Cricket: The history man of Sri Lanka

Stephen Brenkley discovers what has made Ranatunga a long-running hero
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The Independent Online
ARJUNA RANATUNGA seems to have been around in Test cricket for as long as Sri Lanka. Appearances, for once, are not deceptive. He and the country began their careers together and, one brief tiff apart, have been virtually inseparable since.

On 17 February 1982, Ranatunga was a cheery, roly-poly schoolboy, not long past 18, and the new Test nation were 34 for 4 when he went to the wicket. He eased them past the prospect of humiliation and embarrassment and registered their first half-century. What a great adventure it heralded.

The left-handed Ranatunga has appeared in 80 Tests since, all but five that Sri Lanka have played, and also has the small matter of 241 one-day internationals to his credit. He has been captain in 54 of the former and 165 of the latter. He was there at the helm in their biggest moment of all when they won the World Cup by beating Australia in Lahore, finishing with an unbeaten 47 in the final, and he will be there when they defend the title in England next year.

"When we won it helped that the team peaked at exactly the right time," he said last week as Sri Lanka were at last favoured with the sun on their backs on this year's late-summer, half-forgotten tour of this country. "It's difficult to achieve in the way we did then but that's what we'll be trying to do again next year. This tour will help the young players to adjust to English pitches, and there are already signs that it is happening. After it's over we will have a better idea who we will bring for the World Cup."

The international section of this trip begins on Friday at Trent Bridge when Sri Lanka and South Africa open the Emirates Triangular Tournament. It will then be noticed for the first time by the majority of cricket followers that there is a difference between the Arjuna who first came to England in 1984 and this year's version. He has gained flecks of grey in his hair and shed pounds from his waist. The chubby, cheerful student of yore has given way almost to the lean, distinguished elder statesman. The welcoming smile, which tells you that he is still having fun, remains the giveaway.

"I was always a bit on the chunky side but it never bothered me or affected my performance," he said. "But a few months ago I had a bad back and I knew that the front had to go. I gave up all fried food and started eating fruit and salads. I feel much better, much fitter and a better player. It's still a pity because I like my food."

Ranatunga may resign the captaincy after the World Cup but since he is obviously revered by the young men in the side the Sri Lankan board would presumably be grateful for his continued participation. It was not ever thus. He missed the 1991 tour to England having fallen out with the management on the previous winter's tour of New Zealand. The words "haughty" and "double standards" were peddled around the country's press. By the following winter he was back in harness and has been there since. He could easily become the longest serving one-day captain of them all (Allan Border did the job 178 times) though he is likely to stay third in the Test match list.

Sri Lanka became world champions by apparently introducing the revolutionary method of putting in pinch hitters at the start of an innings. Ranatunga denies that it was any such thing. They were not, he said, pinch hitters but proper batsmen with sound techniques who happened to have the ability to hit the ball hard and often. "It was a plan, of course, and it worked well. We will probably use it again. But we're actually working on something else at the moment. I can't say anything about it, of course. You'll just have to watch and see."

If planning for the defence of the World Cup is the primary purpose of this tour (and Sri Lanka have a heavy schedule after it, too) they do not under- estimate the importance of the solitary Test which is involved. Like all Sri Lankans (and many Englishmen), Ranatunga would have wished for more.

"We would have liked two to make it some sort of series but I think England are worried about people watching us. Other countries have given us series. We want to play more Tests. We have no worries about our batting but our bowling hasn't yet got all- round depth. I would say we had better players when I first started out but we've learned to be a better team." The only way they will become a better Test side, of course, is by playing more matches, and England, who will have played them a mere six times in 16 years, have not helped in that regard.

"That would be a way to remember my career by, winning a Test match against England in England," said the thin, greying man who has been there from the very start.