Cricket: Arjuna falls to earth

After the Call: Ranatunga sinks from heroic leader to tinpot charlatan in one momentous week
Click to follow
The Independent Online
SOMETIMES it is simply the way the dice, or whatever else, are thrown but, when the final judgement is passed on Arjuna Ranatunga, it will be measured by events before and after The Call. Before, he was a general with a twinkle in his eye, Napoleon no less, a fellow who could strut with the best of them but who was widely admired as a natural leader blessed with enviable tactical nous.

After, he was a tinpot dictator, a charlatan divested of dignity if not stripes who has placed himself above the game he professes to love. This is some transformation but then it has been some week. If Ranatunga, the captain of Sri Lanka, is no longer the smart, cheeky chappy then his side are definitely no longer the free-spirited innocents injecting fun and frivolity into cricket.

Ranatunga admitted as much himself and he has not admitted to anything much in the past seven days. "We cannot give in to whatever the opposition might say," he said. "Sri Lanka used to do that when we first started international cricket. If we do that now we might as well go back playing friendlies."

To try to escape from a hook on which he seemed pronged Ranatunga hired lawyers. He and his board, it was clear from every implication, were prepared, against all precedent, to go to court rather than accept punishment under the International Cricket Council's code of conduct.

Still, he was audacious enough to talk about the way the game is played. "The spirit of cricket," he eventually told the hearing, "involves not only the wonderful characteristics of sportsmanship but also the virtues of teamwork and loyalty to one's team-mates and superiors. Sometimes those qualities find themselves in competition." And how, he might have added.

Life and perspective changed for Ranatunga the very moment that Muttiah Muralitharan, the off-spin bowler with the exotic action, was no-balled for throwing in a one-day international between England and Sri Lanka in Adelaide. Ranatunga is much more than the captain of Sri Lanka, he is also the man who has shaped their destiny. Hence, Napoleon.

When the call came from the umpire Ross Emerson, the little tubby fellow immediately took it as a sleight. As soon as Nick Knight had pushed an off-side single to the fourth ball of Murali's second over and Emerson, at square-leg, dramatically placed his arm in the horizontal position, the general, as he would see it, went into the trenches on behalf of his troops.

It is important, in view of what has occurred since, to recall that moment. Ranatunga debated the decision in a masterful piece of finger wagging which went round the world, he took his troops to the side of the pitch. The match was delayed for 14 minutes. All big stuff in a game which has always averred to revere the word of the umpire. Yet at the time, it now seems extraordinary to reflect, it did not seem as though what he was doing was breaching either the laws or the spirit of the game. Indeed, some of those watching, all brought up to observe the umpire as always, always right viewed it as perfectly rational behaviour. Afterwards, indeed, the Sri Lankan manager said he thought Ranatunga had been a model of decorum.

The initial reaction to Ranatunga's behaviour can perhaps be explained by the whispering campaign about Murali's bowling. He had been called before in Australia three years earlier by three umpires (Darrell Hair, Emerson and Tony McQuillan, who was also standing at Adelaide last Saturday) but he had bowled unhindered elsewhere for three years. For weeks from the start of the tour it was being openly touted that he would again be called for throwing and the venue, the game and the umpire were all being named.

The umpire's status might be immutable but Ranatunga's response was to that as much as anything else. On the resumption of the match he told the umpire where to stand to ensure that he was not behind Muralitharan at the bowler's end and therefore in a position to no-ball him again. Ranatunga scratched a mark on the turf by way of a directive.

He had to be charged and, regardless of whether the match referee Peter van der Merwe should have charged others for their shabby contributions to a disgraceful game (and he should), Ranatunga's subsequent behaviour was designed to make enemies forever. He played it slowly and cockily as though he were ambling a single at his leisure to stick it to the opposition. As the week wore on and he disappeared from view it was as though he had tired of being a general, started to believe all the guff about Napoleon and decided he would be the Emperor of the whole show as well.

Van der Merwe, a palpably decent man, was frightened into inaction and prevented by a legal working over from imposing the punishment he thought fit. A six-match ban, suspended for 12 months, was probably not what he had in mind. But it was he who rose above the grubby proceedings in delivering the verdict when he talked of respect and how he and Mr Ranatunga would both probably lose it as a result of the affair.

In one week Ranatunga has become one of the most famous cricketers in the world. He was booed out on to the Perth ground on Friday and booed back again and he will be booed for a long time yet. He has been around Sri Lanka for as long as Sri Lanka has been around but has never achieved this sort of exposure.

He played in their first Test match as a roly-poly schoolboy who travelled to the ground each day by bus. He was 18 and Sri Lanka were 34 for 4 when he went into bat and scored the country's maiden Test fifty, though perhaps not with the same haughty, detached air he now exhibits. Ranatunga has played in all but five of their 81 Tests since, and has been captain in 55 of them and in more than 170 one-dayers. What he has said has always gone. And then to last week. Ranatunga changed. Sri Lanka changed. Cricket changed.