Cricket World Cup: Figurehead in running for swashbuckling start

The Wicketkeeper: Romesh Kaluwitharana of Sri Lanka; Kaluwitharana's skills are central to the Sri Lankan story.
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The Independent Online
CRICKET IS by its very nature a statistical game. Runs, wickets, catches, all can be regarded in their most basic form, quantity, and judgements on players can, and often are, made on that criterion alone. Well, the saying goes that there are lies, damned lies and statistics, and this is never truer than in examining Romesh Kaluwitharana's performances in one-day cricket.

For the record he only averages a shade under 19 in one-day international cricket. Now ignore that figure. His is a role that cannot be reduced to mere figures because he is the pivotal figure of the Sri Lankan team in the field. The wicketkeeper is the nerve centre of any cricket team and his importance is multiplied in the highly charged, high octane finishes of one-day cricket.

With fielders flung to the far reaches and the captain juggling all the numerous permutations that might save the vital extra run, the wicket- keeper becomes the focal point for every team member on the pitch. His is the voice that exhorts the bowler and fielders to extra efforts, the ball is returned to him after nearly every delivery and from his vantage point he becomes a vital asset to the captain when it comes to field placings.

Every general needs a reliable sergeant-major and that is the role that Kaluwitharana plays for Sri Lanka. For 50 overs he maintains a monologue to the rest of his team, the umpires and frequently the batsman as well. Kaluwitharana is the heartbeat of the Sri Lankan side in the field and has the added difficulty of having to keep to up to three spinners. Lacking an incisive pace attack has left them with little choice, but it adds extra pressure on to Kaluwitharana as he has to cope with the part-time efforts of Sanath Jayasuriya and Aravinda de Silva as well as the wickedly spinning deliveries of Muttiah Muralitharan.

And when he swaps the gloves for the willow his influence is scarcely diluted. Remember the swashbuckling start to most Sri Lankan innings during the last World Cup? It wasn't all the rapier thrusts and flicks of the immensely talented left-hander, Jayasuriya. His partner in crime was Kaluwitharana and between them they created an excited atmosphere of anticipation as the spectators, both present and via television, hoped for their charismatic firework starts.

With the fielding side restricted to only two boundary fielders for the first 15 overs, they swung, scampered and blazed away, seemingly without a care in the world. Of course, no side led by the wily Arjuna Ranatunga would embark on such potentially perilous tactics without careful thought. And it is undoubtedly easier to adopt such cavalier strategy with Ranatunga himself, and the player of the tournament, de Silva still to bat.

But the effect on the opposition was often enough to give Sri Lanka a psychological advantage. Not only did they set the tempo of the match but also forced the other countries to rapidly reassess their own tactics. Rather than concentrating on their own strengths, the other countries were trying to find methods to combat the Sri Lankans. And this is why Kaluwitharana cannot be judged on statistics alone.

Dermot Reeve, arguably England's best one-day player of recent years, frequently refers to the importance of momentum. As the captain of Warwickshire during their successes in the mid-90s, he placed little emphasis on averages. His belief was that different events can turn matches and so more emphasis should be put on the context of each contribution.

"A quickfire 20 or 30 can be so important because it can wrest the initiative, just like tailenders scoring runs or hanging around to waste overs or help the other batsmen to add some more runs," Reeve explained.

Kaluwitharana may not have made numerous big scores but during the last World Cup his quick 20s and 30s at the start of the innings were like a shot of pure adrenalin. Whether he will have the same effect on the slow seaming pitches of England is a moot point considering England's decision to select more technical opening batsmen to combat the seaming ball, but Sri Lanka base their game on attack so an in form Kaluwitharana is important to the world champions and helps alleviate some of the pressure on the lesser players.

Particularly as he is part of the spine that runs through the team, Jayasuriya, de Silva, Ranatunga and Muralitharan being the others. Four top-order batsmen, one strike bowler and two other creditable bowlers and the captain. The core of all sides needs to perform well if they are to enjoy success and Kaluwitharana is a vital component to the Sri Lankan core. In comparison Alec Stewart opens for England, dons the gloves and his recent one-day form has been appalling, as have England's results. There is a definite correlation and that is ignoring any question marks over Stewart's captaincy.

For those who just cannot live without statistics, though, it is interesting to note that Kaluwitharana averages above 32 in Test cricket, has three Test centuries and a solitary one-day hundred. Not really relevant to the forthcoming jamboree but they do suggest a degree of class. Whatever the numbers say, it is no lie to call Kaluwitharana a pivotal figure to the world champions.

THE TEAM: THE ONE MATCH WONDERS XI

Shoaib Mohammad (Pak) Played one World Cup match in 1987

Barry Hadlee (NZ) 1975

Philip Horne (NZ) 1987

Sean Davies (Zim) 1996

Eldine Baptiste (WI) 1987

Geoff Miller (Eng) 1979

Graeme Labrooy (SL) 1992

Merv Hughes (Aus) 1992

Fanie De Villiers (SA) 1996

Salil Ankola (Ind) 1996

Lance Gibbs (WI) 1975

WELL I DECLARE

WHAT do Ian Botham of England and Duncan Fletcher of Zimbabwe have in common? They are the only men to have scored a half-century and taken four wickets in one match. Fletcher's display (62 and 4 for 42) was as captain on his team's sensational debut, against Australia, in 1983. Botham (53 and 4 for 31) was in his 16th match when he performed the feat, also against Australia, in 1992.

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