Sanath Jayasuriya: Sri Lanka's chief destroyer
There is a saying in cricket when somebody gets out for a duck, that he or she got out “without troubling the scorers.” The logistics of somebody troubling the scorers was lost on me as I lay in bed confused as to what exactly agitating the good people that update the scoreboard would entail.
It was then that I saw Sanath Jayasuriya bat. And I use the word bat in its most exaggerated sense. This is because Jayasuriya did not plod away uncharacteristically until retirement and a career administration, but bludgeoned and hacked his way to to the very top of his trade.
Jayasuriya hit the ball like it had insulted his mother and on his way to making every bowler in the world look like a 62-year-old club veteran, he found the time to take 532 international wickets. But talking about his stats is not enough.
Sri Lanka in the 90s was a dangerous place, with tanks and terrorism and during this period, Jayasuriya taking the attack to innocent bowlers gave a meek and wounded country something else to look at for a while. On the day of his 48th birthday, we commemorate what has been a swashbuckling, roller-coaster, sit-on-the-edge-of-your seats-and-don’t-you-dare-move ride.
Jayasuriya was a benefactor of the breakdown of aristocracy in Sri Lankan cricket. From the small town of Matara in Southern Sri Lanka, Sanath played school-level cricket in his town, getting recognised for his all-round exploits before finally getting a call-up to the national U19 team.
From there he made it to the ODI team, being fast tracked there by the age of 20. His talents as yet undiscovered, he was picked like many bits-and-pieces all-rounders before him, to bat in the lower middle order and bowl tight left arm orthodox. It was only seven years later that he was given the duty of opening the batting, against Australia in 1996. Then all hell broke loose.
If you are under the age of 18, this part of the article is no longer for you, and you bill be best advised to turn off whatever tablet, smartphone or computer you are using. Such was the graphic violence with which that man played cricket. His bat was not used to tap the ball to third man for one. Jayasuriya did not know the meaning of the dab. His tactic was simple and his execution, inimitable.
Nobody saw the ball like he did. Nobody dared to impart the violence that he did. Bowlers, uneducated on how to bowl to a rampaging bull at the start of an innings, cowered from 22 yards, fearing more their heads than their careers; cameramen, umpires, even spectators feared: nobody was safe when Sanath was at the crease.
Edges did not fly to fielders, but to fans. And he had many. Jayasuriya’s distinctive style brought aggressive play to Sri Lanka when they needed it the most. He was the reiteration that a country ravaged with war could hold its head up and the island that nobody in the cricket world took seriously, could lift the World Cup.
Jayasuriya was not an ordinary cricketer. Let me make that clear. He was the aggressive opener. Warner, De Kock, Dickwella and Guptill are mere shadows of the icon. He was the 21st-century cricketer in the 20th century and he dominated limited overs cricket, one bowler at a time.
And that wasn’t even his best format. In the longest format, he pulverised bowlers left right and centre, taking that first hour of play that bowlers like so much and using it to make runs - he averaged north of 41 while opening the batting in Tests. When he hits it, it stays hit. Nobody bothers running, not the non-striker or the fielder: it is mutually understood that the ball is going to the fence.
All this from someone selected as a bowling all-rounder. He performed well with the ball as well, though not as viciously as he did with the bat. With a slingy action, he bowled left arm filth into the dusty pitches of Galle and Kandy till batsmen relented and agreed to leave, almost always so they did not have to face that eyesore of an action.
His 98 wickets at 34 are indisputable proof of this fact. His batting-bowling average differential of 6 is unique for an opening batsman: few have managed to maintain the high level of skill needed for both tasks.
While his career was full of ups and downs, winning a World Cup, but enduring years of poor form, Jayasuriya’s commitment to his style of play was commendable. His slash and burn style led to a retirement that lasted a few weeks, followed by an angry 14-month burst, eventually ending in a blaze of glory.
By the time the IPL rolled around, he was well into his late thirties, and word around the block was that Sanath had lost his touch. He kind of had. From a soul crusher, he had become a bald uncle at a disco, but he still had some moves. Crashing a hundred off 40-odd balls, he showed his mettle, once again.
After retirement, he joined the selection committee. His turbulent career in the SLC, and numerous other scandals is not what Jayasuriya should be remembered for. His outrageous claims and accusations, once he got into the role, did not do justice to the fiery cricketer that took the world by storm.
Statistics cannot do justice to Jayasuriya’s achievements. The meaning behind his style and aura was what brought Sri Lanka from the shadows and into the limelight. Happy 48th birthday, Sanath Jayasuriya, may you always be remembered for the good days.