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So brightly fades the skipper



Usually, when the opponent was better than him, Arjuna had another way to win the contest; to get under his skin.

by Rex Clementine

In Australia, they run cricket like a business. In Sri Lanka there was a man who ran cricket like a family. Arjuna Ranatunga is his name and on a day like this, 19 years ago, he retired from the game with his swansong being at the ground that has been home for him for many decades – SSC.

It was an end of an era. Arjuna captained 56 of the 93 Tests he played. He ran the sport with an iron fist.

There was one golden rule in cricket. Never cross Arjuna’s path. He only knew two ways; my way or the highway.

Those whom he thought had a future had to comply and he would back them come hell or high water. Take the case of Sanath Jayasuriya. He was the original ‘bits and pieces cricketer’ having managed just one half-century in his first 50 innings. But the faith and perseverance that Arjuna had shown was such that once he found his feet in the internatioanl arena, he unleashed hell ending the careers of many a cricketer from Manoj Prabhakar to Kabir Ali. They never played cricket again. Arjuna had created a monster.

Not all players he backed were successful. Pramodaya Wickremesinghe for example. He played in more games than the wickets he took! But for Arjuna those players who made the team into a family mattered, more than match winners. Even those who were average cricketers played for Sri Lanka; Eric Upashantha and Suresh Perera to name a few. The only reason they played was they were in the good books of the captain.

Pity those who didn’t fall in line with Arjuna’s thinking. They hardly got a look in. It mattered to him that everyone who took the field with him was on the same wavelength. If he’d asked them to go through a brick wall, they would do it.

Of course, Arjuna could bat. Test runs he has over 4000. Some 1000 more he walked to finish with over 5000 runs.

His battles with leading fast bowlers of his generation were a treat to watch. He was comfortable with pace. Rather than taking them apart, he relied on using the pace to his advantage; nudging boundaries through third man or fine-leg with those late cuts and flicks. Alan Donald or Waqar Younis, the quickest of his generation never bothered him. Wasim Akram with his swing did. Usually, when the opponent was better than him, Arjuna had another way to win the contest; to get under his skin.

Against spin; sweep was his staple diet. Easily, he was the best sweeper of his generation. Of course there was Waruna Waragoda. But he committed a blunder. He had crossed Arjuna’s path, during a mercantile game involving HNB and Union Assurance. And he never played for Sri Lanka.

Arjuna had this knack to identify good potential. He picked Mahela Jayawardene soon after school at the age of 20. Sanath Jayasuriya isn’t the only monster he created.

Arjuna is the only player to feature in a nation’s first Test and its 100th. In between he had missed a dozen Tests. He had his share of injuries but a fair share of fights with the establishment too for which he was axed. In the end, he finished on 93 Tests.

The Board’s CEO was his elder brother and his father was right-hand man of President Chandika Kumaratunga. Had he wished, he could have gone onto play 100 Test matches, becoming the first Sri Lankan to do so. Instead, he opted to go on his terms having played two stunning knocks just before retiring.

In his last tour, in Rawalpindi, Waqar left him with a broken thumb. With the side in peril, with a Test match to be won, Arjuna walked in having taken a pain killer injection and saw Sri Lanka over the line in what was one of the most exciting Test matches ever. He was tough like Allan Border, cunning like Diego Maradona and skillful like Michael Jordan.

Then in his penultimate Test at Asgiriya against Proteas when the team had collapsed to 133 for six chasing 177, he produced another masterclass scoring 88 runs. The old fox had not lost his guile.

He was too good a player to have not scored more than four Test hundreds. But then, in his generation only Aravinda had won more matches than him.

Not everyone agreed with Arjuna’s thinking. But he commands huge respect. Even today, if he tells his team mates to be at his house for a meal on Friday at 7pm, Asanka Gurusinha would make sure he flies all the way from Melbourne to be there on time.

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Angelo Mathews bats during training at Suriyawewa ahead of the third ODI against Afghanistan.

Rex Clementine
at Suriyawewa

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