985, Sri Lanka had recorded its first Test win, against India. Although the victory was marred by murmurs of poor umpiring, with the Indian captain Kapil Dev proclaiming that Sri Lanka will never win a Test away from home, a victory against Pakistan the next year followed by a historic triumph in the Asia Cup with neutral umpires officiating the games silenced the critics.

While the young Sri Lankan side was gradually competing well against the big names in international cricket, there was disappointment in the form of a bomb blast. New Zealand was touring the island in 1987 when a bomb went off in Colombo and the series was cancelled midway through. This unfortunate incident had an adverse effect as the nation was marginalised by the international cricket community for five long years. No team toured the island owing to security concerns.

The deadlock was finally broken in 1992 when Australia came down for a series of three Tests and ODIs. From thereon home Test matches flourished as New Zealand, England, India, Pakistan and the West Indies sent their teams to Sri Lanka within the space of 18 months.

Many a local cricket pundit believes that since the time Sri Lanka gained Test status one country that has always supported it was Australia, by regularly hosting it for Test matches and by promoting up and coming players through scholarships. In fact, apart from the sub-continent neighbours, Australia was the first country to host Sri Lanka in a three-match Test series in 1995.

However, this particular tour left a bitter taste that even today some of the senior players and supporters don't have too many good things to say of Australia. It all started on the Boxing Day in 1995 when one of Sri Lanka's most loved players, Muttiah Muralitharan, was called for throwing seven times by Australian umpire Darrell Hair. The tall Australian is one of the elite umpires today, but in this part of the world he is not very popular, as most supporters believe he was biased in calling Muralitharan. Also, on more than one occasion the Sri Lankan board has objected to his officiating in matches involving Sri Lanka.

Of the 150 Test matches played so far, Sri Lanka has won 38 games, while losing 58. Of the memorable Test matches, the first Test win against India is fresh in the memory of the cricket fans. Another is the first Test win away from home, in Napier, New Zealand, in 1995, where 21-year-old Chaminda Vaas claimed a match haul of 10 wickets, the first Sri Lankan bowler to do so.

Sri Lanka also won a Test series, 2-1 in Pakistan, coming from behind after the host had drawn first blood in Peshawar where the visitor lost by an innings and 40 runs. Aravinda de Silva and Hashan Tillekeratne paved way for Sri Lanka's victories with crucial hundreds in the games that followed in Faisalabad and Sialkot.

Sri Lanka's first Test win in England came in 1998 at the Oval. After England had posed a massive 445 batting first Sri Lanka replied with 591. Sanath Jayasuriya hammered an attacking hundred while Aravinda de Silva, the country's most popular batsman in England, scored 152. Then Muralitharan entered the scene on a wearing wicket and claimed all nine wickets to fall for bowlers as England was bowled out for 181. Sri Lanka got the 36 runs needed for victory, without any loss. Muralitharan ended the game with 16 wickets. Many players regard the World Cup win and this sensational victory as the highest points in Sri Lankan cricket history.

In the year 2000, Sri Lanka completed Test wins against all nine opponents when it beat South Africa in Galle. The first Test win against Australia in 1999, too, was quite remarkable as that came against an all-conquering Australian side in Sanath Jayasuriya's first ever game as Test captain.

In fact, Sri Lanka should have beaten Australia at the SSC in 1992, but the touring side, captained by Allan Border, which was trailing by a massive 291 runs in the first innings fought hard in the final session of the Test after the host had dominated the first four days and pulled off a sensational 16-run victory.

Chasing 181 for a win, Sri Lanka was comfortably placed at 127 for two with plenty of time. But a relatively unknown Shane Warne bowled his first-ever match-winning spell of leg-spin claiming three wickets without giving away a single run to help Australia win the Test and the series. After the game, Aussie skipper Border would say, "This was the greatest heist since the Great Train Robbery," with great relief, and Sri Lanka had to wait for seven more years to beat Australia. That defeat and the 2-1 series defeat to England in 2000-01, after taking a 1-0 lead, remain on top of the list of disappointments.

Sanath Jayasuriya and Aravinda de Silva hold most of Sri Lanka's batting records. Jayasuriya is the most capped with just three games short of becoming the first Sri Lankan to play 100 Tests. De Silva, Ranatunga and Muralitharan have played in 93 Tests. Chaminda Vaas is fifth on the list, figuring in 85 Tests. Next in line is present captain Marvan Atapattu who has played in 82 matches.

Jayasuriya is also the highest run-getter for Sri Lanka having scored 6465 runs at an average of 43.10. De Silva is second with 6361 at 42.97. Ranatunga and Atapattu are the only other two Lankans to have scored more than 5000 Test runs with Mahela Jayawardene just 107 runs short of the mark.

Jayasuriya owns the highest individual score by a Sri Lankan in an innings. His 340 against India at the Premadasa in 1998 is the only triple hundred by a Sri Lankan. There have been 18 double hundreds scored and Atapattu owns six of them. Kumara Sangakkara has three double hundreds to his credit, while Jayawardene, Jayasuriya and De Silva have two each. Roshan Mahanama, Hashan Tillekeratne and Brendon Kuruppu have also scored double hundreds with Kuruppu getting it on his debut.

Jayasuriya, incidentally, also owns the highest one-day score by a Sri Lankan with his 189 against India at Sharjah in 2001.

Having been the captain from 1988 to 1999, Ranatunga had led in more than one-third of Sri Lanka's Tests while Jayasuriya had captained 38 games during his four-year tenure as the skipper.

While the former has 12 wins in 56 Tests, Jayasuriya has 18 wins to his credit. Warnapura (4), Duleep Mendis (19), D. S. De Silva (2), Madugalle (2), A. De Silva (6), Tillekeratne (11) and Atapattu (11) are the others to have captained Sri Lanka in Test cricket.

Among the bowlers, Muralitharan is well ahead with 532 wickets, while Vaas is second in the list with 277 scalps. No other Sri Lankan bowler has taken more than 100 wickets and third in the list is Jayasuriya who is nine short of the three-figure mark.

Sri Lanka also owns the record for the highest Test innings score, which is 952 for six against India at the Premadasa in 1997. The highest partnership for any wicket, too, is held by the Sri Lanka duo of Roshan Mahanama and Sanath Jayasuriya who added 576 runs for the second wicket in the same match.

It is true that players of the calibre of Jayasuriya and De Silva have had a great impact on Sri Lankan cricket, but no player has achieved what Muttiah Muralitharan has done for Sri Lanka.

He had held the world record for the highest number of Test wickets until injury forced him out of the game for a year allowing spin-rival Shane Warne to go past him. He's got other unique records, too, having claimed a record 45 five-wicket hauls and 13 10-wicket match bags. He has also won 14 Man of the Match awards in Tests for Sri Lanka.