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So brightly fades our Matara Mauler

sanathIt was Graham Ford who first spotted the sign. ’Welcome to Sanath Country’ it boldly told us, and befitting of a champion, it was a massive hoarding with Sanath Jayasuriya’s face smiling back.

South Africa’s A Team of 1998 was on its way to Matara for a late afternoon net and as usual, Yahaluweni, the bus had been slowed to a crawl by the usual road congestion. It gave us all a chance to have a good look at the sign as well.

There is always something magical about the south coast. It has that ambience which makes up for some of the negatives, such as the hotel at Weligama. But if you want to be part of a team on tour, it is always a matter of accepting that at some stage you would need to rough it.

The ’Welcome to Sanath Country’ sign was still in evidence two years later when staying with friends close to Matara, it was a matter of hopping on to a local bus service and enjoying the ride with friendly residents, some eager to practise their English. It became a ritual. But that is the southern coast of the island for you, and we’ll return to that subject.

By 1998 though, he had become a big name and the South wore their heart on their sleeve when his name was mention. After all, had he not taken to the game he could have quite easily ended up fishing . . . Who knows. He’s such a down to earth guy without frills or big ideas. And as you quickly learn, there is a lot of passion about his play.

Our first meeting was at Centurion when he captained the Sri Lanka under24 side to South Africa. That was in early February 1993 and he was a low key all-rounder; the same could be said about his style of play later that year when South Africa made their first official tour and won the Test series 1-0. But the Sri Lanka under24 team had some big names: Marvan Atapattu, Muttiah Muralitharan and Romesh Kaluwitharana attempting to establish reputations.

For those who like their statistics, Murali collected 10 wickets in that game for 122 (six in the second innings for 62 runs). That’s not a bad effort at all and the prophecy of greatness already whispered in the pavilions.

On the 1993 tour there was a hotel at Koggala where the surf and birdlife as well as the stilt fishermen grabbed as much attention as that ’Welcome to Sanath Country’ sign years later. It was a very much laidback environment and tourist board types didn’t think there was any decent accommodation east of Galle. Why, the claim was how the famed Unawatuna Bay stretch of beach was as bereft of colour as a Geoff Boycott innings.

That’s quite interesting as in 2001, some of the Indian media guys were very keen to join us fortunate ones at UBR and sample the night life and jive to the DJ’s loud renditions of ABBA while breakfast was a matter of a dressing in scuba gear and spearing a few seer fish, or collecting some crab.

More seriously though, Galle and the South is genuine Sanath Country. Anyone who watched that inning of ninety six against South Africa before lunch on that first day couldn’t but help but marvel at his audacious strokeplay. Captain for less than a year through controversial selection after the 1999 World Cup fiasco, on that day in August 2000, he brought the full meaning if that sign into focus.

Dipping into the past, this is what was written on a website that I helped run here in Colombo all those years ago. It is well worth recalling some of that innings.

’Such was the rocket-propelled start by the Jayasuriya-Atapattu combination that Sri Lanka’s close of play score of 341 for five at 4.36 runs an over was a feast enough for anyone who enjoys the uninhibited style and flair of such attacking strokeplay. It gave lie to the thought that Jayasuriya no longer had the ability to revert to his 1996 World Cup formula.

Yet any side scoring at five runs an over by lunch on day one of a Test deserves some credit for such a remarkable effort; in these days of safety-first batting tactics it is seen as being more prudent to bat with sedate caution. Not that Jayasuriya is one for that sort of tradition.

’It is all a matter of sitting back and enjoying the batting capers. And it was more than just an attempted joy ride into the pages of batting history: it was an exhilarating exhibition of calculated aggression, skilled and forcefully flamboyant, bringing with it an air of buoyancy.

’It left us with memories of forceful and colourfully electrifying strokeplay possibly last seen during the Australia tour of 1995/96 and the 1996 World Cup, which was not so much taken out of the kit bag and brushed off as being forcibly hauled out and shaken off. It was a reminder that given the right stage, and against an imposing backdrop as the Galle Fort, of what can happen.’

Jayasuriya has always managed to entertain as well as change the shape of the limited-overs slogs. It became too his forte: the Brian Lara syndrome of ’Did I entertain?’ question asked when their former hero bid farewell to the Caribbean supporters as the West Indies bowed out of CWC07.

At Algeria, however, the Matara Mauler didn’t need to go through another pantomime of holding court to a media audience to mull over his retirement and talk about best moments and cherished memories. He had gone through that at the same shabby venue last year when told to retire. Already the latter part of his career had been partly blighted by injury and form and an impatient selection policy that in a sense pointed a nasty metaphorical gun at his Test career.

He didn’t need it then, but in his own mind, it was time and those of the selectors, knowing there is a long haul ahead of the side that had to get along without him. As England managed to do without Sir Leonard Hutton and Australia without Sir Donald Bradman, two genuine knights of the game.

Test retirement came possibly the right time yet watching him reel off six successive fours was the explosive counter punch that was good to watch – even if it was on television. His farewell Test innings also pushed his batting average up into the 40s where it belongs for an international batsman of his class. For a moment though, on Saturday, watching Yuvraj Singh plunder a Pakistan bowling attack, at Bangalore, brought back flashes of an earlier Jayasuriya model and his rapier style batting.

In some ways his retirement, even with the crowing victory by eighty-eight runs, was tarnished by the antics of the Asgiriya ’what’s in it for me’ mob. Serious questions now need to be asked about the fitness of the venue and those responsible and who turned the whole exercise into a farce to swell egos and fatten wallets. Tardy facilities for the general public, especially those tourists who spend money to go and watch the game and are then insulted by petty Kandy officials, give a bad name to the country. Visitors being seduced by scenery is one thing, but the Asgiriya venue has, as one UK contact who is on his third visit said, has now become an embarrassment. It is time Sri Lanka Cricket had this venue removed from the international calendar before the International Cricket Council step in.

Were security checks made about the general safety of such temporary covered seating? When it becomes a danger to spectators, as it did on the final day, it creates the sort of third world image of which tourist board officials are trying to avoid and might take note for future reference. Spectators need to be able to go and watch a game with some form of comfort without the worry of thinking about their injury insurance or forking out extra cash for unexpected injuries caused by the carelessness of officials.

As for the television commentary, Sky TV came to the rescue for with Russel Arnold not available for this series because of his commitments in India, the local production through Channel Eye was equally tardy. But suggestions that Arnold’s Indian Cricket League links might create a problem in preventing him from commentating, could run foul of certain labour laws.

At least Makhya Ntini will not need to worry too much about his future. Such is his popularity, that the xhosa speaking South African fast bowler is the most popular sports man of South African teen of all age groups and genders. For the third successive year he beat off wannabe heroes from other codes, and this includes some thugby . . . er rugby guy who won an international award for helping South Africa win that mugby world title.

And for those who have memories of last year’s Test series between South Africa and Sri Lanka, Dale Steyn, who did much to wreck New Zealand in that two-match series held last month, has collected 14 wickets in the SuperSport Series (first-class) for 110, helping Titans beat Free State’s Diamond-Eagles. Not too many bowlers have a CV which shows they collected three successive 10 wicket hauls in a season.

And finally, as thoughts also turn to Galle, it might be an idea if before the start of the third Test in this Investec series, if players and officials of both camps hold a two minute silence in memory of those who perished in the tsunami of December 26, 2004. It is the least that can be done, for as yet, there is no memorial for that tragic moment in time.



December 11, 2007 - Posted by | Sports, Sri Lanka Cricket


  1. Thanks for this wonderful post. Who can forget what happened in Galle and for that matter across Asia for those terrible few hours. It is a matter of pride that almost every country has bounced back including Galle.

    Comment by Indian Premier League | February 2, 2008 | Reply

  2. Great job on this article! I am impressed with your presentation of thoughts and writing skills. You must have put in hours of research on this subject to be able to write with such intelligence. I will certainly do a link to on my site.

    Comment by spinal canal stenosis surgery | October 28, 2011 | Reply

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