Arjuna is to Sri Lanka what Imran was to Pakistan, says Jayasuriya

“...we knew that someone like Arjuna – who was a father figure – was there to look after us,” says Sanath Jayasuriya reminiscing about Sri Lanka’s 1996 World Cup win.

Former Sri Lanka all-rounder Sanath Jayasuriya at a training session ahead of the Road Safety World Series in Raipur.   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Sanath Jayasuriya is 51, but as he starts speaking about Sri Lanka’s historic World Cup win of 1996, he walks back in time. One of the swashbuckling openers of his time, Jayasuriya distinctly remembers each and every moment from that tournament and how a bunch of boys led by Arjuna Ranatunga overcame the odds to turn things around for the island nation.

March 17, 2021, marks the 25th anniversary of that iconic final when Sri Lanka stunned Australia in Lahore to clinch its only World Cup title, and Jayasuriya is all nostalgic. In Raipur for the 2020-21 Road Safety World Series, the former Sri Lankan captain reminisces about the days gone by in an exclusive chat with Sportstar.

How does it feel to be back in action after so long?

It’s great to be part of this league and to also play for Sri Lanka Legends. I have been retired from international cricket for almost 10 years now, so I am looking forward to meeting my colleagues who have played with me for long – Indians, Bangladeshis, West Indians. It’s really nice to be with them.

In the times of the new normal, how challenging is the bio-bubble?

It’s a new experience for the cricketers. They have never seen such a thing before. But the game has to continue, and for that we need to come up with new ideas which will ensure that the players are safe. This bubble concept is a good thing, even though at times the players might find it a bit difficult. Now, international cricketers need to adjust to this, and I am sure that they are slowly getting used to it. After all, they are professionals and they know the importance of playing the game and representing their country.

This marks the 25th year of Sri Lanka’s only World Cup win in 1996. When you look back at that historic final against Australia at the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore, what are the memories that come in?

It actually feels like yesterday! We can’t even imagine that it has been 25 years since that final. How time flies! I cherish every bit of it. When we came into the tournament, we did not even think that we would reach the semifinal. Our initial target was to qualify for the last-four stage, but we displayed our own brand of cricket. We did not try anything else and just played our natural game. It was the best thing to have happened. In my 20-year international career, I have banked on my natural game and it was similar during the World Cup. I was fully backed by the team management and the teammates, including captain Arjuna (Ranatunga), Aravinda (de Silva), Duleep Mendis the manager, Dav (Whatmore) who was the coach. It was a nice feeling. It was a small 14-member unit and slowly it became like one family. We were bit down in that World Cup when Australia and the West Indies did not turn up in Sri Lanka (citing security issues), and we were thankful to India and Pakistan for visiting Sri Lanka and showing solidarity. Those things gave us a lot of motivation and courage to do well in the World Cup.

Jayasuriya bowls to Tendulkar during the India-Sri Lanka group stage fixture at the Feroz Shah Kotla in World Cup 1996.   -  FILE PHOTO/ SANDEEP SAXENA

 

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That World Cup was not just about Sri Lanka winning the title, but it was also about a certain Sanath Jayasuriya. At the Feroz Shah Kotla in New Delhi, you went hammer and tongs at Manoj Prabhakar, who later had to switch to off-spin. What was going on in your mind? In those days, chasing 272 was not easy...

In the team meetings, I often said that I was a bit scared to play Prabhakar. He was someone who could generate swing – reverse or conventional. During our interaction with Arjuna, I asked him how to tackle Prabhakar, and he said, “Don’t worry. You know how to play. Just play your natural game; even if you get out, there is nothing to worry about. You just observe him and play accordingly.” Those words of encouragement actually helped me. I thought that there was nothing to lose, and if we had to win that game against India, I had to take risks. I took a calculated risk with Prabhakar, and whatever shots I played, they connected really well. It boosted my confidence and also helped me face the other pacers quite comfortably.

You have played under multiple captains and also led Sri Lanka later. What do you think made the 1996 squad so special? In those times, many even compared Arjuna Ranatunga to Pakistan legend Imran Khan, who too had guided a young team to a World Cup win, in 1992.

Yes, Arjuna is to Sri Lanka what Imran was to Pakistan! He is the one who started mentoring the young team and looked after the outstation players who were not from Colombo. I came from down south, Murali (Muttiah Muralitharan) came from Kandy, some others came from other corners. In those days, it was very difficult for players from other cities to come and stay in Colombo, and Arjuna allowed the players to stay at his home. So, those things gave all of us a lot of strength because we knew that someone like Arjuna – who was a father figure – was there to look after us. When it came to cricket, we knew that we had to play well and play hard. Arjuna wanted us to play hard and that’s why we got along well, and with Aravinda around, there was a lot to play for.

Sanath Jayasuriya and Arjuna Ranatunga at an event in Bengaluru in 2013.   -  FILE PHOTO/PTI

 

Just before the World Cup, when Murali was called out for chucking, Arjuna was the one to look after him. And he backed Murali all the way and he even accompanied Murali for the inquiry commissions and would stand by him. So, we knew that he was always there for us, so we were confident because we were secure under him.

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In that World Cup, you and Romesh Kaluwitharana changed the approach to opening the innings. Today, we have so many swashbuckling openers, but you were someone who displayed the fiery brand of cricket across formats. How did you manage that?

That was how I started playing at the school level. In Sri Lanka, we have a good school cricket setup and I played in the school teams in under-11, under-13, under-15, under-17 and under-19 levels and I banked on my natural game. My coach never stopped me from playing shots, but it was important to play smart from time to time. When you get a start, it was important to convert it into a big score and not throw away the wicket. Sometimes, I had to take one step back and take the back gear – that’s how things were. I was never an opening batsman, I would always come in at No. 3 or No. 4, but Arjuna thought that we should play our natural game in the first 15 overs and that’s why I was promoted up the order. He asked me one day, “Can you open the innings?” I said yeah. I was anyway not doing much at No. 7 or No. 8, and was more of a half-bowler and half-batsman. I took that risk and opened the innings; there was no looking back after and I continued to open for Sri Lanka in the next 15-20 years. I played my natural game – in Tests and ODIs (One-Day Internationals). Even if I saw a ball outside the off-stump, I would go for my shots. That’s how it should be. But someone like a Marvan Atapattu wouldn’t have done that and he would have left that delivery. So, my game was different and I was successful.

When the tournament started in 1996, not many thought Sri Lanka would go so far. But things changed in the knockout stage. Could share some memories of the semifinal in Eden Gardens and also the final in Lahore?

More than the final, the semifinal was the key. It was a matter of pride for us to reach the semifinal for the first time – Sri Lanka had never reached there before, so it was a big achievement for us. We knew it would be very difficult to play at Eden Gardens, where there will be a hundred thousand spectators and a lot of noise. The support would be for India and we were aware of it. Everyone favoured India, but we had nothing to lose, so we took the field as underdogs. Before the game, Arjuna and the coaches told us not to worry and enjoy the game. We were told not to think about the uncontrollable – the crowd, the support, the noise. So, for us the only way forward was to play our natural game.

We lost the toss, and on that day I was caught at third man – an area which is otherwise my comfort zone. Kalu, too, got out. But it was Aravinda who played a gem of an innings, and the collective efforts of Roshan Mahanama, Arjuna, Hashan (Tillakaratne) helped us put up a fighting total on that surface. When we were defending the total, we thought that 256 was not enough – especially with Sachin (Tendulkar), (Sanjay) Manjrekar and (Mohammad) Azharuddin around. There were so many good players – (Vinod) Kambli, (Ajay) Jadeja – in that Indian team, so we knew that it would be difficult. Sachin started really well, and suddenly Arjuna asked me to bowl and we realised that there was something on the surface, and we started bowling on the rough patch. That actually paid off as Sachin was stumped and slowly even Jadeja and Manjrekar departed. Kumar Dharmasena and Aravinda claimed one wicket each and that’s when we started believing that we could win this game. The ball was turning and we kept our cool and eventually made it to the final.

From that very day when Australia did not come to Sri Lanka, Arjuna told us that “I want to face Australia in the final.” And that’s what happened in Lahore. We desperately wanted to win that game, but we were not willing to go overboard and show our emotions. We took it as another game and played our natural game. That simplicity worked and the rest is history.

Today, when you watch cricket, does anyone remind you of your younger self?

There are quite a few. A lot of Indian players are there, along with some West Indies players. I played with Chris Gayle and he is still playing. I see the Indian players coming in and playing quite a few shots – they are successful! T20 (Twenty20) cricket has changed the whole scenario and players are a lot more confident playing their shots. Even the top-pitched (deliveries) seem like going over the rope. Sri Lanka’s Kusal Janith (Perera) is another cricketer who can play a lot of shots.

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Many have found similarities between you and Rishabh Pant...

He is not scared to play shots – that’s a good thing. If you play half-heartedly and you are in the middle of nowhere, you don’t get anywhere. He is a kind of player who can win you matches if he gets off to a good start. That’s the basic thing you want from match-winners like him. If he starts well, he will be the match-winner, and Pant clears the boundaries at ease. He does not play half-hearted shots, and he often goes for straight hitting, which is a very good thing. He is a natural talent who knows how to play smart cricket.

At a time when we are celebrating 25 years of that iconic World Cup win, things don’t look too impressive for Sri Lankan cricket. The team drew flak after losing the home series against England. Are you saddened to see such a poor show?

It is disappointing when you are losing in Sri Lanka. We know our conditions and we usually do well on a few grounds – especially in Galle – so losing both games there was disappointing. Our boys are capable. They need to have a proper mindset and not think about other things. There will be criticism when you are not playing well, but you have to accept it.

When we were kids, we would get copies of The Sportstar in Sri Lanka and that’s how we would get to know about what’s happening in the West Indies. But now, things have changed. Now, news travels fast – there is social media where you are praised and also criticised. So, as players, you need to absorb all these things and filter out the negatives. You need to focus. Unfortunately, the Sri Lanka cricketers are going through bad times and I hope the technical committee that has been appointed does the right thing to bring back the game in its old form. People in Sri Lanka are crazy about cricket – they eat, drink and sleep the game, but now that has stopped. We again need to bring that craze back with some good showing.

Sri Lanka cricket enjoyed tremendous success between 1996 and 1999 and again between 2004 and 2011. But with a bunch of legendary cricketers – including Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene – retiring, the transition seems to have taken a bit too long...

We need one of the players from the new generation to come in and fit into those shoes. We have the talent and we need to look after them and give them the confidence. They should know how to handle the pressure and play their natural game. With media, social media constantly watching you, it is not easy, but they need to absorb the pressure and stay positive.

Not just in international cricket, the Sri Lankan cricketers seem to have lost the plot in franchise cricket as well. This time, no Sri Lankan cricketers were picked for the Indian Premier League (IPL) – a first in the history of the tournament...

That’s definitely a disappointment. The world has seen that our cricket has been a bit down, so the team owners must be worried. So, it is up to the players now. If they need to be (in the IPL), they need to perform. They need to understand why they are not there in IPL or any other leagues. If they are not selected, that means the cricket has gone down and the world is not wanting the Sri Lankan players in the leagues anymore. They should make it happen. The players will have to do it.

The poor show against England prompted the island nation to appoint a technical committee – headed by Aravinda de Silva – to look after its cricketing affairs. How do you see this?

That way it is good – something positive has happened. They will look after all the cricketing matters, they will negotiate with the coaching staff and the management. That committee is very important. Everyone wants cricket to be at a high level in Sri Lanka and I think this committee will take us where we were earlier.

You were away from the game for a couple of years due to an ICC (International Cricket Council) suspension. Now that the suspension is over, how do you plan to associate yourself with the game?

It (the whole episode) was a bit unfortunate, not for anything else, but it was for the delay in handing my phone (to the investigating team). I did everything required and I am now cleared. I did nothing wrong. Now, I need to make sure that I am involved in the game – which I was previously. I would love to be with the cricketers and earn back my lost reputation. In future, in whatever way I can contribute – internationally or nationally for Sri Lanka – I will be there.