Comment - Sanath Jayasuriya, The Scourge Of Indian Cricket
The greatest irony of my cricket-watching journey has been that I became a fan of it because of a player who rarely gave me a moment to enjoy an Indian victory against Sri Lanka. Never ever did I have such a polarised affection for a player when he bashed other opposition’s vis-à-vis the Indian cricket team.
If they say that no matter how much you move on in life with relationships, you never forget your first love, I guess that’s exactly the same sentiment I hold for Sanath Jayasuriya when it comes to my list of favourite sports stars.
Throughout the late 90s, ever since I have started following cricket, this one gentleman gave me as much as joy as he caused agony with his performances.
While most of my friends were Sachin fans for his picture perfect strokeplay, I somehow admired the sense of unpredictability and daredevilry which Sanath would display during his batting.
The Year that Was – 1996
My first recollection of watching Jayasuriya on TV was in the 1996 World Cup when he pummelled the hapless Indian bowlers to submission at the Feroz Shah Kotla as he overshadowed Tendulkar’s masterclass 137 as Sri Lanka chased down a mammoth 271 by India (though such a score is not a big deal in today’s era).
What angered me was how could anyone so effortlessly steal an Indian hero’s show in the wink of an eye, but he did it. How I hated him that particular day.
Yet a couple of weeks later I saw him decimating the England bowlers in the quarter-finals to enable Sri Lanka to storm into the semis. I was shell-shocked with admiration. Somehow the Sachins and the Azhars of India looked too boring and one dimensional to me.
Yet when it came to the semi-finals I jumped with joy when I roared in my living room with the Eden Gardens. I could not understand my own psychology as to how could I be so fickle a supporter as to hate someone for his craft which I was watching in admiration just a couple of days ago.
If I thought this villain's role was over in the match how wrong my prophecy was, as out of nowhere he came back to take three wickets in India’s innings thus ensuring that my dream of watching India win a World Cup would be shattered. I thought to myself 'how could a guy whom I thought to be a hero do this to his young fan of 10 years?'.
That World Cup shaped the very ethos of my player-fan relationship with Jayasuriya. There were days when I loved to hate him and there were other days when I just loved loving him for what he was.
In the end Sri Lanka had won the World Cup. Though Sanath hardly did anything of note in the final game I was happy that the team with Sanath had won.
Hardly had the World Cup hysteria died down that I heard on the radio that Jayasuriya had smashed the fastest century in ODIs in a match against Pakistan in Singapore. I remember how angry I was with my parents that they still had not got cable television installed.
How angry I was that I had been deprived the right to watch my new-found hero live on television blasting his way through an opposition that was not India.
The next game in that series was against India and how I feared that night as to what fate would await for those innocent Indian bowlers who would be bowling against this freak of a player. And behold, the next day Sri Lanka fell short by 13 runs, with Jayasuriya falling for a measly one.
Only God knew my happiness. Even I was beginning to find this Dr. Jekyll-Mr.Hyde like fanship for this Sri Lankan magician amusing.
India-Sri Lanka matches had become a routine affair in the late 90s, having the same stale script match after match.
Script 1: India batting first would lose early wickets. Sachin Tendulkar would consolidate and lead a fightback and India would post a competitive total in the 220s.
Jayasuriya would come to bat on a completely different pitch, hammer the daylights out of bowlers and finish off the match in 35 overs
Script 2: Jayasuriya, in pathetic form throughout the tournament, the moment he saw Indian bowlers, all his technical defaults and diseases which had doomed him to failure against other oppositions would vanish.
He would bat like a man possessed who would get peace only after having torn the Indian bowlers to smithereens.
I hated him when he scored those 340 runs against India in 1997 on a batting paradise. It was not only the Indian team which had suffered for two continuous days under his assault. Countless number of fans including me had our patience and devotion tested in front of television screens during which not a single wicket fell.
This story followed year after year in the one-day games too. He always reserved his best for playing against India whether it be his 151 at the Wankhede in 1997, his 189 in Sharjah in 2000 or his 123 in the Asia Cup in 2008 in Karachi.
The background was always the same. An out-of-form Sanath who just had to see the faces of Indian bowlers to spring him back to life. My only question was "Why only India?"
Jayasuriya tested my devotion as a fan like no other player did. His favourite opposition was India. I was a fanatical supporter, but somewhere down the line there was a sports fan who just loved his sheer style, irrespective of who the opposition was. Putting a teenager in such a dilemma in my opinion was highly unethical on the part of my favourite sportsmen.
Yet, unknowingly, my evolution as an observer of sports had started, whereby I could segregate my fanatical like devotion to the Indian team separate from the appreciation I had learnt to develop for an opposition player. Hopefully in the years to come this would stand me in good stead.
Jayasuriya – My Hero
Somehow my admiration for Jayasuriya was not only for his style of playing but also for the timing of his innings. As both my parents were working and I didn’t take after-school tutorials, being back home was quite an arduous task.
Honestly speaking the Indian team of the 1990s didn’t inspire much of an interest in me to sit up and take notice of them. On such occasions my friend Sanath would act as my savior.
Perhaps my favourite innings of his would be the 253 he scored at The Oval in 1998 against England. Since England had batted for most of the previous two days, it had somehow skipped my mind that Sri Lanka would be batting too. It was a lazy Saturday afternoon and there was no one at my home.
It would not be before 6:00 PM my parents would be back home. As I switched on the television trying to find some solace through cartoon network I suddenly came across Star Sports where the match was on and Jayasuriya was coming into bat. What followed that afternoon was sheer splendour.
No matter what the English bowlers threw at him the ball had only one place - that was the boundary. No one would dare say Test cricket was boring.
In fact that day made me believe it’s the purest form of cricket as it gave the freedom to all players to express themselves and their art in the fullest. I never even realized when it was 6:00 and my parents were back.
The ungrateful soul I was, I had been calling them up frantically to be back home early and now that they had come back, I hardly took notice of them. This was perhaps one such instance when Jayasuriya became my friend, when my other friends were busy with personal chores.
He instilled hope in the team he played for even if it looked impossible.
His presence kept the opposition on their toes as they feared that he could achieve the impossible.
During the 1990s when Sharjah was still a popular cricket hub, I really looked forward to those mindless triangular series featuring Sri Lanka, Pakistan and a third team (other than India). It was a joy not getting enrolled in an ethical dilemma as to whether I should support my cricket team or my favorite sportsman.
Outsiders would find it hard to believe to have watched the way I cheered for Sri Lanka. I am thankful to Jayasuriya for having helped me to win countless bets against uncles and friends. The winner (which was usually me) would get an ice cream or a chocolate treat which was a huge deal for a boy like me.
When as children we were asked to write essays on our favorite sport stars, Sachin Tendulkar was the popular choice followed by Saurav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid (who were the new sensations in the making).
My choice of Sanath Jayasuriya was unique and it raised many eyebrows too especially amongst friends.
How could I consider a batsmen who has shattered so many dreams of an Indian victory as a favourite sports star? But that was the admiration for Sanath.
He was never the perfect cricketer. Perhaps he was the best example of an anti-hero. He was human. He had his grey shades when he massacred the Indian bowling. I realise it was these facets of this great batsman from Sri Lanka which fascinated me as an armchair cricket freak.
In fact I almost got admission to one of the most prestigious schools of Delhi despite doing badly in the written exams simply for the way I justified Jayasuriya being my favorite sports star in my interview. He had almost helped me to pull off a miracle.
Sorry for Sanath
Somehow the World Cups have always served as a platform for the best of my polarised affections for Sanath Jayasuriya and the Sri Lankan team. If, in 1996, I hated them for boxing India out of the semi-finals, my heart went out to Sanath and his team when they got massacred in the 1999 World Cup in England.
Though it was sweet revenge for the Indian team as I saw Ganguly and Dravid smash them in Taunton, I felt a slight lump in my throat when Javagal Srinath mercilessly ran out Jayasuriya through a direct hit in that game.
History repeated itself again in the 2003 World Cup game when Sri Lanka got ransacked by India getting shot out for 107. For most part of that innings Jayasuriya had seen a procession of Sri Lankan batsmen coming and going. There was a great fight within me as the Indian fanatic who wanted its opposition to be bruised to pulp and the Jayasuriya admirer who wanted his hero to remain not out.
However, this time the tables turned in the 2007 World Cup, where India, having lost to Bangladesh, were at the mercy of Sri Lanka as they tried to qualify for the Super 8s.
Though Jayasuriya did not play a major role in that victory, I again ended up having bitter feelings for him and his team for once again having shattered India’s dreams.
I knew my team didn’t deserve to qualify given their atrocious performance in the league games, but Sri Lanka could have been a bit more considerate. However, when Sri Lanka qualified for the finals, I was again rooting for a Sanath performance in the finals.
Despite Australia once again having posted a mammoth total, I knew as long as the Superman of the Sri Lankan batting was at the crease even the Aussies would have been quaking in their pants.
However, the moment he got bowled after scoring his 50, most of the viewers and players in the field knew the game was over. That’s why I admired Jayasuriya since my childhood.
He instilled hope in the team he played for even if it looked impossible. His presence kept the opposition on their toes as they feared that he could achieve the impossible. Ultimately Sri Lanka lost the finals and this would be the last time I saw my hero on the World Cup stage.
A dream comes true
As a college goer the first time I saw a match live in the stadium was an India-Sri Lanka Test match in 2005 at Feroz Shah Kotal. Though it turned out to be a dream match from the Indian perspective with Sachin Tendulkar breaking Sunil Gavaskar’s record of 34 centuries, it had been a bit of an anti-climax as Jayasuriya was not a part of that team on account of poor form.
I had to wait as long as four more years to see my hero play live in front of my eyes.
This was in December 2009 when I was already a working professional and my hero had turned 40. India had already won the series and there was nothing much at stake. Yet even at that age when most cricketers call it a day, I saw Sanath playing the Indian bowlers with aplomb skill on that brute of a wicket.
It was only after he had got out for 34 runs, was a hue and cry raised about the condition of that wicket.
While he was at the crease, never as an on-field spectator did I feel that wicket was not suitable for cricket. While most Delhites regret having gone to that match, I feel proud of having braved the December cold as after that game Jayasuriya did not get to play another match until June 2011.
The last innings
It was in the summer of 2011, that Jayasuriya had officially declared that he would be retiring from the game. A lot of hue and cry had been made with respect to his selection for the tour of England, with some Sri Lankan players making their displeasure quite evident in their public speeches.
I did not care as a series of emotions swept my mind as I read that news.
I was 25, already two years into the professional circuit. For most Indians their childhoods have been encompassed by the presence of Sachin Tendulkar. But no doubt a part of my childhood ended on 28th June 2011, a couple of days before his 42nd birthday when his trademark square cut off Tim Bresnan landed straight in the palms of Eoin Morgan.
No doubt times had changed.
Those cuts which flew over third man for six had flown straight into the hands of a point fielder who normally would have just stood gazing at the ball as a mere spectator.
My childhood was over.
I had grown up.
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