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Lions no longer

By Prithviraj Hegde
January 27, 2003 11:19 IST
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This is a tale of two captains: Sanath Jayasuriya and Arjuna Ranatunga.

Two tales, actually. Both with similar echoes but different resonances.

Arjuna RanatungaIn 1996/97, Ranatunga, already making a name for himself as a feisty captain, led a modestly-rated team for a Test and one-day series in Australia. It was, to risk understatement, a stormy tour. And a defining moment for the island nation's cricket.

In the Melbourne Test, Lanka's premier bowler Muthiah Muralitharan was repeatedly no-balled by umpire Darell Hair for an 'illegal bowling action'. The Sri Lankan board and Ranatunga rallied behind their main strike weapon. In the tri-series, a seething Ranatunga sent out Sanath Jayasuriya -- till then a modest number seven averaging around 20 and left arm trundler -- and Romesh Kaluwitharna, the wicket-keeper, as pinch hitting openers. It was a pairing as explosive as any in cricket history. Backed by Asanka Gurusinha, Aravinda DeSilva, the captain himself, Roshan Mahanama and Hashan Tillakaratne, the Lankans suddenly were giving back as good as they got.

When umpire Roy Emerson no-balled Murali again in a tri-series match, Ranatunga had had enough and almost pulled his team out of the tournament. Cooler heads prevailed and the team then went on to knock out England, before losing to Australia in the finals. A hostile media hounded the Lankans throughout the tour and the acrimony spilled on to the playing field. It was in this crucible, that the steel in Ranatunga and his unsung men was tempered. And when Australia came calling on the dustbowls of the subcontinent for cricket's greatest prize, Ranatunga and his young lions were ready.

Cut to 2002-2003, the Sri Lankans are Down Under again. For a tri-series with the hosts and England. The Aussies are still dominant. Only more ruthless and rampant. England are looking to lift themselves from another Ashes nightmare and the Lankans are trying to salvage an indifferent year. The credits on Sri Lanka's marquee still have those familiar names. Jayasuriya, now captain, DeSilva, Kaluwitharna, Tillakaratne, Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas. But the script has changed.

The team is a shadow of Ranatunga's brave and testy men. In eight unforgettable preliminary matches the team won just two and were knocked out. And flew home to settle a raging pay dispute with the Lankan board, while Australia and England squared up for the finals. Perhaps, what sums up the Lankans state of mind is the encounter between Murali and his old nemesis Hair. This time Hair's right hand stayed firmly in his pocket. But the Aussie hordes in the stadium repeatedly chanted 'chucker' and signalled no-ball whenever the off-spinner came on. The last straw came when the spinner, injured while fielding, was jeered off the field. The normally diffident and media-shy spinner was driven to say that he would never return to Australia. A few days later the 31-year-old was hinting at retirement from the one-day game.

Though battered and bruised, the Lankan's may still have something to put on the table as cricket's greatest show unfolds in South Africa

___________ Strengths ___________

The team's dismal performances in recent times may have lowered public expectations. And the Lankans have shown an affinity for the underdog tag. A favourable draw will also lessen the odds. The team packs enough experience and have guys who on their day can win matches.

___________ Weaknesses ___________

The bowling and fielding. Jayasuriya's aging side lends experience but not agility. Even India, never the team you want fielding for you, have Yuvraj Singh and Mohammed Kaif patrolling the critical point and cover regions. Pardon me for asking, but who are the guys who do these jobs for the Lankans? Murali, once a livewire, pulls up grimacing every time he dives on the field. Jayasuriya's solidity has long gone and the sight of DeSilva running down balls is not pretty. Add to that the confusion over Kumar Sangakkara and Kaluwitharana for the wicket-keeper's slot and you have a bowler's nightmare on the field. The bowling was never menacing nor match-winning. You can never discount Murali, and Vaas may deliver an occasional match-winning burst. As for the rest, throw them the ball and hope for the best.

___________ Key players ___________

Sanath JayasuriyaJayasuriya and Muralitharan. These guys can win matches single-handed. Need more be said? But the dark horses are Mahela Jayawardene and Dilhara Fernando. Jayawardene is one of those frustrating enigmas cricket throws up with such great regularity. His talent is obvious but the man seems a reluctant player on the big stage. If he doesn't take his much-belated bow in South Africa, he'll be one of cricket's lost children. Fernando is still in cricketing adolescence and the hard bouncy African tracks may pitch him into early adulthood. If only the big fella can keep his size 12 boots from slipping over the popping crease. And you can never write off that old warhorse DeSilva. The artistry and articulation of his younger days may have faded, but you can count on him anchoring a difficult chase or leading an assault in the slog overs.

___________ Key games ___________

You would expect them to nip out Bangladesh, Kenya and Canada in their group matches. Else they could have stayed home and negotiated their salary contacts. But it's with New Zealand and the West Indies that the real scrapping match begins. Win one of those and it's most likely the Super Sixes. That no one's calling now. Yeah there's South Africa too in the group. But even in a gloriously uncertain game, you have to pick a favorite.

In 1997, Ranatunga was as lucky as he was astute. He was their coming-of-age captain. After nearly a decade with the big boys, the island's time had come. The DeSilvas and the Jayasuriyas were then young lions but had enough hits with cricket's big boys to know what was expected of them on its big stage. And they were playing on the slow, low subcontinental turners they grew up on. Now, Jayasuriya leads a battle-weary and aging side to battle. The Matara mauler still wields a brutal bat. But he's a diffident leader without Ranatunga's guts-or-glory street fighter instincts. His young guns may yet come out and stake their claim on cricket's firmament. But you'll get long odds on a happy ending. Ladbrokes quotes them at 14-1 outsiders to win, Mumbai's more canny but parallel betting bazaar gives you 20-1.

As for me, to paraphrase Geoffrey Boycott, 'My money remains in my pocket.

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Prithviraj Hegde