Sri Lanka's resurgence

Print edition : March 18, 2000

Magician Muralitharan's off-spin leads the list of factors that explain Sri Lanka's remarkable cricketing surge.

NIRGUNAN TIRUCHELVAM

THE comprehensive victory that Sri Lanka has achieved over Pakistan in both the one-day series and the Test series could be the sign of a new world order in Test cricket. By repeating its 1995-96 triumph over Pakistan, Sri Lanka reminded the cricket worl d that it may not be far behind the two leading Test nations, Australia and South Africa. The LG Series victory marked its sixth series triumph since January 1998, an outstanding result for a nation whose brief Test history has been marred by periodic is olation and the staid reluctance on the part of the older Test nations to grant it regular Test matches.

Murali's magic

No superlatives are sufficient to describe the key role that Muttiah Muralitharan has played in Sri Lanka's Test resurgence. An off-spinner with indefatigable energy and boundless enthusiasm, Muralitharan has starred in all of Sri Lanka's recent Test tri umphs. With 246 wickets in 50 Test matches, Muralitharan is second only to Lance Gibbs in the all-time list of off-spinners. He is alone among contemporary Test bowlers in that he can be effective on any surface. As Ranjit Fernando memorably put it in th e summer of 1998: "Murali can spin the ball on the M4," (the reference being to a highway in England).

Chief Executive of Pakistan Gen. Pervez Musharraf greets Sri Lankan captain Sanath Jayasuriya on February 26 at the Rawalpindi stadium.-

The famously prodigious turn along with the more recently acquired variation were on full display in the Rawalpindi and Faisalabad Tests. The Pakistani batting line-up was torn between dogged defence and extravagant strokeplay as a response to the genius from Kandy.

Murali's spectacular success against a country adept at playing spin-bowling in its own conditions makes us forget that it was not long ago that he was regarded as a spinner with less than a full bag of tricks. In his early career, Murali delivered almos t exclusively large looping off-breaks. In spite of his unerring line and the huge turn he was able to extract, a predictable Murali was treated as a poor relation in the Warne-Kumble-Mushtaq pantheon of spin bowlers. His colleagues and the coaches rued his inability to bowl the straight ball. Although he was successful in his early career, facile players of spin such as Navjot Singh Sidhu and Mohammed Azharuddin punished his predictability. In his new avatar as an ESPN expert commentator, Sidhu argues that the key to playing Murali is to move one's feet down the pitch as late as possible because Murali releases the ball at the last moment. He should know. Sidhu, a savage hitter of spin bowlers, lifted Murali for a record eight sixes in the Lucknow Tes t of 1994 where Sri Lanka, then the whipping boys of world cricket, succumbed meekly by an innings.

In the last few years, Murali has developed several variations, including the much-vaunted straighter ball. He can also turn the ball away from the right-hander in a well-concealed manner. He can vary the trajectory of the delivery very effectively.

Murali's performances in the Faisalabad and Peshawar Tests amply demonstrated three aspects of his armoury that made the difference between the two sides.

First, the amount of spin that Murali generates means this. He can not only turn the ball but also extract more bounce than a bowler of his 5 feet 6 inches frame would be expected to. Hence on placid, low surfaces such as Peshawar, Murali was able to sur prise the batsman with his sharp bounce, which helped the catches to carry to the close-in fielders. Secondly, there is the bowler's ever-improving accuracy. Murali hardly bowls a short ball, which means he forces the batsman to play forward all the time . If one plays back to Murali, the batsman is almost instantly in trouble as Yousuf Yohanna discovered in the second innings at Peshawar.

Finally, Murali's temperament and enthusiasm help the team tide over crisis situations. In fact, John Crawley, the captain of Lancashire where Murali took 66 wickets at 11 apiece last season, was struck by his boundless willingness to bowl marathon spell s. In Faisalabad, when a brave fightback from Wasim Akram and the debutant Younis Khan threatened to take the game away from Sri Lanka, Murali's confidence never wilted. He continued to flight the ball and entice the batsmen into playing their shots. In Peshawar, when a gutsy, aggressive partnership between Yousuf Yohanna and Atiq-Uz-Zaman turned the match in Pakistan's favour, Murali's calm and collected manner was in contrast to the response of his excitable team-mates. As the tension mounted on the f ourth day in the capital of the Frontier province, Murali's characteristic decorum with officialdom was maintained. Given his calmness and perseverance, one is at a loss to explain the reluctance of the Sri Lankan selectors to elevate their most prized b owling asset to the post of vice-captain.

De Silva flourishes in the winter of his career

Murali's performance should not take the lustre away from the discipline and the tenacity of Aravinda de Silva's century, which was the cornerstone of Sri Lanka's triumph in Rawalpindi. When de Silva hit an award-winning hundred for Kent against Lancashi re in the 1995 Benson & Hedges final, Mark Nicholas said that de Silva had the aggression of Gordon Greenidge with the build of Sunil Gavaskar. Once dismissively called 'Mad Max' for his extravagant strokeplay, de Silva batted well within himself. He pun ctuated painstaking defence with the ruthless punishment of loose deliveries, so much so that he may have more in common with Gavaskar than their shortness of stature. De Silva's certainty of placement and shot selection were more reminiscent of the Litt le Master than the West Indian opener.

With the highest of elbows and the nimblest of footwork, the 34-year-old Aravinda de Silva notched up his eighth Test century against Pakistan and his fourth on Pakistani soil. No batsman, past or present, has hit as many centuries against Pakistan, poss ibly the best attack in the game -- much like Gavaskar hit the record number of hundreds (13) against the West Indies, the most feared attack of his era.

Sanath Jayasuriya congratulates Muttiah Muralitharan on dismissing Pakistan's opener Shahid Afridi on March 8 at the Niaz stadium in Peshawar.-B.K. BANGASH/AP

New regime reaps success

The Whatmore-Jayasu-riya combination has had much to do with Sri Lanka's resurgence. Ranatunga, Sri Lanka's Napoleonic leader for almost a decade, met his Waterloo with Sri Lanka's humiliating exit from the World Cup. The heavy defeat in the league match against India at Taunton was a nadir in a six-month period during which Ranatunga seemed to have lost the plot. In his dotage, Ranatunga was dictatorial and, according to former coach Bruce Yardley, treated the players like "servants".

The return of Dave Whatmore, an architect of the 1996 World Cup triumph, and the appointment of the mild-mannered Sanath Jayasuriya have dramatically turned the team's fortunes around. The Aiwa Cup win and the 1-0 victory in the rain-marred series agains t the world champions, Australia, showed that the vicissitudes of world cricket turn sharply.

The success of the Whatmore-Jayasuriya combination has much to do with Whatmore's use of modern coaching techniques and Jayasuriya's gentle manner. Whatmore deals with each player on an individual basis, discussing match scenarios in a case-study format. Whenever a Pakistani revival took place, the detailing planning on the part of the Sri Lankans ensured that the pendulum swing was only temporary.

Aravinda de Silva (left) and Arjun Ranatunga run between the wickets on February 27 at Rawalpindi. De Silva notched up his eighth Test century against Pakistan.-B.K. BANGASH/AP

The other aspect of the Whatmore regime has been the emphasis on fielding, an aspect of the Sri Lankan game that was abysmal during the World Cup debacle. Each one of the team members was given intensive training in specialist fielding positions.

Ranatunga's calmness

Ranatunga's heroic partnership with Kaluwitharana in Rawalpindi will long be part of Sri Lankan cricket's folklore. The former captain's calmness under pressure and his familiar deft touch lead one to believe that 'there is still some petrol left in the tank'. However tempting the proposition, the 36-year-old should not prolong his career much longer. He has silenced his critics. Perhaps it is better for the injured warhorse to call it a day with the sound of bugles sound and fresh.

Emerging talent

The introduction of new talent in a team where the main batsmen had been around for more than a decade was long overdue. Due to the long international careers of players such as Aravinda de Silva, Arjuna Ranatunga, Hashan Tillekeratne and Roshan Mahanama (derisively called the 'gang of four'), many young batsmen were languishing at the doorsteps of world cricket. The most celebrated and talented of these batsmen is the 22-year-old Mahela Jayawardene, who underlined his rich promise by scoring a memorabl e 242 against India last year. He has been prematurely and inexplicably elevated to the post of vice-captain. Jayawardene's recent form has been patchy and his approach impetuous, although his place in the side seems secure.

Tillekeratne Dilshan, 23, who controversially changed his name from Tuan Mohammed Dilshan last year, is another member of the young brigade. His success in the A tour to England paved the way for his Test career. His 163 against Zimbabwe in only his seco nd Test shows that he is clearly a man with the temperament for the long game. His fielding has been a revelation.

Russel Arnold, 26, is a top-order batsman whose international career began much later than he deserved owing to the myopia of the Sri Lankan selectors. The Sri Lankan selectors entrusted the key No. 3 position to Roshan Mahanama, a player with a Test mat ch batting average below 30, for several seasons. Arnold is an outstanding fielder and his fastish off-breaks give Jayasuriya more options with his bowling.

Indika de Saram is another success of the Zimbabwe tour. The 26 year-old is an old boy of the same school that Sanath Jayasuriya attended in Matara, a small town in Sri Lanka's south coast. Like his schoolmate, he is an aggressive hitter.

No support for Murali

Although the team is in the midst of a purple patch, some serious weaknesses need to be ironed out. The phenomenal success of Murali has distracted cricket followers from the fact that Sri Lanka has produced neither a regular leg-spinner nor a regular le ft-arm spinner in the past decade. This fact was painfully brought to light when the management chose to leave out Rangana Herath, a young left-arm spinner, on a slow turning pitch in Peshawar. Herath is a 22-year-old whose successful A tour of England i n 1999 put him in place for a call-up to the senior side.

Herath played a part in Sri Lanka's 1-0 triumph in the home series against Australia last year. The Australians were surprised by his uncanny ability to turn the odd ball in to the right-hander. His mystery ball confused the Australians. Patience and an enthusiasm to turn the ball aggressively are his assets. Unfortunately, he has not figured in a Test match overseas, being confined to the reserve benches on the tours of Zimbabwe and Pakistan.

Since assuming the captaincy, Jayasuriya has been a pale shadow of the dashing batsman who tormented international bowlers during 1996-98. He continues to flash perilously outside the off-stump. Although Whatmore has refined his technique to cut out the lofted shots, his Test form has been poor. It is felt that he should shield himself from the new ball and bat down the order. Arnold, a left-handed specialist opener, is an ideal partner for the stylish Marvan Attapattu.

In spite of Sri Lanka's Test match success, the islanders continue to be ignored by the older Test playing nations. England has condescended to grant Sri Lanka only six Tests (all one-off) in the 18 years since Sri Lanka achieved Test status. Even the ne west Test-playing nation, Zimbabwe, has played a Test series against England. The West Indies have been even worse, granting Sri Lanka only three Tests. Hopefully, Sri Lanka's new rise in world cricket will end this step-motherly treatment.

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