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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Sanath Jayasuriya: Beauty amid the carnage

In the Technicolor 1990s, our bogeyman was Sri Lankan

I was born in India in 1991, along with LPG—liberalization, privatization, globalization. Ours was the first generation of the subcontinent to dream its dreams entirely in colour. The first decade of our lives coincided with the definitive shift of cricket’s power centre to our part of the world. The money was flowing, and its colour was in the logos of sponsors and broadcasters. Matches ended way past our parents’ bedtime, and there was even dancing in the aisles in Sharjah.

First lessons in beauty were beamed live into our living rooms. Cricket fatigue? We were just getting started. From Karachi to Kanpur to Kandy, we watched as Waqar conjured movement in the air, Lara released himself like a wind-up toy and Jonty defied gravity. Aided by slo-mo replay, it was a relentless exhibition of men displaying a solid mastery of their craft, pleasing to the eye and indistinguishable from the best visual art.

In 1996, the World Cup came home. Cricket was hosting its biggest party yet in our own raucous, chaotic backyard. Though we did not know it then, UK-based writer Mike Marqusee was winding his way around the subcontinent, putting together War Minus The Shooting, his seminal account of the apogee moment of the tempestuous—but inevitable—marriage between South Asia’s emerging consumer subcultures and a game that had mutated far beyond its provenance as a genteel diversion of the colonising bequeather.

The World Cup’s mutant-in-chief was a balding fellow whose bat was mostly sword, sometimes wand. It was as if one of the ninja turtles from my favourite cartoon show had put on a Sri Lanka shirt and become the bad guy.

Between deliveries, Sanath Jayasuriya was prone to adjust his pads, give his helmet a bit of a shake and tap the pitch with his bat. It was hardly nervous fidgeting, and we were quick to recognise it as ominous ritual. The poor bowler would run in and pitch on a good length outside off. The mutant—deploying his extraordinary hand-eye coordination and upper body strength—would explode.

In the run-up to the World Cup, he had already, along with his diminutive friend Romesh Kaluwitharana, established a new language for opening batsmen. It had shaken the establishment, woken it up from its stupor of stolid defence and seeing out the new ball. This was slash, bang, next. The Madras mamas clucked disapprovingly. The class of ’91 watched in wide-eyed fascination, unburdened by legacy.

As kids growing up in India, our world view then was informed by the reductionism and lazy generalisation that has once again become fashionable among the middle class. Pakistan was the historical enemy, Sri Lanka the mythical. Destructive Sanath—dispatching our bowlers to all parts of the ground—fit in conveniently as the cricketing Ravana, the prodigiously gifted super villain from the island to the south. This new king of Lanka did not have ten heads, but he carried around a bat that must be made of steel.

My first composite memory of fear is watching Sanath come out to bat against a ’90s Indian side. The camera would pan to him as he took guard before facing his first ball. A dark blue and dull gold information bar, colours of late 1990s Star Sports cricket programming, would appear at the bottom of the TV screen, announcing the arrival of my tormenter. He would proceed to take his stance—butt sticking out, white armguard in place, pecking at the pitch heavily with his Kookaburra bat, all set to have the first laugh.

From there, I remember only the carnage. 1997 was the landmark 50th year of Indian independence, but our bowlers spent the first half of August being bullied by Sanath. At the Premadasa, he contributed 340 to an unforgettable innings total of 952.

It was death by Test cricket—the tedium and horror of that innings stayed with me for long after. His belligerence made the Indian bowling attack look more toothless than it actually was—he slashed and cut and hooked and pulled and swept. I could not bear to watch. I could not turn away. He picked the pacers square off his hip, he charged the spinners and lofted them over mid-on. The very next week, he followed it up with a 199 at the Sinhalese Sports Club.

The unkindest cut? There was no macho fist pump, no manic glare, no preening strut after each wallop to the boundary. Maybe a smile bordering on the sheepish, as if he had just been announced the winner of an interschool arts and crafts competition. His upper cut was the knife in the young soul, and his humility its slow, slow turn.

As is expected of one who lives by the sword and dies by it, there were a number of failures. But the memory of those early years lived under the pall is hard to replace.

There was also the matter of his technique. The low top hand, leaving the upper part of the handle exposed and causing the bottom hand to appear to be clutching the bat shoulder, led to further infuriation. On our grounds, we were constantly being reminded to grip the handle with equidistant hands and play with a straight bat. And there he was, this almost bald king of the cross-bat, mocking us with his repertoire.

Of course, at the heart of this mix of fear, envy and trepidation was his left-handedness. Oh how that rankles—the eternal grouse of the orthodox right-hander against the flamboyant southpaw. They are the magicians, we are the grafters. They are “imperious" and “majestic" while the best of us are “compact" and “solid".

How is it that they appear to have all the time and space in the world to crunch one through the covers? On camera, why must they look like gods and we like fallible, forsaken men? Sanath’s batting as engendering inferiority complex. Take this down, shrinks of middle-aged Indian men who batted right handed.

To say he could bowl a bit would be an understatement. In fact, he started out as a bowler in the late 1980s. Throughout his career, he did it without breaking a sweat, delivering his skidders as if he were manufacturing them on an assembly line. He bowled it quick. He bowled it flat. He ended up with 323 wickets in ODIs.

In the field, he was a busybody, a fox in any position, as effective as pouching tricky ones in the slips as cutting out a second run from the outfield. Meanwhile, we kept searching for a “genuine" all-rounder between Tendulkar’s loose leg breaks and Ganguly’s dibbly dobblies.

While we discovered other avenues for heartbreak in the first decade of the new millennium—the English Premier League, girls, alcohol—Sanath continued to plod on, through captaincy, a retirement, a comeback and T20 leagues. The old warhorse kept going even as we forgot about him.

By many accounts, his second life as politician and cricket administrator (in Sri Lanka, these two job titles are inseparable) has been a series of let-downs. His populist decisions are said to reflect a marked lack of the iron- will and tenacity he displayed during his playing career. The mutant ninja gradually began to resemble all the other unremarkable peas in the subcontinental pod.

He was still an active player in 2010 when he was elected to Parliament as a candidate of then president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s United People’s Freedom Alliance. Even by South Asian standards, this was eyebrow-raising. After all, in Sri Lanka, team selection must ultimately be approved by the sports minister.

In 2011, the parliamentarian was believed to have been a judge in his own cause when he was recalled to the T20 and ODI sides for an England series, when he was almost 42. For most of his first tenure as chief selector, beginning in February 2013, he was a deputy minister in government.

In the tumultuous period that marked his second run as chief selector—which included a famous three-Test clean sweep of Australia as well as a shocking ODI series loss to Zimbabwe—Jayasuriya’s transformation from game-changing all-rounder to fair weather public official was complete. When the team was winning, he invariably popped up to beam for the cameras and offer a soundbite or two. When the going got tough, he was nowhere to be seen.

Before some of all this, passing through his hometown of Matara in late 2011, I saw a billboard that finally delivered something close to closure. Ten different flavoured ice creams were impossibly suspended between his fingers. There was that sheepish smile again, now seeming to say come on old chaps, it’s all in the past now. It was affecting. The demands of modern commerce and lifestyle are at once amusing and instructive. In that moment, my heart melted enough to drop any cricketing grudges against the benevolent ice cream uncle. After all, he had made my first memories.

Let us go back to a simpler time, Sanath, to an age of easy wonder. Before the Chinese started building your stadiums and sponsoring our gear. Before you got involved in the quagmire of your country’s politics and sports administration, and before us commoners were forced to reconcile with our own sporting and artistic mediocrity. Should we go back to the era of Center Fresh trading cards and endless summer days of tape ball cricket?

Maybe we can end up in one of those Akai or Singer Cups of the late 1990s. You can bludgeon a Venky Prasad off-cutter over point. We can both watch as it lands in the stands with the papare bands. Uncle Percy can wave his giant flag. Break my little heart again. Only you could do it so beautifully. Come Sanath, let us all be young and somewhat whole again.

Vikram Shah is a recovering commercial lawyer, gradually realizing that the bills do not pay themselves. 

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