Cricket: The danger behind the records

Tony Cozier in Colombo says a remarkable Test has serious implications
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President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga has hailed her country's cricketers for "securing honour and prestige for Sri Lanka by your excellent and brilliant performance of breaking record after record" and the Sports Minister F B Dissanayake said the team "showed the cricket world that records can be broken with team spirit, concentration and courage along with love for the country."

Such euphoria over Sri Lanka's new Test record total of 952 for 6, Sanath Jayasuriya's 340 and his record partnership of 446 with Roshan Mahanama against India last week has been typical here in Colombo. Following the resounding, largely unexpected, triumph in last year's World Cup and several successes in one-day games since, it has given a small nation in the midst of a prolonged and bloody civil war a sense of collective pride.

Yet the feeling remains that Sri Lanka have still not been given due recognition by the rest of the cricket community. England have granted them only five one-off matches since they were elevated to Test status in 1981 and the satisfaction of their performance last week was simply heightened since it was England's 903 for 7 that was erased.

From the moment Sachin Tendulkar won the toss and a knowing smile crossed his face, it was obvious that runs would be there for the taking. Navjot Sidhu, Tendulkar himself and Mohammad Azharuddin helped themselves to comfortable hundreds over the first two days and had the Indian captain been so minded, he could have carried on and on. But, as he pointedly observed later: "Records are meant to be broken but your focus should be to win the game. If records are broken automatically, that's fine, but I wouldn't ask anybody from my team to go for a particular record. We are here to win and not break records."

Yet once India compiled their 537 for 8, Sri Lanka were left with no option but to bat for a draw and, as it became apparent as Jayasuriya and Mahanama became entrenched, for records.

They did so for more than two days, in humid 30-degree heat. It was not only a reflection of the pluperfect pitch and exasperated bowlers but the stamina and concentration of a batsman typecast as a one-day daredevil and his less-accomplished partner with an average of less than 30.

Neither gave a chance throughout the nearly 13 hours and 192 overs they spent together. Jayasuriya played no more than a dozen flawed strokes from the 578 balls the Indians needed finally to remove him a tantalising 35 runs short of Brian Lara's individual Everest of 375.

The only similarity between the two is their left-handedness and their ability to score all round the wicket. Lara is more nimble on his feet and fluent in his strokes, Jayasuriya is a puncher who gains his power from the forearms of a lumberjack and his unusually low grip. The merry six-hitter who so spectacularly redefined the role of the opening batsman in the World Cup, now batted for more than two days with the single-mindedness of a Geoffrey Boycott. Not until he was on 291 did he lift his head to hoist a six.

It was obvious from as early as the fourth day that the two were intent on eliminating every record they could, yet, while they were doing so, they were not only re-writing the record book but in all probability the regulations of Test cricket as well.

There has been growing concern, expressed most strongly by the new president of the International Cricket Council, Jagmohan Dalmiya, about the future of Test cricket, especially in this part of the world where lifeless pitches, such as that at the Premadasa Stadium last week and the fear of the public consequences of defeat contribute to pointless, heavy-scoring draws. The previous two Tests in Sri Lanka, against Pakistan in April, were also inconclusive, with seven individual hundreds.

Dalmiya has even spoken of devising some strategy to eliminate draws altogether, heresy to the traditionalists but an idea that is gaining increasing currency. The limitation of first innings to 120 overs or thereabouts is one plan mooted.

The wide popularity gap between the two forms of the game has been starkly revealed in Colombo. While the Premadasa Stadium was bursting to its 32,000 capacity for Sri Lanka's two matches against India in the Pepsi Asia Cup one-day tournament that preceded the Test, there were never more than a couple of thousand last week before the lure of Jayasuriya passing Lara's mark and free admission filled the seats again for the last day.

Tests of time: Scores from the record books

Highest Test individual scores

375 B C Lara, West Indies v England at Antigua 1993-94

365 *G S Sobers, West Indies v Pakistan at Kingston 1957-58

364 L Hutton, England v Australia at The Oval 1938

340 S T Jayasuriya, Sri Lanka v India at Colombo 1997

337 Hanif Mohammad, Pakistan v West Indies at Bridgetown 1957-58

336 *W R Hammond, England v New Zealand at Auckland 1932-33

334 D G Bradman, Australia v England at Headingley 1930

333 G A Gooch, England v India at Lord's 1990

325 A Sandham, England v West Indies at Kingston 1929-30

311 R B Simpson, Australia v England at Old Trafford 1964

Top 10 Test innings totals

952-6: Sri Lanka v India at Colombo 1997

903-7 dec: England v Australia at The Oval 1938

849: England v West Indies at Kingston 1929-30

790-3 dec: West Indies v Pakistan at Kingston 1957-58

758-8 dec: Australia v West Indies at Kingston 1954-55

729-6 dec: Australia v England at Lord's 1930

708: Pakistan v England at The Oval 1987

701: Australia v England at The Oval 1934

699-5: Pakistan v India at Lahore 1989- 90

695: Australia v England at The Oval 1934

*not out