Sanath Jayasuriya: The ‘Matara Mauler’ who transformed from pinch-hitter to a swashbuckling opener in ODI cricket
In the 1992 Cricket World Cup, New Zealand used Mark Greatbatch as an effective pinch hitter to provide quick fire starts for the Black Caps in the showpiece event. Greatbatch, who was given the free license to go after the bowling during the field restrictions, got the Kiwis to some power packed starts in the tournament Down Under.
Four years later in the 1996 World Cup, Sri Lanka’s captain Arjuna Ranatunga gambled with the idea of promoting dangerous power hitters Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana up the order to provide the opening salvo at the start of the innings.
With Sri Lanka having the luxury of a formidable middle order in Aravinda De Silva, Roshan Mahanama, Hashan Tillakaratne and the skipper Ranatunga, the move augured well in the interest of the Lankans.
In batting friendly sub-continent conditions, Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana relished opening the innings. During the initial 15 overs, they were severe on anything which was pitched a tad short or overpitched in their hitting zone.
The move paid rich dividends as the explosive pair got the Lankans off to some flying starts. In the group stages, Jayasuriya played a destructive 79-run knock against the Indians followed by a whirlwind 43 against Kenya at Kandy. ‘Little Kalu’ gave him good support by pitching in with quickfire cameos.
In the quarterfinals, Jayasuriya played a thunderous 82-run knock off just 44 balls against England to help Sri Lanka sail into the semi-finals. Though the dangerous opening pair failed in the semis and finals, they had done enough damage to help Sri Lanka reach the knockouts.
Cricket fans went into a frenzy with the sheer carnage and pure entertainment provided by the explosive Lankan opening duo. The concept of pinch-hitting became a roaring success and was an integral part of the recipe to Sri Lanka’s fairytale World Cup success.
Sanath Jayasuriya emerged as the star of the tournament, belting 236 runs at an astonishing strike rate of 131.5. He also contributed with the ball, picking up seven wickets. He took six catches in the field too.
Blessed with exceptional hand-eye coordination, Jayasuriya had iron like wrists and used his strong forearms to give the ball a whiplash effect. The hard-hitting strokemaker was a fierce cutter of the ball and pulled the red cherry with utter disdain.
Jayasuriya’s batting exploits at the 1996 Cricket World Cup helped him shed the tag of a pinch hitter and transformed him into a front-line opener in limited overs cricket. The next decade and a half saw Jayasuriya forging highly successful opening partnerships with Romesh Kaluwitharana, Marvan Atapattu, Tillakaratne Dilshan and Upul Tharanga in ODIs.
Jayasuriya competed with Adam Gilchrist, Saeed Anwar, Chris Gayle and Sourav Ganguly as one of the most feared left-handed openers in the late 90s and the early 2000s.
The ‘Matara Mauler’ was the aggressor for Sri Lanka up the order and got his team off to some electrifying starts. He, along with Aravinda De Silva, became the lynchpin of the Lankan batting for the next decade.
The aggressive stroke maker, who usually played some quick-fire cameos, also had the ability to score some breathtaking tons. He accelerated at the start of the innings, milked the singles during the middle overs and then exploded into the opposition with a late flourish.
Such were his batting exploits that his bowling got overshadowed for a major part of his career. He was more than a handy left-arm orthodox spinner who plied his trait with craft and guile.
Jayasuriya was known to bowl a flat trajectory and hurled his deliveries into the block-hole area to cramp the batsmen for room. For almost two decades, he provided the supporting cast to frontline spinners like Muttiah Muralitharan, Kumara Dharmasena, Upul Chandana and Ajanta Mendis.
Jayasuriya, in his younger days, was one of the best fielders in the Sri Lankan outfit. He was quick across the turf and had a dead accurate throwing arm.
He played some of his most destructive knocks against sub-continent rivals India and Pakistan. A spectacle of his brutal hitting came to the fore when he scored a whirlwind 189 against India in Sharjah.
Another brutal assault came when he plundered 134 against Pakistan in the 1996 Singer Cup. His destructive knock was laden with eleven massive sixes and eleven fours. His ton came up in only 48 balls, the fastest hundred by a Sri Lankan batsman in ODI cricket till date.
The southpaw ended up as Sri Lanka's highest ODI run scorer with a staggering 13430 runs. He also tops his nation’s ODI century making list with 28 tons. His six hitting prowess in white ball cricket makes him the third highest six hitter in ODIs with 270 sixes. With 323 wickets, he ended up as Sri Lanka's third highest wicket-taker in ODIs.
Sanath Jayasuriya’s contribution in catapulting Sri Lankan cricket from a mere challenger to world beaters was immense and he would probably go down as one of the greatest match winners for the Island nation along with the off-spin legend Muttiah Muralitharan.