By Kanishkaa Balachandran/The Hindu
The art of pinch-hitting in one-day internationals at the top of the order originated in the 1980s with India’s Kris Srikkanth, was carried forward in 1992 by Mark Greatbatch, but one player who packaged that tactic with greater consistency and intimidation was Sri Lanka’s Sanath Jayasuriya. The left-handed batsman is believed to be the architect of Sri Lanka’s 1996 World Cup triumph, when opposition teams lost matches in their heads within the first 15 overs. With every bludgeoning slash over point, effortless whip off the pads, a tiny nation’s self-belief soared just as high as the ball.
A late bloomer, Jayasuriya spent seven relatively quiet years as an international player till that turning point. Till his final match at 42, he witnessed and presided over generational shifts in Sri Lankan cricket in various roles. A new biography by Indian cricket writer and commentator Chandresh Narayanan tells the story of this multi-faceted star through the eyes of his former teammates, rivals, coaches and journalists, plus inputs from Jayasuriya’s media interviews.
Narayanan has tapped into a surprisingly niche segment, given that very little literature exists in English on the lives of Sri Lanka’s legendary cricketers. Jayasuriya’s story is also unique in that he paved the way for non-Colombo bred cricketers to make it big.
The early chapter on his modest beginnings in provincial Matara and his life as an outstation cricketer in Colombo are compelling for its anecdotes – the origin of his superstition of touching his pad before facing a ball; his tutelage under Arjuna Ranatunga; on his first tour to Australia, learning from senior player Graeme Labrooy everyday tasks like making tea, ironing; buying a fridge in Dubai for his mother.
Anecdotes about his off-field ventures like judging Miss World (on Amitabh Bachhan’s request) alongside Aamir Khan and Aishwarya Rai, going out of his comfort zone to appear in the reality dance show Jhalak Dikhhla Ja, add value.
The book is also effectively a timeline of Sri Lankan cricket, describing its board-room chaos, musical chairs in management, and political interference with Jayasuriya either directly or tangentially involved. Politics and Jayasuriya were inseparable, whether he was fighting it in selection meetings or benefiting from it for his own selection when he was past his prime, or at Parliament itself, where he served as a cabinet minister under Mahinda Rajapaksa with middling success.
Controversial details focus more on his decisions as a captain, politician and a problematic second term as chairman of selectors. However, we don’t get a peek into what was going through his mind during the highs, lows and tragic events like the 2004 tsunami. Did the political backing over his selection in later years embarrass him? The absence of a personal voice to the book begs more such questions.
The roller coaster life of one of Sri Lanka’s biggest international sports superstars would have many more anecdotes and revelations. His is a story that deserves more pages.