“Smiling Assassin” puts an end to Test match carnage
By H Natarajan
Letting go something that is so close to your heart is never easy – especially when it’s a livelihood that has brought name, fame and abundance of wealth.
Sanath Jayasuriya found himself in that state of mind earlier this week when he bid farewell to Test cricket – in the style and manner of a champion batsman – during the the first Test against England at Kandy. But one got the feeling that the retirement was probably forced upon him rather than one that he took on his own accord. Three things aroused the suspicion:
a. It’s strange to find a player retiring at the start of a series.
b. It’s stranger to find an aging player quitting Tests and making himself available to the more rigorous demands of overs-limit cricket.
If there was a polite hint from the selectors asking Jayasuriya to take the honorable way out, they cannot really be blamed. In the last 26 months, his Test cricket graph has come under a bear hug with the odd good score looking like dead cat bounces – to borrow words from the stock market lexicon. Though he signed off with a cracking 78, his previous 25 innings had just one half century amid debris of single digit scores. For a man who once averaged in the 50s, the last 26 innings of his Test career yielded an unflattering average of 20.46.
"This is the right time to retire. There are some young guys coming up, and I wanted to go while on top,” Jayasuriya said, mouthing words not much different from what most players say at a moment like this. But in the Lankan’s case the words seemed a bit out of place as he is still available for ODI selection - a format meant for the younger and fitter generation. And it’s not that he has done anything more encouraging in recent times in ODIs as compared to Test matches, with 15 of his last 17 innings failing to get even into the thirties. Jayasuriya announced his retirement in April last year, only to go back on his decision. But at age 38, his Test career is history and his ODI career also in imminent danger of coming to an end.
Jayasuriya can be a dexterous destroyer against any attack on his day as he proved even in his final Test innings when went ballistic to take six fours in an over from James Anderson. The English have suffered Jayasuriya carnages over the years and I was privileged to witness one such at Faisalabad in the 1996 World Cup quarter-finals when he plundered 88 off 44 balls.
He was the architect of the Sri Lankan team in its epoch-making triumph in that World Cup where he emerged as the “Most Valuable Player” of the championship. He and his opening partner, Romesh Kaluwitharana, were a nuclear force, giving a new dimension to overs-limit cricket. Their two-pronged attack gave the innings a slog phase at the start, which took attacks and captains by surprise. And they did it in a manner that was brutal and staggering.
Then, in the Singer Cup final at the Padang in Singapore the same year, Jayasuriya savaged a Waqar Younis-Aaquib Javed powered Pakistan attack to score the fastest fifty in ODIs - off 17 balls.
A year later he ensured that he will have a permanent place among the galaxy of Test match greats when he scored a triple hundred in Sri Lanka’s Test record 952 for six, against India as he added 576 runs for the second wicket with Roshan Mahanama. Jayasuriya was unbeaten on 326 at the end of the fourth day’s play and as I made my way from my hotel room at Taj Samudra to the Khettarama, it seemed to me that almost all of Colombo was heading to the venue to rejoice in anticipation of the biggest cricket party ever in Sri Lanka. The humble boy from a Buddhist family in the fishing village of Matara was now the toast of his entire nation as he set out in his quest to break Brian Lara’s then Test record score of 375. But Jayasuriya added just 14 more runs when Rajesh Chauhan had him caught by Ganguly for what was then the fourth highest score in Tests. The sadness that engulfed the ground was unbelievable and that included, I dare say, many of the Indian players. For all the ferocity of his batting, Jayasuriya is a soft spoken, smiling and humble person. And everybody in the ground, Lankan or otherwise, hoped that he would get the record. Three years later he raised visions of breaking Saeed Anwar’s ODI world record of 194 before enduring another disappointment – this time falling six runs short of surpassing the record.
The highest scores in Test matches, ODIs and Twenty20 all belong to Sri Lanka with Jayasuriya topping in every one of those matches for Sri Lanka. What a batsman!