Island Cricket

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Jayasuriya Returns To Where It All Began

Sanath still has dreams of a last innings against South Africa. But history may yet deny him this last opportunity.

He gives a thoughtful smile mulling the question. It suggests how those big innings or even top moments are not all about opportunistic timing but about the right occasion in which to make an impact.

Now he is looking at a final Test series against Australia that starts on Thursday and is anxious to be remembered as a batsman for the all the right reasons.

Yet maybe still that last tournament against South Africa? Who knows? Fate has many quirky moments.

And from this you understand how presently they don't look too kindly at Cricket South Africa or the Proteas. There is also still a lot of criticism as well as the unfinished business of the Unitech Cup triangular series abandoned last year.

This, if you recall, was amid torrential monsoon conditions and an explosion aimed at a Pakistan diplomat that instead killed a number of bystanders. A couple of the South African players, returning early from an indoor net practice session had passed by the point where the explosion took place about five minutes previously.

Understandably Makhaya Ntini, one of three using the three-wheeled two-stroke motorised form of transport aka the tuk-tuk, was shaken by events. But despite claims, there were divisions in the team's ranks about the rush to quit the island. South African players were labelled 'chicken' and branded a few other unsavoury names as the management took the easy option.

But there are always two sides to the story. There were sinister motives of who was behind the blast and its eventual outcome and their reasons. Whether it was in fact the notorious terror organisation known as Tamil Tigers, as presumed by emails sent to some of us media, is still unclear. Although nothing has been claimed, there have been suspicions, long denied, how the pro-Taliban elements were also involved in this blackguard style action.

The afternoon before the explosion and disruption, Mark Boucher had been handed the captaincy of the side and was looking forward to at least, in the absence of injured Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis, to re-establishing his credentials as Protea leadership material. Well, in the eyes of the selectors.

Even the ailing Percy Sonn, then president of the International Cricket Council, was critical of his countrymen's hasty efforts to abandon the tour.

This recently created more erroneous criticism when in Pakistan the South African side wondered about their safety as a suicide bomber targeted returning political figure Benazir Bhutto. Condemnation in Sri Lanka was more about the decision by Smith and the team management to continue the Pakistan tour than to quit.

The difference here is that the explosion took place in Karachi while the team is in Lahore, which is like saying because bombs are going off in Cape Town and the team is in Durban, a tour should be aborted. Had the Proteas been in upcountry Dambulla instead of Colombo, it would have presented a scenario.

As he recalled, Jayasuriya, aka the Matara Mauler, tells you that when the bomb went off he could have been shopping with his family in nearby Liberty Plaza mall for clothes for his baby daughter. That had been the plan. He also knew at the moment of the explosion the triangular series (India were the third team) was in serious jeopardy.

"I was so disappointed, in fact we all were," he nodded, chewing on a biscuit and sipping a coffee. "For me it was going to be my last series against South Africa. Well, it is assumed that it would be my last series.

"You don't quite know the future, do you? Just as much as it has been an honour to play and captain my country, it also gives me pride to represent all Sri Lankans," he nods.

While the imaginary shape of an innings created the glint in his eyes, it is the contours of his career graph that still capture the imagination of what he admits is a last tour Down Under.

"Sure I would hope for a final series against South Africa and maybe the cancelled one is where it might end," he says. "But right now I am off to really play where it all began, in Australia and where my game was given a chance."

There is a flourish with an imaginary pull as he flicks away an annoying fly: left-hand swiftly pulling across the body. It is a movement of a man whose wrists are supple enough to still engineer a quick century and as he did as captain, pummel his way to a near pre-lunch Test century against South Africa.

To bat as fluently as he did meant, unlike many cheap politicians who have the false egos and associated paranoia the size of the famed rock fortress Mount Sigiriya, Jayasuriya had the confidence hewn from totally different stonework. This is of the size of the famed Galle Fort. It was his batting and Muralitharan's bowling with the impressive support grouping of Marvan Atapattu, Mahela Jayawardene, and Chaminda Vaas that ensured that first Test success over South Africa.

There is certain nostalgia about this final Test visit to Australia. As he sees the tour, it is revisiting old haunts. There is still the limited overs series ahead in the New Year and that ironically also involves India with just maybe Sri Lanka's former mentor, Dav Whatmore, in charge of the third team in that triangular series. But for now, in a sense, the tour is the one where he rattled the Australians in the final Test of that series Mark Taylor's side won 3-0 with the victory wrapped up on Australia Day weekend at Adelaide Oval.

"It is interesting. I had missed to first two Tests, but we had a problem in the top order and I was asked to open the innings in the third. It was my big chance," he admits. "But in the second innings, I guess it is one I'll always remember. That was where I scored that century."

That century was 112 off 188 balls, a commanding innings, and it showed that Sri Lanka had fight. Of the players in that team, only Jayasuriya and Vaas remain; Muttiah Muralitharan was left out, what these days they euphemistically call 'rested', and Arjuna Ranatunga was nursing a fractured thumb.

Unfortunately the century in Adelaide was not followed by anything as spectacular as that of teammate and fellow opener Romesh Kaluwitharana. Not that double edged sword of retribution was always evident. Jayasuriya scored 173 runs in ten innings at 17.30 and a top score of thirty. Little Kalu, aka the Moratuwa Marvel, managed three half centuries, and 250 in ten innings for an average of 25.50, but it was his strike rate of 91.24 that caught the eye.

"You know, taking a century off the Australians in a Test is tough," he grins again as his small daughter clambers for attention. "In Australia it is even more so as there is so much going against you. I'd really like to do it again. It's a tremendous experience."

By: Trevor Chesterfield


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