Friday, March 17, 2006

Celebrating "The Innings"….

This is a story we all know but yet I love to narrate again and again; you may get tired of hearing it but I don't see myself relenting. Let's go back by 10 years. To be exact.
A little bit of backdrop will not do the story any harm. Sri Lanka, a team that was expected to lose to all others barring Zimbabwe till 1994, start a steep upward curve the following year. This curve probably starts taking shape when Sri Lanka tour Pakistan for a 3 Test series in 1995. They lose the first test to a strong Pakistan side - and shock everyone when they come back to win the other two Tests and clinch the series: a first-ever for any three-match series.
More warning signs for the unheeding cricketing world come during the Sharjah tournament in October 1995. In a league match they chase 333 made by a respectable West Indian side (Lara 169) valiantly and lose by a mere 4 runs. This, even after Sri Lanka are reduced to 103 for 5 with all their stars gone. They make a thrilling match of it through lower order support to a never-say-die century by the most unfancied Tillekaratna. The Lankans subsequently beat the same side in the finals.
Next they visit the new unofficial Test champions Australia and lose the Test series 3-0 to no one's surprise...but three events occur during that series that change things forever for this team. I can recall this episode in some detail as cricket-watching was all that I was doing at the time.
1) Jayasuriya scores his 1st ever Test century in the 3rd Test - against the Aussies at their backyard; and for the 1st time believes that he is a Batsman & not the bits-and-pieces part-timer he believed himself to be for seven international seasons.
2) Arjuna takes up a fight with the Australian umpires regarding Murali and faces some harrassment on and off the field. Characteristically he keeps giving some back in kind. In the 2nd final of the ODI series he even feigns injury and brings out the team's fastest pair of legs Sanath as his runner - to severe objection of Taylor and his teammates.
In effect, his non-compliance to Australia's on-field pressure tactics inspires the team to haul their chins up and meet the adversary in the eye. However in the process the Sri Lankans develop a silent hostility towards the Aussies, which is to be aggravated by the Aussies' decision not to play their WC'96 league match scheduled in Sri Lanka.
3) The ODI tri-series Down Under unfolds as an eventful one. The Sri Lankans were struggling with the form of their opener Mahanama and their wicketkeeper, 5-down bat Kaluwitharana. Midway through the series the team management swaps their positions in a desperate move, one that will take them to the series finals via 3 wins in 3 consecutive league matches. It is a decision - more correctly a brainwave - that will have a never-before effect on all forms of the game.
The post-1996 trend of teams scoring quick runs even under pressure, and the general Aussie way of playing cricket of late is the direct fallout of a philosophy expounded to the cricket world by Sri Lanka through their cup winning effort: when in doubt, attack (as someone put it nicely).
Back to March 17 1996. Sri Lanka have stormed into the WC finals unbeaten, thanks to Kalu, Jayasuriya, Aravinda, Vaas, Murali and Dharmasena. Casualties of underestimating this unit lay by the wayside - most notable of them India, who did not learn their lesson even after losing a league match convincingly and were casual enough to let their hair down after only the 1st over of a World Cup semi. [Not that the unsuspecting Indian players can be blamed too much - they saw the back of their main tormentor of the league match Sanath and his opening partner before people took their stadium seats.]
This all-important day of the Finals belongs to just one of the brave little islanders. Australia bat 1st in the WC final and threaten to run away at around the half-way stage (132/1). The Sri Lankans field and bowl brilliantly,in that order, to pull them back and peg the total to threshold of competitiveness (241/7). Aravinda is instrumental in this restrictive effort - he picks up three wickets and bags some good catches too. That effort however does not serve even as a half-decent foresight of the stuff he was about to unleash.
The Sri Lankan innings stutters off the blocks as they lose their gladiators Sanath and Kalu by the team score of 23. 'Mad Max' de Silva walks in at one-drop. He puts together a crucial stand with Gurusinghe before Guru departs for 65. The team score is 148 and in comes the Himalaya-cool Ranatunga.
A most unforgettable display of classical batsmanship follows, exceeded in thrill only by Inzy's blazing 60 of 37 balls against NZ in the 1992 WC semis. Aravinda has played top-flight cricket for 19 years but seldom must he have looked as perfect a batsman as he does during this partnership with his captain.
This innings is not as frantic in pace as Aravinda's own semi-final resurrection work against India. His dominance of the bowling though is complete. If his semi-final blast hit India like a stealth bomber, this one had the inevitability of the Sun illuminating the horizon at dawn. No risks are taken and yet Aravinda makes McGrath and Warne look like innocuous triers. In one over of Warne the bowler is driven for a straight four thru mid-off. Masterclass is still not over and the 5'3" genius then paints a mirror image of the shot in the very next Warne over through mid-on. Only VVS Laxman at work in Eden Gardens 2001 and Nathan Astle scoring his record breaking Test double ton have since etched as prominent images.
An Australian team walking in a daze much before the actual end of play is the rarest sight of all, but the whole world saw it today. Aravinda de Silva chose the greatest cricket match in the history of his country to levitate to another stratum and play The Innings we all dream about. 10 years ago, The Innings is about to begin soon...The Sun rises at the dawn of Sri Lankan cricket and I don't want to miss it even in the dreams.

1 comment:

Nilay Majumdar said...

Great, you reminded me of the innings once again.
This was a special innings not only from the point of view that it was in WC final, but it was again the then best bowling attack and perhaps one of the top 3 bowling attacks of all time. The class of batsman ship demonstrated by Silva re-iterates what we might have missed, if he had been a little serious in his early days