Cricket: Hard hitter, high scorer

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the things that England got right in the final of the Emirates Triangular Tournament on Thursday was to dismiss Sanath Jayasuriya before he had scored. On the other hand, it also made them spoilsports. If they were going to lose, they might as well have done so while the man who transformed one-day batting blazed away for a few overs.

Jayasuriya became a sensation in the space of a single month of 1996. Not long since promoted to open the innings for Sri Lanka, he illuminated the World Cup with a series of stunning displays of aggressive batsmanship. He did not so much take the attack to the bowlers as pick it up and shove it down their throats by smashing them - hard - to all parts. In three of their six matches he was beyond containment and gave them a start that could not subsequently be reined back. He was the original and best pinch-hitter, though he is also much more than that.

"It is impossible to go out and be successful like that in every innings," he said at Lord's last week before the final, as though to herald his destiny the following day. "Very much has been said of how we played then. It was a policy to try to attack because that is the way I play but we were never instructed. We just played naturally but sometimes you will get out. It was a wonderful achievement to win the World Cup but after it the country expected us to win every game."

Jayasuriya, voted most valuable player in the tournament, was shortly after promoted to open the Sri Lankan innings in Test matches. To prove he was getting the hang of facing the red new ball as well as the white one he managed to make his way to 340 against India last August. It was the fourth highest Test innings of all (see page two of this section for a recollection of the third highest), part of the highest score by a Test team (952 for six dec) and on the way he also shared in a second wicket stand of 576 with Roshan Mahanama, the biggest Test partnership ever.

"I don't regret not going on to break the record because I was happy to score as many as I did. But I was 326 not out overnight and everybody was saying I would get to 376. The next morning the ball was turning a bit and I was a bit tensed up and was out. That sort of thing happens."

He is calm about his own form, modest and softly spoken which is perhaps surprising only because he hits the ball so thunderously and is so uninhibited. But he is aware of Sri Lanka's great advances in one-day cricket. "This tour will help our preparations for the defence of the World Cup next year. We are trying to give our younger players some experience on English pitches which are different from anywhere else in the world but we've got a middle order which has played lots of matches. What we want to do is improve at Tests. We have lost some we should have won but beating New Zealand after losing the first match earlier this year should help us."

Jayasuriya is not from the traditional heartland of Sri Lankan cricket. He was born in Matara, 100 miles from Colombo and, at the age of nine, without any particular parental influence, responded to a notice advertising nets. His progress was steady up the age-group sides and when he made two double-centuries on an A tour to Pakistan in 1989 he was singled out for promotion.

"It was a very hard team to get into as a middle-order batsman when you've got people like Aravinda [De Silva] and Arjuna [Ranatunga] in the side. For a while, even in one-day cricket, I'd only be in when they wanted the extra batsman and out when they wanted the extra bowler."

This seems hard to contemplate now that he is among the most celebrated batsmen in the world and is assured of his place in the game's history.

As it happens, it was in England that he offered the first glimpse of what was to come at the highest level. In Sri Lanka's solitary Test match here in 1991 he made his maiden Test half-century. The first 30 runs came from 28 balls. We had been warned.

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